Even before its 2015 reboot, Star Wars’ mindshare amongst gamers was nothing short of phenomenal.
It helped its opening trilogy spanned gaming’s birthing years as a mass market activity in the west in a way one-time, earlier rivals such as Star Trek didn’t.
Similarly, the staccato release schedule of each set of three films - 1977-1983, 1999-2005, 2015-2019 - has allowed each generation to beget another. That’s three generations of fans, many of whom have grown up with Star Wars as an integral part of a shared familial experience.
More surprisingly, just as the questionable quality of some movies hasn’t had any impact on Star Wars’ popularity, neither have the many highs and lows of the licensed games when it comes to developers keen to give Disney a large amount of cash upfront and a thick backend for the privilege.
Which brings us to Zynga’s announcement that it’s the latest to take on the challenge of making a successful game - a F2P mobile games no less - using the Star Wars licence.
Zynga’s big Star Wars commitment
In terms of the actual agreement, Zynga has committed to making at least one mobile game and has the option for a second.
More interestingly, it’s also buying Disney’s existing Star Wars: Commanders title.
Developed in-house and launched in 2014, this simple Clash of Clans-style mobile strategy title hasn’t been particularly lucrative over recent years, and ever since Disney decided to swap game development for IP licensing in 2016 is now surplus to requirements.
The game itself likely won’t make Zynga much money in future then, but it will provide a valuable opportunity to see what works when it comes to live events and hooking into wider promotions within the Star Wars universe, not to mention cross-promotion when it’s time to get the new game up-and-running.
The questionable quality of some movies hasn’t had any impact on Star Wars’ popularity, neither have the many highs and lows of the licensed games.
Because, as we previously discussed during the launch of A Force Unleashed, it’s much harder than many think to make a successful Star Wars game, especially a F2P mobile one.
EA’s winning strategy was Kabam’s loss
Part of the problem is the usual one with all F2P games. The power of the licence ensures interest at launch, but if the game isn’t well balanced regarding retaining this large number of new players, they quickly vanish. That’s very different from using a licence to help convince gamers to spend $50 on a console game.
The situation is made even more complicated when two games using the same licence launch simultaneously. Such complexity was seen in the stark difference in the trajectories of EA’s Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes and Kabam’s Star Wars: Uprising, both of which attempted to use A Force Unleashed as a marketing anchor in late 2015.
EA’s squad-based RPG launched into the US top 40 top grossing and has remained there ever since, generating over $500 million in lifetime revenues. As a single player RPG, it could be argued Uprising was the more ambitious of the two, but wasn’t well aligned regarding F2P engagement and retention loops.
Broadly speaking, it was just too complex and intensive to play for a repeated and prolonged period, unlike Galaxy of Heroes, which quickly sucked up all the Star Wars juice.
Sadly, however, Kabam had invested a lot of resources into the game and Uprising’s commercial failure played a large part in its decision not to try and IPO, and instead to break up and sell off its studios to the highest bidders, Netmarble and FoxNext.
Incidentally, at this juncture, it’s significant to note Chris Petrovic, who headed Kabam’s licensing business is now Zynga’s head of corporate strategy & development.
No details have yet been provided for Zynga’s first Star Wars game but it enters a competitive market that’s proven resistant to Star Wars games.
Zynga CEO Frank Gibeau’s past involvement with Star Wars games during his time at EA also means Zynga should have plenty of top executive experience in terms of how to craft a good deal with Disney as well as strong ideas about how the game(s) will work.
Creating Forever Franchises with Star Wars
More generally, thanks to its focus on live operations in games such as Zynga Poker, Words With Friends and CSR Racing 2, Zynga has been steadily growing and become profitable in recent years.
Of course, it’s been listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange since 2011 and the price of its shares popped 11 per cent on this news, adding $300 million to its market cap, although since falling back.
Yet, as Gibeau is well aware, the ability to continue Zynga’s growth over coming years requires it to launch new games that can be similarly successful.
Labelled as ‘Forever Franchises’, Zynga’s looking to reboot some of its old franchises with new games, and has also spent $400 million acquiring titles such as Gram Games’ Merge Dragons, which it hopes it can build up into a strong performer.
And that’s the context for its future Star Wars game (or games), which will be developed by its NaturalMotion studios (London and Brighton) which currently operate the CSR Racing games and fantasy RPG Dawn of Titans.
Is Star Wars harder sell than MARVEL?
No details have yet been provided concerning the release date or genre for Zynga’s first Star Wars game, but it enters a competitive market that’s proven resistant to more Star Wars games than just Kabam’s Uprising.
For example, Netmarble’s card-based MOBA Star Wars Force Arena launched with great fanfare in 2017 but hasn’t made much of an impact in the market, while match-3 game Star Wars: Puzzle Droid hasn’t received any content updates in 2018 and seems effectively dead.
Similarly, another Disney-published game - cover shooter Star Wars Rivals - has been in soft launch testing for over a year and unless another company buys it seems unlikely to ever go live.
There’s also a long list of Star Wars games which have been pulled from app stores over the years for reasons of commercial failure, including Star Wars: - Team Assault; Pit Droids; Tiny Death Star; and Galactic Defense to name a few.
Indeed, it could be argued it’s harder to make a successful Star Wars game than even the current licence du jour MARVEL (also Disney-owned).
Sure, there have been plenty of failures but at least the Marvel universe is so huge there are plenty of different characters to focus on, which has been part of the reason it manages to sustain a growing ecosystem system of games including:
- Netmarble’s Marvel Future Fight,
- Kabam’s Marvel Contest of Champions (now owned by Netmarble),
- Jam City’s Marvel Avengers Academy (part owned by Netmarble),
- FoxNext’s Marvel Strike Force (ironically now owned by Disney), and
- D3’s Marvel Puzzle Quest.
Playing the licensing game
Two things are striking about the mobile games based on these two IPs:
The first is the dominance of large South Korean outfit Netmarble, which has been heavily invested (not always successfully c.f. Transformers: Forged to Fight) in western licences to broaden its consumer base. That's not a good sign.
Zynga is the global #1 company regarding social casino games but that seems a highly unlikely proposition for Star Wars.
The second is a strong similarity in terms of the successful genres these licences support, also not encouraging.
For example, Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes and Marvel Strike Force are very closely aligned regarding gameplay and metagame as both are squad RPGs. Star Wars Force Arena and Marvel Future Fight (both from Netmarble) are less so but both heavily feature action-based gameplay. And all four games use an underlying card-based metagame concerning character unlocking, levelling and upgrades.
Marvel Contest of Champions is the outlier, of course, but it’s hard to imagine a Star Wars-based beat-’em working: fun as it might be, it’s impossible to make it fit as a canonical experience.
This makes the promise of more information about Zynga’s game even more fascinating, especially given that EA’s new Star Wars game Rise to Power is slowly making its way to release.
Again, despite having undergone a closed pre-alpha, there’s very little official information about it, although released screens seem to show a space-based real-time strategy game with mining and combat elements: think Star Wars meets EVE Online?
Can you feel the force?
All of which would seem to make it even harder for Zynga to position its new game(s) into clear blue water.
The top grossing mobile games in the world are currently either in the RPG, strategy, match-3, battle royale or social casino genres, all of which are highly competitive.
Of course, Zynga is already the global #1 company regarding social casino but that seems a highly unlikely proposition for Star Wars. Match-3 and battle royale don’t make much sense either, nor does Zynga’s oft-mentioned interest in chat games and AR seem to add up in this case. That leaves us with the traditional fare - strategy and RPGs and/or various mash-ups therein.
On the flip side, by the time it launches - likely in mid/late 2019 to tie into the release of the Episode IX film - Galaxy of Heroes, the most successful Star Wars mobile game ever, will be four years old and starting to flag.
Whatever. The one thing Zynga can be sure of is it will be getting what it paid for. It’s hitched a star to the biggest movie brand of the past 30 years.
Now all it has to do is make a game that provides generations of fans with an experience in which they can feel the force. Easy.