Co-authored by Howard Chen, Developer Growth Consultant at Google Play and David Eckelberry, VP and General Manager at Scopely. They discuss the game genre, how the Scopely team approached Star Trek™ Fleet Command, and how other game developers can find success in the genre on Google’s Apps, Games, & Insights podcast. Read the full Google Play games whitepaper on 4x Strategy here.
The “4x Strategy” subgenre of mobile gaming is one of the most monetized game genres on Google Play. It also has one of the highest churn rates due to the difficult learning curve and the wide variety of play styles across audience segments.
What are 4X strategy games?
4X is a real-time multiplayer strategy genre where players explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate — hence the 4X. While the genre name was borrowed from PC games, on mobile these games are very different. Players compete against one another for resources and digital real estate. However, they can also cooperate to build alliances and their reputation among the thousands of players on a server. In addition to capturing the most resources, players strive to become part of an elite club and, ultimately, server leader.
You may also hear other names such as massive multiplayer online (MMO) strategy, simulated life game, or empire builder, among others.
As a 4X game developer, you cannot create content faster than the players consume it, no matter what the content is. New content, therefore, cannot be used as the primary driver of retention. The social centers, cooperation, and alliances players build are the retention fabric of 4X games. Players stay in the game if they build a network of friends they chat with, often for hours a day. They could be chatting about the game, their experiences of the game, and even their own lives. These networks are the glue that can keep players around forever.
It’s the developer’s responsibility to create ways to glue them together, ways for them to interact that are meaningful and interesting, and foster a sense of community and social hub. While developers may personalize and segment content for the different audience members, it’s the stories that players build with their peers that makes any multiplayer experience so much more than the sum of its parts.
How Scopley projects the core stories
Star Trek™ Fleet Command brings with it the official Star Trek canon. However, it doesn’t protect that official storyline. Scopely allows players to mess things up. Players use the official story as a starting point, then craft their own stories with the content, characters, and ships. It’s fine if players end up with a Star Trek bridge where Kirk, Picard, GeordiLa Forge, Data, and Janeway share the space. The notion that characters can cross different chronologies and sub-IPs of Star Trek is a large part of the game’s appeal and where Scopely wants to take the game in the future.
For example, Star Trek Discovery is now in season 3, and Scopely talks regularly with CBS about their plans for the series and Scopely’s plans for the game. Scopely also works with a writer who’s been with CBS for several years. This approach gives the players, many of whom are die-hard Star Trek fans, the feeling they’re in the living, breathing world of Star Trek in the 24th century and beyond.
The importance of hybridization
The 4X genre is evolving, and we see hybridization from RPG and narrative driven games in newer titles such as Star Trek. Many games in the genre today are not purely driven by the exterminate motivation, which was the genre’s hallmark in its early days. There is now a healthy level of player vs. environment (PvE) content, which is driving better short and long-term retention.
For Star Trek™ Fleet Command, RPG and narrative hybridization is realized in the early days of the game’s player journey. Upon install, players land in the game and they’re talking to Scotty and Kirk or characters from The Next generation Universe, giving the users fan appeal. It onboards them into the universe and is important for early user retention because it gives players the feeling that this is the Star Trek game they want and the world they want to stay a part of.
Star Trek™ Fleet Command blends narrative, role-playing game (RPG), and MMO experiences, as are many other 4X games such as Final Fantasy or Status Survival. All the games in these genres are experimenting with how to hybridize to provide a broader experience to players beyond the “crush your enemies” gameplay and it is improving player retention, as described in white paper.
If a game focuses too much on players who want to exterminate and destroy, particularly on mobile, they’re limiting their pool of players. This is because mobile is a broad platform where you have people who may come from genres such as Match 3 and other core competitive genres. This diversification of game features have also made Star Trek Fleet Command and 4X games more appealing to female players. Adding more characterizations to the narrative, opening that space up to PvE experiences, and giving progression goals that aren’t just about crushing your enemies, has provided a more diverse set of players with goals that make them like to stay in the game.
Stability and progression
In early 4X games, a player could come in and take away all your progression in one swoop: you’d wake up one morning and see your bases gone. That’s very punitive and turned many potential long-term players away from the genre. With tangible and durable progression, players in games like Star Trek™ Fleet Command now have something to hold on to and can work towards something that they won’t lose: a character collection, a crew, or other similar progression motivations. Progression and its sense of stability is important, particularly in a player’s early days. You want to give people every reason to keep playing by exposing all the wonderful things to come. The game’s narrative should drive the player to keep playing, motivating them to progress and grow in power to defeat more formidable enemies, which in turn unlock the next part of the narrative.
Also, as players bridge from early game experience to the mid-game, you need to find a narrative that gives them the feeling they’re continuing to progress and find opportunities.
In Star Trek™ Fleet Command, player retention is good. This is because Scopely’s core focus is on building long-term relationships with players, using retention as the primary metric regardless of player type, spend levels, and game history.
A challenge with 4X games is that they are known for losing players in the early days: day 30 numbers in a 4X game are significantly worse than a casual title, such as Candy Crush. On the flip side, once a player gets to D30 the odds of them being there at 60, 90, 120, 365 are much higher — and now for Star Trek™ Fleet Command — 720 day retention is strong. But despite high retention, you still need to treat players well: give them the good stuff and a wonderful game experience because ultimately players want to consume and engage with a fun game.
It’s onboarding in the initial days and weeks that’s critical. The game needs to be as fun and narrative laden as possible. In Star Trek™ Fleet Command, this is done by having Kirk, Spock, and other characters tell players what they need to know: it’s not just not some high-handed developer laying down the rules of a competitive and cutthroat universe.
However, the game also needs an experience that is about the long-term. You could change the early game experience to make it kinder, funnier, easier but there is a danger that could hide the complexity, growth progression, and all the things that are integral to a 4X genre game.
You will lose some players: the important thing is to lose as few as possible and treat players like the important VIPs they could become.
Across the genre, hybridization and more structured progression have helped retention, driving a 10% to 16% improvement to D2 through D28.
The customer service team at Star Trek™ Fleet Command, relative to some other games, is significantly larger and better trained. They focus on developing personal relationships with fans that have been in the game for years and want to keep going in the game for years to come. These players have account managers. These account managers are tuned into the desires, interests, and focus of different kinds of players. Developers can take this approach because 4X games have a smaller user base than a more casual game. Scopely does everything they can to treat VIPs with respect and the care that they deserve for spending so much of their time in Star Trek™ Fleet Command.
4x Strategy players tend to be thought of as more selective or niche than players of other genres. To understand why, it’s best to put player behavior in context by looking at genre differences at a higher level. Since 4x Strategy is within the overall Strategy genre, let’s start by comparing Strategy player behavior to role-playing game (RPG) and massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMO-RPG) player behavior. Along with genre affinity, two metrics that offer insight are number of unique genres played and number of unique games played.
35% of core Strategy players play only Strategy games. This demonstrates that core Strategy players are more likely to stay within their preferred genre than core players of other genres (see chart to compare this with core RPG players, 19% of whom play only RPG games, and core MMO-RPG players, 21% of whom play only MMO-RPG games). The comparatively low number of core Strategy players who play more than three genres (32%) also indicates how selective the Strategy genre base is.
This means developers of Strategy games benefit from a loyal, core player base — one that is more likely to spend time and money within the Strategy genre.
Upwards of 90% of users play one game from the strategy genre. The player’s commitment to a group, an alliance, and their social circle within the game drives loyalty. These things make it hard to change: the cost of switching to another game is high because their friends are all in the game.
Where strategy game players choose to play other games they pick shooter games, battle royale, first-person shooters, MOBA, and mid-core competitive strategy games. This crossover appears to happen because, for example, a Battle Royale game is transient: a 30 minutes session and you’re done. Whereas, for their chosen 4X game players are going to play online for hours of the day.
So, there is a very committed player base for strategy and 4X games. Developers wanting to get into the space should recognize that they can’t look at the market size of 4X strategy games and assume that’s going to be their potential player base. Developers have to provide something unique to hook players. Star Trek™ Fleet Command has done this by offering a value proposition for Star Trek fans and others and having a comfortable onboarding. Those things have taken it to the top in the genre.
4X games are live 24/7 hours. Alliances have anywhere from 50 to 100 players, and they want the thrill of anything could happen at any moment. This means a player could end up getting attacked at 3 am. However, this would be detrimental to players for whom progression is a strong part of the appeal.
In Star Trek™ Fleet Command, while there’s a constant threat from the Borg and Khan and other players, Scopely wants players to have a good time playing in a universe that is enjoyable. They want players looking forward to the next log on, not being afraid of what bad things have happened while they are away: ultimately, this is an entertainment experience.
There are several ways that this can be handled. For example, in Star Trek™ Fleet Command players get a 10-minute shield when they come under attack, enabling them to activate a real shield or organize their defenses. Players can also earn a 12-hour peace shield by playing the game a little bit every day. This shield is also part of ensuring players have a healthy work-life-game balance. Scopely doesn’t want players to feel an anxiety that drives them to have their phone next to them all the time.
Building trust with players
Scopely has a Discord channel. They encourage community moderators and game developers to hang on this Discord channel: from Scopely’s perspective, the developers are part of that community. These channels are a way for the developers to let the players know that they are fans of the Star Trek universe. The trust developers have with the fans is critical because things can and will go wrong: a server goes down, there is a mistake in the balancing value of a ship, or a tuning adjustment is made. So, when something needs to be communicated, the trust between developers and fans is critical to the success of Star Trek™ Fleet Commandand Scopely. Indeed, such trust is essential to any developer creating long term service-based games.
Trust is also important because overall the community, the top of the funnel, is not growing as quickly as it was a few years ago: installs for the genre have decreased by nearly 30% year-over-year. As players only play one game in the genre, you have to give them reasons to trust that you’re doing the right thing for them and taking the game in the right direction, Community outreach is essential to maintaining trust.
The effect of lockdown
Many game developers have been reporting significant upticks in players and playing more as a result of the lockdown. The changes have been less dramatic for the 4X genre. In Star Trek™ Fleet Command retention was a little higher, but the greatest change was in engagement hours per day, which climbed in April through June. It has tapered back down a little since then but remained above February’s level. This change is in line with normal seasonal expectations: people play a little less during warmer days and summer breaks. These increases also mean that Scopely hasn’t seen the usual northern hemisphere summer downtick, since their retention numbers have improved.
Unsurprisingly, Scopely’s feature roadmap didn’t anticipate these changes, and the lead time meant that they couldn’t suddenly add new stories to Star Trek™ Fleet Command. However, they were able to keep players engaged by running more events.
4X games need a long-term vision for content, but developers need to adapt content to events in the real world. For example, when an earthquake or monsoon affects a region, Scopely gives out more peace shields to players in the afflicted regions so players can shield up and know that they’re safe in the game while they handle real life. This ties back to trust, being responsive to the real-world concerns and realities of players.
Maintaining relationship equity during lockdown
The Star Trek™ Fleet Command team, like many Scopely teams, is located in offices around the world. Therefore, they were already experienced with running video calls at all times of the day because many of the teams are separated by time zones up to eight hours apart. During the lockdown, Scopely realized they were trading on the relationship equity that they’d built and needed to find ways of rebuilding their teams. One way they did this was to ensure there was a daily interaction among the team, even if only for 10 minutes, to see how everyone’s doing.
Scopely also realized team members needed to know that the company was there to support them in a real and meaningful way. This covers everything from buying them desks and chairs or a second monitor to being available to talk about how much it sucks to have a meeting with a child screaming in the background.
The challenge of 4X gaming
One of the biggest challenges for 4X games is how to deliver new content for players who’ve been in the game for a few weeks, compared to the player who has been in the game for years. This means figuring out how to deliver crafted experiences that make the player’s progression feel meaningful. The content additions also need to acknowledge the effort and investment made by players, while enabling players across the spectrum of progression to interact with one another meaningfully.
In Star Trek™ Fleet Command, players have many different paths they can follow: some are more interested in building their perfect crew, others in improving their favorite ship. Scopely wants to give the players ways to progress with their time and, if they choose to, natural ways to make a purchase. Scopely has run many experiments to figure out what they can push to players but has always stepped back, realizing that it is better to let the player make purchases in their own time. This way, there will be no spender regret, no player regret, and no investment regret.
Don’t be afraid of somewhat hacky tests to get feedback and determine if an idea is worth investing in. Scopely has had a lot of success with this approach in Star Trek™ Fleet Command: players may have to suffer a little with extra menus or vague language but it is usually worthwhile. For example, the popularity of battle passes has taken off in the last couple of years. Scopely added a battle pass this year, hacking them in at first and then invested in the tech once player feedback proved it successful and worthwhile.
Success requires investment
As mentioned at the beginning of this blog, 4X developers usually cannot keep content delivery ahead of content consumption. However, they still need to invest to give users something great around the corner. Scopely, for example, has an aggressive content schedule of releases: every month of the year has something new for players to look forward to.
One key thing to remember is that if your game is going to do well and you want continued success, you’ll have to increase your investment and headcount. You’re going to have to allocate more development time and money for performance and live operations and events, and server hosting. You’re going to plan for additional spending in technical areas because success has its own cost. If you’re planning for success, you’re planning for ongoing development costs that go up to match the success of the game.
This need for investment also applies to game startup: 4X is a genre that requires a significant upfront investment to get to testing and takes more development time than a typical game. Allow a contingency of anything between 25% and 100%. If you’re not licensing core engine tech, not making a sequel, or not licensing someone’s tech, expect it to take longer still.
However, the flip side is that 4X games can bring a loyal and highly engaged player base to recoup the investment needed to launch a successful title in the genre.
The addition of hybrid features to 4X games has helped improve player retention and ensure the genre continues its reputation for strong monetization. It’s a challenging genre to enter, particularly when there is no significant player growth and existing players tend to remain loyal to one game. It’s therefore essential to continually explore new ways to attract loyal players. Incorporating progression and emphasizing it over the exterminate aspects of the genre is one new approach that has benefited developers, including Scopely. While the genre is challenging for both new entrants and existing titles it’s rewards make that extra effort needed to succeed worthwhile.
Find out more
Read the full Google Play games whitepaper on 4x Strategy.
Hear David Eckelberry from Scopely and Howard Chen from Google Play discuss the 4x game genre in more detail on episode 11 of the Apps, Games, & Insights podcast. Look out for upcoming articles from other episodes in our podcast series.
What do you think?
Do you have thoughts on how to succeed in 4x strategy games? Let us know in the comments below or tweet using #AskPlayDev and we’ll reply from @GooglePlayDev, where we regularly share news and tips on how to be successful on Google Play.