product & design

Companion Apps are Taking Video Games to the Next Level

Game developers know perfectly well that a side dish can make the main course taste more delicious.


 

In recent years, companion apps have been leveraged by the world’s leading game development studios. They provide a great way to engage players and further immerse them in virtual worlds even when they’re not in front of their consoles.

Aside from adding extra nuance to video gaming, mobile apps can also be used as a clever marketing tactic – especially when you make use of the fact that gaming communities love uncovering secrets and cracking encrypted messages.

Let’s take a better look at some small but powerful companion apps.

Cyberpunk 2077 ARG

You can say what you want about CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077, but there’s one thing about the 2020’s loudest game that’s really hard to argue with: its killer marketing. 

Two years before every piece of media was literally flooded with Cyberpunk’s distinctive yellow hue, the creators pulled some neat tricks to spark the player’s interest. Around the time the studio made everyone go crazy with the famous *beep* tweet, they also released an alternate reality game (ARG) revolving around the game’s contents.

Very much on theme with the Cyberpunk setting, the ongoing ARG was packed with encrypted messages, including an IP address that led to a secret section of the game’s official website, mysterious images with hidden links, and a Twitch code stream that preceded the public debut of Cyberpunk 2077’s gameplay trailer (which, by the way, also included a hidden message within its final frame). 

What a way to build the hype. 

Paradox Interactive’s Tender app

Paradox Interactive knows how to tease their upcoming games, too.

In 2019, they teamed up with a full-stack entertainment agency Alice & Smith to prepare something special for the announcement of a much-anticipated sequel to their cult classic, Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines.

Together, they kicked off the marketing campaign with a release of a fake dating app called Tender. Right of the bat, the app hinted at something vampiric coming our way: it asked the users for their blood type and submitted them to a wide range of rather unconventional behavioral and emotional tests.

Most importantly, Tender was a part of an ARG game that proved to be extremely successful at creating buzz around Bloodlines 2.

“The further players dug in the rabbit hole, the more intense and dark the activities became. By the fourth week, more than 350 websites, Discord channels, Reddit threads, and press articles were trying to tackle the mystery.

More than 200,000 unique viewers followed the interactive stream and interacted with the live audience. Twitch drop campaigns, live voting, onsite emotions analytics, and many more features were integrated to create a complete transmedia moment”, wrote Tender’s creators Alice and Smith on their website

 

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Companion App

When building companion apps that aim to enhance the main course, developers often have to answer one crucial question: how to design a second screen experience that won’t take players out of the main game too much?

Ubisoft Montreal managed to tackle this challenge cleverly. In 2013, they created a tablet companion app for another entry in the Assassin’s Creed saga, Black Flag. While the app mainly included features that could also be accessed in the main game, the elements of its presentation were designed to further increase immersion. 

How did they do that? By letting players actually hold the world map (along with separate treasure maps) directly in their hands. The app makes you feel like an early-18th-century pirate, planning your next move across the glimmering Caribbean Sea.

"The advantages of our companion app is that we take useful game features that you use often in the game and we bring them directly in the player's hand," explained Sylvain Trottier, associate producer on Black Flag, in his talk with Gamasutra.

"This way, the player can stay as much as possible in our beautiful 3D world and use his companion app to decide and mark where to go, to see where and how important treasures are buried in the world, to manage his fleet, etc."

 

World of Worldcraft Companion App

If you’ve ever played Activision Blizzard’s MMORPG World of Worldcraft you probably know that it’s a game that can easily take over your entire life. 

The creators are fully aware of that and decided to give the players a companion app that lets them stay in Azeroth even when they’re away from their PCs. The World of Warcraft Companion App allows for keeping track of their character’s main stats and picking pieces of gear they want to use next time they’re ready to dive into the game’s world. 

The app also includes community features such as an event calendar and guild chat, which lets players stay in touch with their guildmates. Given how important guilds are in WoW, this can be seen as a truly essential feature. Activision Blizzard clearly wanted players to have a dedicated social component that would compete with third-party messaging apps such as Discord. 

The WoW Companion App is also a mobile game in its own right. All thanks to the cleverly designed Adventures feature. It’s a set of tactical combat puzzles in which players recruit champions and troops for one of four Covenants, and send them out on missions.  

 

Mass Effect Datapad

Developed by BioWare and published by EA, the Mass Effect series is considered to be one of the best western RPGs to date. The games combine engaging action and combat gameplay with a captivating story and lore-heavy narrative.

However, these genre-blending titles can be somewhat conflicting. After all, finding time to really sink into the game’s world can be difficult, when another action-packed mission awaits. 

That’s why BioWare created a companion app called the Datapad which came with the release of Mass Effect 3. The app includes codex entries that players unlocked throughout the course of the game, allowing them to learn more about the main events and characters, and keep them engaged even outside of Mass Effect’s vast world. 

Here’s how Mass Effect 3 lead writer Mac Walters describes it:

“Probably the most inclusive thing on the Datapad app is the codex entries, which of course are available in the game. The ones in the game will be tailored to your experience and open up as you play the game. While we wanted to add other ways to access the universe, we didn’t want you to necessarily feel like you HAD to have them. They had to be optional, but they also had to feel useful in their own right”

 

Call of Duty Companion App

We saved the best for last. 

Yes, the Call of Duty app is probably one of the most compelling video game companion apps to date, simply because of the way it enriches the competitive experience of Activision Blizzard’s hit online shooter and helps the players constantly improve. The app tracks their progress across played matches and allows them to see a broad range of important stats, such as kill ratio, top placements, or weapon usage. 

Players are also able to modify their loadout, selecting different weapons and perks. Saved combinations automatically update in-game, so players can make preparations whenever they want and save some time when they’re finally ready to play. 

You can read more about this feature in Tim Young’s dev diary, where one of the app’s creators describes the process of building and improving the CoD app:

When I joined the Call of Duty Companion App team we had about a 2.0 star rating on both the App Store and the Play store. Over this last year we all worked super hard and today the app rating is at a 4.1 on Android and a 4.8 on iOS. It's such a huge achievement for us and I'm super excited about what's next for the app. I'm working on some really cool things right now.

More importantly, the app includes some slick social aspects, such as the Squads feature. Players can gather up to 20 friends, monitor each other’s performance, and work together towards achieving common goals, getting bonus XP points and calling cards along the way. 

There’s one more thing. By gathering so much data on players’ performance, the developers can better understand their preferences and behaviors and use that information to further tweak and improve their games in the future. 

That alone is enough to make an app, wouldn’t you say? 



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