MMOs: A strategy for world domination

There was a time, not so long ago, when devotees of massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) such as World of Warcraft were seen as ghostly pale, socially dysfunctional uber-geeks, clicking away in basements and attics, industriously building, leveling up and fighting their way around the virtual world. The games they played were ones the rest of us were only dimly aware of. We knew they existed — in the same way that we know foreign sports exist in faraway lands — but that was as far as it went.

All that has changed in recent years. MMOs, and particularly MMO strategy games, have gone mainstream in a big way. We’ve seen more and more well-groomed primetime commercials for titles such as Game of War, Mobile Strike and Clash of Clans on our TV screens, and innumerable banner ads dominating our mobiles. The very fact that Christoph Waltz, Kate Upton and Arnold Schwarzenegger have been drafted in (no doubt for hefty fees) to front these campaigns is a sign of the growing confidence and deep pockets of major developers such as Machine Zone and Supercell. This reached its zenith in the February 2015 Super Bowl halftime ad — reportedly the most watched of all time — where Liam Neeson parodied his Taken role to promote Clash of Clans. This had been preceded in the first quarter by Kate Upton charging across the field of battle on horseback in a Game of War commercial. Back in the old days of strategy games, could you see there being back-to-back Super Bowl ads for Civilization 2 and Command and Conquer? No, me neither.

The numbers bear this phenomenon out. Clash of Clans (or just Clash, as it’s known) was the top grossing mobile game of 2015, with an astonishing $1.3 billion in revenue. On average, 30,000 people install it on their devices every single day in the US alone, generating a US-based daily income that regularly tops $1 million. And it’s not even the top title from its publisher, Supercell. That would be Clash Royale, a new version of Clash, with a staggering 138,000 new US installs every day, cashing in to the tune of $1.5 million a day in the process, and that’s just in the United States. Of the US top five grossing iPhone games, four are strategy games — Clash Royale, Clash of Clans, Mobile Strike and Game of War Fire Age. They make a whopping combined total of just over $4 million per day.

These staggering earnings are all the more striking when you take into account that all of this revenue comes from in-app purchases, with the most popular MMO games (including all four titles mentioned above) being free to download. This model of not insisting on any initial outlay from the consumer has been vital in persuading people who wouldn’t normally spend any hard-earned cash on strategy games to part with their money.

So how do they work?

In MMO strategy games, players generally start with a basic village and are given the challenge of transforming it into a mighty empire through either organically constructing new buildings (town halls, barracks, granaries) or conquering other player’s empires or towns. There’s also usually a cooperative element to the game, (hence the “Clans” element in Clash of Clans), with players banding together to form a “Clan” for security and to lord it over other players.

Free-to-play MMO strategy games usually make their money through in-app purchases that aid players in building up their empire. This mostly takes the form of allowing players to complete actions such as building, training or harvesting — which could normally take hours — instantly, if they’re willing to pay for it. We’re not talking big money (usually below $1 for a single action) but it adds up. The games are designed to be fiendishly immersive, and cash-rich MMO addicts (known rather unkindly as “whales” in the industry lexicon) can end up plowing thousands into their domains.

Take the example of George Yao. In May 2012, Yao announced his retirement as the king of Clash of Clans after a short spell at the top. He’s a mild-mannered IT compliance manager who by night reigned supreme in the world of Clash, leading the elite, invitation-only North 44 clan. By his own admission he spent $3,000 on the game during the three months when he was at the peak, and would tap away for whole weekends at a stretch, fueled by red bull and take-out. At one point, to avoid being knocked out by attacks from other clans, he was managing five profiles at once, using iPads sent from a wealthy North 44 member in the United Arab Emirates. He’d even take these five iPads into the shower, with waterproof coverings to prevent them getting wet. Now that’s an addictive game.

How does localization fit in?

So, this is a strong force on the gaming scene, with a powerful hold on consumers around the world, and it’s only getting bigger. And localization, of course, has been absolutely key to the big MMOs establishing and maintaining such an all-pervasive global presence. You can’t truly globalize your game if the in-game texts are clumsy and hard to understand. I’ve personally downloaded a number of strategy games and been instantly disengaged by unclear instructions, which make even the most basic game function difficult to perform.

This is where the deep pockets of the top developers come in again — they spend big on localization and localization-based testing, so that games like Clash of Clans end up with as much (or more) language spend as flagship console titles such as FIFA and Call of Duty.

The issue of localization gets really interesting when you consider how important persuasive content is to games that earn all their money through in-app purchases. When all the money a game earns comes from objects that players buy within that game, convincing, clearly written content becomes vital. You need to explain to the player why the object they’re about to buy (whether it’s a wizard tower, a castle or a storehouse) will make their base impregnable and their army invincible.

In some games, the startlingly venal Game of War in particular, this need to persuade players to part with their cash turns the game interface into something more like a gambling website, with banner ads continually flashing text like “Super Sunday SUPER SALE – Kick Off to VICTORY!” over a link to buy gold coins at a discount. Add to that the GIF ads with buzzwords like “Get Gold Store,” “Special Gift Streak” and “Bonus Gifts Gold Meter,” and the need for accurate, punchy localization becomes obvious. In some games, these inducements to spend are the essence of the experience.

Another important aspect of localization for MMO strategy games is forum translation. As we’ve seen, quite a subculture has grown up around these games, with an emphasis on alliances, clans and community. One obvious question is how players from all the different countries of the world communicate with each other when bargaining, cooperating and fighting. The answer is that the lingua franca of the game is English, but where players don’t speak it well enough, automatic translation has taken up the slack. It’s an interesting example of crowdsourcing that, although the machine translation (MT) is usually done by free online translation tools, users are often offered incentives (such as in-game currency) to correct the spelling or grammar of other user’s posts so they’re ready for MT, and to correct the machine-translated posts of others to make them comprehensible.

Obviously, there is an opportunity for a single language vendor with a well-developed MT offering to come in and put their engines at the service of the publishers to further facilitate communication between players. It’s also an attractive opportunity for language service providers (LSPs) that specialize in gaming to build a base of linguists from within the gaming community for future projects.


If localization and advertising have been the foundations of the MMO’s global takeover, app store optimization (ASO) is, on the other hand, something they invest little time in. This relatively new concept is the science of making sure your app tops the list whenever a user searches for a certain type of app. If you’ve built a racing game that appeals to kids, you want anyone who types in “racing game kids” to see your app first when they search, and getting your ASO right ensures that will happen.

Just as search engine optimization (SEO) for web content has gone from a little-known niche activity to being the multimillion dollar precursor to any website launch or marketing campaign, its younger cousin ASO has evolved quickly to become essential to first-time app launchers. After all, there are over 1.5 million apps in the Apple App Store, so standing out from the herd can be a tough ask. Although a lot of apps are found by users through recommendations, links sent to them by promotions and so on, 53% of apps are still found by app store browsing, making it well worth a developer’s while to ensure their ASO is up to speed.

There are three aspects to ASO, some of which developers can control directly, and some they can only influence:

Keywords: This is the most important aspect of ASO. Just like web search engines, app search engines primarily use keywords as a shortcut to understand what an app contains and to whom it will appeal. In most app stores, you usually have 100 characters to provide a list of keywords that will attract potential users, and as with SEO, this will need to be carefully researched to see what people looking for your type of app are searching for. You’ll also need to make sure your app name is a snappy description of what it does for the user, and that your description is well written — any poorly written content will put off the algorithms and send you sliding down the rankings.

Visuals: App stores also take into account what visuals the developer has chosen to showcase the app, and what captions they have used. As with keywords, the visuals are a chance to tell the story of your app in a confined space, telling potential users what they can expect.

Off-site factors: These are trickier, and the developer has minimal control over them. They include how many times the app has been downloaded (the more downloads you have already, the higher up the rankings you go) and what user ratings you have picked up.

As with the in-game texts, localization is a key aspect of making ASO a success. Choosing the right keyword for the right country is absolutely vital — people might search for “strategy” games in the United Kingdom, but “tactics” games in France, for example. One astonishing statistic to hit any potential buyer with is that localizing your app keywords is proven to increase downloads by 767%. Making sure the short and long descriptions are well translated (or transcreated) is equally fundamental — this is the content that grabs and holds the customer, convincing them that this is the app for them, and it needs to be short, snappy and full (but not too full) of keywords.

The irony here is that the big MMO strategy games that are dominating the download charts are relatively out of sight to the casual app store browser. Type in “War Game” on the Apple App Store, and Game of War is the sixth app that comes up — a poor result for such a frequently downloaded game. Type in “MMO strategy” and the top four games I mentioned earlier are nowhere to be seen. So why are they spending so little on ASO, when it’s considered so vital by so many developers?

The simple answer is they don’t need to. People don’t browse for Clash or Mobile Strike. They just type in the game’s name or click on a Facebook ad and hey, presto, they’re at the download button. These developers invest in big-name advertising with recognized celebs exactly so they don’t have to be searched for in the app store.

ASO is seen as vital to the launch of an app and integral to its early stages, especially if the developer doesn’t have a huge budget for advertising. However, once a game is established in the consciousness of the app-buying public, the importance of ASO falls off, as the game’s going to be found anyway, regardless of what keywords it uses.

The mobile gaming market, therefore, might seem to be dominated by the big players with the flashy ads, leaving just crumbs for the smaller developers. It’s slightly more complex than that, though — there’s always room for an ambitious smaller publisher to use the right tools to carve out a niche, if they’re spot-on with their branding, their ASO, and of course their localization.