Since its launch in 2018, Rise of Kingdoms has been consistently one of the most downloaded mobile strategy games on the market. After 50 million downloads and roughly 1.5 billion dollars of total revenue, the success story goes on.
In reviews and player forums, you will often read that RoK is OK for F2P (free-to-play) players, while others complain about how P2W (pay-to-win) it is. In a way, both sides are right. The game is playable without paying anything, but still, many players end up paying a lot of money.
In this article, I'm trying to explain how RoK is designed to maximize the amount of money it can extract from its players.
How Much Do People Spend in RoK?
When I started playing RoK, I joined via a 3rd party site that offered $20 just for registering and reaching a certain in-game goal. Indeed, I received my $20 about 2 weeks later. I thought, how can this be profitable for them? Are they expecting that recruits will pay back more than those $20 on average?
Because of the many non-payers you'd expect in such a game, the idea seemed ridiculous at first. But it is not.
Some players spend only a low 2-digit amount once. Others do so monthly. But then, some people dish out "just $200/month for the daily bundles and little more" and still call themselves light spenders. In one of his Youtube videos, sponsored content creator Chisgule recommends prioritizing real life and avoiding getting into debt. But then he goes on talking about "how we spend $2000 a month." That's above average, but still realistic. Every RoK server has its whales who have spent $10K, $20K or more to be among the top-ranking players.
How is this even possible, you may ask. So did I.
Optimizing the Player Life Cycle
To generate revenue, a freemium game like RoK must monitor and optimize what we could call the life cycle of its players. It must (A) recruit, (B) retain, and finally (C) monetize players.
Lilith, the makers of RoK, know very well that their final revenue is the multiplication of A x B x C. That's why they will always try to optimize their performance on all three levels.
What they do especially well is B and C, i.e. retention and monetization. First, they create long-term player engagement. For months or even years, players may be active in the game for several hours per day. That's plenty of high-involvement time. The game will then seize that time to harvest as much money as possible.
RoK's Onboarding Process is Easy and Fun
On starting a new RoK account, a tutorial will guide you through the first steps. There's a lot of game mechanis and modes to discover, but it never gets overwhelming.
Doing certain things will constantly trigger "rewards". You just have to tap on a button to claim them and earn resources and other in-game items. You get the feeling that all this is easy and you are doing everything right.
You also get a nice sense of progression because of all the buildings you are constructing and upgrading. In the beginning, the most important building is your city hall. It is not a bigdeal to upgrade it to level 6 in a single session. So by the time you go to bed that day, there may be "only 19 levels" left to max it out.
For all mobile games, it is a challenge to convert people from first-time trialists into actual players. Most of the time when people install a game, they try it once and then leave for good. RoK does its best to avoid this, and it does it pretty well. Chances are that you will return the next day to see if you can upgrade to city hall 7 and find out what else you can do.
The Social Dimension of RoK is What Really Creates Involvement
So there you go, upgrading your buildings, and participating in temporary events and mini-games to earn rewards. At the same time, you notice how everyone seems to recommend you to join "a good alliance."
As it turns out, the social dynamics around alliances are a very powerful driver of the game. They drive player fun, but also retention and monetization.
As a player, you own one of the hundreds of cities on a huge map called a kingdom. During the first weeks of the game, players start to organize themselves in alliances. Being in an alliance will speed up the development of your account. In the beginning, some alliances may fight each other. But later, it's all about forming partnerships, "families" and sub-alliances.
There's a lot of chit-chat and drama going on. This makes the game more fun and creates more player involvement. Topics in the chatrooms include in-game tips, real-live anecdotes, and just-for-fun nonsense. Players become friends or play tricks on each other, almost like in real life.
Later on, there are more and more scheduled events where players must be at a certain spot to fight and conquer it. The event schedule is 24/7, and many players are willing to get up in the middle of the night to join. The game creates so high commitment that players will sacrifice many hours of sleep.
How Competition and Group Pressure Make Players Spend Real Money Early on
Players who spend more time and those who spend more money will become more powerful. Power is measured by a score that starts with a few thousand and over the months builds up to millions.
Spending Money to Keep the Pace
Most alliances will ask members to have a certain minimum power. E.g., if your power is 100K and the alliance has set the minimum to 200K, they won't let you in. They will also keep updating this number and kick you out if you don't meet the standard.
The pressure to grow your account quickly may differ between kingdoms. But if you have the bad luck to start in a high-spending kingdom, it will be hard to keep up with the pace and stay in a good alliance. Of course, the in-game shop will always offer solutions to help you with that.
There are veteran players who re-start the game with a new account. Some of them play in an almost professional style. But unlike a job, they are not earning but spending incredible amounts of money. If you notice that this is a common theme in your kingdom, you will be under constant pressure to spend money, too.
Kingdom Consolidation and KVK
After some fighting and diplomacy between the leaders, one player of the top alliance will become the king. The king's main role is to keep the kingdom happy and united. The idea is to keep it strong to be successful in the upcoming KVK (kingdom vs kingdom) events.
KVKs take several weeks. Several (usually 8) kingdoms fight against each other. It's like the early civil wars in the kingdom, but in a much more dynamic way and with high rewards. During a KVK, people will spend even more time and money on the game than in the non-KVK phases.
Only Top Players May Play in KVK
The final reason why it is so relevant to grow your power quickly is to be able to play in KVK. Common wisdom is that you should have at least 8-10M for the first KVK. Otherwise, you can hardly fight at all because others are so much more stronger.
On top of that, space on the KVK map is limited. So, the king may choose to restrict KVK access to, for instance, the top 4 alliances. In other words, if you don't fulfill the standards set by the leaders, you cannot join the game's main event.
Upgrade Requirements Increase Exponentially
Part of your power score in RoK relies on a mechanic very common in this kind of game. Buildings and other things have to be upgraded several times. For each new upgrade, you will need more time, resources, or specific items.
In RoK, a typical progression curve is to get at least 7 or 8 upgrade levels (out of 25) almost for free and with a very short waiting time. Later, you will start noticing how each new level gets a whole lot more demanding. The cost increases are typically exponential.
The chart below tries to show what that means. Through most of the levels, upgrade costs for the hospital get 1.2 or 1.5 times higher each time. While level 16 costs resources worth less than 1M gold, level 25 costs 31.6M.
The same applies to the waiting time needed for the upgrade. It increases from almost no time at all to more than 5 days for the upgrade from level 24 to 25. And this is just one of many buildings and not the most demanding one.
Fight or Build? Or Do Both and Pay?
Here are some tips on how to go about playing this game.
Reaching City Hall 25 Takes Months
The first big objective is to upgrade all buildings to level 24 and then city hall to level 25. Reaching that goal feels like a major milestone because of all the resource costs and waiting time involved (the last upgrade to CH 25 alone is more than 100 days). Of course, this waiting time can be reduced by speedup items. Players get some of them for free. If you need more, they are for sale.
The resources needed for CH 25 are not too difficult to get for free by simple grinding (resource farming). However, you will soon enter the first KVK season with its intense battles. So you will also need resources for training and healing troops. Voilà the first serious tradeoff: Fight or build? Or do both and pay money for resources?
The Castle 25 Upgrade Is Even More Arduous
After CH 25, your task is to upgrade all other buildings to level 25 as well. This includes the castle, which requires a ridiculous quantity of rare items called Books of the Covenant. To collect those books, you need to keep grinding for months. Unless you buy them with real money, of course.
You Think You've Maxed it All Out? Guess What, There's More!
After reaching one big goal like CH 25 or castle 25, RoK will typically have an even more extreme upgrade challenge for you. Many people start paying money at some point, either to keep pace with others, or to be one of the top players.
In theory, all upgrade ladders can be completed for free - but the long time it takes creates a huge gap between F2P and P2W players. If you don't spend ridiculous amounts of money, you need to set priorities. You will never reach the top in all areas at the same time.
Commanders Need Expertise
RoK features a set of commanders that are a bit like trading cards - you just want to have them all. Lilith will regularly release new legendary commanders that are not too hard to get. But owning a commander is not enough. For the best boost on your troop stats, you must max them out and unlock their expertise.
Again, you need a large number of rare items, this time called 'universal sculptures' or gold heads. Unlocking the expertise of just one legendary commander for free may take several months.
While you are still working on your first rare commander, the game may introduce many others. So by the time you unlock the expertise of your commander, he or she may already be obsolete. To avoid this, you must either focus on commanders and neglect other areas... or buy the needed items with real money.
VIP Levels For Cash
It is important to climb on the VIP level scale to get daily gold heads and other bonuses. VIP levels are available for gems. You can farm gems for free, but you also need huge quantities of them for other things (e.g. the castle 25 upgrade). So you will either have to pay for them or take an eternity to upgrade the castle and VIP.
Commander Gear For Cash
To add yet another layer of P2W, commanders should be equipped with good gear. And you have guessed it - to craft upper (legendary) tier gear, you need rare items that are available for real money.
Getting Tier 5 Troops Can Take Another Year or More
If you want to unlock the highest tier of troops (T5), you need to complete an extensive research tree. It starts easy but ends with cost increases that are even more insane than for building upgrades. This time, the cost comes in the form of literally hundreds of days of waiting time. Again, the game will sell you speedups if you think the free speedups are not enough.
Tier 5 Troops Have High Healing Costs
A common complaint among players who have T5 units is that their troops are incredibly expensive to heal. Healing costs huge amounts of resources, especially gold, and also a lot of time that you can reduce with paid speedups.
So, in a way, players who have already paid to get T5 troops are required to pay even more if they want to use them. Their other option is to run farm accounts that gather resources for them. At one point, my king recommended that everyone should have at least four farm accounts. They are for free, but it requires hours each day to maintain so many accounts.
The Bottom Line
RoK manages to retain players by being a fun and social game. And as long as players are on board, competition between them helps Lilith to squeeze out as much money as possible.
Some people spend 3, 4, or more digits (USD) per month. Because it just feels better to have a more powerful account, join battles, and win against others.
The game gets even more expensive for powerful players who have already spent a lot. Because they need to heal their T5 troops and max out the latest commanders if they want to keep their level.
Can High Spenders Afford it?
Of course, games need to be profitable, so someone has to pay for them. But some people pay so extreme amounts of money in RoK that it doesn't make any rational sense. Imagine you had $20K - would you rather buy a car or spend it on a mobile game?
The way people talk about this is that high spenders must be rich people who can afford it. Some believe that the culture of their countries favors class culture and feeling superior by spending money. But I'm not so sure about that. High spenders come from all over the world, and who knows if all of them are that rich?
F2P Is Possible up to a Point
There are lots of F2P players who don't pay a cent. They say it's more satisfying to win against someone who has spent money in the game. But that's only possible up to a point in RoK and requires hours of dedication each day.
But consider that everyone will at some point leave the game. Imagine that moment when you leave. If you had spent a lot of money, wouldn't you regret it?
© 2022 Johann Fischbauer