Comment & Opinion

Why the mobile games industry underestimates MZ at its peril

Why the mobile games industry underestimates MZ at its peril

A company you’ve never heard of has just released its debut mobile game.

Within two weeks, it’s become a top 50 top iPhone game grossing in key Western markets such as the US, the UK and Germany.

And, amazingly, for a US-developed game, it’s also a top 50 top grossing game in South Korea and Japan.

It’s already generated tens of millions of dollars.

But no-one cares. Why?

Because the company is Epic Action, one of MZ’s subsidiaries, and the game is Final Fantasy XV: A New Empire.

It all started in 2012

It hasn’t always been like this. Back in 2012, when MZ (then called Machine Zone), released Game of War - Fire Age, the free-to-play mobile games industry was new and raw.

No-one knew what worked so everyone was trying anything.

In the early days of Game of War, there was plenty of interest in MZ’s success.

Not so MZ. With a history in mobile dating, and a more successful period operating some of the early social/competitive mobile games such as iMob and Original Gangstarz, it had already stumbled on its formula.

That’s something it’s refined since, but effectively all of its three games are built on the same technology and rely on the same underlying script: portrait screen orientation, menu-based meta/gameplay, endless levelling-up of base buildings, complex research trees, and an incredibly strong focus on alliances and alliance events to provide the social glue and engagement.

The result are games with a very low day 7 but incredibly high long-term retention. And, as we all know, they make an extraordinary amount of money.

In the early days of Game of War, there was plenty of interest in MZ’s success.

This peaked in 2015 with some excellent analysis of Game of War’s monetisation techniques; which coincided with the high visibility of MZ’s offline UA campaigns such as its ‘Who I Am’ Super Bowl ad starring Kate Upton.

Yet, by the release of Mobile Strike in late 2015, which was fronted by Arnold Schwarzenegger, wider interest in the MZ story seemed to have evaporated, replaced by a consensus that it was, somehow, just advertising itself to success via low-quality grind apps.

Incredibly, this remains the case, despite both Game of War and second release Mobile Strike generating over $1 billion a year, and doing so across global, not just Western, markets.

Any mobile game which generates $1 billion shouldn’t be ignored.

Aside from Chinese quasi-monopolies such as Tencent and NetEase, the only other company in the history of mobile games to have more than one game in this billionaire club is Supercell.

And everyone loves Supercell.

A tale of two companies

The different attitudes to the two companies has, most recently, been best exposed by the reactions to their new games.

Supercell’s Brawl Stars isn’t even properly out yet but the internet is awash with deconstruction, opinions, comments, videos and streams.

Final Fantasy XV: A New Empire was globally released in June and was greeted with comments ranging from

  • “Bad new Final Fantasy XV mobile game now available” (Kotaku),
  • “The Final Fantasy XV mobile game is a mess, but at least it’s free” (Engadget),
  • Final Fantasy XV: A New Empire turns the console RPG into a generic mobile game” (Venturebeat), and
  • “I played Final Fantasy XV: A New Empire and spent money in it so you don’t have you” (RPGsite).

Even’s In-App Purchase Inspector ‘failed’ the game.

Of course, a disconnect between commercial and critical opinion is nothing new. It could be argued Supercell’s success is more interesting because of its neverending focus on creative challenges and exploring new genres.

From their CEOs to their level of transparency downwards, MZ and Supercell are about as different companies as you could imagine.

Yet, any mobile game which generates $1 billion shouldn’t be ignored just because the meta/gameplay isn’t easy to understand and it doesn’t have flashy graphics.

Similarly, it shouldn’t be ignored when a much-loved series such as Final Fantasy finally finds success as a mobile game.

To clarify, Square Enix is no stranger to mobile success in Japan, but, like almost all Japanese mobile game companies, it failed to break-out of its domestic market until it hooked up with MZ.

Making the difficult look easy

It also needs to be pointed out the approach MZ takes is anything but simple.

As the failure (relative and absolute) of companies ranging from Plarium and Glu Mobile to Scopely, FunPlus and now Zynga demonstrates, making a successful Game of War clone (aka 4X) is not a question of following a set of instructions.

Even in its early stage Final Fantasy XV: A New Empire is significantly, if not radically, different to MZ’s other games. And, not only does MZ have some of the best infrastructure technology in the industry, as the largest advertiser, it’s also developed the best analytics.

MZ has effectively built its very own money-printing machine.

The result is it’s effectively built its very own money-printing machine.

Quite how many games it can release before it starts to cannabalise its audience remains unclear. In this sense, appealing to a new market with Final Fantasy XV: A New Empire is a sensible move.

For that reason though, the game might not end up with the same rockstar metrics as MZ’s first two games, but it’s certainly shaping up to be the company’s third top grossing game, so you’d think more people in the mobile games industry would be interested.

That they aren’t suggests not only that they don’t understand the mobile games industry, but they’re never likely to either.

A challenge

Which is worrying. This isn’t 2012 or even 2015. Mobile games aren’t a nascent market.

Bigger than console or PC perhaps, they remain intensively competitive and lucrative, but increasingly the profits are banked by a small number of companies, who specialise in very specific experiences.

In other words, the rise of the mobile games industry is personified in the rise of MZ. You might not like its games, but all that means is you don’t like very successful mobile games.

But you should, at least, attempt to play and understand them.

Contributing Editor

A Pocket Gamer co-founder, Jon is Contributing Editor at which means he acts like a slightly confused uncle who's forgotten where he's left his glasses. As well as letters and cameras, he likes imaginary numbers and legumes.


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Gaming Unicorn Marketing Director
Jon and Carlos, I think it's very important to remember that entertainment products can simultaneously be terrible and massively profitable - consider the Michael Bay Transformers movies!

This is the case with the Machine Zone games. I played Mobile Strike, and it was the worst video game experience I have ever had, on any platform. Early in, I joined a guild. When I didn't play for one day - on Thanksgiving - I was kicked out. That left me surrounded by ex-guild members who were now hostile enemies - and the only way to keep my land from being pummeled every day was to spend $14 to move to another space on the map. It was "gun to your head" monetization, which is repellent. I came VERY close to paying, but I was too disgusted, and stopped playing.

I consider myself one of the lucky ones, leaving the game early. Mobile Strike uses every nasty tool possible to squeeze money from players: overt pay-to-win, casino mechanics, impulse control tests, social pressure, chasing losses... you name it. That game, like Game of War, is worse than just "bad"; it's predatory and anti-consumer. These are EXACTLY the kind of products that gives mobile gaming a bad name.
I. C. FOOLS Tech
It's shame that the author takes a talking points memo from the smoke and mirrors sweatshop of Machine Zone and doesn't independently peal back the onion and see what really is at play with the MZ apps. Why does this author not focus on "how" MZ games reach and stay in the top 10 of the rankings? It's not because people like their products or their company. I think the author knows this and the actual disconnect is with reality vs. marketing budget created illusions.

If the App Stores actually enforced their TOS for developers on MZ as it relates to prohibiting the manipulation of data that is collected and used to rank the apps, I think the "illusions" of success they create would vanish overnight. That's the real story to be had if there is a publication that has the courage to expose it.

The use of click farm/ review mills for MZ products is about as evident as it get's - and the app stores are and have been turning a blind eye - that's the real story and how MZ creates the illusion of success. Of course, for those that really want to know how the MZ apps and the company is perceived by the gaming community, just look at the 1* reviews that MZ try's to bury with it's smoke and mirrors operation. (hint - sort by most critical)
Carlos Garci­a Project Manager at Demium Games
Budged makes user acquisition. Good game design makes money.
Age of War has more than $500 ARPPU..
Robin Clarke Producer at AppyNation
By this logic heroin dealers are the best game designers in the world.
jon jordan
jon jordan
Not sure I understand how you're suggesting MZ is manipulating the top grossing charts...
I. C. FOOLS Tech
The same way they manipulate the download and review rankings - with a huge investor funded marketing budget; it's amazing what types of illusions can be created. You don't think all those shill accounts they insert into their games are playing and growing without utilizing IAP's do you?

Open up the can of worms... the stink is sure to be horrendous. Maybe that's why the App Stores turn a blind eye to it all, because they know it will stink up their place too for allowing it.
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