It's not hard to tell from the ubiquitous ads for "Game of War: Fire Age," featuring a scantily clad Kate Upton, that it is one of the worst variety of mobile games. If you had any doubt, just read Matt Johnston's walkthrough about how painful it is to gather resources endlessly just to unlock ways to gather more resources without ever engaging in anything close to war.
Despite being painful to play, however, this crappy game is incredibly profitable — as of this writing, it is the number two top grossing app on the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store.
Why are players putting money into "Game of War?" Because the entire game is built around digging hooks into players, getting them invested in its infinite loops and convoluted systems, and then charging money for the ability to stay invested. If you really want to compete, you'll pay in.
That sentiment is echoed in comments on the piece Matt wrote. "Without spending $$$ , building and researching can take months," wrote commenter JoeBroady.
I've been playing the game every day for three weeks now; this is the case with every system in the game. For example:
See all those "speed up" buttons next to the blue arrows? Those enable you to speed up the time to complete a given task in the game. In order to speed up tasks, you must use a one-time use item in the game. When you run out of those items – and you will run out of them quickly – your option is to buy more.
That system is consistent across the board.
Want to train up troops faster or research faster or attack a nearby monster faster? You can! All you have to do is cough up some cash. Your cash converts to in-game "Gold," which enables you to buy speed-ups or to skip the waiting time you'd normally have to endure to build / upgrade your home base.
After the game loads, the very first screen you'll always see is a "BUY GOLD" advertisement (the in-game currency that costs real world money). They come in a variety of flavors, from the mundane to the holiday-themed:
Garish as this may be, it's the basest level of pushing "Game of War" does for your money. It's the game's many, many systems for "questing" and base building – combined with the online multiplayer aspect – that make "Game of War" such a moneymaker.
The long and short is this: if you want to compete, you have to buy in. As one commenter put it:
The difference between the big spenders and everyone else is huge. Not just 2, 3 or even 10 times more powerful, but a hundred or two hundred times more powerful. This makes it boring and pointless for everyone except the "whales."
And this is how "Game of War" makes so much money. Like other free-to-play successes before it, such as "FarmVille" and "Evony," there is a hard ceiling on your ability to compete unless you dish out real money, and lots of it. You've gotta be a "whale."
The "whales" referenced above are a group commonly associated with free-to-play games. These are the folks spending large amounts of money in order to significantly advance their game. These are the "Rich Kids of Instagram" of gaming, the oil magnates who don't mind dropping a few thousand dollars to fuel their addiction. These are the people who fund the development and maintenance of free games like "Game of War," and they represent 1-3% of players.
Free-to-play? Maybe. But certainly not free to win.
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