This simple mobile game has been quietly popular in my part of the Riot office recently, and I found myself quickly spending 2 hours a day on it, so I thought it deserved a quick write-up.

Reading the credits and the publisher’s website, Archero is developed by a small indie team (11 people listed in the credits, including 2 programmers, 4 artists and 1 game designer) in China. The publisher HABBY has a stated strategy to identify high quality indie productions from China and bring them globally. (I’m generally a fan of this approach and think there’s an arbitrage opportunity here currently.)

Core gameplay

The core gameplay is deceptively simple but with a sharp design insight. This is an action roguelike dungeon crawler, where you control a character that can perform ranged attacks. You only control the character’s movement; when the character stops moving, he attacks based on AI auto-aiming. The insight is the interesting tension / trade-off between moving and attacking, and the high mechanical satisfaction gained from stutter-stepping / orbwalking (to borrow MOBA mechanics terms) that effectively weaves together dodging threats / repositioning and dishing out damage.

This is literally a game that can be played with one thumb, but it can feel very satisfying with a good amount of depth and skill expression. At any moment in time, players are reading the dynamic battlefield for upcoming threats, and making rapid decisions around optimal positioning.

The roguelike elements play nicely into content replayability. Players are offered random power-up choices (from a pool of skills) as they level up in a single run. These choices loosely constitute a “build”, though that is an under-utilized design space in this game in my opinion – there are skills that are clearly more powerful and are almost always prioritized. Despite this, the sheer RNG nature does provide lots of variability to each run, with the usual satisfaction highs/lows of RNG.

(A side note, the core gameplay largely holds up, but sometimes can get into a degenerate, unreadable state visually due to too many projectiles on-screen.)

Meta loop

The meta-game loop is where this game could really be upgraded. Core game content is segmented into “Chapters” of increasing difficulty (enemies with tougher mechanics and higher stats). Your character has permanent progression through gear (which can be dropped through play or loot boxes, can be fused to a higher rarity, and leveled up) and persistent stats power-ups.

The stats power progression (and thus, monetization of power) is really steep. A casual glance at Reddit shows most players talking about being stuck on Chapter 7 for weeks on end. (I’m stuck on Chapter 5 after a week’s play, with no monetization.) This is where the game sort of falls apart – the loop becomes a very long grind (farming earlier chapters) for gear drops, so that you can fuse / level-up to increase your stats, so that eventually you meet the power level to beat the chapter you are stuck at.

So why is it implemented like this, and how can it be better? If I were to speculate, this is likely a content production problem, with the small team making a conscious trade-off of using a steep power progression in place of a content treadmill they can’t keep up with. In other words – for live-ops there’s better churn/LTV by forcing players to farm for months vs. players cruising through the content and “completing the game”.

There are a bunch of systems that can be introduced to partially alleviate this. A random daily quest system would go a long way to introduce variety and make farming more tolerable. Social features are an entirely untapped space as well. For a small team though, these are likely substantial engineering challenges, so I don’t begrudge the team for not taking them on already.

Watch this space

My overall feeling from a couple of weeks’ play is this is likely a core gameplay concept that will be lifted by another studio with a larger budget, and married with a more mature meta loop. This is very much a diamond in the rough.

1 thought on “Archero”

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.