Innovating beyond Clash Royale

Some short thoughts here, after sampling Netmarble’s Star Wars: Force Arena, which can be described as a hybrid between Clash Royale and Vainglory.

First of all, it’s no surprise devs are looking at Clash Royale and trying to build upon its success formula. From the initial wave of cheap Chinese knockoffs, we are now beginning to see the more serious attempts to innovate. Aside from Star Wars: Force Arena, there’s also the recently announced Smite Rivals, which we can get a sense of from this teaser video:

Both Smite Rivals and Star Wars: Force Arena implemented the idea of 3 lanes. In Force Arena’s case, the 3-lanes setup is tied to 2v2.1

Force Arena also went the extra step of the MOBA-like camera angle, which likely went hand-in-hand with the addition of the hero gameplay. I’ve mixed views on this concept. On one hand, having unique hero characters per deck is intuitive and awesome (and ties in closely to the fantasy); on the other hand, actually controlling the heroes feel cumbersome. There might have been another direction with making the heroes just unique cards that anchor the decks.

This camera angle adjustment also required a battlefield map that needs panning to navigate around. In my opinion this was a high cost to pay – it costs the player time and energy to move around the battlefield, and a lot of the action is happening off-screen.

Another issue I have with Force Arena is the units design. Being a IP-licensed game, there are basic rules around what units could be. Granted, this is a lot of the fantasy that drive fans to play this game, but at the same time, it is likely limiting game design. At least in my limited play-time, the action does not look as intuitive as Clash Royale, and many units feel “meh” (a lot of humanoids, and the shapes look similar).

The net result of all this is a game that’s more exhausting to play, and less satisfying to watch. To me it’s still a worthwhile experiment, and doing the comparison to Clash Royale helps highlight some key design insights (e.g. such as keeping the action on one fixed screen). I also still think as a general space this area is ripe for further innovation.

 

  1. Incidentally, this was also a direction some coworkers brought up in our water-cooler talks, so it’s exciting in that sense to see the idea brought to life and tested.
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Clash Royale – one month in

Writing a short update to my previous post about Supercell’s new game Clash Royale.

A lot has happened in the one month since I started this game:

  • It’s still in soft-launch mode, but a wide-release window has been set for March 2016, and for both iOS and Android. So clearly Supercell folks are quite happy with the reception so far
  • The devs have started a regular balance cadence (3 so far, I think). These changes have created spikes of meta changes, as far as I can tell
  • Regarding my biggest gripe from the previous post (what I called the “anti-play” loop), not a surprise, this was also one of the biggest complaints from the early adopters. In response, Supercell implemented a fairly simple change – starting a game now costs nothing, but chest gold has been lowered slightly to balance. This simple move has been able to largely change how the game feels when played, at least for me – now when I’m locked out of chest slots, I’m perfectly happy to grind a few (actually, a lot) more games to try to progress in the ladder

A month in, I stand by my previous thoughts that the core gameplay is really solid – I’m still having a lot of fun, and I can feel myself learning and playing the game better. At this point, my current biggest concern with the game is how it will manage the tricky relationship between high-spenders and low-spenders/f2p players.

Just like Clash of Clans, this game has a deep monetization well – a Youtuber who is a top-level player mentioned in his reddit AMA that he has spent $4,000, and even with that he’s still under-leveled compared to some of the other high-spenders at the top of the ladder. This doesn’t mean this game is all “pay-to-win”; rather, it means that there’s a really high cost of admission if you do want to play this game currently at the highest level (another top 10 player was briefly #1 after dropping $5k on-stream to upgrade his cards).  This cost of entry at the “pro-level” is in pretty high contrast to Hearthstone (yes, players will be comparing these two games a lot), where there isn’t the concept of levelling up an individual card after acquiring it – which exponentially increases the collection depth especially with the higher rarity cards.

Directionally, there are “easy” fixes1, and the devs have already added support for one – capping the card levels in a “tournament mode”. This means that realistically perhaps even pure f2p players may have a shot at the competitive events (if and when they occur), if these capped card levels are still in the realm of possibility with free unlocks. Other directions could be to have a separate ranked format, e.g. a pay-to-enter queue (like Hearthstone Arena) where everyone is on a equal setting.

Another anecdotally interesting point: a lot of the top clans are apparently Chinese, despite the game not launched in the market yet. Some of these clans are by overseas Chinese; however this still is a signal to me that this game may have particular appeal to Chinese players. One factor to consider is that there are a lot of high spenders in games in China – this game’s mix of high spending requirements and skill may have a particular appeal to certain players in China.

  1. And this is probably not a new problem for Supercell, given their experience in Clash of Clans etc.
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Clash Royale – early review

I’ve been playing Clash Royale from Supercell since it soft launched in a number of geographic markets. Personally I got it from the Hong Kong app store (which is where I live currently, though my main app store account is still back in the US). If you work in video-games or are passionate/serious about making games, you need to play this game now. 1

I’m not going to do a full overview of the game – there’s quite a few detailed reviews. The short story is this game is at its highest level a PVP RTS game, with strong design elements of tower defense games and collectable card games (e.g. Hearthstone). Suffice to say the core gameplay – the PVP battles – are really well designed and addictive. It’s conceptually super easy to understand, yet the RNG of “what’s my next card?” combined with a good initial pool of cards to collect means there’s quite some depth and variety to the gameplay (the proverbial easy to learn, hard to master). 2

My early “negative” feedback from my personal experience so far is the chest unlock timers. The basic loop: after every victory, you are awarded a chest. Unlocking the chest requires a traditional mobile f2p countdown timer – the lowest silver chests take 3 hours, and golden chests take 8 hours. You also only have a total of 4 chest slots, which means after a good 20 minutes into the game (beyond the tutorials) you’ll have probably maxed out all your slots. You can keep playing, but you see this:

Chest Slots Full!
Making you feel bad about playing more

This sets up a pretty negative “anti-play” loop – I really want to play more Clash Royale, but this pop-up makes me feel like I’m left with no good choices – I can either wait for hours (literally) to be able to play for 1 more win (and then back to waiting), or spend precious in-game currency 3 to play and lose out on chests.

The alternative, of course, is to spend gems (real money) to instantly unlock these chests. But as a monetization gate this feels very heavy-handed, especially considering the CCG elements (randomized card drop, plus cards can be upgraded by collecting more of the same card, with a steep resource curve) already set up a fairly deep monetization well to draw from. As a player, I would say the obvious solutions are to either increase the number of chest slots or reduce the timers, but either would heavily impact the card acquisition model, so without running that spreadsheet it’s hard to say if these are viable solutions or not.

The above is my primary gripe with the game so far. As it relates to the content acquisition loop, I think it’s easier to fix. I also think the core gameplay is really solid (so I wouldn’t be surprised if this becomes a top 10-grossing game) and is a great example of where core mobile PVP games could be headed. On this particular note, I read this other blog post and can wholeheartedly recommend it. I think even without fancy interaction paradigms like VR, we are still only scratching the surface of super-immersive core gameplay on mobile, and Clash Royale is a big step in the right direction.

  1. It’s fairly trivial to create a fresh app store account on some of these soft-launched markets – this should never be a reason why you haven’t played a soft-launched mobile game on iOS. This also applies to the China app store, which I think houses some of the boldest yet conventional (as in brute-force) attempts at migrating core PC genres onto mobile
  2. CCGs are also by design great for monetization, so no one should be surprised to see the mechanic used more and more broadly in games
  3. each game costs gold, the higher your rank tier the higher the gold cost to match-make, and these do add up
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