The 3 Things Every Mobile Multiplayer Game Needs

Why some multiplayer games fail, and others become mega-hits

Clash Royale was a signifier when it soft-launched on the first Monday of 2016: this is going to be the year of multiplayer games on mobile. Live multiplayer games are set to finally take a big place on the mobile landscape, with Clash Royale, Critical Ops, Armajet, and even casual games like Agar.io and the current smash Slither.io all poised to bring multiplayer that can be done well on mobile. But what makes these games so great for mobile multiplayer? There are three key factors in play.

01
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Session length has to be mobile friendly

Clash Royale Gameplay
Supercell

People use their mobile devices everywhere, and sometimes have things in their lives that are more important than the app they're using right then and there. It can be getting off a bus, or having to answer a text, but the best mobile games fit in with the players and their lives. Mobile multiplayer games, in order to do well, need to be this as well.

One of the problems that I think Vainglory has had is that its main games can last up to half an hour. Hearthstone can have half-hour games too, though it's doing better. But the reason why something like Clash Royale works so well is because the time commitment to it is 4 minutes, tops. That's enough so that you aren't afraid to jump in and play at any point because there is only minimal commitment. It's tough to play a full-length MOBA on the bus because you might wind up having to leave at a crucial moment, and possibly screw over your team. The nice thing about a 5-minute game is that it's less of a concern. If you have to quit halfway through a Clash Royale match because you get a phone call, that's not a huge deal. You'll lose some trophies, but it's not the worst because you can earn them back in a few minutes.

Even a game like Agar.io, which has no permanent player stats or progression, though it encourages players to stay alive for as long as possible, still has no real punishment for leaving. Sure, your snake is dead, and if you were high up on the leaderboards, that's not good to lose, but it's a temporary thing. It represents how you're doing right then and there. If you quit, the game doesn't die, it keeps going. But it means that you can jump back in whenever. The game is always there, and there is zero commitment. Being able to enjoy a mobile multiplayer game without guilt is key because mobile games need to fit into the player's life.

02
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The games have to be accessible to all players, not just the hardcore

Armajet Action Screen
The onscreen controls and general action of Armajet. Super Bit Machine

By accessible I mean, that mobile games have built up this culture around being easy-to-learn-yet-difficult-to-master. MOBAs might not work well as a mega-popular genre on mobile because they are complex at their core, with many intricacies that have to be learned rather than taught. A Clash Royale game has a friendly tutorial, and deliberately keeps things simple with only a few dozen cards and a deck of 8 cards. The strategy and complexity is emergent, not necessarily a guaranteed part of the experience.

Meanwhile, a game like Agar.io or Slither.io  is meant to be an inherently silly experience, where the controls and learning to play the game are intentionally a bit wonky and goofy. But it's something where you learn the rules and mechanics quickly, and then you just enjoy the game and its competition. It's obviously going for something different from other games, but it's still meant to be fun and casual for anyone to pick up and check out.

These are just two approaches to mobile multiplayer games. But the point is that for the mobile audience, a game has to be accessible, or it will fail.

This isn't to say that complicated games don't have an audience. Vainglory has obviously stayed afloat. And Hearthstone is a top-grossing mobile game, and it's full-fledged collectible card game. But there are reasons why those two games are what they are. Vainglory had a massive marketing campaign on iOS at launch, and has a ton of funding behind it. Games without those same factors have floundered in comparison. And Hearthstone started out as a desktop game – no other CCG has quite reached its heights.

03
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The game has to monetize well.

Vainglory
Super Evil Megacorp

This is the brutal part of the equation for players, because of the duality of the situation. Games that are friendly to players don't necessarily monetize well, and multiplayer games, in particular, have to make money because they're ongoing persistent products. And for developers, it's a challenge because it's possible to get everything else right about a mobile multiplayer game, but if it doesn't make any money, then it doesn't have a long-term future. Call of Champions has failed to make much money, despite having gameplay that does an excellent job at being a mobile adaptation of a MOBA. A confusing VIP system is ​part of what doomed that game. It wasn't because of the game itself, or at least it shouldn't have been.

It'll be interesting to see what other games in the future do. Critical Ops has become a smash hit game to watch on services like Mobcrush and Kamcord among mobile gamers, and it uses an interesting monetization strategy where just customizations are up for sale. This can work – skins and the like help power games like Dota 2, though character unlocks are a big part of the equation too. But the idea has yet to take off on mobile, either due to a lack of hardcore players who demand that monetization, or because "pay-to-win" monetization is still the safer, more effective option on mobile.

Slither.io, which doesn't yet have an Android client, doesn't necessarily push for hard monetization, but it has aggressive ads (which can work really well for a popular game) and a $3.99 ad removal IAP that isn't expensive but isn't a throwaway $0.99. It's the price that Nitrome uses for their games, and they're staying afloat in the mobile world. Clash Royale is shameless with its monetization, using a card system where you have to keep unlocking chests to get duplicates in order to keep progressing in the game. It's worked out pretty well so far for them. Do not be surprised to see not only Clash Royale clones, but also games that ape its business model. 2D multiplayer shooter Armajet is already doing that in its alpha.