The Language of War

Backed by a real-time translation engine, Game of War aims to be the biggest mobile MMO

When launching an MMO internationally, the language barrier always crops up. Some games get around this problem by having dedicated servers tailored toward specific groups. Others allow their player base to fragment, with clans or guilds using their nationality as a recruiting tool.

Mobile MMO developer Machine Zone thinks that there’s a third option. While developing its latest free-to-play title Game of War, the development team built a real-time translation engine from the ground up. And, unlike traditional services, it understands gamer slang too. Fortunately, CEO Gabriel Leydon was on hand to give me a tour of the mobile MMORTS and explain the development behind it.

At first glance, Game of War felt familiar, reminding me of traditional RTS games including Age of Empires and Civilization. A tutorial guided me through the first stages of building my own city, such as constructing mines and farms or building a barracks to train troops.  Research trees, hero skill trees and crafting options all provided hints at a much deeper game beneath the surface.

A closer look, however, revealed many aspects of modern online play. Part of that was a chat window constantly reminding me that I was playing an online game. The other half was the suggestion that I join an alliance and become a part of something bigger, unlocking a number of perks in the process.

It’s the alliance-level play that’s starting to form the backbone of Game of War. While trialling it in a handful of countries ahead of the global launch today, Leydon discovered that there was more power-brokering than armed conflict. “When you play the game, you’ll notice that it’s very political; there’re a lot of deals going on, a lot of helping. It’s a very human game, a very emotional game.”

There are rewards to being a respected leader. Game of War is divided into kingdoms, with each one containing a Wonder. The leader of an alliance that controls this wonder has the power to set tax rates and grant boons to anyone in the kingdom, making them an incredibly powerful ally. Leydon added that each king will eventually be able to face off against the others, creating a ‘King of Kings.’

It’s not all a bed of roses at the top, with Leydon mentioning that a player-chosen code of ethics was starting to emerge. “If the community decides they don’t like you, they’ll tear you apart. What we find is the people that are most successful are the ones brokering all the political deals, rather than the ones fighting all the time.”

That level of interaction also extends to the world map, where players can see troop and trade caravan movements happen in real time. Leydon told me that it’s created an environment where players are constantly watching each other to see what trading deals are happening and who is at war.

Giving players a reason to group up can be challenging enough, but it can be even tougher to get them to communicate. I’ve seen very few other MMOs try to climb over the language barrier, with the result usually being a set of stock phrases to cover the bare minimum. Game of War goes far beyond that, translating chat in real-time between a number of different languages, including English, French, German, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish. But according to Leydon, this feature started as another tool to help players collaborate in-game.

“We don’t have any interest in being a translation company, but we do have an interest in building the world’s largest online games, and this was just a stumbling block that we decided to make an attempt to try and solve.”

It’s a system that’s also evolved over time, and now handles gaming slang as well. “We learned that French players use ‘SLT’ as a short form of ‘Salut’. We didn’t know that going in.” Multilingual players can also help improve the mechanism by translating unknown slang, and get rewarded with in-game items for doing so.

After seeing it for myself, I’m surprised by how effective it is. It seemed like such an obvious idea, I was amazed that other developers hadn’t tried it before. Machine Zone’s layers of translation engine and mechanical turk crowdsourcing worked like multilingual magic before my eyes.

Despite everything that’s gone into Game of War, Leydon insists that there’s still work to do. Following today’s launch on iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch, the team will be focused on improving the world map and political features, trying to make that meta-game play even more immersive.

“We want to appeal to people who like playing group online MMOs. I don’t think there’s a really good mobile MMO right now – I think this is the best one. I think the mobile MMO market will be massive, just as it is on PC, and this is our attempt at bringing truly large-scale MMOs to mobile.”

With Machine Zone continuing to work on ways to bring players together – for better or worse – I wish him the very best of luck.

Gareth “Gazimoff” Harmer, Senior Contributing Editor

Follow me on Twitter @Gazimoff

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