Arknights is a new mobile F2P game from Hypergryph, a studio founded in 2017 in Shanghai. There’s not a lot of info about this young studio, aside from “the founding team are from Google, Massive Black and Cygames.” I’d guess it’s about 50 people in headcount.

The reason I’m writing about this game / studio is I think it’s a good example of the new gen of Chinese developers’ capabilities. This is not a Tencent / Netease studio with massive headcount and brute-force production. The scope and production budget seem carefully managed, while still achieving a sharp impression of high quality and polish.

Game overview

So what is the game? Arknights is an original IP / anime-themed / character-based / tower defense game, with f2p gacha monetization & progression. This video covers the gameplay:

The game art and UI leaves a strong first impression:

Main menu, with the menu UI tilting to gyroscope movement (creating a pleasing effect). The UI is surprisingly clean (especially compared to most Chinese games) given how many features are actually on display
Character info screen
Character skin select (more of a placeholder for now, as most characters only have the base skin)

Chinese studios have developed a specialization in anime-based IP for a while now. To name a few brands that have struck it big in China and/or overseas: Honkai Impact 3, Azur Lane, Girls Frontline, Onmyoji. Given the ecosystem of talent, I’m not surprised that a new studio is able to execute on new IP creation here well.

Core gameplay summary

What I am pleasantly surprised by is the gameplay: this is a fairly thoughtful iteration on the tower defense genre. (Scroll up to the video to see it in action.)

To quickly summarize the gameplay ruleset:

  • Deck-building: players start each level with a deck of 12 characters, plus one optional additional character from a friend (or socially recommended)
  • Grid based, real-time combat, with goal of stopping enemy units from reaching assigned grids on the map. Energy charges up over time, and can be consumed to place units. There is a cap on number of units placed per map
  • Unit placement is based on class restrictions – generally, melee are placed in low ground (where ground enemies will pass through) while ranged are placed in high ground
  • Units can be recalled from the map. Recalled or killed units go through a revival timer, after which they can be placed again, at a higher energy cost
  • Level design elements:
    • map grids where enemies can be pushed off, or give special buffs and consumable abilities (an AOE stun)
    • Large amounts of special level rules, for example melee units only and no energy auto-generation
  • Unit classes that fulfill specialized roles, formed through the following building blocks:
    • Unit attributes: HP, attack damage (physical, magic, heal), attack range, , attack speed, attack effects (single target, AOE, slow), defense, magic resistance, number of units blocked, deploy cost, revive timer
    • Units have special abilities that charge up over time, with diverse effects ranging from basic attack steroids (attack speed buff, increased attack range, next attack hits 2 enemies etc.) to resource abilities (generate extra energy for players) and displacement abilities (pull / push enemies)
The 8 character classes, standard fare for RPGs but provides a good foundation for gameplay depth

This is not a particularly complex system but it has enough space for a lot of variety in characters, and the characters are certainly the heart and soul of the game. Players do need to invest broadly in many characters, as the classes each play specific roles and different levels will emphasize different classes.

The generic single level strategy is as follows: put down some Vanguards (melee, low cost, abilities related to energy generation) for early defense; with more energy, build up your core defense of Defenders (high HP / low attack, can block multiple units), Snipers (ranged physical) / Casters (ranged magic) and Medics (healers); recall your Vanguards to free up cap to put down situational units such as a Support that slows, or a high damage Guard to pick off a single threat. In line with the overall tower defense genre, this flow clearly has shadows of classic RTS games (build up economy, expand, adapt).

The specific level design will ask players to adapt their strategies, sometimes quite drastically: for example one of my favorite level types has no energy generation at all, which forces players to thoughtfully utilize Vanguards throughout these levels as a source of economy.

The common game loop is like this: try out a new level a couple of times to understand the level design and different unit placement strategies; if needed, make some tweaks to your deck to address the level’s specific challenges and/or invest in leveling up your characters, and repeat the level until you are able to perfectly complete it. This is where F2P business model tensions creep in (more on this later).

Macro systems

I don’t play gacha RPG games deeply, but the general systems here look similar enough.

Monetization – premium currency can be converted / funneled through various systems to advance the player’s progression. Most notably, it can be used on 1) gacha draw of characters; and 2) Recharging stamina, which is consumed when levels are played. There are also various real-money packages that can be purchased directly, which offer a bunch of progression resources (crafting mats) such as XP cards for leveling up characters.

Character progression – 4 major components:

  • “Potential” upgrade – duplicate gacha draws of the same character can be consumed to improve character attributes (e.g. reduced cost) up to 5 times
  • Character leveling – only through consuming XP cards (which can be farmed / purchased)
    • “Elite” conversion – at max level, consuming a bunch of mats to advance the character to the next stage (unlock new abilities and passives), resetting the level count. Characters have several Elite stages, which extends the leveling ceiling
  • Abilities leveling – consuming mats to level up the ability level
  • Relationship – accumulated through playing with the character (also using the character in the base building system – see below), grants bonus stats

Another significant macro-system is the base building system, which takes cues from the likes of XCOM and Fallout Shelter:

Base at a glance – certainly looks similar to XCOM
Zoomed-in view of one of the rooms in the base

The base building system primarily serve the following goals:

  • Another axis of progression, as the base is gradually expanded over time and requires mats / resources to do so
  • A reliable source of economy for players to produce mats, and also grow relationships with characters
  • A presentation of the characters
  • Light social interactions amongst players
  • A engagement habit-forming hook, as you need to check in regularly (at least once a day) to collect your outputs and manage your team

As characters are the central driver for player engagement, both in terms of IP / narrative (these are appealing characters that attract players) and progression (want to see these characters become more powerful). The daily engagement thus is fulfilling quests and replaying levels (once you’ve perfectly completed a level, it can be auto-played at 2x speed) for mats, and doing base management about once or twice a day.

A quick note on the game’s social systems. The game directly requests the player’s phone number to register, and doesn’t have any alternative logins (e.g. QQ / wechat openID login). This shows the dev / publisher’s intent to grow its own social graph, but at a notable cost. There are no group social features such as guilds; you can add friends, which gives you the benefit of borrowing your friends’ characters for levels, and also for some light co-op related to base management. As is standard with many gacha games, the game also recommends strangers (through recommending characters to borrow).

Gameplay issues

Briefly discussing the game’s issues:

  • The obvious tension between gameplay and F2P. Game levels have recommended character levels, which compels players to go through the progression grind. After a few days of play the game quickly becomes primarily about the progression grind as the content pace slows down dramatically
  • To make matters worse (and also common for many gacha games), game levels have low replay value. Once the puzzle of a level is figured out, there is very little outcome risk (since there’s low execution variation). The only question then is whether your character progression meets the level’s demands. And thanks to the internet optimal level strategies are only a few clicks away, further aggravating this issue
  • Weak social play. The game feels decidedly lonely and the acceptance rate on stranger invites feel lower than other gacha games
  • Base management quickly becomes a chore

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