Facebook’s Top 5 Player vs. Player Strategy Games by Traffic, With Gameplay Analysis

“Strategy & Combat” is a new sub-category leaderboard on AppData, tracking the most popular Facebook games from multiple genres which emphasize physical fighting. Here, we analyze the top five games in the player-versus-player strategy sub-genre, which enjoys overall strong engagement rates and now attracts an audience of over 30 million monthly active users.

For the purposes of this analysis, “strategy” is defined as combat and resource-management games with military themes and conceits, played out on a map-like field, while “player-versus-player” refers to direct combat between two or more players. By that definition, here are the top five by monthly active users (or MAU) and daily active users (or DAU) and DAU as percent of MAU (or DAU/MAU) as of November 23:

Top PvP Strategy Games by Traffic

1.Empires & Allies18,800,0003,900,00020%
2.Backyard Monsters2,800,000720,00025%
3.Army Attack1,400,000260,00019%
4.Dragons of Atlantis1,200,000310,00026%
5.Battle Pirates740,000180,00024%

UPDATE, 12/1: Due to a mis-categorization, Social Empires was previously left off this list.

In general, a game with a strong DAU/MAU correlates to strong user retention and regular monetization. Based on this trend, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the top Facebook strategy games enjoy more robust monetization compared to other game genres on the platform.

Does PvP Increase Engagement in Strategy Games?

As noted above, the top Facebook strategy games with PvP likely enjoy higher monetization rates than other genres based on their strong engagement rates. But does the PvP feature in itself influence engagement? While it’s difficult to isolate that element (especially since Backyard Monsters, Dragons of Atlantis, and Battle Pirates launched with PvP), it’s possible to make some tentative assessments:

In mid-September, when Zynga introduced “Battle Blitz” PvP to Empires & Allies, the game’s DAU as a percent of MAU was at 15% and trending downward. Within a week of introducing the new PvP mode, however, the DAU/MAU climbed, reaching 16% by 9/25, and by the first week of October, reaching 19%.

Army Attack did not launch with a PvP mode, but added that feature in mid-September, when the game’s DAU as a percent of MAU was at a low and flat 12%. After adding PvP, however, DAU/MAU began trending upward, and by mid-October, had reached 14%.

In early June, Backyard Monsters was under 20% and trending downward. That month, however, Kixeye added “Champion Monsters” for use in PvP combat, and changed the artwork to emphasize violent, graphic combat that would appeal to the core market (see below.) Total MAU dropped considerably in the months after this update (perhaps because many players disliked the new art style), but at the same time, daily engagement by percentage increased. By mid-July, DAU/MAU had grown to over 25%.

In each of these examples, the rise in engagement levels does not definitively prove PvP increases user activity. (And in the particular case of Army Attack, PvP was added after a period of little or no content updates.) However, it is fair to say the addition of PvP tends to correlate with rising user engagement, which, in turn, could signal an increase in monetization.

Facebook Strategy Games from Casual to Core

Facebook’s most popular strategy games range from casual to core in terms of tone and gameplay experience. For the purposes of this analysis, assume that a casual title uses cartoon-inspired art direction and simplified gameplay intended for broad audience appeal. A core title, by contrast, is often characterized by realistic, visceral graphics and complex gameplay intended for a specific young male demographic that also enjoys console and PC games. “Mid-core,” as the name suggests, are games which aim to strike a balance between these two audience poles, in the hopes of appealing to both.

Zynga’s Empires & Allies falls on the casual side of the PvP spectrum, with comic book-inspired art direction and simple combat mechanics. In the game, players build and maintain cities (which include military units and resources), extend their territory, and increase their player levels by defeating enemies.

To the left of Empires & Allies is Army Attack, which also features cartoon artwork and humorous elements intended to keep the overall tone light. For instance, the commando units have dialog segments that parody Arnold Schwarzenegger’s action movie characters. In this game, the player expands their territory by defeating a series of enemies and liberating innocent cities featured in a single-player campaign. Unlike Empires & Allies, there’s little or no emphasis on city building and maintenance. Instead, the players only builds and maintains military resources such as troop barracks, defensive barriers, and missile/airbases.

Toward the middle of the spectrum is Kixeye’s Backyard Monsters, which was first launched as a casual game with cartoonish combat units and an emphasis on custom building and decoration. In June 2011, however, the developer altered much of the game’s artwork to make the monsters appear more violent and grotesque, while increasing the game’s combat options — changes intended to better appeal to a core market.

Following Backyard Monsters’ shift toward the core market is Kixeye’s somewhat newer PvP title, Battle Pirates. This game is firmly to the right of casual PvP title, given the game’s dark, industrial-themed artwork, realistic explosions, and combat animations. In Battle Pirates, the player expands their territory from a home base island by sending war vessels to battle and loot opponents’ island bases.

At the right-most position on this spectrum is Kabam’s Dragons of Atlantis, with complex gameplay and user interface. In the game, players build cities and expand their territory to create an empire, battling fantasy-themed monsters and competing players along the way, while raising dragons to defend their cities and outposts.

Forms of PvP in the top Facebook Strategy Games

Empires & Allies (Zynga)

In Empires & Allies, players must build up an island city and defend it with military units. In the core gameplay loop, players send some of these units to combat non-playable enemy characters or other players, earning resources if they are victorious, which can then be spent to construct new buildings and combat units. Monetization includes resources or premium combat units, energy refill items, and battle power-ups.

The PvP element of the game resembles CityVille’s visiting mechanic, in which players can visit their friends’ cities, interact with their buildings, and harvest some of their resources. In Empires & Allies PvP, however, players can choose instead to invade friends’ cities, clicking an area of a selected friend’s city to invade. Battles between attacking and defending units is resolved with turn-based asynchronous combat. (Empires & Allies’ Battle Blitz mode allows for PvP between strangers.) As with the core campaign mode gameplay, the player has a set number of units they can deploy in a specific arena (land, air, or sea) and combat consists of the player first clicking the unit they want to attack, and then the target unit. Once an attack is launched, the game’s artificial intelligence retaliates and combat ends when all attacking or all defending units are destroyed.

Befitting its design as a casual strategy game, combat in Empires & Allies features and easy-to-understand combat design. For instance, when selecting units to use in a battle, icons inform the player which type of unit is best deployed against units on the opposing side. The results of PvP combat, however, can be punishing for both the invader and the defender: All units destroyed while attacking or defending are permanently lost, and must be replaced. When a player’s city has been invaded by a friend, the player must engage the attacker, to repel them — but if they fail to do so, the invader remains in the player’s city, incurring a resource gathering penalty in the occupied sector. As of this writing, Empires & Allies has no play balancing to account for players of uneven levels; in practice, this means a lower level player can be dominated by a more experienced player, who is able to invade with units that have far more hit points than the lower level player’s units. Because of this mismatch, an out-ranked defender may have to sacrifice a high number of units, to finally repel the invasion. (Unless, that is, the player purchases monetized elite units and power-ups.)

Backyard Monsters and Battle Pirates (Kixeye)

In both Backyard Monsters and Battle Pirates, players build and enhance their home base while defending it from attack by invaders (both non-player characters and other players), and launching attacks of their own. In the core gameplay loop, players harvest resources from their base’s production facilities, and use these resources to build and upgrade new base structures, and create new combat units. According to Kixeye, the most popular PvP monetization options for both games are base upgrades which increase their attack capability (such as elite battle units), and power-ups which decrease the time required to make attacks.

To launch PvP in both games, players click on opponents’ bases from the game’s overhead map. Players in Kixeye’s games have a high degree of attack options, from choosing the units to be deployed, selecting areas of the base that they’ll begin to attack, and directing long range strikes at designated portions of the enemy base. With Backyard Monsters, deployment choices must be made with extreme strategic care, because once sent into battle, a player’s monsters operate autonomously.

Battle Pirates differs in that the combat can be performed synchronously in real-time. This game is the first prominent title to achieve this kind of PvP play on the Facebook platform. Players can choose to attack another player from the strategic map, and if the defender is online during the invasion, both sides are able to move and control their units to influence the battle’s outcome in real time. (If the defending player is offline during an invasion, the game’s AI controls their defense.) Unlike Battle Monsters, the Battle Pirates player also enjoys discrete control of their units throughout the attack, and can adjust the units’ position or target. In both games, an invader may make multiple attacks on the same target, but after the defending base is heavily damaged, the game prohibits further attacks for an extended “cool down” period.

In both Backyard Monsters and Battle Pirates, the risks and rewards for PvP are relatively heavy. If successful, the attacking player collects all game resources destroyed in the attack. However, any attacking unit killed during the battle is lost to the player, and must be replaced, along with any resources used to raise the attacking army. This is a time-consuming process, and if a player’s initial invasion is unsuccessful, they have a strong incentive to purchase monetized speed-ups to hasten resource/army production to launch another attack. For the defender, damaged buildings and defending units must be repaired and rebuilt, also incurring a time and resource penalty. At this point in gameplay, many players monetize, Kixeye reports, buying speed-ups and production boosters, so they can launch a powerful retaliatory attack against their invader.

Army Attack (Digital Chocolate)

In Army Attack, players must liberate cities from enemy units and invade enemy territory while building defenses and other military resources (such as money, energy, and fuel) from the areas under their control. In the core gameplay loop, the player harvests resources, uses them to repair damaged units, and also build new units. The player must also launches attacks against non-player characters and accomplish other objectives to complete the single-player campaign. PvP monetization options in Army Attack include unit health, range, damage boosters, and elite units, all of which increase chances for victory, and can be purchased for Facebook Credits.

In PvP mode, called “Versus”, players battle other Army Attack players in skirmishes that require energy and supplies to launch. A player can choose to fight either strangers in the game, or Facebook friends who have become the player’s Allies. Versus combat is resolved on a smaller version of the Army Attack strategy map, with units chosen by the player beforehand; the player clicks a unit, then sends it to another location on the map within its movement range. If an enemy unit comes within its attack range, the player can click on it to order an attack. There are also healing and attack bonuses located at random around the map, usable by the first side to reach them. As with Empires & Allies, the opponent’s units are controlled by the AI. The winning player claims in-game currency, Prestige experience points, and game power-ups.

The PvP mode includes a Weekly Tournament, in which players compete to claim in-game boosters, energy, and elite units by winning the most Versus matches,. Army Attack’s Versus mode also rewards players with collection items for the campaign game, and a specific item needed for the game’s new “research facility” building. Risks for losing in PvP, by contrast, are relatively mild compared to the other games in this report. If a player loses a skirmish (either as an attacker or a defender), their units are not permanently lost in the main game. The only direct cost to PvP are the Energy points and Supplies needed to engage in “Versus” battles.

Dragons of Atlantis (Kabam)

In Dragons of Atlantis, players expand their territory to create and maintain an empire. The core gameplay loop involves harvesting resources and building up the player’s kingdom (both the main city and surrounding area), raising dragons to defend this territory, and exploring the wilderness map area, which contains resources, monster habitats, and other players’ kingdoms, which can be invaded. PvP monetization options include boosts to a player’s attack and defense capabilities, special items for elite units, and “Speed ups” that shorten the time to create, train, and march new troops into battle.

To initiate PvP combat, a player clicks on an opponent’s territory from the wilderness map. Doing this sends a “Sentinel” warning to the defender’s inbox, giving them the option to repel the attack, withdraw, or hide the troops in that territory. To increase the odds of victory, a player can customize and balance their armies with various troop types that come with unique strengths and weaknesses. Players can also send their powerful dragons, which usually guard a player’s cities and outposts, into PvP battle. If the defender chooses to fight, the battle’s outcome is automatically determined by the game, based on the total unit strength of the opposing sides. The results of the subsequent battle are sent to both the attacker’s and defender’s inbox.

If the invading player is successful, they win looted resources from the defeated defender. But the consequences of losing an invasion are relatively punishing: If the invasion fails, the player permanently loses their attacking units, along with the resources and time that were required to raise this army. If the invading player sends one of their dragons into the invasion, they gain an attack bonus; if the invasion fails, however, the defeating dragon must heal, leaving the territory it was defending vulnerable to attack. The defending player also risks permanently losing defeated units, along with territory and resources. Opting out of a PvP battle comes with its own risks: If the defender chooses to hide from an incoming invasion, no troops are lost, but the player’s resources are looted, and the player’s dragon defending the invaded territory is injured, and will require time to heal before it can attack or defend again.

New Entries in the PvP Strategy Market

A number of new Facebook strategy games with PvP have entered the market in recent months:

  • Kabam’s latest game, Edgeworld, features sci-fi combat and base building resource management and PvP combat similar to Kixeye’s Backyard Monsters. (In fact, Kixeye has accused Kabam of copying its game.) However, Edgeworld’s art and themes are more directly aimed at the core audience.
  • Kixeye’s latest title, War Commander, a sci-fi military game aimed at the core market, features PvP base battles similar to Backyard Monsters and Battle Pirates, but with additional PvP gameplay features. For instance, players can send offline commands to individual units when their base is under attack. The company also plans to add a tournament system for massively massively multiplayer combat between players.
  • Crowdstar’s Wasteland Empires, launched in late October, is also a sci-fi themed resource management game aimed at the core market, in which the player builds and expand their territory in a post-apocalyptic wasteland by attacking opponents (NPCs and players), in asynchronous combat where the player controls individual units against the game’s AI.

Core PvP Strategy: A Subgenre With Promise — But Many Unknowns for Future Growth

As suggested by the new games noted above, the competitive field for PvP strategy games is expanding. With these new entries, game developers are targeting the core market in particular, which typically monetizes at higher rates than more casual segments.

However, it may be difficult to grow this core market rapidly: By their very nature, core strategy games demand more from a user, in terms of engagement and playing time. By contrast, Facebook is more conducive to lighter, shorter, “lunch break” gameplay sessions. Further, it’s not clear that the market for core is growing. With the exception of Empires & Allies (which enjoys the cross-promotional advantage of Zynga’s massive userbase), the strategy games released this year have not come close to reaching the popularity of that game, let alone 2010’s Backyard Monsters.

It will be interesting to see whether these new entries grow the market — or end up fighting the current champions for their audience’s eyeballs and dollars.