Mars the Arrival: an ode to the slowest game in the world

In a world embracing instant digital gratification, I’d like to compose an ode to a quirky game where the average length of a move is measured in days and even paying money can’t speed things up. This game is Mars: The Arrival (MTA), a Mars colony builder app by Heiwa Games, for Apple and Android.

First, a bit of backstory. I grew up on a steady diet of science fiction, SimCity, Elite and Civilization, and am thus always on the lookout for a decent Mars colony simulator. “Decent”, in my book, means bearing some resemblance to reality, so that (for example) materials should either be made locally or slowly and expensively hauled from Earth. Paradox’s Surviving Mars is typical in the shortcuts taken by big-budget games: metals can be obtained by having a drone zap rocks of metal ore conveniently lying on the surface, instantly turning them into refined steel. At the other end of the spectrum, the obsessively micromanaging Mars Simulator Project does things like assign each settler Myers-Briggs personality types and track the radiation exposure of their eyeballs, pretty much foregoing colony building entirely. Between the two lies a whole heap of pay-to-play trash, where materials can be magicked out of the thin Martian air and buildings completed instantly simply by forking out cash for credits.

One day, idly dredging the depths of the Play Store, I stumbled on MTA. As you start the game, you’re treated to a 3D view of Earth, where you can select your faction, and then another 3D globe of Mars, where you can select the placement of your nascent colony. Enjoy these shiny graphics while they last, because for the rest of the game, the UI is closer to Excel’s 1979-vintage predecessor Visicalc: green figures on a black background, slowly ticking up or down.

The core of the game is a resource gathering/city building exercise. Your initial objective is simply to become self-sufficient in the essentials (energy, oxygen, water, food), shuffling your meager crew around a cycle of researching new things and building buildings. Unlike any other game I’ve seen in this genre, there is no visualization whatsoever of what your colony looks like: the UI is a simple tree of expandable options with miniature icons, and if you complete a solar panel, the “Solar Panels” row ticks up from “1x” to “2x” and the Power panel adds +0.3 MW. There are no disasters and no surprises: if you run out of oxygen, it’s on you for not noticing earlier. Even a positively boneheaded move, like taking out your only habitat out of operation to build an upgrade, only results in leisurely red blinking and a slow but inexorable dip in the Happiness stat as 12 colonists find themselves squeezed into the 10-person Landing Module.

I was sufficiently intrigued by the concept that I reached out to Heiwa Games, and lead developer Stefan was kind enough to answer a few questions. On the inspiration for the game: “I was reading the Red/Green/Blue Mars trilogy of Kim Stanley Robertson. So I started with a space colony building prototype and focused on a realistic rather than on the typical game-style approach. The first prototype was “too close-up”. You had to piece building segments together forming a resource transportation network and you was supposed to see settlers doing their work. I felt that a more strategic “zoomed-out” approach would lead to the terraforming stage quicker so I started the second prototype that finally grew into the app you know today.”

It is difficult to convey in words just how slowly the game moves. One less than complimentary review compares it to “watching paint dry”, but most paint dries in under 24 hours, while in MTA it’s quite common to find yourself adjusting a shipment that’s going to depart Earth in three days (real time) and won’t actually reach you until a week has passed. The average small building takes at least 1 day to build, sending out an expedition takes over 4 days, and some late-game buildings can take up to 10 days, not including the week or four it took to gather the necessary resources. And because your colony is so strapped for colonists, especially in the beginning, you can rarely do more than one or maybe two things in parallel. A typical day of game play thus consists of loading it up, spending a minute or two shuffling people around just enough to kick off the next thing, and making a mental note of how many hours or days it will take until that thing will be ready and you should log in again. As I write this, I am well over 6 months into my first game, and while I’ve finally made it to the final phase, there’s still plenty of work to do to get to a stage where I can say I’m done.

Yet these nearly absurd constraints are also what makes the game interesting, and once you make your way to the Expansion Phase, the game turns into slow motion chess, where you’re often plotting your moves a week in advance. “With 8 settlers in the next ship, I’m going to need to expand beyond the Habitat into a Dome, so I’ll need to make sure I’ve got plenty of Construction Supplies. But I can only research the Dome after they’ve arrived, so it’s going to packed until they finish research and building. To keep everybody happy, I need to complete the Media Center, but then I’ll need to pull the Scientists from the Greenhouse and risk running low on Food…” The game undergoes a gradual fractal explosion in complexity, as you move from bare survival into exploration and industry, juggling exotica like biomass, hydrogen and rare earths. Maintenance also becomes a serious headache, since repairs are costly and take buildings offline, but if you don’t repair, they may break down entirely. And while the game has a classic Civilization-style tech tree, it’s kept completely hidden, meaning you need to figure out what to research as you go along and won’t find out even the basics like how much it will cost and who needs to staff it until each tech is done.

Stefan: “I have played mobile games a lot and while some of them are really fun, I hate this inflexible concept of almost all base building type games. Especially the concept of speeding up the game by using real money and selling virtual goods for real money. I am aware that developing companies need to follow this pattern in order to earn the money they need to keep going. However having a well paid job, this situation didn’t apply to me.”

MTA is free to play, but monetized very carefully. By default, you get a popup every now and then, offering a marginal boost to a future shipment in exchange for watching an ad. You can also pay for “Gold Member” status, which gets you access to the leaderboard; a “logistics contract”, which lets you randomly reshuffle future shipments that are 3-6 days away, and a “sponsor contract”, which lets you skip the ads and still get the extra loot. None of these options speed up the game or let you buy your way out of trouble.

This is not to say the game is perfect. Fuel for rockets, a key consideration for any settlement, is inexplicably missing entirely. There are no notifications or options for queueing construction or research, meaning you have to keep track of what’s going to be ready when. Escaping the long and tedious Expansion Phase requires hitting arbitrary targets for population and built-up area, but you have no control over the arrival of settlers and are arbitrarily blocked from any research related to local manufacturing, meaning the last couple of weeks are basically spent twiddling your thumbs. Last but not least, since the game contains no random events at all, once you’ve reached an equilibrium it’s a little too easy to stay there — at least until the Industry Phase comes along and your colony starts growing at 30+ settlers per shipment, forcing you to build like crazy just to keep up.

Given that the game’s audience is likely to have heavy overlap with hacker types, have Heiwa considered open sourcing it? Stefan says yes: “I have started thinking about how to grow the team. Currently we are three individuals, a coder, a tester and an administrator. I would really like to join up with other people that also have a burning passion for settling Mars and are willing to join a non-standard economic business model. Plan is to move the code base to git and make it available to a limited group of people joining up. So if someone reading this interview would be interested, please reach out to me using the support function of the app. Maybe we can reach the terraforming phase in terms of app development much quicker that way.

One feature in the works is a birds-eye graphic view of the settlement, so if you’d like to see this happen, drop Heiwa a line. Me, I’ll still be plugging away at my supply chain, watching the little numbers tick up and down.

Time is money: How Clash of Clans earns $500,000 a day with in-app purchases

Confession time: While I like to rationalize my blog’s recent silence with changing jobs and moving to a new city, the truth is, the single biggest drain on my free time lately has been Supercell’s Clash of Clans.  While this apparently puts me in good company, I decided it’s about time I shared what I’ve learned about how this “free” game apparently manages to spin well over $500,000 a day for its creator Supercell.  (Update: Forbes reports Supercell now earns over $2.4m a day, the majority of that from Clash of Clans.)

Overview

The core of Clash of Clans is a bog-standard resource management game: mine “gold” and “elixir”, use gold and elixir to buy improvements to your town so you can build stronger armies, raid other players in order to loot their gold and elixir, rinse and repeat.  If you’ve ever played Starcraft, Age of Empires or pretty much any other real-time strategy game, you’ll know the drill, and the buildings and units come off as almost painfully derivative.  There’s a Barracks for new troops and Archer Towers for defense, you’ve got Zerg-like cheap and disposable Barbarians, weak but ranged Archers, slow Giant tanks for soaking up damage, etc.  But formulas are formulas because they work, and it’s fun to set up your little village, win your first battles and watch your (thoroughly meaningless) levels and experience points rack up.  The touch-screen interface is a pleasure to use and the smoothly zoomable 3D graphics are beautifully animated with cute little touches; for example, when you tap to select an army camp, every unit salutes their leader in a different way.

Show Me the Gems

“So that’s all well and good”, I hear you say, “but where’s the money coming from?”

In the standard Zynga playbook for making money off with freemium games, you would let players buy gold, elixir or the items they want directly.  But Clash of Clans adds a twist: you can’t buy anything directly, but you can buy a third resource called “gems”.   Unlike gold and elixir, gems are not necessary for building anything functional, they’re simply a type of “power-up” that serve as a shortcut.  Need more gold to finish a building? Buy it with gems.  Need more elixir to add a dragon to your army?  Buy it with gems.  Don’t want to wait a week for a building to finish?  Complete it instantly with gems.  In other words, gems mean instant satisfaction.  What’s more, their cost is neatly obfuscated: purchased gems come in big, oddly numbered stashes (500, 1200, 2500, 6500, 14000), and once you have the pile sitting in your account, it’s easier to whittle it away 834 gems at time, whereas you’d probably think twice if asked to punch in your credit card details and confirm that you really want to pay $6.98 (just a sliver under the U.S. federal minimum wage) to upgrade your Wizard Tower.

Yet this formula’s beauty is that none of this is immediately apparent.  You start the game with 500 gems, which is plenty for the initial stages, and there are many easily earned “achievements” that reward you with more, so that you don’t initially appreciate their value.  The initial buildings are fast to build, with some building instantly and others taking a minute here or five minutes there.  And you’re shielded from enemy attacks for three days, so you can take your time building up your base and raiding the AI’s goblin bases for easy loot.

As you advance through the levels, though, the time and expense of everything ramps up exponentially.  A level 2 Town Hall takes 5 minutes to build and costs 1,000 gold; a level 8 Town Hall takes 8 days and costs 2,000,000 gold.  And you soon encounter the next twist: on the later levels, patience is no longer enough.  A maxed-out set of Gold Mines can produce 360,000 gold a day, meaning you could theoretically accumulate the sum neeeded for that Town Hall upgrade in 6 days.  However, you’re being continually raided by other players, and since other players can see your wealth before they choose to attack, a fat bank account means you’re a fat target.  What’s more, since successful raids award percentages of your wealth, a single “three-star” attack worth 25% can see 500,000 gold disappear in a flash.

coc-gold-vs-loginsThere’s more.  In your typical RTS, collected resources immediately go into your central storage.  In Clash of Clans, though, they stay in the collectors, vulnerable to attack both by location and design (up to 50% can be stolen, vs. 20% for central storage), until you log in to manually transfer them to relative safety with a tap.  This, too, makes it difficult to accumulate large amounts and encourages you to login at least several times a day.  The chart shows why: if you start with 1,000,000 gold in storage, earn 360,000 daily, and get attacked once daily, losing 50% from your collectors and 20% from central storage, the player who doesn’t bother logging in for two weeks will see their pile drop 75% to under 250,000, while the player who logs in religiously four times a day will increase their wealth by over 50% to 1,550,000 — but even their earnings flatline well before two million.

What this means is that, once your bankroll is over 1.5 million or so, the only free way to keep the balance growing is grinding, a tedious non-stop cycle of raiding and army rebuilding, with nervous logins every five minutes to keep raiders at bay (you cannot be attacked while online).  In their grandmotherly kindness, though, Supercell provides you a whole wealth of alternatives.  Can you spot the pattern?

  • You can use gems to buy “shields” that stop you from getting raided: 250 gems ($2.50).  Lest that seem too cheap, you’re preventing from using more than one week of shield per month.
  • You can use gems to fill up your gold or elixir storages instantly: 834 gems ($8.34)
  • You can use gems to upgrade your gold mines to the next level, where they will work faster: 966 gems ($9.66)
  • You can use gems to buy additional “workers”, so you can upgrade your production faster and earn gold/elixir faster: 1000 gems ($9.98)
  • You can use gems to double your production of gold or elixir for a 6-hour period.  Repeated across six mines for three days: 1368 gems ($13.68)
  • You can use gems to rebuild your armies instantly, so you can keep raiding and racking up loot without anybody having a chance to steal their money back via the handy “Revenge” button. Assuming 50k elixir to rebuild and 50k profit per raid: 2760 gems ($27.60)

And once you’ve finally earned those 2 million and clicked the “Build” button, it takes another 8 days to build the thing — unless, that is, you fork out another 1123 gems ($11.23) for instant completion.  It’s little wonder most players start “to gem” (it’s a verb in Clash of Clans parlance) by the time they reach Town Hall level 7 or so, the stage when most costs are measured in millions and building virtually anything unassisted takes days.  Jorge Yao, the game’s undisputed champion, figures he has spent north of $2500 in real money on buying gems, and according to back-of-the-envelope calculations, the cost of fully fitting out your virtual village is on the order of $5000 when you include walls.  It’s little wonder the top clans leaderboard is full of players like “>< Royal ><” from Kuwaiti clan “Q8 FORCE” and clan UAE’s “khalifa” (presumably from Bahrain’s ruling House of Khalifa).

Your Pain is Supercell’s Gain

Unsurprisingly, the entire game has been warped in subtle ways to encourage buying and using gems.

For example, in your average real-time strategy game, you have fine-grained control deploying and directing your troops, and units that survive can be used in the next battle.  Not so in Clash of Clans: once deployed, units fight according to their hardcoded strategy (most commonly the harebrained “bash closest building”, regardless of what it is or who is firing at them), and every unit deployed disappears at the end of the battle, even if they are victorious.  This means it’s essential to rebuild huge armies and to attack with massive force every time.   And since building those dragons can take several hours, during which time you’re wide open to attack, there’s another massive inducement to solve the problem with a few gems.

Probably the most blatant case of tilting the table is the recent introduction of “Dark Elixir”, a third in-game resource geared squarely at high-level players.  Collected at the glacially slow pace of 20 units per hour, even in an raidless pacifist world it would take 21 days of waiting to accrue the 10,000 units needed purchase its main selling point, the Barbarian King, and the table is stacked further yet by subjecting collectors to 75% raid losses.  Who wouldn’t pay $6 to skip the tedium and uncertainty?

In comparison, the “clans” of the name seem almost like an afterthought.  Their primary function is to be a gifting circle, where players donate units to others in their clan, and receive units in return.  And that’s it: clan players cannot share gold or elixir, much less gems.  But they do provide another handy lever of extra social pressure to ensure you log in regularly, since clan troops defend your base, die when attacked and can only be received on explicit request, and since most clans enforce minimum per week donations and kick out “freeloaders” who have not paid their dues.

But It Could Be Worse…

Some credit where credit is due: unlike Zynga’s notoriously annoying games, Clash of Clans does not require Facebook signup, cram the game full of ads, spam you and your friends, or pimp your personal information to random third parties.  And while you’ll be reminded that “Hey, you could use gems for this” whenever you try to do something you can’t afford, if you stay within your means and have the patience of an ascetic saint, you’ll never even get asked for money.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, my feelings towards Clash of Clans are distinctly mixed.  Being a penny-pincher whose in-game purchases have been limited to a single $4.99 gem pack, even that largely as a token of appreciation to the game’s makers, I can’t really complain about the hours of entertainment I’ve gotten in exchange.  Yet I still can’t help but cringe as I run into all the ways the game is intentionally crippled to get you to pay up, and the way its Pavlovian triggers to come back for more operate on fear.   Would Minecraft have been any fun if it required you to log in every six hours or you’d lose parts of your inventory?   And how much more awesome would Clash of Clans be if the effort of squeezing every last cent out had been put into improving the game itself instead?