Opinion: Game of War, Kate Upton make me fear for the future of mobile games

If you happened to be watching the Superbowl a few weekends ago or if you’ve ever played other mobile games like Words with Friends or Trivia Crack, chances are you’ve seen an advertisement for a mobile game called Game of War: Fire Age. The game’s developer, Machine Zone Inc., launched a $40 million advertising campaign back in November of 2014 that was spearheaded by supermodel/actress Kate Upton. Most of the advertisements included in the campaign take the form of high-production-value trailers and tv spots that depict Upton in the role of the goddess Athena as she helps soldiers perform heroic feats like slaying monsters or routing enemy forces. The problem is, Game of War isn’t an epic action game as the tv spots would have you believe, making Machine Zone’s efforts both tasteless and dishonest.

The number of different ads and trailers for Game of War is already quite large and most of them feature a generic fantasy and/or Greek Mythology setting (Machine Zone can’t seem to make up its mind) in which Upton as Athena offers furtive glances at the camera and delivers one-liner double entendres such as “come play with me” while dressed in outfits that not-so-subtly draw attention to her breasts. Sometimes the trailers also feature massive medieval battle scenes complete with CGI monsters like Hydras and Minotaurs, further building up the illusion that Game of War is an explosive action/adventure game in which players will get to slay monsters in epic battles and ogle Kate Upton at the same time (I’m sure this is the fantasy Machine Zone is going for).

The reality is a bit different.

GameofWar_screenshot1 Ogle, away!

As it turns out, Game of War is actually a free-to-play real-time-strategy (or RTS) game. Players can construct buildings and command troops from on high in a manner similar to the Civilization game series or other popular mobile games like Clash of Clans. The problem is that, since it’s a free-to-play game, Game of War also employs heavy use of play-gating timers that force players to either wait or pay real cash microtransactions to bypass the timers. The game’s myriad of confusing menus and odd mish-mash of fantasy and Ancient Greek aesthetics merely cover up the game’s true purpose: to rope unsuspecting players in and then use carefully-disguised social pressure tools to get them to open up their wallets.

Another major element of Game of War is that it’s a massively-multiplayer-online (or MMO) game. Players can help and form alliances with other players (yet another element that is not-so-subtly played up in the ads with generically less-attractive male players being able to help and earn the favor of generically attractive female players) and can in turn team up with their allied compatriots to battle other alliances and climb the game’s leaderboards. The frequent micro-transaction “sales” the game hosts combined with the cleverly-placed splash ads and “encouragements” from Athena (her in-game depiction resembles Upton’s in so far as they are both presented as attractive blonde women with nice figures) make paying two dollars here and five dollars there are hard offer to resist.

GameofWar_screenshot2 Fight (robotic?) dragons!

Even if they don’t realize it, these social elements and play-gates trap players into an endless loop of micro-transaction-fueled positive reinforcement. Buying in-game currency benefits not only the player but also every other player in their alliance which in turn allows their alliance to climb further up the leaderboards; an addicting prospect for more competitive and/or social types. From the outside looking in, the idea of purposefully spending real money just to climb the leaderboards of a fictional, virtual world seems rather silly, but if you’re constantly exposed to high-production ads telling you that those microtransaction will earn the favor of Kate Upton or other attractive “gamer” women, it’s easy to see why Game of War has remained as one of the most-played mobile games on the market.

It’s all rather sad when you think about it. Judging by this article from AdWeek, both Upton and Machine Zone are totally fine pretending that their ads are sleek, gritty, empowering representations of what Game of War really is instead of what they actually are: tasteless, sexist, and dishonest shams that only look halfway decent because Machine Zone has already swindled countless players since Game of War’s launch back in 2013. Any gamer with a brain and ten minutes of free time will be able to tell that Game of War isn’t a game; it’s a confusingly-laid out hole for players to throw their time and money into. Unfortunately, if you lure unsuspecting mobile device-users into throwing said time and money into said hole with a few winks from Kate Upton and a scene or two of generic medieval warfare, that’s apparently all you need to become one of the top-grossing mobile games for two years running now.

GameofWar_screenshot4 ???

Game of War’s success doesn’t make me worry for the tens of thousands of players it currently has or will have in the future (though my heart still goes out to them). I worry more about the other game developers who will (or likely already have) see the amount of financial success that can be had simply by making a generic free-to-play money-mill and copy it for themselves. If the mobile gaming community continues to willingly serve as sheep that developers like Machine Zone can continuously shear golden wool off of, then it’s only a matter of time before AAA game publishers start pushing the microtransaction boundaries in their games (one could argue that some already have). After all, why charge players once for an engaging quality experience when you can continuously sap their wallets with an experience that took next to no effort to create?

It’s bad enough that the mobile gaming charts are dominated by shallow, micro-transaction-driven games that offer nothing meaningful aside from a temporary feeling of accomplishment. It’s even worse that, thanks to the profits they garner, the greedy developers behind these shallow games can afford to trick even more people into believing their games are actually worth playing (and thus perpetuate the cycle). I doubt Kate Upton or Machine Zone care about the harm they’re inflicting on the mobile gaming community, I imagine it’s hard to care about the little guys when you make more in a day than most of them make in a decade.

I like to think that Game of War’s success will be as fleeting as the feelings of self-worth it imparts onto its more dedicated players but as long as Kate Upton continue to entice more gullible non-gamers to the doom of play-gates and timers, I doubt the mobile gaming community will be so lucky. Money talks, as the old saying goes, and when that money is using Kate Upton’s mouth (in addition to some of her other body parts), getting the masses to open up their wallets even more isn’t a safe bet, it’s an inevitability.