How the super-popular, hard-to-categorize, free-to-play, grind-heavy mobile game is celebrating the 40th anniversary of 'Star Wars'
If you were to take a wild guess as to the most popular Star Wars games of all time, chances are your thoughts would turn to console and PC experiences like Bioware's groundbreaking 2003 RPG Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic or the 2015 multiplayer shooter Star Wars Battlefront. Both were phenomenally successful – Battlefront's sales topped 14 million, making it the most successful Star Wars console game of all time – but in terms of global exposure and sheer numbers, the big daddy is a mobile game.
According to market intelligence service Sensor Tower, Electronic Arts' hard-to-categorize, free-to-play, turn-based, grind-heavy RPG/tactics hybrid Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes has been downloaded 45 million times and generated more than $275 million since it launched in late 2015. While not operating at quite the scale of mobile behemoths like Supercell's Clash Royale or Machine Zone's Mobile Strike – which have both seen well over 100 million downloads – it has carved out a significant spot for itself as an important Star Wars game with a passionate following. In a recent financial call, EA revealed that players spend a staggering 162 minutes a day playing it – returning multiple times on a daily basis to complete tasks and finish battles. Scour through the game's forums, and you'll find many players ascribe this to the fact that the game is as much a habit or source of comfort for them as it is a tactical challenge.
Developed by Electronic Arts' Sacramento-based Capital Games, a small studio that specializes in collectible card and role playing games, Galaxy of Heroes has been a labor of love that began with a very simple pitch. "Our studio has a long history of working in core games that are RPGs or CCGs," says executive producer John Salera, a 15-year veteran of Electronic Arts. "This team is steeped in this stuff. When we were first presented with the opportunity, the most succinct version of our pitch was that we wanted to make something that let you 'play with all the toys'. It was drawn from our experience as kids playing with all the action figures. We'd set up massive battles in our houses, and the notion of being able to mix and match characters across timelines – being able to break through the conventions and build any kind of party – that was all driven by those memories we have of the action figures. We always wanted you to be able to collect and fight with all these ships and characters."
The approach has certainly worked, particularly with older fans with fond memories of the original Kenner toys. "The game delightfully recreates the feeling of collecting action figures and playing with your friends," says Jamil Moledina, a games industry veteran who currently serves as the games strategic lead for Google Play, and runs a Galaxy of Heroes guild that counts Zynga CEO Frank Gibeau, Riot Games' developer relations manager J Eckert, Journey creator Jenova Chen, and numerous others (including myself) among its ranks. "I did that as a kid, I had every single Star Wars action figure, and I'm going for it again. I also really enjoy running my guild, Nerfherders. We've got a bunch of folks from the industry playing, like yourself, and we can just be kids again and have fun together." Like many of the game's dedicated fans, Moledina says he's played it every day since it launched and logs at least 45 minutes on an average day, and 75 if the guild of 50 team members is taking part in a raid.
While the game's fundamentals are built around the idea of team combinations and grinding through turn-based battles that factor in numerous seemingly-complex variables, the core of the experience is as much about collection as it is raids, challenges, and combat. Since the game first launched, the scope of what it is trying to present in terms of Star Wars lore has expanded considerably, and with the 40th anniversary of Star Wars on May 25, it's set to grow further. "We've gone from 60 to 120 characters since our launch back in 2015," says Salera. "We have an embarrassment of riches in terms of potential for characters and ships. As the game has progressed, the team and I have learned a lot about what players respond to. I think we've seen in the past few months that the cadence of characters and events, as well as the coordination of these roll-outs has really improved. It's a difficult conversation – the overall road map is tough because there's almost too much content that we want to roll out. We don't want things to be overwhelming."
For the anniversary, the game is primarily focusing on new content for the central figure of the original trilogy: Luke Skywalker. While present in the game since the beginning, he's (somewhat bizarrely) only appeared so far as the original, rifle-toting farm boy from the opening act of A New Hope, rather than a lightsaber-wielding Jedi badass. "We'll be focusing a lot on Luke," says Salera. "There'll be activities based around the version of the character that we have right now, and we'll also letting people know about a much longer-term experience. There will be a quest line specifically for Luke." This quest, which will be flagged as the Hero's Journey in the game, will kick off in August and is described as Luke's path "to become a member of the forgotten Jedi Order" – so, hopefully players will finally be rewarded with a less whiny flavor of hero. To help players prep ahead of that, the team is gifting 50 Luke shards (the currency that allows you to unlock characters or upgrade their star level) along with a million credits and bunch of ability materials and XP upgrade droids so they can be sure to have a nicely-juiced Skywalker in their roster before the larger quest begins.
On the subject of the moodier, Return of the Jedi-era Luke, Salera is still cagey, despite there being an image of the character on the game's new loading screen. "We definitely want to bring Jedi Luke in," he admits. "We have various iterations of characters – like Anakin and Darth Vader, so we'll definitely be doing other iterations of Luke."
Integrating new characters into the ever-growing game is one of the studio's biggest challenges. "When we think about new characters, or about reworking characters we mainly have to look at what's happening in the larger world of Star Wars," Salera says, noting that the close relationship that his team has with Disney and LucasFilm is a big part of the decision process around character selection and timing. "When Rogue One was coming out we wanted to get some of those characters in, but also we wanted to do things that will surprise people." One such surprise was the Introduction of Darth Nihilus from Knights of the Old Republic 2 back in February. "We were looking at the Sith faction and how they were performing compared to others, and we wanted to kick it up a notch," says Salera. "We wanted to give players a reason to go back to those characters and give Nihilus as a centerpiece to that. He's pretty unique and awesome. There are a ton of characters and ships we still want to bring to the game. It's almost an exercise in restraint right now."
Along with Luke-focused content, the game is also getting a number of fundamental quality of life tweaks to go along with the 40th anniversary. "We'll be launching a new kind of event called flash events," Salera says. "These can be shorter than 24 hours, and the other thing we added is the ability to run these events in local time. All of the events used to launch globally at the same moment, which could be difficult for some people depending on where they lived, but now we can say something is happening at 10am everywhere." The first of these is a Luke-focused event set on Tatooine, and this is also accompanied by a series of "double drop" days through May 29 where all wins yield twice the amount of goodies.
With the game proving so popular, many of the major updates are fueled by player feedback, something that Salera feels is central to the game's success. "We have a lot of players that are coming every day," he says. "There's a spectrum of players at different stages of the level progression. There are a lot of folks in the elder game, where the level cap is 85 but we have new people coming in every day. We've increased the level cap multiple times already. At launch it was 60, then 70, then 80 and now it's at 85. We don't have a scheduled time when we'd plan to go beyond 85, but the game systems certainly enable us to do that if we need to. It'll depend how the game is going. People at 85 – there's a plus and a minus to that. The positive is that they can take those characters that they're focused on and max those out, and then expand their attention to secondary and tertiary sets."
To help those of you who haven't tried Galaxy of Heroes before, or those of you who are struggling to progress through it's many missions, we asked Salera what the best possible team of characters would be. "There are a lot of killer teams," he says. "My play experience is a bit different than most players because we have all the inside knowledge. When I play in the live game though, I've been through three end-to-end experiences where I start playing and go all the way through to the level cap. I'm in my third right now, which I started in February and I'm playing a completely free-to-play account, just to make sure I'm aware of what that feels like and the fun and challenges it provides. I have a party with Fives, a Geonosian soldier, a Royal Guard, IG-88 and I would swap out either Qui Gon or Count Dooku. That kept me hovering around the top 100 in the leaderboard."