During last night's Super Bowl, millions watched as Kate Upton stepped out of a bathtub, donned battle armor and escaped a crumbling stronghold on horseback. The game she's advertising is nowhere near as exciting.
The game is Game of War: Fire Age from Machine Zone, and the reported $40 million advertising campaign featuring the world famous actress/model is the money-soaked evolution of the Evony ads that infested Facebook a few years back. The older ads featured attractive women attired less-than-modestly, beckoning the viewer to "Play Now, My Lord." The Upton ads are essentially the same thing, only in live-action, full-motion form with massive effects budgets.
Plus, unlike the painted women of Evony, Upton actually appears in Game of War, though she's not quite the goddess of the battlefield seen here.
Perhaps if Game of War: Fire Age were an action game we'd have gotten to see Upton riding through fantasy battlefields, whispering combat secrets into the ears of soldiers. But Game of War is a mobile free-to-play massively multiplayer online strategy game, so her appearance as the character Athena is limited to static tutorial screens, messages and the odd in-game gold sale splash.
The action depicted in the ad campaign, crafted by the marketing creatives at Untitled Worldwide, is only implied in Game of War. It's what players of the social strategy MMO might imagine as they navigate countless menus and wait out a seemingly unending series of timers.
It's the same dull free-to-play mobile take on strategy games like Civilization we've seen countless times before, first on Facebook and then on mobile as the social gaming platform of choice changed. Players build a fortress, cover it with tiny buildings that produce wood or metal or stone or soldiers. The gathered resources are used to upgrade the tiny buildings and gather soldiers for defense and conquest.
Players join alliances, which can work together to help reduce the ever-present timers. Combat involves watching your troups march across the map, some dust clouds covering up the random number crunching, and then watching your troops march home.
It's basically a complicated version of Clash of Clans, which also ran a (much more entertaining) Super Bowl ad last night. Game of War is a much deeper game, but that depth translates to confusing menus clashing with ads for its in-game gold bargains.
It's all a tedious mess, full of mechnics specifically aimed at speeding up progression for paying customers while frustrating the rest of the audience to the point of pulling out thier wallets. Developer Machine Zone started off making text-based games, and despite the action depicted in the Upton ads, this isn't far removed from those basic beginnings.
So where's the appeal? What has kept Game of War: Fire Age consistently ranked as high as number two (right below Clash of Clans) in the iPhone's "Top Grossing" list since its 2013 iOS debut?
As with CoC, the answer lies somewhere between community and competition. The social aspect of these base building and battling games delivers a sensation akin to the feeling of importance and belonging that comes of being a member of a traditional MMORPG guild. Helping other players conquer obstacles—even if those obstacles are mostly timers—can be quite rewarding.
Combine that feeling with the fact that every time a player purchases real-money items and resources there are benefits got their entire Alliance, and suddenly it's not so hard to spend five dollars here or ten dollars there. Hell, I spent ten dollars playing the game for research—those sales splash pages are mighty enticing. Just ask the kid who racked up nearly $50,000 on his grandfather's credit card last year.
And who knows? Maybe all of that community spirit can carry your Alliance to the top of the laederboards, making you King or Queen of the entire virtual world.
Game of War: Age of Fire is not a game for me. It's not a game for any traditional gamer—anyone that's experienced the glory of Civilization could never be contented with such a pale, money-hungry imitator, even with a massive global community behind it.
This is a game for the non-gaming masses, the millions of people out there who've never sat in front of their computer desperately trying to fend off a nuke-crazed Gandhi. The sort of people who, upon catching a flashy Super Bowl ad featuring a movie star or model or whatever CG nonsense Heroes Charge released, pick up their phones and play.
Let's hope they aren't expecting Kate-Upton-riding-away-from-a-collapsing-castle-in-slow-motion (possibly while eating a messy cheeseburger) levels of excitement. That would take a far better game than Game of War: Fire Age.