I recently listened to the excellent Walled Garden Weekly podcast about the massively successful collectible card game, Rage of Bahamut. The brave hosts played the game for a while in an attempt to analyze why it has dominated the top grossing charts on both iOS and Android for so long. In the end, they had no idea why.
I thought this episode was hilarious because I recently had the same experience with a friend of mine. We forced ourselves to play this game to understand why it is so successful. We came away from the experience just as mystified as Walled Garden. Is it a masterpiece of mobile gaming? Are we just too old and can’t comprehend this new genre of greatness? Perhaps it’s a combination of the two.
Rage of Bahamut is a collectible card game with no apparent skill involved. The interface appears to be a series of sloppily constructed UIWebViews displaying what looks like a web page from 1996–complete with blinking text. There’s no sound. The gameplay consists of tapping the screen and watching coins fly out of monsters with Skinnerian glee. PvP card battles are automatic and involve no strategy beyond deck construction. You win or you lose.
It’s also very difficult to find out how to spend money in the game–with the IAPs buried deep in the interface. This thing has towered over the top grossing charts for months on end, yet I’ve never met another person that’s ever played it. When Angry Birds was in a similar position a few years back, I knew lots of people who were fans.
I attended the Collectible Card Game panel at Casual Connect this past July to understand the space more. The takeaway was that since Pokemon will never appear on mobile devices, there is a huge vacuum taken up by the absence of that IP. In its void, a ton of CCGs have appeared on mobile targeting the Pokemon player demographic. It was suggested CCGs have 8-10X the monetization of other social games and are the ultimate core game experience for younger gamers. Maybe I don’t know any Rage of Bahamut players because I’m not 14?
Still, where are these people? I never see any coverage of this game on the web other than articles talking about how much money it’s making. It seems that the reason why you might not see a lot of chatter about these games on social networks is because the users are too young to be on Facebook. Instead, they use YouTube to display their lavish card collections. Most of the other social interactions are contained inside the game or DeNA’s social network, Mobage.
Rage of Bahamut appears to be a pure compulsion loop. It’s more like a slot machine than an actual game. The main drive is to collect rare cards and “evolve” them to advanced levels featuring character portraits with increasingly fewer articles of clothing on. Packs of cards in Rage of Bahamut can cost over twice as much as real paper cards for Magic the Gathering or other physical card games. This game is very simliar to Mafia Wars, so perhaps its success shouldn’t be unexpected. However, could something else be afoot?
Noting strange patterns in customer review score distribution and other clues, the Walled Garden podcast seemed to suggest maybe some chart manipulation is involved. I can’t say that thought hadn’t crossed my mind. DeNA made $609 million in revenue last quarter. The top grossing game in the App Store usually brings in about $10-15 million a month. Let’s double that to include Android (which probably is generous). Is it conceivable that in addition to the usual tactic of spending $50,000 a day or more in user acquisition, that DeNA is spending $20+ million a month on buying its own virtual goods to dominate the top grossing charts? With $1.82 billion in sales last year, it doesn’t seem like DeNA would need to do this.
Considering there are tons of other CCGs that are very popular, there’s a large and lucrative market for these games. There are different sub-genres as well. Some require skill similar to Magic or Yu-Gi-Oh instead of being a mere slot machine. I’ve read plenty of enthusiastic Rage of Bahamut reviews from people who are genuinely excited about it. Just watch this video–this guy really gets amped when he’s about to evolve his card to a new level of disrobement. Real people who play this game must exist somewhere. Leave a comment–let me know why you play it.
Oh, and while I’m at it, my referral code is mhk64683 if you want to start playing.