The “skill-based matchmaking” backlash

men gaming on personal computers

I came across a Washington Post article from May of this year that presented a nice summary of the simmering backlash against “skill-based matchmaking” (SBMM), and it became a good writing prompt for me to organize my thoughts on the topic.

I think most players will agree that matchmaking is one of the biggest benefits of modern online games – versus local multiplayer (be it physical board games, arcade halls or pre-Internet PC/console games) – the promise of an infinite number of players ready to play with you, and conveniently at (almost) any time and (almost) anywhere. “Skill-based” is simply the common default prioritization of the matchmaking algorithm, and it stems from a very utilitarian argument – all else being equal, and taking the long-term view (assuming that the players want to play the game repeatedly), putting players of approximately equal-skill together in a match will output the most satisfaction / happiness (utility) of all players combined.1

What makes matchmaking not live up to its promise in reality (from players’ eyes) is due to various factors that it cannot fully accommodate:

  • At the extremes of the player-base distribution, the player population is small enough that matchmaking eventually inevitably great concessions to find a match. (Even with widened search parameters, a top-ranked League of Legends player could still wait upwards of an hour to find a game.)
  • The player ratings used for matchmaking may be grossly inaccurate due to fake new accounts (“smurfing”). It’s not just the streamers in the Washington Post article that want to play against lower-skill opponents, so that they can put on flashy plays – many people create new accounts to do exactly this.
  • It’s impossible to know (and account for) player intent in advance – is the player looking to climb the ranked ladder tonight, checking out a newly released hero, or just wanting to let off some steam with friends? There is also the synergy or mismatch of play-styles that could tilt an apparently fair match.
  • Similarly, random events during the game, such as a network spike or ill-timed phone call could easily derail the outcome.

To make matters worse (from the perspective of understanding how skill is measured and represented), it is now common for developers to intentionally distort the ranked ladder system by infusing it with a progression element. The Hearthstone ranked system is a great example of this2: aside from the very highest Legends rank, the system is inflationary in terms of stars output, so with enough games played, most players would naturally be rising up through the ranks. This would be what the Washington Post article referred to as “engagement-optimization”, at the macro-sense: players can make progress through sheer effort, not improved skill, and thus it encouraged more play. Most players would probably agree that this is a worthy trade-off – the added sense of progression feels better, whether they realize what’s going on or not – but it further obfuscates the conversation around “skill” (and thus SBMM).

Unfortunately, the Internet has been great at fostering conspiracy theories on all kinds of topics, and SBMM is no exception. Last year I was quite saddened reading some of the Chinese gamer discourse around League of Legends: Wild Rift (since I worked on it for a number of years) – there was a lot of griefing towards the ranked matchmaking, and players were vividly describing all sorts of scenarios (to avoid) where they were adamant that the system would “reward” you with a soul-crushing lose-streak.

It’s also worth noting the likely general player fatigue with SBMM, now that it is so prevalent. Players know that this is a PVP “treadmill”, and some may be less interested in the grind (and would rather seek more novel experiences).

Thankfully, there are already some design or technical breakthroughs that can break the convention here. For starters, PVP games with asymmetrical designs – PUBG‘s last man standing setup, or Dead by Daylight‘s 1v4 approach – already break the dreaded “50% win-rate” expectation, and the Battle Royale formula has rapidly become a staple game mode across many genres.

A second, and (to some) more controversial approach, is the utilization of bots – as in, pretending that the player is facing other real players, when in fact they are playing against bots – to help with “engagement optimization”. For example, when a player is on a losing streak (and perhaps predicted to be at higher risk of churning), games like Honor of Kings will give players a fake PVP game (all players on the opposing team are bots) to break the streak. The fact that this is obviously a bot game does not seem to bother most players – they might make fun of the game (and in doing so feel smart about themselves, as they can see through the facade), but a win is still a win, and breaking the streak certainly helps with reducing “tilting”/”inting”.

Some developers probably frown at this practice – it feels like lying, and breaking some sort of an implicit promise made to players that the matches will be fair and that of course you are playing against real players. I used to be in this camp – now I’m a lot more relaxed about this topic; I’d say now that this is contextual and there’s probably broad upside in utilizing bots. There are plenty of games where bots are demonstrably better than humans – in go, or chess, bots have long been able to beat even the best human players. So in theory, there should be plenty of opportunity (even if strictly for “engagement optimization”) to widely utilize bots to provide the “perfect” match for human players, with bots as partners or opponents. This has the side benefit of solving the “cold start” or “minimum viable player-base” problem for new games; combined with asymmetrical designs like Battle Royale, even mediocre bots can greatly alleviate the matchmaking needs without breaking the immersion for players3.

  1. Before the advent of matchmaking, players had to somehow manually discover other players to play with, often via waiting in public game lobbies (where one can host/join games). In these circumstances the friction to get a game going was high enough that players gladly overlooked the quality of the match – I’ve sat through many lopsided games of DotA, and my Counterstrike days mostly consisted of rounds of fy_iceworld rather than the “real” defuse mode.
  2. It is by no means the only game that does this – its implementation just happens to be very transparent.
  3. As a thought exercise – the average player in PUBG probably only encounters 1-5 other players in a typical game – given the typically mid-long engagement distance, and the size of the map, players probably couldn’t easily discern bots (unless they had very obvious behavioral patterns) even if there were 90 bots to 10 real players.

Quick thoughts on the Xbox – Riot deal

Xbox announced a Game Pass deal with Riot Games (my previous employer, I left in 2019). The deal covers all of the live service games in Riot’s portfolio, across PC and mobile platforms.

I have a few thoughts in reaction to this news. The first is the surprisingly large value Riot is putting on the table. This is not a small experiment; Riot didn’t go the safe route of starting with one game and deciding to expand or not based on the metrics. And even if it were just one game, say League of Legends, the monetary value of “All champions unlocked” is not trivial. As a quick “valuation” exercise:

  • Buying them all outright (even though few players do this – you can earn soft currency and unlock champions by playing) is easily hundreds of dollars – you can google for various answers, players have done this math before.
  • An alternative comp is to look at Asia, where “all champions unlocked” is a B2B product that PC cafes in Korea and China pay Riot for. If you assume Riot charges a Korean PC cafe $0.2 for every hour of this service, and on average players play 30 hours per month (both of these are like 10-year-old stats in my head), then “all champions unlocked” is by itself a $6/month service.

However you look at it, it seems that Riot is offering a ton of value here – so much so that, if you are a dedicated fan of Riot’s games, you should sign up immediately for Xbox Game Pass just for the Riot benefits alone.

This sparks an interesting offshoot question – instead of working with Microsoft, why didn’t Riot roll out its own “Riot Games Pass” instead? I would imagine this scenario had to have been part of the internal strategizing. And that would feel more in line with the M.O. of the Riot Games I know circa 2015 – doing it alone, desiring total control of the player experience.

I don’t have any inside knowledge, so I can only venture some guesses based on looking at the exchange of value in this deal:

  • From a player acquisition perspective, it seems more likely that Riot is funneling players to Microsoft – League announced 180M MAU last year, although a significant portion are players from China, which Xbox Game Pass doesn’t officially serve; while Xbox Game Pass last announced 25M subscribers. But Riot does also gain a new channel where new players could flow in, and it may be a previously underserved (more console-oriented) player-base. Thus Riot stands to benefit from all future Xbox Game Pass marketing, as a % of future Game Pass subs could convert to Riot players.
  • Based on the above, I would imagine there’s a sizable monetary component to the deal, flowing from Microsoft to Riot. I’m not a BD person, I don’t have a good sense where to start to try to model this component. It could be a fixed per-year amount. It could be calculated based on actual player engagement (some sort of revenue share / pre-defined payout based on metrics). It could be a combination of the two.
  • To Microsoft, I also think there’s a Game Pass content strategy component to this deal as well – having popular live-service games, like Riot’s portfolio, acts as a natural buffer against AAA seasonality, and probably helps with smoothing out churn.

Another interesting part of this deal is the mobile games included. This has the effect of providing an off-platform (iOS / Google Play) way to monetize a mobile game’s content, though in the past this was usually done by the game’s publisher directly, as opposed to another platform like Microsoft here. It will be curious to see if there’s any response from Apple & Google, especially if Microsoft starts rolling up additional mobile games into Game Pass and could threaten to end-run IAP regulations.

From Riot’s perspective, I can also think of a number of risks to this deal that needs to be managed:

  • The monetary math: does the inflow from Microsoft cover the possible loss of all future champion revenue (to use League of Legends as an example)?
  • The game economy and player behavior implications: during my time at Riot, I felt the long-held internal view was that providing all champions for free (which is what DotA 2 does) has negative effects on players’ onboarding flow, matchmaking quality, sense of ownership and progression. This deal seem to override these concerns.

In summary: this deal took me by surprise, but I think it could make sense for both parties. It would be fascinating to follow how this impacts both companies going forward.

Genshin Impact (2020)

Genshin Impact has had a great global launch – indeed, I struggled to come up with some good comps on Sensor Tower as it has really stormed out of the gates. In terms of launch revenue, I actually couldn’t recall a better game than Pokemon Go. See below launch-aligned revenue graph:

If we just look at China, where it’s easier to compare apples-apples (at least for iOS only, since Sensor Tower doesn’t track China Android), we have an early 3-way tie across AFK Arena, Brawl Stars and Genshin Impact – as some of the best launches of 2020:

As a side note – AFK Arena’s $60M launch month on iOS in China (in January before Chinese New Year), is the best new mobile game domestic launch this year as far as I can tell. (The usual caveats about lack of China Android estimates apply…)

But, Genshin is not just a mobile game – in China, it launched on PC first on Sep 15, a full two weeks of early access. I still find this an unusual choice – the most affluent, hardcore gamers rushed in on day 11, but the negative reviews came in almost instantly. Snobby PC/console gamers mocked the game’s lack of polish and lower graphics fidelity compared to premium AAA titles; whereas mobile gamers looking for a progression head-start via PC immediately raged at the poor gacha loot table. They didn’t hold back their emotions on Taptap:

The poor reviews didn’t seem to impact sales much (and the Taptap crowd is hard to please). It’s also interesting to contrast this reception with the western audience reception – there seems to be a lot of voices expressing surprise that the game offers so much content and is free.

In any case – it’s very early days yet as we are barely two weeks into the official launch, but all things considered it’s a great start for Genshin Impact. It will be fascinating to see how the game trends over the next few months.

Core gameplay

The game is quite well-reviewed on Metacritic (though a small sample size), and deservedly so. The scope of the open world, the combat system, and the character roster (and their visual presentation) are impressive.

The game is most fun (I’m currently Adventure Rank 27) when you are doing the dependable open-world loop: you start out with a particular objective (maybe a quest, or just a point-of-interest you spotted in the horizon), and along the way you get side-tracked by numerous side content. There is a lot of side content: collectibles, side quests / daily missions, environmental puzzles, loot chests that respawn periodically… You get the picture.

Genshin Impact certainly takes a lot of inspiration from Zelda: Breath of the Wild‘s open-world formula, but ventures far enough to end up in its own place. The biggest departure is combat: Genshin referenced the elemental interactions from BOTW, and converted it into a catchy combo system that still feels intuitive enough. It can get repetitive, but it’s still satisfying to set up an explosive fire-lightning combo (for example), and there are hints in the equipment system (I haven’t gotten far enough yet) of intriguing build possibilities.

Personally, I’m not too concerned with the graphics fidelity on PC – I’ll always take smooth frame-rate over graphics quality, and this is where Genshin does not fully deliver. On mobile, I can’t run reliably run 60fps on an iPhone XS Max (even when I toggle everything down); and the game’s min-spec on iOS is iPhone 8 Plus, which suggests dev challenges with performance optimization (in comparison – PUBG Mobile‘s min-spec is iPhone 6s).

I do want to talk a bit about gameplay feel and polish, where Genshin is behind its PC/console peers in some areas. As a player, I found myself often wrestling with the game’s character, camera and controls (the “3Cs”), on mobile (more egregious) as well as on PC. Some examples of jank:

  • Ranged aiming feels finicky in general, even on PC with mouse; sensitivity settings are too coarse in my opinion. And for mobile / PS4 there should have been some aim-assist support (even if they can be turned off).
  • The camera has janky movement at times – as a tiny example, when you fall and roll forward, the camera takes too long to recover from facing downwards, and requires a manual adjustment2.
  • Some characters have attacks that dash through the enemy, which would require you to rotate the camera 180 degrees to see the enemy again. This is in my opinion dangerous design space for a 3rd-person mobile game with virtual joysticks.
  • Similarly, the Traveler’s ability that creates a giant rock is also dangerous design space in combat: this is a climbable rock that can cause unintended player interactions; and it often displaces enemies to the top of the rock, where they don’t seem to know how to get down (and thus severely disrupting combat pacing). The fact that the ability is aim-able is also stress-inducing on mobile.
  • Enemies who are displaced from the combat area (for example, falling off a cliff) get reset (with full health), which is often frustrating.

I’ve also found the game’s boss fights tend to have more jank and annoyances. For example, the first major boss fight below:

There’s a bunch of things here that irritated me (and yes, my skills are probably below-average…):

  • The level requirement stated upfront was a bit of a misdirection, as you are given a trial character with their own level, and the whole fight is primarily designed for that character.
  • Unskippable cut-scenes, which is a pretty big no-no if players have a chance of having to replay this fight several times (which I did…).
  • The flight combat sequence starting around 1:30 has readability issues, with the backdrop that is quite static and the boss always center-screen – the first 2 times I played this fight, I didn’t understand I could actually fly towards the pick-ups (I tried maneuvering and felt I couldn’t change direction).
  • The final phase has a custom camera angle (side-scrolling), which is a bit jarring as most of the game you are not driving your character’s movement primarily with left/right input. Combined with the ledges, this created a level where I fell off quite a few times – while not lethal, it was very annoying for combat pacing.

Over time, the player learns to work around these problems, but there’s clearly a gap in terms of the developer’s capabilities, sensibilities, and/or priorities – these are the 20% issues that can take 80% of the time to solve to get that AAA polish.

Progression and monetization

When it comes to progression and monetization, Genshin at a high level shares a lot of the generic Chinese mobile RPG template (of which AFK Arena, mentioned earlier, is the current best-in-class example).

The basic formula of such games is a deep progression system (with layer upon layer of different stats to chase), with stringent upgrade gates interlaced with periods of relatively smooth leveling. The stringent upgrade gates provide heavy incentive to do the daily/weekly grind for resources (certain key resources can only be farmed on specific days of week). And the sheer amount of dimensions to progress (amount of characters + depth of each character) converts into aggressive monetization design, where ultimately cash can be turned into characters (through gacha), upgrade resources (directly purchased), stamina for grinding resources and so on.

This is the rinse-and-repeat formula that hundreds of Chinese games have used – Soul Hunters, Naruto, Honkai Impact 3rd, Onmyoji, Arknights, AFK Arena, to name just a few of the biggest over the past decade.

The marriage of such a formula to the open-world gameplay in Genshin is at first jarring – the early leveling experience of a player who immediately spends several hundred dollars on gacha is going to be very different (and arguably for the worse – as all sense of early pacing is out the window) from a non-spender. I know such a gamer – he is trained to plunking down a few “648”s (by convention the most expensive SKU in the cash shop, roughly $100) any time he starts a Chinese mobile game – and were it not for social peer pressure, he would have churned several times by now (despite spending almost $1k already…).

After 20 hours in, when I’ve largely picked up the various complex systems and are somewhat invested in some characters, the disconnect starts to go away. It becomes very clear that access to a lot of fun gameplay is gated behind monetization – the 5-star characters that everyone is enamored with are not going to come easily (and even if you unlocked them – you need so many duplicate copies to fully level up their powers). You can still have a good time – but you will be missing out on a lot of gameplay possibilities.

Regardless of whether you monetize or not (or how much), the grind is still somewhat egalitarian3. That’s the other funny part of this RPG formula – it demands both money and time.

Usability pains

One part I’d like to complain loudly about is the game’s UI/UX and usability issues – not only because I suffered lots of irritations here, but also I feel there’s a hard-to-measure (but perhaps material) impact on the game’s engagement. Genshin is already overloaded with design complexity (as is typical with Chinese RPGs), and the usability issues amplify the cognitive load.

I already discussed some issues in the gameplay section above, but here are a couple of examples specifically about the UI. This part of the discussion is quite tactical.

First, I found it baffling that the map and quests UI were not integrated. They are activated via separate buttons on HUD, and don’t link to each other.

On the world map, you actually can’t see available quests (with the exception of the 4 daily quests). You have to “track” a quest in the Quests UI for it show up in the map. This would be much less of a problem if the Quests UI were available as a pop-up / side-bar in the Map UI. But currently, you have to jump back and forth across 3 UI screens to complete a simple action of “select a quest and find nearest teleport point”.

The Map UI is also lacking functionality in some other basic areas. For instance, you can place custom nodes on the map to keep track of points-of-interest (players use it to tally the important collectibles, for example). But you can’t “navigate” to a custom node, which feels like a pretty useful interaction.

For an open-world game, the Map feature should be something that really emphasizes ease of use – help you make decisions about what to do next, and get out of the way as fast as possible, so you stay immersed in the world. But in Genshin it currently is subpar compared to most contemporary open-world games (e.g. Ghost of Tsushima for a very recent example). I honestly can’t remember the last time I was so confused at the map feature of a game in this genre.

The second UI issue I’d like to talk about is the various screens related to character and team management – I did a quick navigation flow to help illustrate my point:

Broadly speaking there are 2 distinct needs: roster selection and character management (leveling, gear management, skills upgrades etc.). So having separate menu entry points for “Team setup” vs “Character” does make sense, even though they could be combined in an alternative flow. But I find the “Characters” vs. “Character” flows puzzling – they are largely made up of same/similar screens (just with reversed navigation), but there are some weird UI inconsistencies:

  • The ordering of characters is inexplicably different – in “Characters”, sorted by level by default; while in “Character”, the active roster is shown first, then the rest by levels.
  • The “Characters” screen and the “Character selection” pop-up also make for an interesting comparison: these two screens have largely the same layout and high level purpose (view list of characters, select one to navigate to), but have numerous small UI differences (list of 4 in a row vs 3 in a row; blank space vs. right bar of character details; “X” vs “back” navigation buttons…).

I might sound nitpicky here, but these small inconsistencies add up to unnecessary cognitive load (forcing the player to actively think), which begs the question of why do these 2 largely redundant flows exist?

To me, this is a reflection of lack of holistic game polish, and perhaps related to the production culture, which I’ll do some extrapolation and speculation below.

Closing thoughts

I wrote a post last year “Assessing China’s game development capabilities.” I think Genshin Impact is a continuation of the trends I discussed there, but it should also be proudly celebrated by Chinese developers as a product breakthrough in original IP on the global stage.

It succeeds in part due to its sheer audacity in vision and content scope – original IP, open-world, cross-platform (with mobile as the core), and years of live-ops content runway. miHoYo is well positioned to tackle this, having honed its IP creation skills in the Honkai franchise, and with good access to China’s “industrial scale” mobile production capabilities.

I do think it’s a “quantity over quality” approach, as I feel the game clearly prioritized volume of content (and future expansibility) over polishing details. But again, this is the proven formula for Chinese devs – getting the fundamentals barely good enough, then production scaling like crazy. Whereas western devs tend to be wary of the content treadmill (e.g. WoW’s expansion cycles), Chinese devs seem unfazed about embracing it. They don’t enjoy it – but they are more willing to grind it, and for the successful games, the economics seem to pay out well. While we don’t know for sure currently, I expect Genshin to have a stream of major updates planned already (the next one is probably close to completion by now), and the update cadence may again surprise the global audience4.

(UPDATE: the update schedule was actually announced, and it looks like initial reactions from the hardcore community globally was disappointed. See this reddit thread.)

Where Chinese devs should/need to grow further, in my opinion, is the discipline, thoughtfulness, (and frankly) prioritization of better UX5. This is not easy to do – in my personal experience, I’ve found Chinese devs’ strong production-scaling tendencies and general haste to be big barriers for holistic game polish. But as the market, and gamers, get more demanding, I expect higher emphasis here in future, which may force shifts in development models.

Before I forget, a couple of things to highlight that are part of the game’s breakthrough:

  • First is localization: I played the English version for a while before switching back to Chinese, and I thought the English localization had very high production quality, made by a veteran team of writers and VO cast.
  • Second is the music: I love it. It’s clear no expense was spared in music production, and the soundtrack is lovely. However, sometimes the music transition triggers seem a bit ungraceful (again, perhaps one of these polish cases).

At a macro level, I think it’s safe to speculate that Chinese devs are going to have even bigger ambitions post-Genshin, despite significant external headwinds (China-domestic regulations, state of economy, global geopolitics). The NA/EU market is the last frontier geographically. It will also be interesting to contrast East/West approaches to cross-platform: Chinese devs will be grounded in mobile-first (otherwise they leave a lot of money on the table with the China-domestic market), whereas western devs will tend to prioritize PC/console à la Fortnite.

  1. As a sign of Chinese gamers’ constant vying for status (which is a huge part of their motivation for gaming), gamers actually complained loudly that miHoYo opened the servers a couple of hours ahead of schedule – they felt betrayed about missing out on snatching a sexy low-digit UID.
  2. I don’t remember specifically, but this was probably one of the ear flicks that caused me to give up on using a controller on PC.
  3. If you spend for stamina, you earn the privilege to grind more.
  4. While simultaneously being criticized by Chinese players for being too little too slow – such is the diminishing returns.
  5. by UX I’d like to refer to this particular framework here.

(Early) Thoughts on Valorant

I’ve wanted to write this post for a few weeks now, but have not yet had time to extensively play the game. Finally I decided I should just jot my current thoughts down (or these thoughts will just be lost in time), noting that it is founded on a dangerously shallow understanding of the core game.

A quick disclaimer: I used to work at Riot Games, the developer behind Valorant, the game I’m about to discuss. My tenure at Riot overlapped quite a bit with this game’s development, but I was never affiliated with the project. My discussion below is based on public info.

Valorant is Riot Games’s new FPS currently in closed beta for PC platform, and its first new game IP since League of Legends a decade ago. There’s a lot riding on this game: in the short to mid term, this game will largely determine whether Riot is an multi-IP games studio,1 or “just” the League of Legends company (which to be clear is an extremely enviable position). It’s also a major test for Riot’s R&D process, as the game has been in development for over 6 years.

Savvy beta marketing

Marketing-wise, Valorant has had a great start. Its Twitch beta key strategy (keys randomly drop by watching Valorant streams, initially with designated partners, later with all channels) has overall been a resounding success.2 This is a mechanic that CS:GO players are familiar with, as CS:GO tournaments have often used in-game drops as rewards for watching streams. One criticism of such tactics is that they inflate Twitch engagement numbers; that certainly happened with Valorant, though I don’t think it’s Riot’s goal to hit specific viewership goals, but rather, to have optimal visibility / hype around the game’s beta launch – and that goal was more than fulfilled. (Possibly over done, even – for a while, Reddit was filled with complaints about not being able to get a key despite watching dozens of hours.)

Riot has also deployed its community engagement best practices to great effect. I’ve skimmed the subreddit over the past few weeks, and the community has generally been very appreciative of Rioter engagement. The “devs vs streamers” showmatch (where the devs won by a landslide) also earned the team a lot of street cred.


The core game (“5v5 character-based tactical shooter”) can be crudely described as 80% Counter-strike and 20% Overwatch. Counter-strike lends the main structure of the game: the 5v5 rounds-based format (with its economy macro play), the map objectives (bomb plant / defuse), and even the broad strokes of the weapons and gunplay feel. It even brought over the esoteric mechanic bunny hopping.3

The limited selection of grenades in CS is replaced with an expansive character system (the “20% Overwatch“), and character abilities are mostly about utility – detection, blocking vision / movement, mobility, and so on. Abilities are not free to use; instead, charges are purchased with hard-earned cash at the beginning of every round, which suggest their origins in CS-grenades. (Ultimate abilities are the exception: they are charged up by kills, deaths, planting / defusing, or collecting power-ups.) Damage-dealing abilities have been contentious within the community, partly due to Riot’s own marketing statements.

Based on very limited game time, I would say the core game works. It builds on the proven foundations of Counter-strike, and adds variety and depth with the characters system. It’s a very strong execution of a clear game thesis.

Bull & bear cases

This is where I make some wild speculations of the game’s future. This is done in earnest as a thought exercise, but take it for it is – subjective predictions and guesses. I’ve also intentionally pushed myself to plant some stakes in the ground, instead of hedging – so there’s a higher chance I look like an idiot in a few years time when I look back at this.

The game environment – cheating, toxicity, etc.

The seedy underbelly of a competitive online game. Riot has had a lot of experience manage this aspect in League of Legends, but it remains a challenge. In particular, anti-cheat is a never-ending war of attrition, and FPS games on PC seem to have the worst of it – PUBG, Apex Legends, Call of Duty: Warzone, and of course CS:GO. Riot made a big promise – “a commitment to anti-cheat from day one”, and promptly walked into a big, ongoing, controversy with its anti-cheat software, Vanguard. (A quick search will turn up lots of articles discussing this.)

As an aside – the situation around Vanguard tells you a lot about the PC platform. Vanguard asks for very high level system privileges, and raises legitimate concerns about privacy / malware / digital surveillance – the fact it can do so, and needs to do so4, is a problem unique to PC gaming (I’d guess Android is close). There are cheaters on console and iOS, but the scale / prevalence does not compare – for example, see the recent story about console Call of Duty players turning off crossplay to avoid PC cheaters. (And the compatibility headaches it is running into, with all sorts of hardware / software configuration edge cases, is also unique to PC gaming.)

Anyways – some of the Vanguard controversy is founded in conspiracy-theory land – singling out Riot for its ownership by Tencent, and thus leaping straight to concerns over Chinese hacking. Unfortunately, it is a sign of the times, and the trajectory of worsening US-China relations. But I won’t delve into that here.

The bear case here is that the security drama severely hampers the game’s growth, or even sinks it. But I think that would be extremely unlikely.

I am more concerned about toxicity, and how it reduces the addressable audience. Here I’m more pessimistic. I don’t expect Riot to do much better than it did in League – which is to say, the game will have a male-dominant (like, ~90% male) community that is frequently toxic, and often prejudiced and hostile against female (and other minorities) gamers. This bleeds into my next point.


This is the biggest variable to Valorant’s future (and encapsulates many other variables, so this is not a MECE analysis). To start with my conclusion – if you were to ask me right now, I’d guess that Valorant stays safely within the confines of the existing PVP-shooter audience, and carves out a playerbase from various existing shooters; it will have a loyal following, but it will not challenge battle royale’s position as the leading PVP-shooter sub-genre globally.

The bull case for Valorant is where the game goes beyond converting its bulls-eye target of Counter-strike players, and attracts players of other adjacent PVP shooters – Overwatch, Rainbow Six Siege, Call of Duty, PUBG, Fortnite, Apex Legends, Escape from Tarkov… Going even more broadly, it could also appeal to players of other types of real-time multiplayer PVP games, such as League of Legends itself – this poses a mild cannibalization risk (which I wouldn’t lose sleep over).

It’s hard to imagine the game converting a lot of non-PVP gamers. I would guess that Riot does not have much interest in targeting them (at least not for this game), in contrast to, say, Fortnite‘s efforts at building a digital lifestyle brand (and catering to a wide gamer demographic). A lot of this is rooted in the company culture, which for years was “HARDCORE GAMER”, but this has been relaxed/widened a bit in recent years. Still, Valorant‘s Game Overview section on its beta website is pretty telling about the intended audience:

Here’s what we think it takes for you to trust a game enough to invest: 128-tick servers, at least 30 frames per second on most min-spec computers (even dating back a decade), 60 to 144+ FPS on modern gaming rigs, a global spread of datacenters aimed at <35ms for players in major cities around the world, a netcode we’ve been obsessing over for years, and a commitment to anti-cheat from day one.

Shooting in VALORANT is precise, consequential, and highly-lethal – we want you to win on your skill and strategy alone.

This is a laser focus on CS players, and disgruntled players who’ve complained about the “shitty netcode” of just about every shooter with a PVP mode. (Maybe it’s just for the beta phase, where they are prioritizing veterans above all else.) I’d argue this language is alienating to players less familiar with PVP-shooter games, who don’t necessarily understand jargons such as “128-tick”, and thus this marketing actively reinforces the existing male-dominant audience stereotype.

The arguments for a bear case come in a few flavors. The first is where CS players churn and flow back to CS, because at the end of the day, Valorant is a different game. There’s some premature indication of this on reddit, where CS veterans would demand certain types of mechanics (that are present in CS). This is a delicate balancing act, and looking at Riot’s early days with League and Dota veterans, I’m not too worried that Riot would over-cater CS veterans. (But the League / Dota analogy would also suggest that loyal CS players will stick with CS, and even be antagonistic to this new game which poses a threat to their community – this would limit the efficacy or targeting CS players to begin with.)

The second bear case argument is where Valorant fails to capture players other than CS die-hards. This does not seem to be the case so far, but I would guess the ceiling here is not high. My negativity here is largely emotions-based: since Valorant’s inception 6 years ago, we’ve witnessed some dramatic new entrants to the PVP shooter space – Overwatch, PUBG, and Fortnite, to name just a few. These games all brought some genre-defining “fresh” factor. I couldn’t help but feel that Valorant in comparison feels too old-school, too familiar (“I know exactly what I’m getting into”). There’s a market premium for novel experiences – for example, that first chicken dinner was unlike any game experience I’ve ever had before – and Valorant judged by its cover is treading on familiar ground.

The last argument is about overserving player needs. I recently came across this excellent article on fy_iceworld – and vivid memories of playing CS1.5 in college in China came roaring back. I was the snob that begged classmates to play the “real game” (as in, play 5v5 bomb defusal mode), and we did very occasionally; most of the time though, we were “messing around” in fy_iceworld or playing 20-person PUGs (with max economy every round, of course). My point here being, if my cohort of CS players 15+ years ago is any indication (highly anecdotal, and a long time ago, for sure), the majority of players around me were playing CS “casually”. (Just like the vast majority of soccer enthusiasts around the world are not playing 11vs11 games on full-sized grass pitches with FIFA rules.) If Riot is too strict on the game modes offered, and don’t provide “casual” outlets in-game, it could cause these “bottom of the pyramid” players to churn, which could also pull away their social connections.


I don’t have much to say here, except that Valorant is clearly built as an esports title (in the proud tradition of CS), and it should have a vibrant esports scene that helps with maintaining the game’s player engagement. I also think that for spectators, shooters are much easier to understand and follow conceptually (vs MOBAs), and thus the bull case could be as big (or bigger) than League esports today. So I’m personally quite bullish here, and think that Valorant could enjoy disproportionately higher esports popularity relative to its active playerbase.

One bear case argument is societal attitudes towards video-game violence, and how much that impacts a shooter like Valorant when it comes to sponsorships or broadcast coverage. This may be an issue in North America.

Winning the Chinese market

I’m quite bearish here. Valorant will have a difficult road to launch in China (could be delayed by years), and even then its prospects are murky.

There is a strong bull case to be made. Firstly, Riot is owned by Tencent, which has market-leading publishing capabilities in China, and did a phenomenal job publishing League. Secondly, the PC PVP-shooter landscape is much less crowded (and more stagnant) than it is in North America – PUBG, Fortnite, Apex Legends, Call of Duty franchise are all not officially available in the market. Based on one source (tracking PC cafe consumption), the market leader remains Tencent-published CrossFire (launched in China in 2008), followed by Tencent’s self-developed Assault Fire as a distant second (10x engagement gap), with Overwatch and CS:GO in 3rd and 4th place. One could argue that the market is ripe for a new entrant, and Riot + Tencent is a fearsome combo.

But the bear case is quite stacked as well. To begin with, there is the regulatory uncertainty – for years, the trend has been in one direction, and that is tightening. And US-China relations are at historic lows, which makes getting the license approval for a US-based IP that much harder. (There’s a reason the big names above are all absent.) There’s a low (but non-zero) possibility that Valorant never gets a license.

Second of all, the CrossFire audience may not be interested in Valorant, despite the superficial similarities. This links back to my earlier point about fy_iceworld and the audience motivations.

Thirdly, the initial Chinese player reaction has been mixed, which reflects some brand gaps and taste differences. On NGA (a popular forum for Chinese hardcore gamers), Valorant‘s gameplay has been labeled “缝合怪” (stitched-up monster), which is a common term to describe video games that mash-up mechanics from different games5; and the visuals were unfortunately derided by some as “browser-game quality” (not understanding or refusing to acknowledge that it’s a conscious art style choice). These comments partly stem from hostile rivalry between Riot’s supporters and supporters of Blizzard and Valve. Blizzard is clearly the biggest and most beloved studio brand, and their Chinese supporters seem a tad unhappy about Valorant possibly taking players from Overwatch; meanwhile Valve supporters are still holding a grudge from the League – Dota2 rivalry, which has always felt much more intense in China. However, I do think the art style is an acquired taste to many Chinese players.

And last but not least, there’s the question of mobile.6


I’ll try to be concise here: my take is Valorant needs to have a mobile version, but it will be very challenging to get it right.

First, the most popular PVP-shooter globally, by a long margin, is a mobile game. PUBG Mobile announced 100M MAU last May. Its sibling game in China, Peacekeeper Elite (rebranded for regulatory reasons), was estimated to have had 197M MAU this March. So it’s plausible that the combined PUBG Mobile franchise currently has over 300M MAU – about the population of the US, or comparable to Twitter’s MAU.

In the China context, what this means is “all gamers are hardcore gamers”, if you define “hardcore” by genre played. To put this into a picture: Chinese moms are playing mobile battle royale with their children.

These Chinese moms will likely never play PC games, if they don’t already. A fraction of these kids will, but I’d bet majority of them will be mobile-only gamers. Clearly, Valorant is not a game made for them (and not every game needs to be made for the widest audience/platform); but I can’t help but feel Valorant cannot be a truly global game (which matters for its esports aspirations), without at least trying to accommodate such players somehow.

So should Valorant make a mobile version? The core game’s methodical play and precision aiming does not translate well to current mobile shooter control schemes (or console either). PUBG Mobile can get away with it, and retain the spirit of the original PC game, because the maps and the encounters are so open-ended – it’s only during close quarters combat where the gameplay feels like a parody at times. Perhaps CrossFire Mobile could be a reference here: the game superficially resembles its PC ancestor, but I’ve heard the engagement with the content is notably different from PC.

In closing…

As a meta comment: this post probably both took me the most time to write (10 hours over 3 nights, as I debated endlessly with myself), and left me least satisfied with the results. I hope you find it marginally useful. If I were to do it again, I would break it up into a couple posts, so I can have the energy and the space to mull over a specific point.

For the game discussed, I guess my overarching sentiment is moderate pessimism over product-market fit. Valorant is strong execution against a clear game thesis – I just don’t know how big that audience is, versus other possible opportunities.

  1. This doesn’t take into account Riot’s studio acquisitions – Radiant in 2016 and Hypixel in 2020, where there’s scant public info about their projects.
  2. Side note – I was surprised that beta keys could only drop on Twitch – I would have thought Riot would have enabled other streaming properties, such as Youtube & Mixer, to also participate. I speculate this is due to a lack of infrastructure (APIs etc.) on these partners, rather than lack of interest on Riot’s part.
  3. I don’t claim to be an expert on FPS games; I couldn’t understand why this mechanic is needed, aside from making CS players feel at home. It reminded me of creep-stacking and denying in Dota, and League of Legends choosing not to implement them.
  4. This is one of the hotly debated points in the controversy.
  5. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is another recent game that got this meme label. Not bad company to keep.
  6. For folks who’ve read some other posts on this site – do I sound like a broken record about mobile yet?

2018 year in review

This post is unfashionably late by a week, but anyhow, here are a few major themes for 2018 in my view.

Chinese apps conquer the world

Hard to resist the hyperbole, but 2018 saw some incredible progress for Chinese apps’ global ambitions. To be sure, the biggest successes were predictably from emerging markets (very notably, India), but apps like Tik Tok, PUBG Mobile, and Knives Out have taken formidable positions (and sizable revenue) in developed markets such as US and Japan.

To pontificate on this, I believe the following factors play a role in this outcome and ongoing trend:

  • Relative lack of investment from American competitors in these emerging markets, due to perceived lack of infrastructure and low consumer spend. There’s also the question of business model fit, where Silicon Valley’s dependence on ads performs poorly in emerging markets
  • Chinese devs’ openness to hustle as needed and over-invest (willing to be inefficient but highly effective). The Chinese playbook is to try everything and see what sticks – but do it in lightning speed, which requires a high upfront investment1. This is also against a backdrop of a tightening home market (and for games, a regulatory freeze that signaled the arrival of winter), where “going overseas” is more than ever a strategic imperative for more and more businesses
  • A potential mindset advantage – unlike American companies which (stereo-typically) prefer a “one-size fits all” approach to global opportunities (and which often really means, built for the North American market, and hoping it is compatible with other markets), Chinese devs have seen how this did not work (for US products) in China. 2 They also likely more deeply understand the value of empowering the local team to make big decisions3

The beginning of the end, of the PC (x86) platform

Another hyperbole, it may seem (or a massive understatement, depending on which sectors/markets you look at), but consider the following that happened in 2018:

  • Intel’s significant ongoing woes with its 10nm manufacturing processes, in contrast with TSMC’s 7nm process that has already seen mass commercialization (e.g. Apple’s A12 Bionic chip)
  • Windows on ARM is now a thing, and Mac on ARM is on the horizon too with project Marzipan

Both of these are symptoms of the gravitational pull of the mobile ecosystem. Specifically for the PC gaming sector, I’d say these are alarming long-term signals –

  • There is a non-trivial likelihood that x86 stops being a consumer computing platform, wholly replaced by ARM in a convergence form factor like the Surface
  • x86 gaming may survive as a standalone high-end market, but will face hostile underlying hardware economics (not unlike, say, DSLRs)
  • PC gaming could possibly survive the demise of the x86 platform, but it likely will be a massive blow to legacy content: many games from the past few decades may become unplayable (cloud gaming could be a solution there, but cloud gaming has its own critical dependencies)

At this point we have to pause and say, what are we even talking about when we say “PC gaming”? It’s not up for much debate that the underlying Wintel platform has been disrupted, but if keyboard+mouse lives on as an input paradigm, is that all that’s needed for “PC games” to live on?

It of course is not as simple as that – the migration away from x86 will be painful at the execution level for developers and end-users. Add to this mix tremors in the distribution (Discord and Epic becoming publishing platforms, and initiating a race to the bottom in rev-share), and the next few years look quite turbulent and interesting.

Predictable mobile clones, and unpredictable market adoption

For the last theme, I want to go back to the world of Chinese mobile games. 2018 was a year that continued themes I wrote about previously, where every genre conceivable had an earnest mobile clone effort. The thesis is simple: Chinese players prefer the mobile platform, so every game globally that has a fresh idea on PC/console was ripe to be taken to mobile.

What was dramatically unpredictable, was just how strong the appetite was. Going back a year, even with the benefit of having played Netease’s first stabs at mobile battle royale, I would have said this genre has severe adoption constraints on mobile, mostly centered around the input. Oh how wrong I was. Also the sheer audacity of Tencent’s playbook – to launch 2 competing licensed PUBG mobile games simultaneously – surely invited many a raised eye-brow. Now all of that feels like ancient history – more players globally play the battle royale genre on mobile than on all other platforms combined, and it’s probably not even close.

But if this were just about PUBG Mobile, which I feel I have talked about ad nauseam, it wouldn’t be a theme. There is more – Identity V, and LifeAfter (both by Netease) took concepts from relatively niche games Dead by Daylight and Rust, and successfully launched them to a wide Chinese mobile audience. The market performance of these games, despite clear technical drawbacks (in particular for LifeAfter), shows a huge appetite for “fresh gameplay”.

The other side of this coin also bears a mention: Chinese game devs, in particular the large in-house studios of Tencent and Netease, now have well-rehearsed processes to quickly assemble and deploy large-sized teams (100s of devs) against opportunities deemed strategic. This means that any game that does not have a mobile strategy, regardless of how irrelevant the original devs believe mobile to be for them, will quickly (3-6 months) have a mobile clone if they stumble across success. (In this regard, single-player AAA games, especially those strongly narrative driven, remain relatively safe from clones.

This is why, despite western gamers’ loud protests, Blizzard et al must march towards mobile – it’s not just about profit-seeking; in many ways it’s about long-term business viability.

  1. One gaming example is King of Glory‘s Battle Royale mode, which if I were to guess took 100 devs a few months of work; it did not gain market traction, but I don’t doubt that the studio would make the same bet again.
  2. Example: PUBG Mobile has not only different store-fronts for North America vs Japan, but also different content.
  3. For more on this point, Kai-Fu Lee expands on it at length in his book AI Superpowers.

Why PUBG is Fresh

PUBG (PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds) is without a doubt the breakout PC game of 2017. Even though it’s just in early access and offers only one map (and plenty of bugs / missing features), it has established itself firmly in the world of competitive online multiplayer games.

As a relatively late adopter of the game, I’ve put in 60 hours in the game in the last 3-4 weeks, and feel I’ve had enough exposure (and luckily half a dozen Chicken Dinners) to put down some rough thoughts on why the game feels so fresh and is doing so well.

I’ll start by admitting I’ve not played the earlier Battle Royale style games (the ARMA / H1Z1 mods, or titles like The Culling), so I lack insight on what PUBG does better. Having said that, the base “Battle Royale” gameplay can be seen as an addictive mix of Roguelike single game progression and a tactical PVP shooter.

The Roguelike elements:

  • Randomized flight path = a different starting game state per run
  • Randomized loot = varied progression per run
  • Punishing perma-death for a single run = high emotional intensity (even if actual gameplay is slow)
  • 100-player PVP, general expected outcome for any run is “you lost” = very high emotional spikes when you do get the chicken dinner; not a lot of grief when you lose, in addition to the desire for “one more turn”

The tactical shooter elements:

  • Map is fixed = strategy and mastery via learning the map
  • Weapons variety + huge map with varied landscape= mastery curve of different weapons in varied combat scenarios (close quarters, open fields, hills etc.)
  • 2 / 4-player squads mode + revive mechanic = teamwork / coordination mastery

I also want to talk specifically about the game’s pacing:

  • The game has strong emotional intensity (you could die at any moment in 1 sec), but given the map’s size the mid game pacing is usually very slow (if you survived any hectic early-game chaos, which is the player’s choice)
  • This slow pacing is not boring in either solo or group modes, as in solo it plays on the player’s feeling of isolation, while in group mode it creates an opportunity for players to chat. This is actually fairly key for the game’s social experience (a team looting together and swapping gear is a good bonding experience), and helps with the game’s learning curve for new players (who are most likely introduced by friends)
  • The pacing downtime is also ideal for streaming as it gives streamers plenty of moments to interact with their viewers, which is a core part of the streaming experience
  • And ultimately, this pacing is very much at the player’s discretion – the player can choose for an exciting early-game by jumping into a high traffic spot, and can be on the offensive during mid-game hunting for kills as opposed to camping. And furthermore, PUBG side-steps the entire experience of “garbage time” in an online PVP game (e.g. a one-sided stomp in LoL or Overwatch, which you still have to play out), as the game is over when you die and you can immediately jump back into the matchmaking queue

Additionally, some thoughts on 3rd person vs. 1st person perspective:

  • While I understand high-skill competitive players’ complaints about 3rd-person being unfair (campers gain information without putting themselves at risk), it also makes the game feel much more accessible to new players (as a viewer on twitch summarized, it lowers the skill-ceiling while raising the skill-floor)
  • The devs are introducing 1st-person servers, which is an “easy” experiment to try (and shows they are listening to their audience), but this could be high risk in terms of fragmenting the game’s identity. What I mean by this is PUBG in its current form is not an esports title, and it doesn’t have to be – WWE is not sports but is entertaining, popular and commercially successful. If the devs start focusing on making the game more balanced for competitive play, it may hurt some of the organic fun that makes it fresh in the first place

Thoughts on Top Eleven

As a casual player of football sims, I’ve been very impressed with the thoughtfulness of Top Eleven, and here are some thoughts to sum up what I found interesting.

(For an overview of the game – check out this review. This is a game that’s been around for 6 years and surpassed 100M registered players in early 2015.)

At a high level, Top Eleven‘s core design thesis appears to be “how do we take the incredibly addictive gameplay of Football Manager, and make it a massively multiplayer social/mobile game?”. This spills out into the major gameplay systems:

  • Leagues made of human player-managed teams, with a long and tightly regimented progression system using the real-world concept of seasons (every 28 days in real-life form a season, and cup and league matches are distributed throughout the season so that on average you play 1-2 matches per 24 hours)
  • A 2d match engine familiar to any Football Manager veteran, and the associated tactics and training systems
  • An real-time auction-house (much like Diablo 3′s auction house) that serves as the transfers market
  • Being a free-to-play game, a set of virtual currencies that restricts player actions and provide some amount of pay for power

My first impression after playing the past 3 months, is that this is a well-tuned set of systems, and the player experience is pretty satisfying even for someone who hasn’t monetized (my basic principle for playing mobile games is to not monetize and test the design for a non-paying player). In every season I’ve competed in I’ve won the League with the limited resources available to a free player, and I’ve won the Champions League (a more competitive tournament) once. The holy grail of course is the treble (winning the League, the Cup and the Champions League in one season), and that is challenging but doesn’t seem completely out of reach.

In particular, I’d like to call out the League progression design as simple, effective and clever. It’s effectively a cohorts based design –

  • when you join you are placed in a league with players who started around the same time as you, and therefore have similar amounts of resources;
  • Every season the top 50% of the league are promoted to the next level, while the bottom 50% stay in place;
  • For each level, there are tight restrictions on the quality of player you could acquire, regardless of how much money you are willing to spend.

These measures ensure that on average the players progress through the game at a similar pace and are always in an environment where there are worthy opponents.

Similarly, the auction house design is also simple but extremely effective. There are a few additional options for player transactions, but the basic auction house is a real-time feed of player listings with deadlines, using an English auction format:

  • Players can only see and bid on listings appropriate for their level – again, carefully segregating the player population and controling the experience, and also creating a healthy economy of auctions (a higher level player’s 3-star NPC is an all-star for a lower level player);
  • The seller sets the initial floor price, and each bid increases the price by a set amount;
  • If there is only 1 bid for a listing, the bid wins when the listing expires;
  • If there are more than 1 suitor for a listing, the suitors face off in an unlimited number of short-session follow-up rounds (starting at 1 minute, and quickly reducing to 20-second rounds);
  • Each round a suitor must place at least 1 bid to be eligible for the next round, and the auction ends when there is only one bidder or none (the highest bid from previous round wins) in a round.

The catch for this system is that each bid consumes a super-rare virtual currency called a token. (An engaged, highly active player can expect to earn 30-50 tokens for free per season; in other words, a little more than 1 token per day.) This gives each action a lot of weight, and creates interesting psychological influences on players. From players’ perspective, it’s advisable to avoid a pro-longed bidding war for a single listing, but in the spur of the moment (20 seconds to make a decision), it’s easy to be trapped in a deadlock.

This design also creates room for lots of auction strategies, which creates uncertainty and fun for players. For example a basic technique is to track an empty listing and put in a bid in the last few seconds, to ensure the token is not wasted. Sometimes though, this backfires and you will see several last-second bids, which sets up a bidding war. Similarly there’s lots of mind-games in the follow-up rounds: do you wait to put in a bid in the last few seconds of a round (which puts you as the price leader for the next round, and also can surprise a rival who didn’t put in a bid); or do you bid early each round to signal that “I’ve got plenty of tokens, I’m going to win this no matter what”?

Having said all the above, Top Eleven is not without its issues. In particular, churned players’ teams pose an interesting problem. In my 3rd & 4th seasons, a vast majority of the teams in my League were clearly occupied by churned players. This meant that their neglected teams were weak and didn’t pose an interesting challenge, and in effect the lengthy League season came down to a few matches between the active players. This may be due to the inherent high churn at the beginning of the funnel (my current season seems to have the right mix of teams), but I wonder if there are better ways to solve this.

China’s unique core mobile games

This is clearly old news, but Chinese publishers and developers have been hyper-focused on the mobile market the past couple of years, and it has come to a point where at a macro level the Chinese mobile games market is looking significantly different from the western markets.

To present some simple data – according to a local analyst report from CNG, the top grossing mobile games of November in China were:

(The revenue unit is 100MM RMB, so for example 10.22 is 1,022MM RMB or $158MM – that’s a crazy monthly run-rate!)

A few immediate observations from this chart:

  • Very high revenue estimate numbers. $158MM is a crazy monthly run-rate, and even if this was over-estimated by a factor of 5 it is still really impressive
  • Heavily represented by core game genres taken from PC gaming. #1/2/3/4 are fairly typical MMOs for Chinese players (#1 & 2 are two different MMOs based on the Journey to the West lore, published by Netease); #5 is a card combat game leveraging the Kings of Fighters franchise; #6 is a mobile MOBA (that if I may say so looks quite like League of Legends…); #7 is an arcade shooter; #8/9 are the only western games on the chart, and are the typical western mobile strategy games; #10 is a casual puzzle game
  • This is in stark contrast to what’s popular in the west – take the US for example, the top-grossing games still heavily skew towards casual games like Candy Crush and core PC genres like MMO / FPS / MOBA are not highly visible

Another way to look at the data above is to say, the biggest MMO globally in terms of revenue (and possibly player-base too) is likely a mobile MMO only available in China.

As a separate data point, last week Tencent also launched the mobile version of Crossfire, its top FPS on PC (and a regular $1B/year game for Tencent), to some strong initial traction (they announced 10MM downloads and 1MM PCU after 3 days). The Wall Street Journal also reported last week about Tencent’s ambitions to launch its other mobile FPS WeFire in the US after some success in the Korean market.

I think western developers have generally seen these core PC genres as extremely challenging to “port” to mobile. There have been attempts in earnest (e.g. studios like Gameloft have probably tried every PC genre on mobile), but certainly no runaway success like the Netease MMOs or the Tencent FPSes. A fundamental question that would be asked is “why would gamers want to play these games on mobile?”, and while the answer to that question generally applies to both western and Chinese gamers, there are some environmental factors that have made Chinese gamers early adopters here.

In a sense, these games start from the same low-end disruption thesis: they offer an inferior core gameplay experience (in terms of visual and input fidelity, etc.), but excels on accessibility (anywhere, anyone – everyone has a smartphone, any time – since gameplay loops have been optimized to be short sessions).

The diverging environmental factors that may contribute to the observed market difference are as follows:

  • Chinese gamers are generally much less sophisticated and have fewer gaming choices. The Chinese gaming market is heavily skewed towards online games – for example, none of the GOTY nominees at the recent Game Awards have been officially published in China. There seems to be a strong desire to stick to the genres they are comfortable with
  • More generally, Chinese gamers have fewer entertainment options, and gaming is the affordable entertainment option for everyone. So from a “jobs to be done” perspective, gaming in China fulfills a stronger role of connecting people socially, and gamers are used to this type of behavior (playing a MMO to be part of a community / make friends etc.)
  • The broader market context of mobile adoption and mobile tech leap-frogging PC in China. Chinese consumers have been trained to be more mobile savvy (e.g. using mobile payments) in part because the legacy infrastructure was not well-developed (and therefore no switching cost, just adopting cost). Spending more time playing more hardcore games on mobile conforms with this macro-trend

To wrap up – I think it’s possible that China’s mobile games market today is where the western markets will head to in the future. Having played some of these chart-topping games I can say that they have found some core fun that should be universally appealing – the question is who will successfully replicate these formulas for western gamers.

Mobile Card Games

(A sort of free-flow post that goes all over the place in my attempt to get back to blogging)

For the past couple of years, app stores around the world have been invaded with a range of casual card games. I’m not referring to card games of the poker / casino variety (though that’s certainly a major category revenue-wise, especially in western markets), but rather the “collectible card game” type which has taken an interesting evolution in mobile.

One of the earlier games to hit market success in this model was probably Rage of Bahamut, which still puts on a respectable showing today (I was able to quite easily find it on App Annie’s grossing charts). But since then tons of clones have leveraged the same underlying engine, some with astonishing levels of success – Puzzle & Dragons being the flag-bearer (it has a match-3 mechanic, but the meta gameplay is the same). Various big name IPs have also been leveraged, such as Marvel (Marvel Puzzle Quest) and Star Wars (with the horrendous Force Collection mobile game). In China, “I’m MT” reached massive success with a derivative IP (it’s based on a fan-art based on WoW), and since then there’s been literally hundreds of clones, many infringing on global IP franchises such as Naruto, One Piece, and League of Legends (disclosure: which I happen to work on).

Put aside the specific puzzle mechanics in Puzzle & Dragons etc. (which I argue add some real gameplay engagement but doesn’t explain the popularity of the overall genre, especially all the games with no combat mechanic at all), the basic formula of these games is the card “level-up/evolution fusion” mechanic, the randomized card purchasing via a treasure-box, and a cheap PVE questing system.

The “level-up/evolution fusion”  mechanic is essentially a convoluted card leveling system which dramatically extends the collection depth, obfuscates the collection cost, and acts as an economy drain for in-game items that players farm up – a card can be both “leveled up” by using other cards as source material as well as “evolved” (again using various items as material) to become a different card (usually a higher-tier card of the same character). So, say you have a Tier I warrior that is level 5, he can be leveled up to a max of level 30, at which point he can be evolved to a Tier II warrior that starts at level 1 (and the cycle repeats).

The card purchasing treasure-box functions to add scarcity (and therefore collection depth) via randomization. It satisfies a psychological itch very similar to gambling (and is often called a gambling mechanic). It’s also the same primary gameplay loop that players seek out when farming items in Diablo (the chance to get some really good item “drop”).

The cheap PVE questing system is exactly that – highly repetitive, low production cost PVE engagement, with various bells and whistles on top to drive engagement (for example, some levels are only open at certain times of the day or week). Players generally farm these PVE levels to gain items that help them pursue the card level-ups and evolutions.

The fact that this basic formula has demonstrated immense market success is also revealing in other ways. For example, the fact that a large number of these games are successful without any stimulating “moment-to-moment” gameplay (e.g. Puzzle & Dragons’ match-3 combat) shows that players are engaging with them in a very low-intensity fashion (not in terms of time/money commitment, but rather attention and focus). These games are catered towards capturing the popular “fragmented time” space pursued by many mobile apps. They can be great “second screen”/multi-tasking experiences, which a high intensity game cannot satisfy.

At the same time, it’s really hard to see these games as not a fad. The formula can be extremely sticky initially but once players experience fatigue there’s very little to prevent them from churning. Some games have tried differentiating with higher production value (e.g. Million Arthur, which leveraged famous anime voice-actors) and/or IP tie-ins to create that initial draw, but I’m skeptical that players will continue to enjoy products in this space after engaging deeply with one product and breaking from it.

This brings my rather unfocused post to the other elephant in the room – Blizzard’s Hearthstone. This game has all the signs of being a massive mobile card game, despite only beta-testing on PC/Mac so far. Ironically, I get this confidence from playing the Chinese rip-off of Hearthstone which Blizzard has just taken action against. It has the right type of session length, onboarding accessibility, and gameplay depth. And it leverages a very familiar IP. (I do think there’s a lesson or two Blizzard could learn from the Chinese rip-off, especially the small client-size which I do think is a big deal on mobile.)

In short – Hearthstone may be the first massively popular “hardcore” game that is truly achieves cross-platform parity between mobile and PC/console (I’m discounting ports like XCOM because the mobile experience still has some issues). As more and more games figure this out, it may incidentally accelerate the decline of PC gaming. Once hardcore gamers form the habit of gaming on mobile, it will be harder to lure them back to PC/console experiences (demanding even higher production costs etc., which may break economics). All of this is just speculation at this point, but dramatic gaming engagement shifts may be coming.

Starcraft 2 and the e-sports eco-system, part 2

In the first post in this series, I gave a very high level summary of professional gaming. In part 2, I will cover in some more detail the Starcraft 2 pro-gaming scene.

The Game

Starcraft 2 officially launched at the end of July this year, but really, gamers have been beta playing starting February of this year. Going further back, development was officially announced in 07, but had been in stealth mode since 2003 – making it a game 7 years in the making. That’s actually quite dangerous territory in video game development, since technology follows Moore’s Law – you may easily end up in vaporware territory like Duke Nukem Forever, the granddaddy of vaporware jokes. But Blizzard is probably in a league of its own, and has always been known for pushing back release dates. And if they think the game is going to flop, they just cancel it, which is why they have a perfect track record of hits.

Anyhow, the most interesting thing about Starcraft 2, from a content perspective, is in terms of the learning curve. For any Starcraft: Brood War veteran, the sequel is immediately approachable. I would say roughly speaking about 50% of the game is the same as before, in terms of buildings, units and spells, and even the hotkeys have not changed that much. So a Starcraft veteran can start playing instantly and feel very comfortable. But that’s deceptive, because the other 50% of the game which is new completely throws off the competitive play. Few battle-tested Brood War tactics still work in the sequel, and a lot more thinking has gone into the dynamics among units – which units counter which, which work well together. It feels familiar but it really is a new game – very well designed learning curve.

In terms of sales, Blizzard announced 3 million copies sold in the first month, which is a cool ~$200MM in terms of retail value. However, Starcraft 2 is not going to be beating video game sales (except for its own RTS category), since its tied to the PC platform (PC+Mac), whereas the mega box office hits (like Call of Duty Modern Warfare) are really cross platform on the Xbox 360 and PS3 consoles. Back in the day, RTS games have been ported to consoles, but they never really work out well in user experience – perhaps you really do need a mouse sometimes. It will be interesting to see how the new generation of input devices (Kinect etc.) inspires game development – can we see an RTS using a Minority Report type of input any day soon?

The Korean Pro Scene, and Blizzard vs. KeSPA

As said before, the biggest pro gaming scene is to be found in Korea, especially for RTS games. Interestingly, Blizzard used Starcraft 2 as an opportunity to regain control of the Starcraft “platform”. What had happened previously was that KeSPA (the Korean eSPorts Association) had been a driving force in pushing the commercialization of Starcraft in Korea, e.g. establishing the pro-leagues and handing out the TV distribution rights. Meanwhile Blizzard seemed to had taken a passive stance (it didn’t co-invest, but it didn’t charge licensing fees / royalties – it allowed KeSPA to use the game for commercial purposes, including TV broadcasting).

The growth of the sport in Korea probably surprised / delighted Blizzard, except for one thing – they weren’t getting any direct revenue from it. KeSPA had established such a strong control, to the point that pro-gamers needed licenses from KeSPA to compete in KeSPA competitions, and these licenses included some very restrictive terms (e.g.what types of commercial activities and matches the players could participate in, see this recent controversy over an exhibition match in Germany) – essentially, KeSPA was monopolizing the talent and therefore the entire market.

Blizzard saw Starcraft 2 as a chance to negotiate with KeSPA over royalties / licensing. Apparently the talks fell apart, and Starcraft 2 at one point got a “mature – 18+” rating in Korea by authorities (which people speculate as a retaliation move from KeSPA). Blizzard eventually struck a deal with GomTV, which seems to have had clashes with KeSPA before (the enemy of my enemy is my friend). One big implication, though, is that the best Brood War players will probably stick with KeSPA for a while, since that’s where the real money still is – although we have seen legendary players such as “Boxer” and “Nada” join the Starcraft 2 scene.

GomTV launched Season 1 of the GSL (Global SC2 League) in late August, and Season 2 is currently in full swing. Each season has a series of pre-season qualifiers, while the main season is a straight 64-player tournament. The total prize money for the 3 seasons planned this year is about $500,000. As expected, the tournament is dominated by Koreans, with non-Korean players collectively referred to as “Foreigners” – in Season 2, I think a total of 3 “Foreigners” qualified for the main tournament.

The Pro-Scene Outside of Korea

There are many semi-pro competitions organized via globally, and players compete in the comfort of their own homes. The pro-scene has and probably always will be about big offline events (however Blizzard hampered that with the decision to remove LAN gaming from the game, which means even “offline” events are now actually gaming). In the US, the MLG (Major League Gaming) promotes a range of games (e.g. Halo3, Tekken 6) and has incorporated Starcraft 2 as of their Raleigh event in late August. In the recent MLG DC event, the top Starcraft 2 player walked away with $2,500, which indeed is exponentially lower than prize money of the Korean scene (and anyone can register, for $60, so not really a strong pro-scene). In Europe, ESL (Electronic Sports League) has incorporated Starcraft 2 into the Intel Extreme Masters competition.

To be continued…

In the next post, I’ll (finally) talk about the community and the social media related to Starcraft 2. Stay tuned!