War Robots is a mobile free-to-play game by Moscow developer Pixonic that was launched 3 years ago. In the game, you are fighting with giant, walking robots in 6v6 pvp matches controlling territory by capturing beacons, and, of course, by destroying other robots.
Last year was a very good year for War Robots. Revenue increased five-fold and exceeded $3.5 million per month. The number of installations was tripled, and reached 50 million. DAU is about 800,000 players.
Why does War Robots attract players so much? Judging on its dynamics, War Robots is the only adequate game in the genre niche of slow shooters, which is dominated by World of Tanks (WoT). In a slow shooters game, exchanging of fire lasts longer than in the mainstream shooter games. It looks more realistic when long fights occur between combat vehicles with armor and survivability.
Slow shooter games forgive small mistakes. It makes them perfectly fitted for mobile touch controls as the loss of a second while fixing the aim on the screen is not critical. If you look at the bestselling lists of mobile platforms, we find that the only representatives of realistic multiplayer shooters at the top are World of Tanks Blitz and War Robots.
Before we start talking about War Robots, I want to tell you a story about my experience with the game that happened one year ago. That was a time when old systems of matchmaking based on vehicle and weapons tiers existed. I think you need to know about it because most of the current audience of the game passed through it. After more than 200 battles in War Robots in 2016, I had a 98% of victories in the last 50 battles, and I’m not a skilled player. But in War Robots, I got very offended if I suddenly lost a game after winning 40 in a row.
A high winning percentage is not a result of spending money. I spent only $15, a small amount by the standards of mobile f2p games. The secret of prosperity and victories was presented to me by the developers in the newcomer pack for $5 with the robot Gepard. This robot has a fixed speed of 58 km/h, which broke the matchmaking system.
Normally, the speed of robots upgrades gradually. However, in the case of Gepard, you didn’t need to upgrade it to use its advantage and to stay on lesser tiers of matchmaking. In combination with the premium weapon — Magnum, I got an instant kill rapid nightmare.
Gepard players were cursed on social networks and on forums every day. I played with Gepards and won 48 of 50 battles. I was very surprised that a 98 win percentage is possible in modern MOBA. That was a great guilty pleasure experience. Every time I hoped that the game would somehow stop me, it did not occur until a total change of the matchmaking system had happened.
My account with Gepards on Magnums and 98% of wins.
Is War Robots a pay-to-win game? In 2016, when I started to play the game, I would definitely have said yes. But now it’s a question. Pay-to-win is not a shortcut to just mark a game as bad. Pay-to-win is how players perceive their journey in the game. It is clear that publishers want to make new content stronger than the old one to easily sell it. But in games like War Robots with real time PvP arena, this is the most traumatic player’s experience. Finding the balance between these mutually exclusive requirements is very difficult. Let’s see if it was possible to do it in War Robots.
In War Robots, the player spends most of the time in battles. It’s the most important part of the game; that’s what the player comes back to the game for. So? We press the big orange button «To Battle» in the main menu, and begin on one of the game’s maps. The game offers you a robot to choose, and after countdown, battle starts.
The most frequent choices are the robots with the long-ranged weapons — missiles or lasers. Game maps are a square kilometer per kilometer. There’s no fog from the war in the game, and enemy robots can immediately be captured with missile sights. You can already see what I mean-the shooting starts right away. Players quickly crawl around the map under missile fire; they take cover; they engage in one-on-one battles, and they capture beacons.
Apart from the tactical skirmishes with robots in battle, there is a strategic part — control of lighthouses. There are 5 beacons on the map, and if one team controls three of them, then the opponent’s point slider starts to melt. It’s hard to win by just killing robots. The player can have up to 5 slots with robots in the hangar, and after destroying one robot, they can just continue the game with another one.
There are two main game modes: Domination and Beacon Rush. In Domination, the robot appears at its base after being destroyed. In Beacon Rush, it might appear in any of the captured beacons. In the second mode, fights are faster and more violent. That’s why more skilled players prefer this mode.
Maps in War Robots are mostly industrial landscapes or ruins. There’s only one map with a downtown, but it looks pretty unnatural. Ironically, it is only on this map that we can see how big our robots are-the height of 5 floors.
The main condition to win in this game is control of the beacons. That’s why it’s necessary to have the right design of the maps. I like the way Pixonic did their job! The maps look pretty natural, but at the same time, symmetrical. Most of the maps have “conservative” designs with the central beacon. To dominate in battle, you need control of 3 of 5 beacons. A team takes two beacons by laying near the place of disembarkation right away, and having the main fight for the central beacon. On such a map, there is a classic turn of the plot — a sudden loss of “yours” beacon when all the power concentrates in the center of the map.
An important characteristic of the maps is that they are divided into open and closed maps. On the open maps, there’s a big chance to see robots with medium and long-range weapons. On the closed maps with lots of shelters and labyrinths, robots with melee weapons have the advantage. This way, the design of the maps encourages players to have guns of different types in their roster. This situation is not favorable for the players, so in response, Pixonic now makes new maps with unusual symmetry. On the Valley map, there are 3 beacons, including a central beacon placed close in the labyrinth of ruins, and 2 beacons placed by the edges of the map. This allows robots with close and long ranged weapons to properly play together.
For me, an easy way to play in action games is the most important priority. War Robots took the simple way to play from GTA as a base. The left finger is responsible for legs while the right finger is for body turns and for aiming. War Robots is very lucky because they made the game about humanlike robots. Robots are managed very naturally and smoothly. During the fight, there is no unnecessary thought about how to run in one direction and shoot at another. The player simply focuses on shooting.
The game nicely solved the problem with crosshairs. In mobile shooters, the aim tightly sticks to the enemy, or you’re trying to aim yourself. In War Robots, an excellent combination of these elements is realized. The aim constantly tracks enemies using a red target box, showing important information about the distance to the target, and easily becomes the focus of the goal. After the start of the shooting, the aim behaves very smoothly when you take it away from the opponent. Usually, this is enough to adjust the line of fire. For casual players who basically don’t like hunt to pixels, there are many weapons with homing or widespread damage to the area.
Robots Setups & Matchmaking
In order to classify the variety of combat vehicles in the game, you need to start with the types of weapons. Armament is divided into heavy, medium and light. Types of weapons differ only in magnitude of damage, not in range or type of damage. Let’s give 3 points to the heavy weapon, 2 points to the middle, and 1 point to the easy weapon. There are also special abilities (jump, dash, invisibility, etc), and shields that are also estimated at 1 point.
The light robot is a platform with an average speed of 55 km/h, and a strength of 90,000 HP, which on average, can arm on an average of 3 points. The average robot is a platform with an average speed of 40 km/h, and a strength of 150,000 HP which is armed with an average of 5 points. With a heavy robot, these figures will be 30 km/h 170.000 HP and 8 points.
Pixonic balances robots for the soft game currency primarily by increasing HP. Robots for a hard currency are balanced with the addition of interesting special abilities.
There are 29 robots and 28 types of weapons in the game at the moment. Robots and weapons can be upgraded from 1 to 12 tiers. The variety of weapons that can be installed on the robots gives depth to the game.
Additionally, we can assemble different weapons for close or long-range combat. We can also make “crystal cannons” or walking fortresses. This is an inexhaustible subject for users that guide and dispute in social networks. So, how can you determine which robots can fight in one arena so that everyone has equal chances?
Since the release of War Robots, about the same system of matchmaking as in the World of Tanks Blitz was used. Tanks +/-1 tier fight with the same number of light, medium and heavy vehicles in one battle. But in WoT Blitz, tanks with the same tier and type are already balanced, and are approximately the same in strength.
For WoT Blitz, these customization limitations are caused not only by the desire to have more historical content, but also by the convenience of matchmaking by the level of vehicles. Players can pilot any tank. The system will always pick up an opponent with the same capabilities.
Before March of 2017, War Robots had similar types of matchmaking by the level of vehicles and weapons, but the expanded capabilities of customization turned it into a very confusing system with a lot of opportunities for a dishonest game.
Changing the principle of matchmaking to the leagues, as we can see in the League of Legends, has led to another problem: Players must have the most effective vehicles for their league to win. You can’t just take a light, funny robot and expect to play competitively.
Progress in leagues is now the main element for a player’s self-esteem. The transition from league to league occurs after a set of a certain number of action points for victories and successful actions in battles, and is rewarded with a solid game currency — gold. Awards are also made every month at the end of the playing season according to the league players reached. On the other hand, the higher the league, the more experienced your opponents are, and the more expensive the setups of robots are.
The new player enters the aesthetic interface of the hangar; the main purpose of which is to immediately send them to the battle. PvP battle is the main retention driver for War Robots. Additional options are opened as far as gaining experience in battles, and increasing player level is concerned.
The first value players meet in the game is Soft Currency — Silver, that they can earn in the battle. Some part of the silver gets spent on the repair of a damaged robot. The main purpose of the silver is buying and upgrading robots and weapons.
The first fight on the light robot, Destrier, brings enough silver to unlock the second slot and to buy another robot. It makes it possible to present to players the main value at this stage — the number of unlocked slots. If one robot is killed in combat, the robot from the second and following slots continues the battle. The third slot costs 100 gold ($ 1) — a solid game currency that can be bought for money.
Adding slots is a “horizontal” growth while upgrading robots is the “vertical” growth. Silver is used in War Robots as the main tool for upgrading robots and weapons. The time for the upgrade rises from level to level, and, for example, the transition from the 5th to 6th level takes 8 hours. Completing the robot’s upgrade from 1st to 12th level takes 20 days. You also need to upgrade each weapon.
Most of the players in mobile games are familiar with at least one of the popular strategies in which the continuity of the upgrade by timers is the main driver of development. Therefore, the player of War Robots is immediately drawn into a continuous series of upgrades. This encourages them to return to the game, and gives a legitimate opportunity to send out push notifications that are important to the player.
A new player can be promoted to the next league up to the silver league, even if they lost games. With each battle, the player evolves into a whirlwind of offensive defeats from strong opponents in higher leagues. More often, it is a clearly experienced feeling of lagging behind in terms of weapon power, speed and survival.
From this state, there are two possible solutions:
1) The player buys robots and weapons for money. Robots such as Lancelot, Galahad, and Orcans immediately take the player to a new position in their league in which he is the main player on the battlefield.
2) The player begins to experience free robots and new combinations of weapons, which helps them become actively involved in beating current metagame.
Approximately, at the moment when a player who doesn’t want to pay understands that all this fuss won’t help him to win, the game offers a third type of game currency that allows the player to get cool robots by spending time instead of money. At the 20th level, the Workshop opens every 85 hours, and the player drips 85 points of the workshop every 4 hours.
One of the best heavy robots in the game — Rhino, costs 15,000 points. It takes an entire month to go into the game every 4 hours to gain 85 points. However, the process can be accelerated. Once a day in the workshop, you can collect 40 points for free, and then convert a small amount of gold into workshop points at a profitable rate of 1 to 12. With each subsequent transaction, the rate worsens on that day and reaches 1 to 1.35. As a result, the player is again unobtrusively encouraged to spend gold.
It looks like the involvement of non-paying players is important for the War Robots ecosystem at all stages of the game. They invented a fourth game currency — Influence Points. The player can obtain this point by inviting referrals to the game. Players can spend IP to buy special competitive robots. For example, in order to buy a medium robot, a DLC player must successfully bring 12 referrals.
The third and fourth game currencies act as a permanent special promotion for non-paying players, which gives them the opportunity to play in top-fights, in exchange for regular visits to the game or participating in referral program. In addition, the workshop points slow down while getting all the top content for paying players.
In MOBA, a team that works well together has an advantage in front of some team of random players. War Robots actively encourages players to go into fights in platoons by giving out small awards in hard game currency. In the menu, in the section where you create platoons, you can invite your friends from Facebook who have played with the player in previous battles and participants of your clan.
When you create your platoon, you should invite participants from approximately even leagues. The battle will take place in the highest player’s league. Clans help to solve this problem because among 36 participants of a clan, you can usually find players of your league for a platoon. There is a leaderboard in the interface of the top 100 clans collected by participants action points.
Gold in War Robots doesn’t appear for players until only after they pay money into the game. We start with 100 gold on the account. Every time a player reaches the next level, he gets 50 gold. There are two daily tasks that give 30 gold each. For a successful game in a victorious battle, they give 5 gold for the lead in the damage dealt, and 5 gold for the lead in capturing the beacons.
The stability of small hard currency earnings accustoms the player to spend, and removes the psychological block for the price in gold. For 100 gold, the third slot can be bought; then we can accumulate 1000 gold for a 4th slot. The fifth slot costs 5000 gold ($ 50), and it is mandatory for serious clan battles.
The fourth and fifth slots in the hangar are obvious values for the player because they significantly increase his ability to influence the outcome of the battle. This is a good object for monetization. A premium account, which increases gained experience and silver by one and a half times, works worse in War Robots than, for example, in WoT Blitz.
Experience is completely unnecessary, and silver can be used at times other than spending on repairing robots. The player is also limited in the ability to spend silver for an upgrade on robots or weapons due to the timer system. But the value of the silver and premium account is significantly increased by the middle of the game when upgrades cost millions of silver, but the player most likely already has a different currency.
The reality of the game is that if you want to upgrade to the most enjoyable and effective robots and weapons, then you have to pay hard currency. For soft currency, there are only starter robots as they called in user generated guides. This means that by the time you reach high leagues, you will already get advanced ones.
But there are likely exceptions to this rule. For example, you can buy robot Griffin for silver, with available 4 slots for 2 middle and 2 light weapons and, most importantly, the opportunity to jump and run from enemies or missiles. By the way, one of the strongest setups of those you can buy only for silver, Griffin + 2 Pins + 2 Tulumbas is called the Russian Death Button Griffin because it was opened by Russian players that are not so willing to spend money in games.
So, what robots are really premium in War Robots? You can collect gold by doing everyday missions. Workshop Points do not require you to come into battle at all. After having appeared with update 3.1 in the end of august 2017, a Gacha type Black Market became an answer to this question.
In the end of August 2017, imbalanced Dash robots have come out to the arena with huge firepower, shields, and mobility. You can receive them only in the Black Market — gacha type lottery where you can open loot boxes for special keys. A small number of keys can be obtained by performing game missions, but they basically need to be bought for money. This lottery was brought in September 2017 -the most of the revenues for the game in its history.
In October 2017, a new robot, Inquisitor, and a new weapon, Ember, became available in the Black Market. As a result, the design of Gacha had changed. Previously, we had a chance to win the best robots in the game. However, in the new Gacha, we have to win different amounts of components of that robot and weapons in order to build the robot. To create the robot, you need 10000 pieces. You can buy components separately, but they cost, on average, $100 for 3500 pieces.
By telling prices for components, developers showed to the players the «advantage» of the Gacha. You can buy a new robot for $300. You can spend them in Gacha and get 6–7 thousand components of all 4 new robots, new weapons, and lots of gold.
The change of design in Gacha solves the main problems of this type of lottery: duplicates, lack of content, and frustration of the player who didn’t get the content he needed. By giving new robots and weapons in pieces, developers give out less content that players didn’t need in prizes. Therefore, the player is happy when he gets a small piece of superbot, and he then begins planning how to get others.
Is War Robots a pay-to-win game? I performed the main experiment on my account. In 2016, I’ve spent $15 on two robots and became the winner of the arena with 98% of wins, and with the opportunity to beat 2–3 average robots at time. However, in October of 2017, I’ve spent much more. I got the most expensive robot in the game — Inquisitor, got dash robots, bought Lancelot and dressed it in the «top» invincible armor.
After 50 fights, my percentage of wins became 62. I think, in further playing in leagues, it will be lower. I can win in a one-on-one fight, but if I meet at least two enemies, I’d better give up. Robots for real money are not the nightmare for other players anymore. They are just funnier to play. Everything is happening how it should be.
By their decision to change matchmaking, Pixonic didn’t only get rid of pay-to-win game, but they also got the opportunity to sell players more expensive content. The payer doesn’t have paywalls now. The players also accept the new rules of the game, judging by the rising popularity and earnings of War Robots in 2017.
This story also teaches us that taking notes from other games doesn’t always work. In the process of War Robot’s development, the idea to take matchmaking by the level of vehicles from World of Tanks was probably obvious. There are levels of vehicles in both games. There is no level of characters in League of Legends, and matchmaking is done by skill. But this way eventually became the best for War Robots.