A 4-year-old top-grossing game? How Kingdoms At War is still making money years after launch

Venture Beat JOHN KOETSIER JANUARY 31, 2014

In the fast-paced world of mobile games, you usually sink or swim — fast. And even if you swim, it’s only for a short while.

So how has A Thinking Ape‘s Kingdoms at War stayed so high for so long?

Kingdoms at War was the eighth-highest grossing game on iPhone in 2010 — the dark ages of mobile gaming. It was the 13th highest in 2011, which is like medieval times for mobile. And after hanging around in the top 40 for another couple of years, the venerable game hit number 20 just a month ago, in December.

“There’s no secret formula,” A Thinking Ape’s Derek Yip said Thursday at GROWtalks in Vancouver. “But if you play Kingdoms at War for 30 days, you will play on infinitely.”

Mobile players are brutal, especially for freemium apps that we’ve downloaded for free. People use most apps are once and abandon them viciously, never to be opened or played or read again. For Kingdoms at War, 50 percent of first-day players come back and play it on day two. That’s actually not bad — but the number goes down and down and down. By day 30, only 10 percent of day one people are still playing.

Then something interesting happens.

“Kingdoms at War has low retention,” Yip said. “But on day 30, it flatlines … essentially the game stops losing players.”

That means that A Thinking Ape’s lifetime user value for the game is huge. And this means the company can invest heavily in user acquisition, secure in the knowledge that spending $1, $2, or even $3 per committed long-term user will ultimately provide positive return on investment.

The question, of course, is how.

When the company started noticing the incredible retention in Kingdoms at War, it started asking why. Other games it had made — or other companies had made — were as good, with great art, design, gameplay, user experience, sound, and content. What was the difference? It had to be something beyond the core product, the company speculated, that was generating player longevity.

was when the company looked beyond the game and to the players — and specifically the connections between players — that the answer became evident. Compare to A Thinking Ape’s other games, Kingdoms at War had much higher levels of actions between players: messages, actions done as a group, and chat.

“That’s the key difference,” Yip says “Our users don’t naturally want to be social when they download our products, but in Kingdoms at War we were able to create incentives to connect, and that led to a high level of engagement.”

In other words, it’s social.

Because it’s social, gamers develop strong relationships within the game. Because they develop strong relationships, their make friends. And because the context for their friendship is the game, they don’t leave.

A Thinking Ape built that social connection, somewhat unintentionally, in four ways:

  1. Incentivized user-to-user interaction: Via user-to-user gifting, Facebook liking, and LinkedIn endorsements, A Thinking Ape built in a series of simple, one-click actions that not only create connection, but also stimulate reciprocation. Voilà: community.
  2. Incentivized group action: By encouraging groups to tackle challenges together and giving out free bonuses when certain number of products are sold, or providing incentives for other users to join, A Thinking Ape created an environment which favored group formation.
  3. Incentivized community competition: By ensuring that people compete against real people, not bots, by making people work hard for rewards and by ensuring that all rewards are visible and obvious on player profiles and websites, A Thinking Ape facilitated intense competition.
  4. Incentivized next visits: The hardest part, Yip said, was incentivizing the next visit — the next open of the app. But if you’ve done the previous three correctly, he said, you’ve actually accomplished this one, too. Every time a user-to-user interaction happens, it sends a message. Every time a group needs help, the game sends a message. And every time the game sends a message, it brings users back.

“That’s a positive feedback loop,” Yip said. “You need to create something that cannot be replicated. For us, it’s relationships with friends … so that users do not leave.”

It’s appears to have been working.

Today, four years after initial launch, Kingdoms at War is still making money and still hitting the charts. In fact, according to Think Gaming, it’s still making almost $15,000 every day on iOS alone. That’s not exactly Candy Crush Saga money, which is grossing $975,000 every single day.

But it’s not bad for a small, independent games studio. And, it’s not bad for a four-year-old game.