Comment & Opinion

Finding success in 4x strategy games

A preview of the new mobile game genre report from Google Play

Finding success in 4x strategy games

The 4x strategy genre report is a new whitepaper created by the developer growth consulting team at Google Play. Its purpose is to support mobile game developers by providing KPI benchmarks to measure your game’s performance against, in addition to player behaviour analyses, engagement and retention trends and best practices around features and mechanics common in 4x strategy game titles.

Among the many insights included in the report are the following:

  • Why 4x strategy is one of the most monetized genres - but has one of the highest churn rates of any game genre
  • Year-over-year KPI analysis of top-performing 4x strategy games
  • How 4x strategy's retention and engagement performance and growth compares with that of adjacent genres like MMO and MMORPG
  • Why developers who build features to support more player types see an increase in game performance
  • Best practices for onboarding and monetisation to maximise performance

Below is a preview of the report, and you can download the full 4x strategy whitepaper here.

Genre overview: 4x strategy

The defining objective of 4x strategy is to conquer digital real-estate on the server and, usually, to defend against others in player vs player (PvP) conflicts. It borrows its ‘4x’ name from the PC genre (exploring territory, expanding the base of operations, exploiting resources and exterminating the competition), but the similarities end there as the games are fundamentally different on mobile.

The genre grew in popularity during the early phases of free-to-play mobile games and today it is one of the most monetised game genres in the industry. It also has one of the highest churn rates of any genre. Putting this duality in context offers 4x strategy developers a high opportunity for success.

Due to the fundamental competitive systems that drive zero-sum outcomes, these games tend to require a larger investment of time and resources compared to other genres. Combined with the risk of losing resources or progression after a play session, the genre can feel punitive to players unfamiliar with 4x expectations. The learning curve for new users has historically been high, due to the assumed level of experience of 4x strategy genre players.

That friction can cause a lower retention rate for 4x strategy when compared to other genres, which creates a false assumption that the 4x strategy genre is difficult for new developers to enter. Understanding the relationship between the higher monetisation potential of 4x strategy players and the higher risk of early churn is fundamental to developer success in this space.

The evolution of the 4x strategy genre, which we provide some examples of in the ‘insights and tips’ section below, has resulted in notable KPI trends: retention, engagement, and monetisation metrics (weighted averages) have all increased for top 4x strategy titles. Our hypothesis is that developers who build features to support more player types see an increase in game performance in these areas.

Genre affinity: strategy player behaviour

4x strategy players tend to be thought of as more selective or niche than players of other genres. To understand why it’s best to put player behaviour in context by looking at genre differences at a higher level. Since 4x strategy is within the overall strategy genre, let’s start by comparing strategy player behaviour to role-playing game (RPG) and massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) player behaviour. Along with genre affinity, two metrics that offer insight are a number of unique genres played and a number of unique games played.

35 per cent of core strategy players play only strategy games. This demonstrates that core strategy players are more likely to stay within their preferred genre than core players of other genres (see chart to compare this with core RPG players, 19 per cent of whom play only RPG games, and core MMO-RPG players, 21 per cent of whom play only MMORPG games). The comparatively low number of core strategy players who play more than three genres (32 per cent) also indicates how selective the strategy genre base is.

Chart depicting the per cent of core genre players who play other genres (via Google Play, June 2020)

This means developers of strategy games benefit from a loyal, core player base - one that is more likely to spend time and money within the strategy genre.

However, when looking at the number of individual games played by core players, 80 per cent of core strategy players play only one strategy game during a given month. Therefore, the other consequence of this loyalty is that core strategy players have a low probability of leaving their current preferred game to experiment with additional games.

All developers in all genres should strive to make their games engaging and sticky enough to increase the retention of new players. However, given the behaviour of core strategy players and the overwhelming likelihood of those players preferring to remain in a single game, it is even more critical for developers within the strategy genre to build games that stand out and focus more on engagement and retention amongst their peers.

To read the full Google Play games whitepaper on 4x strategy, head here.

What do you think?

What game genre would you like to see us do a deep-dive on next? Let us know in with a tweet using #AskPlayDev and we’ll reply from @GooglePlayDev, where we regularly share news and tips on how to be successful on Google Play. regularly posts content from a variety of guest writers across the games industry. These encompass a wide range of topics and people from different backgrounds and diversities, sharing their opinion on the hottest trending topics, undiscovered gems and what the future of the business holds.