Mobile games are like the Law&Order TV shows. Mostly churned-out derivatives of derivatives, but interesting because they are somehow popular. At least Law&Order has Richard Belzer (the guy’s stand-up was funny, and his over-the-top pimp in Night Shift cracks me up) and Liz Lemon’s pager-king boyfriend as the dopey “they were asking for it” foil. Mobile games must have something.
- Collectable Hero Team genre
- What is Goddess Kiss?
- Game of Browser of Clans
- Art of Conquest
- A Team Battler with IP
- King’s road has the best paywall
- SR:L isn’t boring enough
I’ve been seeing strange-looking Ads for collectable hero cell-phone games. Cowboys, knights, sexy ice wizards — you’re going to be able to collect lots of heroes. But I’m not sure what you do with them. Is it a huge battle? Are we populating a dangerous border town? The Ads show lots of menus. What is it that we do in these games, and why don’t they want me to find out? These games are popular, but why?
It turns out that, deep down, they’re the old Final Fantasy battle screens. 4 of your heroes lined-up against 4 monsters. Now here comes the cool part: playing the battles isn’t that much fun, so it auto-battles. But watching those gets boring, so they added an autowin button.
It get’s cooler. Your characters will need magic armour, runes, enchants, and other stuff they made up. To save time, each of those is in a marked area. You fight a 4-on-4 battles in those locations, except you don’t — you use the autowin button! Then it gets even better. There are areas with no fighting at all — just mini-games that give everyone +1% dexterity and such.
So that explains all those menus in the splash screens. Those are shots of actual gameplay.
But what’s with collecting heroes? It’s the usual. They come in C, B, A, and S, randomly from treasure chests. Eventually you can replace your all C team with B’s, ultimately collecting a team of all “S” heroes. You’re not so much collecting as trading up. Getting a better ranked hero is the main way you jump up in combat rating. So the game is about collecting heroes, after all.
It’s fascinating how little it takes to make it engaging. It’s a game where you spend 30 minutes a day clicking buttons to make your numbers get bigger (you actually have an overall power rating). But every so often — every few days, maybe — you watch them auto-battle. Just that little is enough to connect your daily chores to something exciting.
When I saw the seller’s description of Goddess Kiss in the Ap store, I sensed I was looking at a true piece of kink sub-culture. The splash screens are exclusively top-heavy tarted-up anime schoolgirls, but the text makes you realize this game was someone’s vision: “Touch your beautiful angels and experience various responses and motions,” “Only your kiss can free the beautiful angels,” “Costume is not just clothing. It’s an affection.” And finally: “Each commander engages in a battle riding inside a mechanical unit. Each unit has unique skills and attack pattern.” So it’s some kind of battling game, but the rest seems way too specific to be simply “and the female characters show a lot of skin”.
The hour-long download screen let me know I was on the right track: 2D schoolgirls with long animated flowing hair, and short pleated skirts swaying. And, key, at about “10% loaded” a skirt blows up not too much, and not for too long, to show a flash of cheek. Someone with very specific tastes worked on that wind simulation, just for the loading screen.
54 minutes later, I’m hearing JPop while reading the insane backstory: evil-doers have made Obedience drug. The first screen shows two rows of captured cuties floating in individual tubes full of green liquid, being mind-controlled. But Obediance (always a proper noun, in blue text,) doesn’t affect some people, and they formed the resistance, Goddess Kiss, and defeated the bad guys. Wait, what? Its over? It goes on: but the good guys became overconfident, lost the last battle (it walks you through a battle), and are scattered. The name Goddess Kiss has now mostly been forgotten. You have been appointed the new leader of the revival of Goddess Kiss, working under an umbrella group with the harmless-sounding acronym R.E.A.P.
That’s quality nonsense written by a true believer. It’s clearly important that later sub-villians sneer when they hear our name, and suggest we should have stayed dead.
Now it’s on to the game. We start in the warehouse/item area, managed by a sexy mechanic: a grown woman, using the latest in jigglemation, coveralls pulled down to reveal her sweaty T-shirt. As per the Ad copy, tapping the character pops up more voice bubbles (written in English, voiced in Korean). Ask me Korean for “I like it more and more”. Then it’s on to the daily chests area, presided over by an anime woman in a full-on playboy bunny outfit. She doesn’t appear to be sweating at all. When you get a good treasure her face pops up with hearts flying out of it, pulls back to a bust, then you finally get the chest opening animation. So as not to keep you in suspense: later there’s a 2nd sexy mechanic, and a sexy nurse wearing a cannabis pin, uniform unzipped to the navel.
But that’s not the kinky part. It doesn’t take too long recruit two mech-driving young women and beat the first boss, also a young woman. Your pilots remind you that she’s Obedience-controlled, and tell her the cure is in your body. I hope not my spleen. The screen moves to a close-up of her face; her eyes close and her lips purse. Ah, this is the kiss in Goddess Kiss (hold your finger down, or, I assume, kiss the screen). The sparkles now flying out of her eyes let you know it’s working. Your two pilots joke they didn’t get to kiss you yet. Hmm… .
Starting the next mission, the new pilot talks about how she hopes the next place you attack will have a shower. Another hopes for food, so that you can feed it to her. What? I think I’m getting it. You’re like the headmaster of a girls’ school, keeping their tummies full and bodies clean, and also the only man they have to practice flirting with. Your harem is completely dependent upon you.
You can also pick their clothing, but much later and it’s the same alternate costumes as in every other game. They cost a ton of gems and are the only way to customize characters’ stats. Beside the swimsuits and frilly nighties with teddy bears they even have a non-sexualized option: the battlesuit is a full body skin-tight vinyl .. ah, nevermind. They are all highly sexualized. But the teddy bears are Amanda Beard jokes, I hope.
You later get to give them gifts. In many games you use “runes” to raise rune level, for bonus stats. In this game it’s poetry books, flowers, steak dinners, rings and cocktails, with voice bubbles like “you really shouldn’t, but I like it.” They increase “affection points”. When you gain a level and tap to collect, it flips over to tell you the character’s age, which is 16, 18 or 25. But mostly 16. The next level gives a pretty good attack bonus and reveals … their birthday?. That’s also pretty common. Did you know that Zangief from early 90’s Street Fighter-II, was born on June 1st?
The last thing to unlock are the personal mini-quests. From way back, Final Fantasy had these – just a fun easter egg. You do a few little things, when the game lets you, and get to see some cut-scenes telling about the character’s background. These seem to involve the girls sitting on your bed at night. The farm-girl, who pilots a giant robot like everyone else, has one named “Machines are so difficult to handle.”
The game part uses the standard energy points system – each mission uses some, and you can quickly auto-complete to trade all energy for the various rewards. When you run out, you can tap a heart icon to increase them faster. For no reason, you have to pick one character to come with you. You walk with her into an opulent cruise ship’s dining room, with the caption “Currently Dating.” Eww. Your companion gains a few affection points each minute. They missed an opportunity by not making this the page where you ply them with flowers and liquor. I’m sure this inter-office dating and misappropriation of funds partly solves the mystery of how the first Goddess Kiss organization fell apart.
My favorite feature is how every click freezes the game for a few seconds whlle it talks to the server. Even clicks that really shouldn’t need to. To somewhat compensate, you can hold down a button and have it not freeze until you let go. Say you want to give someone 12 steak dinners to level them up. Instead of spending 45 seconds tapping and waiting, you can hold the button for a second and let go. It goes so fast you’ll probably give them 15, but worth it.
So what is Goddess Kiss? It’s a real game – a collectable team fighter where you grind to keep upgrading. It’s about as good as every similar game. The sexy parts aren’t really new: costumes and underaged anime art is common. Kissing and gifts are from dating sims. The new parts are having your team be only sexy underaged girls, the crazy kissing to unlock (which you don’t do that much) and “dating” so you can fight more. It’s just enough to turn it from gross into creepy.
To compare and contrast, “Girls X Battle” is 6 months older, and ranked a little higher in the App store.
The backstory is child and girl friendly: the school has teams that fight for fun, and women prefer being on all-female teams. The mooks you fight are girls with soccer and rugby balls, female crossing guards swinging signs, broad-shouldered lady mechanics with wrenches, a spike-haired girl with a keytar.. . All very age appropriate and empowering. The plot is a rivalry between you and another male friend managing a different girls’ fighting team. Plus some gay jokes that stopped being acceptable in the 80’s.
But the rest is more explicitly sexual than Goddess Kiss. More pin-up poses. They all call you master. My least favorite idle quote: “it’s not illegal if we’re not caught.” The Sexy Apron’s flavor text says to wear nothing under it. This is odd, since you give them lots of underwear – they use it to level up. Later on, “level up” purses are made from an empty purse, a cell phone and underwear. Eww, eww.
The relationship section is hidden behind a heart icon. There are many more types of gifts. It says some heroes prefer some gifts over others. There’s no kissing, but once a day you get free “intimacy” points (yes, they found a worse name than Affection points) for “gently caressing”: touch the hero’s head and slowly run your finger up and down their body. There’s a meter that increases, as she tells you how much she liked it. Ew, ew, ew.
So, yeah, Girls X Battle is a stylistic mess: a game fine for girls; but then with boring dirty old man stuff dripped all over it. I stand by my original assessment: Goddess Kiss is someone who looked at generic “can’t play in public” games like Girls X Battle, filled with random cheesecake, and said “do these guys have even a single person on their team who lusts after too-young girls? Do they even understand the importance of establishing a child-adult relationship as part of the kink?” My suggestion: make one for women, with hunky gardeners and pool boys. You clearly have the talent, and “make games that you want to play” is a myth. Get a romance author as a consultant.
The most common TV Ads for cell-phone games are all for the same type. Remember the old super bowl Ad with Kate Upton giving orders from her hot-tub? Then there was Arnold Schwarzenegger walking through a realistic battleground. Another showed an epic tale, with human actors, of a tank being killed by a bazooka, which was killed by a sniper, who was killed by a bomb. One had two guys at a coffee shop with a realistic holograph on their table, destroyed by a missile launched by two flirtatious girls. The most recent is a young woman in a glued-on chiton watching a Lord-of-the-Rings quality battle, including a dragon, ready with her cell-phone.
These are all conquer the world games. Despite the epic graphics in the Ads, they’re slow-playing text-based. Everyone starts in a fresh game world. The first few weeks you build yourself up with timed upgrades. There are lots of junky options and dead-ends. Part of the fun is knowing what bad stuff to avoid. To be competitive, you’ll need to buy various speed-ups and such. You’ll need to be in a guild where plenty of people buy the “gifts for all of my guildmates” deals.
The next part is moving the entire guild into a richer neighborhood and driving out everyone else. This is where you see how the game really works. It takes a week to train up a decent army. When you lose a battle (a text report gives the results), a chunk of your troops are dead. Your army may never catch up to how good it should have been. When someone smashes your castle, it will take days or weeks to recover. There’s a map and everyone nearby can attack you pretty much at will. This game is about being able to inflict long-term pain on your enemies.
The last stage, if you get there, is a little like a real game. The guilds at the top can make alliances and wage war on each other. Whomever manages to stay in the richest area of the map for long enough will eventually pull ahead and “win” that game world.
The TV Ads are because these games are huge money-makers. You can’t play at your own pace, and after a month or two, the stakes feel pretty high and impulsive rage-fueled spending seems reasonable.
Because of the long first stage, reviewers often confuse these games with Clash of Clans. At first armies are cheap and everything you need to upgrade your castle is just lying around. Being attacked is no big deal. If you play slowly enough, you may never reach a competitive part of the map. You’re in the backwater no one cares about — the maps in these games are huge.
I admire the overly aggressive VIP status these games have. You’ll start as VIP-1, then for no reason be promoted to VIP-2. A bit later your VIP status becomes inactive — lots of little things you took for granted now get slightly worse. Spending any cash for anything will extend it, and increase VIP status even more. It’s such blatant “you earned this and now you’ll lose it” marketing.
I mentioned junky options. The rules for troops are so much that way. You start with 3 troop types in a paper-rock-scissors arrangement. The types are completely unimportant. Some are easier to make or simply stronger overall. Don’t even think about archers’ bonus vs. infantry. You can also level up troop types. That’s nice, but don’t try too hard, since they’re all C-type troops. When you unlock B-level troops, they’ll mop the floor with any of the old C’s. The troop system makes so little sense that once you figure it out, you have to keep playing the game.
Right after noticing that every conquer-the-world game is so, so similar, I see Art of Conquest. It manages to have a lot of really great ideas, while still being the same pointless game.
Some really nice things they did:
- An actual map, with paths, and real created scenery. Every other game like this uses
the world’s ugliest set of random square tiles. AoC’s map has forested areas, deserts, coastline. It looks like a real place.
- Overall factions. You still form guilds, but everyone is automatically in 1 of 5 factions.
Even if you’re a little fish, you’re still part of something.
- People’s castles are in a pop-up sub-area. In every other game like this castles are on the main map. The problem is that 20 guild castles near each other takes a lot of space. The map needs to be extra-big to fit everything. Art of Conquest has a few nicely-placed cities, labelled with the guild controlling them. Tapping a city pops open a giant honeycomb with the castles of everyone in that city.
It looks much nicer, and things are easier to find. It should, since clash-like have been
doing it for years.
- Races. For years every other game let you pick elf, human, or dwarf. The differences are minor, but it’s fun. In this game, each race gets very different troops.
- Zone control. The map is nicely divided into smallish zones. Capturing a city flips the zone to your faction. If gives small bonuses and gives a nice display of which faction is
so far winning.
- Playable battles. The other games are text reports. In AoC you place troops, order them around, and cast spells. It actually matters what you do. Fighting is a real game here.
Against computer enemies, they even let you not-count your attacks and try again.
If you never get into the real part of the game, where you can help taking over the world,
merely playing all of the computer battles is pretty fun.
Marketing-wise it works well. New players get a real game in 3-minute battles with
no harsh penalties for losing. They can see they’re part of a faction and can maybe do a little
to help and feel connected to their team. They can see how the real game is progressing.
Compare this to other games like this — you’re in a wasteland surrounded by players who’ve
quit, doing boring upgrades.
But the rest of the game works the same as always. Lots of spending to stay competitive,
the early race to upgrade, trying to demoralize the other sides to drop out. The same weird
C/B/A troop rank system and hospitals. For spenders, the same playing against someone
20% tougher than you since they bought every deal.
If you make a game that’s not based on something, but borrows names and places, that’s known in the game biz as IP, short for Intellectual Property. For example, you make a game with collectable heroes. If you theme it using Marvel superheroes you’re not going to add crime-stopping — it remains endless 5-on-5 auto battles to level up Spider Man. But people understand that — game style X, using Y as IP.
“ArcheAge Begins” is a standard mobile collectable hero game, nothing special, using the MMO ArcheAge as IP. What got my attention was I’ve played ArcheAge, and that’s some weird IP. A quick run-down of the original ArcheAge MMO:
ArcheAge was near the end of the time when World of Warcraft was raking in cash. WoW dethroned EverQuest, and people were looking to make the next WoW. ArcheAge had a big world, quests and dungeons, and new things like in-world farms, personal sailing ships, gliders, and a very fluid class system.
But during design it quickly focused on the new trend, started by Eve-online. Players would make their own fun through a player-driven economy, and piracy. You might make money selling planks, using your crafting skill on bought logs. The money you make might eventually buy a player-made wagon, containing some of your planks. Now you can make deliveries for real money, at the risk of being robbed. You can travel with your guild, but be attacked by a pirate guild.
Hopefully you see what confused me. No one cared about the the world or the characters in it — so how are they going to find 30+ collectable heroes for this new game? They didn’t. It turns out they used heroes that weren’t even in the game. They were from a backstory — heroes of myth or something.
But then 2 things surprised me. In the original ArcheAge there was a tiny chance that a tree you planted would be struck by lightning, turning into a rare thunder-struck log. Because of demand — you needed one to make a delivery cart — guilds planted forests trying to get them, dropping the price of regular wood. Everyone with a tiny farm hoped their 1 tree would be struck for a massive gold payout.
In this new ArcheAge, every day you can harvest from a small farm, fish 10 times, and chop down your one tree. If you’re lucky — thunder struck log! I never got a TSL in the old game. I finally got one here. There’s always IP if you look hard enough. A note: the game was Korean. Being struck by Thunder was one of those charming translation mistakes.
The second thing is the wagon trains. Some lesser-known other collectable hero games have an “escort wagon” feature! Every day you can click “escort mission”. 4 hours later your wagon has arrived and you get paid. If it was “robbed” you only got 1/2 the gold. Of course, you also got to attack a wagon (a standard 5-on-5 auto-battle). Together it’s a guaranteed small source of gold, with minimal effort, an excuse to log on regularly, and a cute concept.
Someone working on this new ArcheAge found that. They even added having to make the deliveries with stuff you grew on your farm. The most common activity for mid-level players of the original is sort of in this new one. You can always find IP to use if you look hard enough.
King’s Road is a pretty standard 3rd-person hacker. You control one guy running down a path killing stuff with a boss at the end. When you complete all 24 areas, do them again on hard, then expert. But we all know at some point you’ll be out of energy until tomorrow, or until you buy more. But you aren’t. There’s no limit. You can even freely rerun areas to gain levels or better gear until you can beat the next. Still for free, you can switch between the 3 classes and level them by replaying any areas. Is this the first mobile game ever that doesn’t make you play a little each day?
Along the way you unlock a minor pet. They call it a dragon, but it’s the size of large hawk and about as dangerous. As you play, the pets level up. Eventually your pet is doing half the work. This is where it gets interesting. Your pets have a short cool-down before they can be re-used. You have 3, so that’s not even a problem. But you see where this is going? You need to level them up to keep winning, until the cool-down is up to 8+ hours. So now, like every other mobile game, you can play 3 times every 8 hours.
It’s just delightful the way you never see it coming. You don’t even have a dragon at first, then it seems so unimportant. Then it’s exactly the same limit as everything else.
My Review: if you like MMO’s you’ll hate the overly complicated upgrading buildings system to power up the dragons. I hate it, and usually like upgrading buildings on timers. Experimenting over which of your abilities to power-up is somewhat fun. There’s no obvious choice, and each ability feels different. There’s even a looking-for-group feature to team-up with another player.
The collectable hero game Shadow Raid:Legends got me thinking about the complexity of mobile games, in two ways. One is the reasonable-seeming thing mobile games have gotten very good at — starting simple and gradually ramping up the complexity. The other is the total amount of complexity that players want.
I like to think I like complicated games — even where you have to take out a sheet of paper and plan. But I’ve quit games for having too much thinking. I open them up, remember I’d been trying to think of a team to fight the new boss monster, just wasn’t in the mood, that goes on for a few days, and I’m done with that game.
I’m fine with new features gradually unlocks — it’s good teaching. But we all know how it goes from good to bad. “I’ll let you play 5 matches with only these rules before I toss in new ones” turns into “I’ll force you to play 50 matches before you earn the new rule”.
Those two things combine in a weird way. Many games start out too easy, but we know that means nothing. Many stay easy for quite a while, but we know that means nothing. A month may or may not be long enough. There’s this weird situation where we never know the “real” game. Maybe it gets good later, or maybe it’s fine now and gets too complex later.
Shadow Raid: Legends is one of the most boring genres of mobile games — collectable heroes. It starts like them all — you have a Common hero, find more and better heroes, find better armour and weapons, unlock the “ring” slot and start finding better rings. Always growing in power. Pretty soon you’re watching them fight the same monsters 100’s of times, hoping for a helmet with at least 4 stars and a +defense stat. And that’s fine. It’s almost like a slot machine — today I killed monsters for only 14 minor force potions, and no major ones, but there’s always tomorrow.
The weird thing is, it does get complex. After a slow start, in a genre where the players never expect anything special, it gets complex. After a while you realize the red/green/blue color system actually matters — you prefer green heroes against red bosses, and so on. At first you were equipping just whatever you found, but then you realize it’s completely mix-and-match — you can make someone absurdly hard-to-kill, or all offense and extremely fragile. You start meeting boss monsters with special abilities requiring specially-made teams to counter them.
Here’s some paraphrased advice from the game: to beat this area it helps if you have one of these 3 super-rare heroes. Otherwise there’s an adequate one by playing a certain dungeon about 100 times. Then play these other areas 100’s of times for about a week for a full set of +speed equipment. Next … .
I was thinking back about other games like this, and realized how hard they worked to not have a strategy. For example, healing characters are tough, do pretty good damage, and don’t heal all that much. Special abilities tend to be minor and difficult to coordinate. Equipment is pre-set. Those game work hard to make nothing matter. You can always play a bit, win something that shows a green “this will make you more powerful” up-arrow, use it, and eventually be able to beat slightly tougher monsters. You never have to ask someone how to beat X. The answer is always the same — get bigger numbers. Those games never get complex, which is on purpose, and the point.
Plarium makes SR:L. To me, they’re known for copying mechanics from other games, scrambling them together in a “see what sticks” style. They’re original, in the sense of never having seen those particular things combined. SR:L seemed pretty well thought-out for them. Then I realized how insane it was: a game for people who like to plan, but are happy pressing the same button for an hour, every day for a week, for a chance to try that plan.
I have to mention the art department. I’m always surprised, even through I shouldn’t be, by how completely separate it is — like a movie with beautiful costumes and sets, but terrible dialogue.
The 100’s of 3D heroes are divided into various factions. The good guys are Telarians and the neutrals are the Gaellen Pact. That sounds like something. There are lots of knight heroes, but divided into the Sacred Order (not that interesting), the Banner Lords (banners? what kind of banners?) and the evil Knights Revenant (undead former-knights). We never learn anything more, but it draws you in. There’s an entire faction of rock trolls, and another of lizardmen. They did a really nice job with variety, but making them look related. The next is the Skinwalkers — whoa! — minotaurs, devil dogs, and other abominations. I think they had a ton of fun designing them, and it shows. The worst thing is the name — there’s nothing about Shadows or Raids in this game.
I can’t recommend it (well, if you’re never played a collectable hero game and want to try one, once, and have a high tolerance to electronic addiction), but if you see someone playing it, ask if you can look through the screens where it shows every hero in the game. Really pretty.