Brawl Stars vs Clash Royale : Designing a Strong Gacha

When Supercell launches a new game, it sends shock waves around our industry and players alike. On June 14th, Supercell released Brawl Stars — and in typical fashion, we all jumped on to give it a try.

But there was something special about when Supercell launched Brawl Stars. The game was Supercell’s first outside of the strategy genre. Brawl Stars is the first action-based multi-player game for Supercell, and notably, the most casual MOBA style game launched for mobile to date. Supercell also publicised the launch, beginning with an e-sport style tournament. This isn’t a typical soft launch; they are already building up a massive community and driving a strong streamer culture around this game. This was a bold move for Supercell. Supercell has been known to stop games such as Battle Buddies, Smash Land and Spooky Pop when they don’t look like they will become a top 10 game. Going into this soft launch with so much confidence is bold.

But weeks after the game has been launched, industry veterans began to weigh in and started noticing the cracks in the design. Many have already dismissed the game as an unlikely game to launch, despite having a massive following already from streamers and e-sport fans. Currently, the game is sustaining in the top 10 grossing in Canada and driving a massive community around it. Despite the concerns, this game could end up being a surprise hit due to the strong multiplayer gameplay.

But ultimately as a game designer, what I see from Brawl Stars is an amazing game that is weakened by a poorly designed gacha system. It fails to deliver on what a gacha system needs to do, and it will ultimately not last in its current incarnation. Comparing the system to Clash Royale, Brawl Stars system is considerably weaker and will result in lower revenue on a per player basis. Even if Supercell can drive downloads organically, this will hold it back from where it could be.

While I believe the game is incredibly fun to play and may just succeed based on its multiplayer component alone, ultimately the game will be weak on a revenue-per-player basis.

From this analysis, it begs the question:

What is it about the Brawl Star mechanics which weakens the Gacha? That comes down to Depth.

“Depth” of a Gacha System

Something to clarify is about how designers look at depth of a gacha system, and why this matters.

The depth of a gacha system ultimately defines how long it will last, roughly what the maximum spend a player could spend to reach the end of content, or how long a player would need to play before reaching the end of content. This is usually defined as the number of drops it takes to complete the gacha.

A “drop” in a gacha is defined as giving away a single item. For example, in Clash Royale a drop would be synonymous with a single card dropped from a chest. Some designers also call this a “pull” — but for this article, I will call them drops.

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Keep in mind that a drop does not mean a chest. A Chest has multiple drops in the case of Clash Royale, but a chest in Brawl Stars only contains a single drop. Also, not all drops are alike — a drop from a legendary chest in Clash Royale is not the same as a drop in a wooden chest — since the legendary chest has different probabilities for selecting higher value items. But when roughly measuring the depth of a gacha — you can ignore (average out) the “quality” of a drop.

Drops are important because the ultimate goal in free to play games is to maximise long-term retention and maximise the cap of the economy. To drive strong long-term retention, players need to have a long lasting sustained desire to pull from the Gacha. The more drops this takes, the longer the system will last.

The more drops a gacha can sustain, the more generous a game can be, the higher revenue per player, and the higher the long term retention would likely be.

On this metric, Clash Royale’s system dominates Brawl Stars, comparing their soft launch states. Designers usually have 3 key variables to maximise Depth: Content, Duplicate mechanics and Pacing. In all 3 of these cases, Clash Royale’s systems outperform Brawl Stars.

Problem #1: Content

Content is usually the easiest problem to point to with a shallow gacha system. Brawl Stars has 15 characters (for now) whereas Clash Royale had 42 at their soft launch.

What this gave Clash Royale was a longer period of time in which players were likely to get new content, as well as the ability to control the pacing of the introduction of this content. With 42 cards at launch, Clash Royale was able to pace the pool over time using Arena tiers. So players knew they needed to play for awhile before they could even gain access to some of the upper tier cards.

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On top of this, because they were able to launch with this much content, each interaction with the gacha system felt novel and interesting, especially between arena tiers. So playing through arena 1, each time you opened up a gacha chest you typically got new cards. Each time you levelled up to a new tier, you were introduced to a whole new set of cards, all of a sudden the gacha got way more exciting to open (even inciting purchases like the limited offer for each tier!).

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For Brawl Stars, with 15 characters, all available in the gacha from the beginning, with only a few as legendary, this leaves Supercell in an inflexible position. They need to keep all 15 in the pool from the beginning, otherwise, players will get duplicates too fast from the gacha. By only having a few legendaries, the path to complete the gacha feels fast. As a paying player of Brawl Stars, I’ve dropped a small amount of money, but already feel like I’ve unlocked a majority of the content that the game has to offer.

With more content, Brawl Stars would have considerably better control over the player experience and make it last far longer.

For Supercell to correct this problem it may not come in the form of new characters. Brawl Stars gameplay is not the same as Clash Royale. Clash Royale’s core gameplay supports and pushes players to have a collection of cards, especially since each battle requires 8 cards chosen. Brawl Stars only asks the player to choose 1 character. If they add too many characters, this may lead to players losing the desire to collect them all. Having too many characters can lead to players just choosing one they like and ignoring the rest. Brawl Stars will need to find new ways of dropping desirable content, and it may not be in the form of characters. Content can come in the form of special abilities, perks, equipable weapons, customizations, which each could add considerable depth to the progression system, and drive players to upgrade more than just their favourite character.

Problem #2: Duplicates

Content typically isn’t a terminal problem on its own. Content is simply the base in which the gacha total drops has to work with. If content were the only thing that was important, Hearthstone’s 1,000+ card collection would dominate over Clash Royale, but this isn’t the case. The fact is that Clash Royale got away with significantly less content than Hearthstone at its launch because of its duplicate system.

Even with a smaller set of content, a strong mechanic for handling duplicates can make a gacha mechanic last.

The most terminal problem that was introduced with Brawl Stars was the mechanic for handling duplicates.

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In Brawl Stars, getting a duplicate character in the gacha meant that you were instead rewarded with a single blue chip. This mechanic is similar to Hearthstone, where you can exchange duplicate cards for a small amount of dust. Players can exchange the blue chips in for unlocking characters, although the number of blue chips necessary to unlock many of the rare characters is insane.

As a result, each time I have purchased gacha packs from Brawl Stars I’ve felt completely regretful. After I unlocked a majority of the characters, each chest has a high probability of dropping a single blue chip over unlocking a new character or gaining some elixir (the currency necessary to upgrade your characters). Having a string of gacha packs that just give out blue chips, especially if you’ve unlocked all the content, would surely cause many players to churn.

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Clash Royale doesn’t have this problem because it drives significant value from its duplicates. Duplicate cards are necessary to upgrade the card. Getting a single card unlocks the card for use, but to have the fully upgraded version of the card, you need duplicates of it.

This is what makes Clash Royale’s Gacha system last. Thinking in terms of the number of drops, even with a base amount of content of 42 cards, requiring each card duplicate to be found hundreds of times (depending on rarity) exponentially increases the number of drops necessary to reach the end of the economy.

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Even thinking about maximising a single legendary card can show you that it takes a lot of drops. It’s reported that Supercell drops 1 legendary card 0.43% of the time in their gold level chests. If we use this as a base, and a pool of 6 legendary cards, that leaves the % of dropping your chosen legendary to be 0.0716%. In order to upgrade this card fully, you need 37 drops of this card. So, on average, a player will need over 50,000 drops before their single legendary card is fully upgraded. That’s a system that LASTS.

So for Brawl Stars to utilise its minimal content better, it needs to think about duplicate mechanics similar to Clash Royale. Potentially duplicates increase the max upgrade level of a character. Potentially duplicates unlock new special abilities. Without it, players will simply lose interest in the gacha, or feel as though the high price tag to purchase chests are just not worth it.

Problem #3: Pacing

With gacha systems, designers have one final variable to control how long their gacha lasts: pacing.

Not all gacha systems support a huge amount of drops, but to counteract this, increase the time it takes for a player to get another drop from the gacha. For pacing, game designers typically have a couple methods to use:

  • Pace how often the players can open the gacha
  • Pace how many drops the gacha gives

Clash Royale gives a lot of drops daily. With free chests, crown chests, clan chests, and regular chests, each day players can get plenty of free drops to feel progress. This is mostly because Clash Royale’s duplicate system multiplied by their high amount of content supports such a high amount of drops.

With Brawl Stars, because of the low level of content and the fact that duplicates aren’t necessary, this left Supercell designers in a bind. They had to pace their gacha significantly slower. They did this by tying chests to coins, and by making chests only give 1 drop each. Comparing this to the experience of opening a chest in Clash Royale, Brawl Star’s gacha boxes are far less rewarding. The reward pops up, you get a single currency of something, and then you’re left feeling “That’s it?”. This problem is magnified when each drop can be amazing or terrible feeling. If I get a new character or some elixir this feels good. If I get a blue chip… I feel like all the time I put into collecting coins for that box was worthless.

Clash Royale’s chests on the other end can guarantee rare or legendary cards, and even if I get a duplicate, it still feels beneficial. So even as I reach the mid-game and end-game where I have a majority of the content, every time I open a gacha I feel like I’m making progress, and I have a chance for big gains.

Supercell had pace Brawl Stars chests this harshly because their economy only supports a certain amount of drops. If they increase the number of drops a chest will give, this will mean they either need to increase the pacing (increase the cost in coins to purchase a chest) or they will be allowing players to speed through content significantly faster something they can’t afford with the low amount of content they have so far.

The Path Forward

Supercell’s Brawl Stars is an amazingly fun game to play. As the community has shown, there is a huge desire to play an action-based MOBA on mobile, and clearly, Supercell has capitalised on this with Brawl Stars. This game has a strong chance of succeeding simply based on its rabid community building around its multiplayer core gameplay.

But as we know in free to play, a strong core gameplay is only the first step towards success. For Brawl Stars to become a Supercell-sized success, it’s about how long their systems last.

Improvements could come with more content, it could come from better pacing of the gacha, but driving more sustainable drops likely will need to come from a better mechanic for duplicates to avoid a content treadmill. Taking a page from Clash Royale’s system and finding a way to make duplicates a key part of reaching the end of content for its gacha mechanics. Doing so will exponentially increase the lifetime of their gacha systems, plus drive stronger retention and monetization from their user base.

Brawl Stars has the DNA of the next Supercell hit. They may just need to make some last minute adjustments to make it the next billion dollar game. I’ll be cheering for them.

Deconstructing Gardenscapes

This post is the first of many to be done in cooperation with Deconstructor Of Fun. As announced by BothGunsBlazing, Anil Das-Gupta and I are joining forces with DeconstructorOfFun.com. Deconstructor has been an amazing resource for me and many mobile free to play designers around the industry so it’s an honour to be contributing to such an exceptional site. A big thank you to Michail Katkoff, Anil Das-Gupta, Dave Cross and Alex Collins for their help with this post. Looking forward to what’s to come!

Gardenscapes’ Big Pivot

Turn back the clock only one year, and it felt like the matching/puzzle game genre was locked up and dominated by one player: King. Since last year, things have changed. King’s still on top, but there has been a new contender slowly moving up the charts. Playrix, a veteran casual game developer, has created two huge hits on mobile: Fishdom and Gardenscapes. In particular, each of these games has shown that there is more than one way to monetize off a puzzle game audience.

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Gardenscapes: New Acres by Playrix has now been a staple in the Top Grossing charts since September 2016, showing no signs of fading.  Gardenscapes has made many companies within the puzzle genre turn their heads. It’s the first major successful innovation in the puzzle genre since 2012 when Candy Crush launched on mobile.

So what has Playrix done with Gardenscapes that so many have failed to do?

The History of PlayRix & Gardenscapes

To understand the success of Gardenscapes, we have to go back to the history of Playrix and the Gardenscapes brand.

Playrix as a company started in 2004, building casual downloadable games for PCs. They specialized in matching and hidden object games. Playrix during its early days released many successful titles like Fishdom, Gardenscapes, Farmscapes, 4 Elements and Royal Envoy.
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It’s interesting to note that King.com, Big Fish, PopCap and Playrix all competed within the casual market in these formative years. It’s not a coincidence that many of the top puzzle game developers today competed back in the casual PC market more than a decade ago.

Similar to the competitive market of launching casual games in 2017, developers during the casual PC downloadable era fought to try to stand out with new mechanics and new themes. Casual game companies attempted to innovate on the match 3 formula by adding simulation elements, decoration elements, darker themes and narrative elements.

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PlayRix competed in a market from 2004 which mimicked the competitive trends we’re seeing now on the AppStore. They’ve seen the cycles that match 3 players go through after playing too many bejeweled clones. Focusing on narrative & decoration had already been proven, only 10 years prior.

By 2009, Playrix moved into Free-to-play and launched their first simulation game, Township, onto Facebook. By 2013, they had redesigned and launched Township on mobile. After porting over Fishdom, the pressure was on to port over their Gardenscapes IP.

Gardenscapes, the Hidden Object Game

Gardenscapes on PC actually was not a matching game, but a hidden object game. As you can see from the above video, it was less about decorating a garden and more about running a bed and breakfast, looking after the guests that come visiting. What’s interesting is comparing these old games to now — the characters, the animation style, the UI/UX design have all stayed consistent with the latest New Acres release. So when it came time for Gardenscapes to follow in the footsteps of Fishdom and Township, this would have been PlayRix’s first Hidden Object game in free to play. According to VentureBeat, Gardenscapes for mobile was in development for over four years. It can’t have been an easy project.

Regardless, after four years of creating hidden object gameplay, Gardenscapes was soft launched in 2015, with the same story, characters & features you see in Gardenscapes: New Acres today (just without the match 3). Watch this video to see how Gardenscapes soft launched:

During the course of this soft launch, Playrix decided to shift their strategy from making a Hidden Object game to making a Match 3 game. This decision can not have been an easy decision to make. Most developers would sooner throw away a game than make such a drastic change so late in development. Regardless, PlayRix ported over the matching gameplay from Fishdom (their only mobile match 3 game at the time) and soft launched again in 2016.

Playrix must have seen promise with shifting away from Hidden Object, because after this change to matching gameplay, Gardenscapes grew to become the success we know today.

So why is it that the match 3 gameplay turned Gardenscapes into a hit?

2 Reasons why Gardenscapes Pivoted

For creating long lasting free to play games, a match 3 style core will always beat out hidden object style core. It comes down 2 reasons: the scalability of content, and the ability to monetize from the core gameplay.

Reason 1: Scalability of Content

As discussed many times before, driving the most value from your content is imperative to free to play success. In content driven games like Hidden Object and Matching games, where players rip through content quickly, it’s increasingly important to minimize the amount of time it takes you to build content while maximizing value and replayability of this content.

Matching games have a huge leg up when it comes to the simplicity of creating new content. As I discussed in my GDC talk regarding the scalability of content, Matching games typically take about 6-8 hours to produce one level. This includes concept, implementation, balancing, testing, and polishing. The actual content in the level (the art, the mechanics, the pieces) are all reused many times throughout all levels, and players are usually asked to replay the same level multiple times before progressing. Thus, content is relatively easy to produce and players are happy to re-play similar content over and over. This is a healthy content cost.

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To create content in Hidden Object games, the process is significantly more expensive. There is the arduous process of creating the backgrounds, the pieces in the scene, on top of the level design and balancing of each level. This content is far less likely to be repeated through multiple scenes — each scene has a new colour palette and lighting is completely different, using the same content over and over makes the scenes feel awkward and easy to spot. Objects which don’t have the same shadows or obviously look pasted onto a scene make the gameplay trivial. Content takes significantly longer to produce for each hidden object level, content can’t be easily reused, and game designers have to get really creative at pushing players to replay the same level over and over again just to keep a healthy content consumption for their players.

As a result, Match 3 games can create more content significantly faster than hidden object games can, and this content can last longer. This is exactly what you’re looking for in a content-driven game.

Reason 2: Monetizing from the Core

The biggest difference between a Hidden Object core gameplay and a matching puzzle game is that a puzzle game can effectively monetize off its core gameplay, where as a Hidden Object game can’t.

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Hidden Object games typically monetize only through hints. Can’t find an object in the scene? Use a hint to let us guide you to the object. This helps players finish a level, but isn’t nearly as powerful a driver as +3 moves or in-game boosters in match 3 games. Why? Because hidden object games don’t have failure states.

Gardenscapes & The Big Pivot to Success

In Pearl’s Peril, Criminal Case and the original New Acres release (as seen above), a player can only maximize their score in a level, there is no chance that you can lose a round. Hidden Object games incentivize players to find all objects in a limited time, but they don’t have a state where a player can’t progress in the level. Most Hidden object games instead monetize off of pushing players to grind a stage multiple times over rather than block the player from progress whether they win a level or not. As a result, Hidden object games typically have to get far more creative to monetize off their player base, usually relying significantly more on a timer-filled metagame in order to pace players.

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Conversely, match 3 games can monetize very effectively off their core gameplay. Because there is a failure state (you can run out of moves before completing the level), players are invested in winning the level to progress. When running out of moves, players are incentivized to use premium boosts to win the level, or else they will lose all their progress in the level up to that point. There is significantly more pinch to monetize in matching games over hidden object.

On top of being able to monetize through boosts, match 3 games can pace through luck, rather than only skill. In an excellent GDC presentation, Florian Steinhoff directly talks about the power that luck has in pacing players. Due to luck, level designers can ensure that all players, regardless of skill level, are paced appropriately within a level. Match 3 games contain so much luck that designers can balance each level with a fair degree of certainty that players of all skill levels will come close to winning even if they lose — the recipe for strong retention and strong monetization. Hidden Object games, with their pre-placed objects and skill driven core gameplay, can’t boast the same.

As a result, Gardenscape made a very important design decision. Rather than allow players to purchase stars to progress through In-App Purchases, in Gardenscapes you can only purchase coins, which can be turned into boosts, lives, and extra moves. They fully leaned on their matching gameplay to monetize rather than allowing players to ignore the match 3 gameplay and skip ahead.

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In Gardenscapes, players can only purchase boosters in the core gameplay. Unlocking Narrative and Decorations can only be done by winning the match 3 levels

This is the critical reason why Gardenscapes as a match 3 game monetizes so well. By only allowing purchases of boosts, players can’t buy progress, they have to earn it. Players have to roll the dice with the match 3 gameplay in order to unlock the content that they want, and these levels require plenty of patience or boosts to win.

Taking Lessons from Hidden Object

PlayRix’s swap to a match 3 core seemed to have paid off. But while they moved to matching as a core, they still kept the metagame of their original hidden object game. By keeping the narrative and the decoration aspects it separated Gardenscapes from all other matching games while leveraging all the content they had already built.

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Gardenscapes has a compelling narrative which drives the game forward between match 3 gameplays. This style of narrative may not be your preference, but the light narrative of slowly cleaning up and building out your garden is clearly compelling for their target audience. It’s refreshing to see more free to play genres prove the impact of narrative on retention. A story can be just as compelling to pull a player a long as a saga map or a leaderboard, if done right.

On top of a long, overarching narrative, Gardenscapes allows its players to choose how to decorate their garden as they rebuild it. Players slowly rebuild a massive overgrown garden. As you clean up the areas, you’re allowed to decorate it. But the key decision here is that players are only allowed slot based decoration.

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Instead of allowing players to place decorations freely, they can only choose from a limited set of decorations in any area of the game. See for example the lampposts above — this can only be chosen from 3 different styles, and it replaces all 4 instances. This of course lacks in self-expression, but obviously keeps their usability issues and production costs in check. Players are restricted to creating similar, nice looking gardens, and this gives players clearer goals.

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Comparing goal setting in Gardenscapes to Fishdom shows this. In Fishdom, players are allowed to spend their coins on as many decorations as they’d like, and progressing in the saga is only meaningful if you actually desire the content unlocked in the late game. Players can quickly feel overwhelmed with the choices Fishdom offers to decorate and spend coins. Also in fishdom, PlayRix constantly has to come out with new and desirable content — otherwise their players have little reason to grind. Gardenscapes however streamlines this process and always gives players limited choices: this is far more effective for casual audiences.

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Lastly, Gardenscapes chose the right approach when crafting the core loop. In order to unlock decorations in your garden or progress the story, players must trade in their stars for progress. Each star is earned by completing a level, an easy to understand system. This system could never monetize on its own, but because the match 3 core game can monetize and pace players so effectively — it never needed to.

Gardenscapes have crafted a perfect core loop: Their decorations and narrative teases players to stick around for the long haul, while their core can effectively pace and monetize of its player base.

In Summary: The 4 Keys to Gardenscapes Success

The success of Gardenscapes was a long time coming. PlayRix has been in the business of making successful casual games for nearly 14 years. So when Gardenscapes was soft launched in 2015 and didn’t meet their expectations, they did what most companies would never do: pivoted successfully to an entirely different genre. But how were they successful at this?

  • PlayRix was a veteran casual game developer, through their history they’ve seen the cycles that casual game players go through. They knew that the audience would eventually hunger for a deeper layer of narrative and decoration.
  • PlayRix made the right choice to move to match 3 overstaying in the Hidden Object genre. This allows them to scale their content faster, pace through luck, and monetize off players more from the core puzzle gameplay
  • Their core monetization strategy relied entirely on the match 3. They do not allow players to purchase decorations directly (like most hidden object decoration games do) instead they relied on the core gameplay to drive monetization.
  • Strong decoration + narrative aspects brought innovation to the match 3 genre. While adding these systems, the core success criteria for a puzzle game stayed intact.

As a result, PlayRix have successfully merged the Hidden Object and Matching game genres, and pushed everyone in the matching genre to think twice about just blindly following the trend of saga based progression. Whether intentionally or not, PlayRix have turned heads in the matching genre. No longer are casual game developers believing that Saga is the only model. You’re already starting to see the trend take impact: more matching games have decoration & story at its core, more games are looking to combine new systems wrapping around a matching gameplay.

Gardenscapes and the 1 Big Decision that drove its success

Story Match, Chef’s Quest and Gemmy Lands. The fast followers to the Gardenscapes formula.

What does this mean for the future?
Who will be the next developer who drives success?
What will the next successful progression systems look like in the puzzle genre?

I for one am excited to see what happens next.

3 Reasons Why Dragon Ball Z: Dokkan Battle Reached #1 Top Grossing

You may have missed it. Over the easter long weekend, starting on April 14th, a new contender took the #1 Top Grossing spot in the United States: Dragon Ball Z Dokkan Battle. Moving aside games like Pokemon Go, Clash Royale and Game of War from their usual top spots.

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This can’t have been easy. Top game developers know the importance of holiday long weekends. A time of year when many players find themselves with extra time to play games. Many games advertise big events to create higher engagement and maximise revenue. Most games show spikes in their revenue at this time of year when they push big events for holidays. Games like Pokemon Go even had major Apple featuring with their easter event:

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So how did Dokkan Battle do it? How did they manage to push aside Supercell, Nintendo and Machine Zone’s holiday events and become the #1 top grossing game?

It came down to 3 reasons why

  • Monetizing Core: A strong gacha-based system which drives monetization
  • Driving Desire: tie-ins to the IP, community building, and rare desirable content
  • Sales Design: well-timed sales surrounding the event driving players to convert multiple times

#1 Monetizing Core

If you haven’t played the game, it is a Gacha-based RPG Fighting game using the Dragon Ball Z license. Developed by BANDAI NAMCO, the game is actually 3 separate games: one released in Japan ( ドラゴンボールZ ドッカンバトル) one in China ( 龙珠激斗) and one Globally, for all other countries.

The game loops are designed similar to Summoner’s War, Fire Emblem Heroes, Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes, Heroes’ Charge and various other Gacha-based RPG Games on mobile. For more on how those games work, check out our deconstructions here.

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Where Dragon Ball Z adjusts the formula is in the core gameplay. Instead of a standard turn-based RPG, they opted for something completely different. The game board pulls from puzzle RPG games by having a board you manipulate to deal damage (similar to Puzzles & Empires and Puzzle Quest).

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In the core battle, your focus is on charging your character by collecting Ki (energy). If you collect enough Ki you will launch a super attack, a vastly more damaging and visually impressive assault with iconic moves. The board works with a path system: selecting an orb at the bottom connects with its own colour as it moves towards your opponent granting additional Ki. Additionally, matching your character’s type with orb colour yields double energy. In the example below, my hero type is red, so I want to select red balls.

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While the core gameplay interaction is simple, the strategy in who you bring into the battle is where the depth comes in. The strategy comes into choosing heroes which synergize the best with each other. Each character has linking abilities, leader abilities and passive abilities. Each benefiting certain other characters. For example, LSSJ Broly has a leader skill which benefits all characters on the team which are a physical type (yellow). Broly grants all physical characters a boost to their energy, hit points, attack and defence.

The gameplay strategy overall feels light but puts significant pressure on trying to create a synergetic team of characters, which is exactly what you need when creating a Gacha-based monetization.

To collect heroes, players collect stones (premium currency) to eventually cash them in on a summon. In Dokkan Battle, each summon costs 5 stones, but the optimal strategy is to wait until you’ve collected 50 stones for a Multi-Summon, so you can summon 10 characters at a time with a guaranteed high ranking hero.

Ultimately the game is down to summoning hundreds (to thousands) of times to collect the heroes that work best together. But just getting a strong top team in the game doesn’t mean you’re finished. Then starts the long, gruelling road of awakening (evolving) your characters to their ultimate form.

Rarity Name Allows you to…
 3 Reasons How Dokkan Battle Reached #1 Top Grossing 15 Normal Reach Max level of 20
 3 Reasons How Dokkan Battle Reached #1 Top Grossing 6 Rare Max level of 40
 3 Reasons How Dokkan Battle Reached #1 Top Grossing 13 Super Rare Max level of 60, can be awakened into a SSR
 3 Reasons How Dokkan Battle Reached #1 Top Grossing 16 Special Super Rare Max level of 80, can be awakened into a UR
 3 Reasons How Dokkan Battle Reached #1 Top Grossing Ultra Rare Max level 100, can we awakened into a TUR
*Does not drop in Gacha, must be awakened
 3 Reasons How Dokkan Battle Reached #1 Top Grossing 2 (Transcend)
Ultra Rare
Max level 120, can be awakened into a LR using extremely rare event-driven currencies
*Does not drop in the Gacha
3 Reasons How Dokkan Battle Reached #1 Top Grossing 4 Legendary Rare
Max level 150

Can only be 1 of 3 characters
+ a lot of rare event currencies
*Does not drop in the Gacha

If you’ve played fire emblem heroes, this will seem very familiar. Dokkan was actually first released back in February 2015 and saw many of the similar growing pains that Fire Emblem Heroes is going through now. In particular, Dokkan has added additional tiers (UR, TUR, LR) on top of their initially launched tiers to extend the amount of time it takes to reach the optimal build of a character.

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In Summary, Dokkan Battle is a well crafted Gacha-based game which focuses the player on building up a strong team of heroes. They’ve built a strong base which could be capitalised on using events.

#2 Driving Desire

So how did a game with a light RPG core play rocket up the top grossing charts? What was so special about this event?

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The event was a summoning festival. For 77 hours, players have the ability to summon 5 new heroes. Included in this set is 2 heroes which are very desirable: Super Saiyan God SS Vegito and Goku Black Rose. If you’re not a fan of the show: the show is about the protagonist Goku, who fights, gets beat up, powers up to a new form, the bad guy does the same, Goku gets beat up again, rinse, repeat, until eventually Goku wins (this can take many episodes). For those knowledgeable about the show’s storyline, you will also know Vegito and Goku Black are different but we will avoid going deep into the lore of the show here.

Regardless, the Dragon Ball Z IP has been revitalised in the last year, broadcasting in a new major TV show and building up a strong following once more. In particular, in the last months, this Vegito and Goku Rose have been significant new characters to the plot line. The fans of the series know these characters and are extremely excited about adding them to their team within Dokkan Battle.

3 Reasons How Dokkan Battle Reached #1 Top Grossing 24

Besides watching the show, BANDAI NAMCO has been teasing these new characters joining the game for months. Teasing this content using the messaging within the game (seen above), social media, and their fan forums by showing silhouettes and teasing how valuable these characters will be.

Don’t underestimate the importance of proper community management and messaging with your live ops strategy. Building up anticipation & excitement is the key to driving high engagement in events.

Visually, these characters are just a recolouring of Goku and Vegito, but mechanically they shift the meta strategies of Dokkan Battle meaningfully. For one, these characters have a leader abilities which benefit a much wider array of characters (Vegito for SUPER type, Goku for EXTREME type) and these characters can deal insane amounts of damage (even having a chance to hit multiple times). For now, the fan base sees this as meta-shifting — not overpowered. It will be interesting to see how the audience reacts in the coming months to this meta-shift, and if BANDAI NAMCO can avoid the pay-to-win feeling in western markets. These characters were actually launched 6 months ago in the Japanese version of Dokkan Battle, which gave them some lead time to smoothen out the meta and avoid any negative meta changes in the process.

By combining these elements: a transparent time-limited window, clear tie-ins with the IP, and designing extremely desirable content, Dokkan Battle has created a recipe for their user base to be ravenous about collecting the event-driven content.

#3 Sales Design

But a strong gacha-based core and some desirable content aren’t going to drive you to the top grossing on its own. To drive top grossing games it is about properly capitalising on the demand for this content. Free to play games do this through the task of setting up and designing sales. In recent years this has become much more of an artform: finding the optimal messaging, timing, and cadence for sales so that it remains special to the audience, avoids cannibalization yet drives significant revenue.

Dokkan Battle clearly is being run by live op experts when they designed the Dokkan Festival Event.

3 Reasons How Dokkan Battle Reached #1 Top Grossing 26

A week before the event even started, when it was only being teased to players, Dokkan Battle started offering premium currency at a significant discount in limited time windows. Players were offered sales of 50%+ off of currency packs in limited quantities. Unlike most F2P game sales, Dokkan also adds a quantity limit per sale — allowing them to offer these crazy discounts without fear of players abusing the price window. But during these sales, players stocked up on their summoning currency for the upcoming frenzy that would happen during the Dokkan festival event.

When the festival started, Dokkan Battle offered big discounts for players that would summon multiple times in a row:

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You can see here, that players would get initially 40-50% off the cost of a usual multi-summon, until reaching Step 4 which gave a free multi-summon. These were designed to get as many players deep into the sale as much as possible. Each Summoning type had their own step sales function — so you could get the 25/30/50 summon discounts first for Goku, and then again for Vegito. Players invested themselves in both sales to try to claim either top prize. After Step 4, players are given a free multi summon every 4th step, so any player in desperate pursuit of the unique content (and there was plenty) would attempt to take advantage of the “Buy 3 get 1 free” sale.

On top of this benefit, each purchased summon also came with 5 additional tickets which could be traded in for additional free summons (although these tickets did not have the unique content in their pool). Although this sales system is complex, it succeeded it pulling players into the pursuit of summoning as often as they could during the limited window for the content.

With these two systems, Bandai Namco capitalised on the limited time content. They utilised a strong premium currency sale surrounding the event to push players to convert early and take advantage of sales when they could, and they created an addictive savings system for continuing to summon. This drove players to continually spend and convert in pursuit of the rare content that was available at a bargain only this weekend.

Takeaway: Strong Core + Live Ops for the win

Dokkan Battle’s surge to the top grossing was actually many years in the making. Throughout the years of development, Bandai Namco built the base for what this event ultimately achieved.

  • A strong monetizing core gameplay provided a basis for Dokkan Battle to build upon live events and extremely desirable content.
  • Driving desire through leveraging the IP, effective messaging with players, and designing meta-shifting content.
  • Sales design surrounding the event which pushed players to convert multiple times

In the coming weeks we will see if they can maintain their position. Was this event short-term focused, or can it propel Dokkan Battle into a staple in the top spots of the App Store? Regardless it is clear that Dokkan Battle is a finely tuned monetizing machine, that will be able to leverage their content and their audience many more times in the coming year.

Huge thanks to Matt Hood for this article! Without his knowledge of the deep systems in this game, I couldn’t have put this together.

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Evaluating Monetization Early in Development (GDC 2017)

As promised, here are the slides from my talk at GDC 2017 on Evaluating Monetization Early.

GDC 2017: Monetization

GDC 2017: Evaluating Monetization Early from Adam Telfer

A Quick Summary:

  • Define Your Core Monetization
    • Monetization’s root comes from a long lasting urge to progress.
    • The most successful monetization mechanics come from speeding up pacing to progress. So adding and tightening pacing systems is the key to improving monetization opportunities.
    • Pacing systems which can be monetized on usually come in 4 forms: Time, Stats, Currencies and Luck. Find where in your core loop you can add additional pacing systems which make natural sense.
  • Ensure your game can scale for years
    • To be in the top grossing you need games which take years to progress, and can withstand tens of thousands of dollars of spending
    • Watch out for red flags in your prototype that it won’t scale:
      • Map out a vision of your progress over years. Do you think it will be enough?
      • Do the mechanics break? How large is your scope of stat upgrades?
      • Do the sessions break? In the mid and end game, are you asking too much of your players?
      • Does your Content scale? Can you effectively produce enough content to retain top players?
      • Does your Economy scale? Does your tight currencies remain valuable?
  • Design & Tighten Triggers for spending
    • Record down for your game the various trigger points you see players spending. Can you add more? How can you tighten these reasons?
    • Triggers Usually come in the form of these 6 forms:
      • Loss Aversion: Protecting what players believe they’ve earned
      • Vanity: Showing off to other players in the game
      • Competitiveness: Wanting to dominate the game or other players
      • Impatience: Wanting to make progress quickly
      • Investment: Investing a small amount early which reaps greater rewards in the future
      • Social: Spending for the benefit of others
    • Which of these triggers does your game have? How do you tighten these?
  • Prototype with Monetization & Pacing
    • Prototype with your pacing & monetization included to avoid misleading fun early in prototyping

Thanks for all that attended, and I hope this is useful for everyone!

Deconstructing Fire Emblem Heroes

Nintendo is the one bright light in the mobile games industry. Finally entering the fray after years of resisting the trend, since last summer Nintendo has launched 3 top grossing titles: Pokemon Go, Super Mario Run, and now Fire Emblem Heroes. Nintendo is doing what no other free-to-play developer has done. They’ve broken into a market that many have long assumed to be completely locked up.

But each release has been marked with controversy. Pokemon GO wasn’t developed by Nintendo, and Nintendo only sees a fraction of the profits. Super Mario Run was met with mediocre reviews, and many free-to-play veterans questioned whether the “Free-to-Start” model was the effective system for driving the most revenue and enjoyment from the product. Despite this controversy, Pokemon Go generated revenues of nearly $1 billion in 2016. Super Mario Run has generated $53M, and converts 5% of its player base. No matter your opinions on their approach, these are very impressive numbers.

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Fire Emblem Heroes is the first game in the series that feels closest to how free-to-play games on mobile have traditionally been built. It is obvious that this game was built closely with DeNA. This game shares a lot from other DeNA products and many other Japanese F2P mobile RPGs.

So far the reviews are positive for the game, from critics, players and business analysts alike. The game has already grossed more then $5M, a week after launch  and has reached near Top 10 grossing in the US, and is the #2 Top Grossing game in Japan. No doubt it will be another major success for Nintendo.

Full disclosure: I am a massive Nintendo fan boy. Just like most game developers in the industry, I grew up playing Nintendo. I’ve owned every Nintendo console since the NES and have pre-ordered the Switch just to play Zelda on launch day. I am cheering for Nintendo with every release they do on mobile. I sincerely hope that Nintendo continues to operate as the shining star in the industry as a company that continues to deliver incredibly fun, approachable games for the next decades to come.

That being said, I’ve now played Fire Emblem Heroes since its launch, and despite all the praise it’s gotten since launch there’s noticeable improvements that Nintendo will need to make to ensure the game lasts for the long term.

Let’s first take a look at what they did right: How the core of the game is designed.

The Core Loop : Tried & True

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The Core Loop of Fire Emblem Heroes is a proven one. Players battle, to gain rewards, to upgrade & collect more heroes. Their upgraded heroes allow them access to more challenging battles which give better and better rewards.

For this game to retain and monetize at its best, the player must always have a desire to constantly collect new heroes, and upgrade as many as possible to their maximum level.

The Gacha

To collect these heroes, you have to use the gacha-based random drop system. Players collect orbs through single player campaigns to eventually start a summon. These summons feel great. Getting a famous character is rewarded with a unique animation that really captivates the feeling of getting something unique & special (Seen below). Nintendo created a great feeling gacha flow.

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Summons initially cost 5 orbs. Upon summoning, the player is presented with 5 options, colour coded. As you can see with the image below, the player has 1 red, 1 blue, and 3 grey options. This colour code is coordinated with the types of units the player uses in the core battle.

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So the player can be strategic about choosing which colour they want. If they want a player that is of the red type, they can focus their summons on red gachas. Upon summoning, the player is presented with a character, ranging from 1 to 5 stars, depending on how lucky they are.

But Nintendo also offers another aspect to summoning. Summoning gets less expensive the more you summon from the same group. See the above image. After being presented with 5 coloured stones, the 1st selection costs 5 orbs, 2nd costs 4, 3rd costs 4, etc.  So to save substantial orbs players opt-in to grinding for more. To save 5 orbs for every 5 characters you summon, you need 20 orbs initially. An interesting design decision that gives players an extra way to optimize their grind.

Each day players are in the relentless pursuit of collecting orbs so they can summon their favourite characters from the series. Player can gather orbs from regular play. Each time they complete a single player mission, they are rewarded with a single orb. Since the difficulty of the single player missions increases quickly, the rate at which players can collect orbs slows quickly. The game shifts from quick progress to having to train your heroes often to get orbs.screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-10-46-30-pm

This is a tried and true method of free to play monetization design. Pace the free collection of characters down to a pace that players start to want to spend in order to speed their progress back up again.

The Battle : Simple, Strategic & Stats Driven

What I believe drove the praise of this game was the core battle system. Nintendo managed to take a genre that many have attempted, and make it more mobile friendly than any other turn based strategy game that I’ve played on mobile.

The game’s orientation is in portrait, and the key interaction is just dragging and dropping your unit around the field. It feels immediately intuitive, easy to play while on the go, and I rarely make a misstep with my commands.


image05On top of a core interaction that is accessible, they managed to make the entire experience of completing a battle fit into the Starbucks test
. You can complete a regular battle in roughly 40 seconds, a more strategically demanding battle in easily less than 3 minutes.

The battles are usually 4 units vs 4 opposing units, really cutting down on the amount of moves you need to make per battle. Because each map is fairly small, it usually doesn’t take very long for the main action to start. Ultimately these short, punchy battles make for a great “just one more battle!” feeling.

The Strategy

All this being said : simple interaction, small maps, small armies — this game has strategic depth. Based on the fire emblem battle systems that were designed back in 1990, Intelligent Systems (the game developer who makes the Fire Emblem series) has perfected this system over the years. Fire Emblem have been always known for their simplicity & depth. Working very well on mobile through the Gameboy Advance, DS, and 3DS years with stylus touch controls.

The battle system starts with an easy to understand rock – paper – scissors-like system. With fire emblem, its red beating green, green beating blue, blue beating red.

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This is easy to understand, and the game gives enough in-game cues when you’re taking advantage of this system. You can expect a 20% boost to your damage when attacking a weaker element, or a 20% reduction when fighting against a stronger element.

From here, the player can start to notice other strategic advantages they can take in battle. Archer & mage units can fire from a distance. Horseback and flying units can move quickly across terrain. Walls & mountains can make being a range unit more advantageous. Units can gain abilities that buff and de-buff other characters. There is a lot of strategic depth here which keeps each battle feeling fresh and collecting heroes relevant.

The Stats

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The stats and their impact are all also very easy to understand. Atk is attack damage, which is counter to HP (Hit Points). Spd is speed, which if you have 5 more speed than an opponent, you hit twice. Def is defense, which is subtracted from the opponent’s attack when you are defending. Res is magical resistance, which is similarly subtracted when you are attacked by a magical spell.

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Each time a character gains a level they are rewarded with a random selection of increased stats. This allows the actual numbers themselves to stay relatively small and understandable, and means that having two of the same character could mean different stats. Great for collectors and min/maxers.

But if these stats were pure random, you could see how builds could become unpredictable. Because the battle math is so basic (it just uses addition and subtraction), calculations could easily get out of control without Nintendo “guiding” the progress of characters to ensure that the values stay within limits. As such, it is obvious that nintendo has pre-planned the progression of each character from the beginning. While each character can have different stats, they try to stay within a controlled range and by the maximum level each character has the same amount of stat points. So no matter your luck, each character will be equal in theory, but mix/max style players can try to find duplicates of characters to find the optimal build.

But what’s important with the stats is that it supports the core loop. As stated before, the core loop only works if players constantly have pressure to upgrade their characters. This system really puts pressure on the players to level up their units. Being just a few levels under another unit could mean your Defense stat being low and taking a lot of damage. It could mean your Attack stat is just a few points lower than an opponent’s defense stat and thus can’t do any damage.

This system doesn’t leave players with much space to compete at higher levels with their strategic skill alone. They need to level up every character in their team.

Smartly by Nintendo, there is a lot of strategy in choosing who to bring into each battle. You are always given a preview of the opponent’s stat level, the makeup of their team, so you can effectively plan outside the battle who you want to bring.
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This level, “Prince of Mystery” has 2 red swordsmen, an archer, and a green mage all at around level 24. I can craft my team around taking advantage of this team’s weaknesses. I can ensure that my team is around level 24 before starting the battle. This feels both strategic & puts more pressure on the core loop: collecting & upgrading a large variety of heroes.

3 Improvements for Nintendo

Overall while the core game and overall progression feel great, after playing for weeks its obvious that Nintendo still needs to fill in some of the cracks to make sure this game can last on the top grossing charts. From playing I noticed 3 issues that Nintendo should consider for their future:

#1 Gacha Drop Tiers & Rates

Nintendo did a lot right with Fire Emblem Heroes’ gacha system. They have over 60 characters in the pool to pull from, adding more every few weeks and each feeling unique and strategic. They paced their orbs so that in the beginning you feel like you’re making quick progress, but as time goes by the pacing slows down substantially.

They’ve also built a system which having a 5 star character means a lot: to upgrade a character from a lower star rating to a higher star rating takes considerable time and effort. So players are more likely to convert chasing after the 5 star character in the gacha than attempt to upgrade them from a lower star level.

screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-10-46-56-pmBut this is where the simplicity of their hero progression system starts to show some issues. To upgrade a 4 star character to 5 star takes 20,000 feathers and 20 badges. To get this type of currency takes weeks of grinding. You can get feathers from competing in the PvP Arena once per week or sending your characters home. But playing for a few weeks I have gained ~4,000 feathers, mostly from sending home 4 star players I didn’t want. To get to 20,000 is a long painful grind.

Players see clearly that to manually increase a single character’s star level is insanely difficult. This system has already seen some backlash from players, enough that Nintendo gifted out 10,000 feathers as part of a social media campaign. So the only effective way to get 5 star heroes means pulling them from the gacha pool — that must be great for monetization right?

That starts to break down when you hear experiences like this:

“…After my first day of play I had assembled a formidable team of five-star heroes, with 12 heroes of varying abilities in reserve…”
– Pocket Gamer Reviews

For myself as well, I have three 5 star heroes on my team, after spending $13 USD and a few days playing the game. I got the three 5 star heroes off of summons I didn’t pay for. I had so many free summons from regular play that it was easy to collect a wide variety of heroes. From these summons, I’ve already got three 5 star characters which helps me steamroll over the single player campaign of this game.

This could just be luck, but it seems to be happening to many players of the game. So I did some calculations:

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The drop rate of a 5 star hero is 6%. So every time you spend 20 orbs, you have a 26.6% chance of getting at least one 5 star hero in the pack of 5. After spending 40 orbs, there is a 50% chance you will have at least one 5 star character. Not to mention Nintendo even increases the % chance of getting a 5 star character each time you fail to get one in a summon. Nintendo is specifically designing the gacha around players getting 5 star characters fast.

Getting multiple 5 star characters on your team would be fine if Fire Emblem Heroes had enough pressure built into the core loop around collecting a large variety of heroes, but since the game is so early, this isn’t the case. After you’ve collected four 5 star heroes, you can rip through content and walk away happy from the game. Only the die hard fans — the ones who are here just to collect for the sake of collecting — will engage in the gacha.

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5 Gold Stars don’t matter if they happen all the time.

In the effort by Nintendo to make a player friendly feeling gacha, they’ve built a system where 5 star characters are so common that I can reach a optimal team within a week of play.

Compare this to the competition

  • In Clash Royale, it takes months to raise to the arenas necessary to get access to the legendary cards, and from there they drop at such a low percent that it takes months to get the legendary cards levelled up fully
  • In Contest of Champions it takes weeks to collect enough shards for a single 5 star hero crystal that you can redeem in game. 5 star heroes rarely ever drop in crystals collected from regular play.

So for Nintendo, for Fire Emblem to last they have to take a page from Puzzles and Dragons, Brave Frontier and other JRPGs. Introduce more star tiers with increasingly difficult gacha odds. Adjust the balancing for feathers and star progress so that it is feasible to reach a higher tier. From this, a player’s pursuit of the optimal team will take more than a week of play and a small amount of money.

#2 More Interesting Upgrade Path

Layering on top of the issue from the gacha, comes to the Upgrade system. After you’ve gotten the top 5 star character, the effort it takes to build it to its optimal level is too simple and short.

To reach the optimal build of a character:

  • The character must be 5 stars
  • Reach Level 40 by collecting XP or using shards
  • Merging a Duplicate 5 Star for an Enhancement

Each unit has a level cap of 40, which can be reached by collecting enough XP, or spending your crystals and shards. The XP required to level up gets exponentially higher, but for the most part can be completed in less than a week if you’re playing against high enough level opponents.

But to build the absolute best version of a character, you have to take one last step, merge a copy with the same star level.

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So to have the highest level 5 star Marth (pictured above), you need two 5 star Marths. This is a very small chance in the Gacha (0.001% per summon), and will obviously take a long long time to do.

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However, this gives only +1 level on the character. As pictured above, the character now can have a maximum level of 40+1, rather than 40. This means that the benefit of spending all the time & effort in the gacha to get the duplicate is all for a maximum of +1 to +5 battle stat points. The single level boost is just too low for too much grind.

Compare this to Galaxy of Heroes, Summoner’s War and Heroes Charge. Their upgrade systems have more systems running in parallel and typically have far more requirements to reach the optimal build:

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Outlined far more in detail in an older deconstruction, most F2P RPG games have 4 paths to upgrade your character to the maximum. Usually including a random drop gear system at least to make the long path to fully upgrade interesting throughout the development.

The key element that Fire Emblem is missing: If I’m lucky enough to land a 5 star character, this needs to feel like just the beginning. I should want to invest a lot of time to get this hero to their maximum potential.

This is how you ultimately craft strong long term retention in a game which drives long term success on the mobile top grossing charts.

#3 Lack of Content & Social End-Game

Free-to-play, at its foundation, is about retaining players for as long as possible. Long term retention decides your ultimate success, as I’ve spoken about at GDC, and written on this blog.

But just a week after launch, and there are many reports of players reaching the end of content. Many of these players have been moderately engaged and only spent a small amount of money. Below the player spent $40, only on summoning, and reportedly did not even get their final hero team from any of the summons they paid for.

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This is a result of generous gacha drops and quick upgrade pathing. Players being able to upgrade and progress through all the content much faster than Nintendo intended.

If Nintendo wants Fire Emblem to continue to deliver million dollar per day revenues for months and years to come, they need to ensure their most engaged players are staying in the game. They can only do that if there is enough content in the game.

The easiest way for a game to lose its audience is for its most engaged players to leave because they feel like they finished all the game had to offer.

Fire Emblem has 9 Chapters + a Prologue containing just under 150 missions. With the pace that fire emblem lets you get through these missions though, these 150 missions, each lasting between 40 seconds and 3 minutes makes for a very fast progressing game.

The side-effects of this fast progression is that Nintendo needed to add very aggressive pacing blocks to their single player campaign. The majority of complaints from players have to do with the stamina cost of levels skyrocketing early. By the mid-game, each battle costs roughly 10 stamina, and your stamina meter remains at 50. With battles being so short and most battles being fairly trivial to win (since you’re grinding), this feels frustrating by the end game. Nintendo had to do this to prevent players from training & beating the campaign missions too early. If they had created enough content however, this wouldn’t be the case. If they added additional modes to the end-game to pressure players into collecting & upgrading more heroes, this wouldn’t be the case.

Comparing this to Galaxy of Heroes, Contest of Champions, Summoner’s War and Brave Frontier is completely different. Each of these games offer more modes, more content, and their pacing is structured around playing rather than waiting. On top of this, these games slowly introduce a more and more engaging social end-game that takes the pressure off of producing more content. This way even if a big spending highly engaged player reaches the end of content early, they are actively engaged in guild wars or reaching the top of a leaderboard.

Fire Emblem heroes has the tools to do this. With the success of Fire Emblem Heroes, they plan to release 2 chapters (10 levels) each month. They plan to introduce a new PvP mode in the near future. They have an arena mode, but it is paced too slowly (3 attempts maximum per day). They can create a guild-based meta-game that drives players to use their friend lists. Adding more additional modes which ask the player to have a larger collection of level up heroes would be the key to driving stronger long term retention.

As it stands, players can progress through content too fast, leaving players with too few reasons to come back to the game.

How Fire Emblem can Last

Overall this game is a massive financial success for Nintendo. Based on the rabid fan base so far, Nintendo has proven that based on the brand loyalty alone their fan base can reach the top of the mobile gaming charts. They have an impressively approachable and addictive core battle that has the strategic depth to last for years.

That being said, Nintendo have an opportunity here not just to make a quick buck off their IP. They have the opportunity to build a long-standing success that will pass Super Mario Run in revenue, potentially even Pokemon Go in the future.

For this game to stay on top, Nintendo needs to act quickly to ensure this game can retain its top players.

  1. Add more star tiers to their Gacha pool, so there’s a reason for players to summon new characters for years
  2. Add more scale and depth to their upgrade system, so it takes longer than a week for my top characters to grow to their optimal forms
  3. Add significantly more content to challenge players to collect more heroes and upgrade their team to the highest level.
  4. Work towards a deeper, social end-game which keeps players collaborating and playing for years.

These 4 things are possible within a short amount of time. While the audience is still engaged in the game Nintendo can increase the scale of the systems and add significant content. Galaxy of Heroes and others took months after global launch before they launched a social end-game. Puzzles and Dragons added star tiers long after launch.  Many of the JRPGs in the genre have interesting modes and competitions that push players to collect & upgrade a large set of heroes.

Nintendo has the time & ability to turn Fire Emblem from a million dollar release to a billion dollar mobile hit.

Mobile Monetization 101: The First Steps

“We should have thought of monetization from the start”

Countless free to play games have launched and failed, and this is a constant regret many game teams have. They should have done more in the beginning to think about monetization. They should’ve been thinking a lot deeper about how their game was going to make money instead of just making a good game.

Learning how to evaluate monetization early is difficult. Most resources talk about clever monetization mechanics (ex. Pricing of in-app purchases, limited time offers, VIP systems, sales, etc.) but rarely is there much information about how to tell if your early prototype has what’s necessary to eventually monetize. The common remark to monetization is that good monetization can only come from good retention, as if just making a fun game will inherently make your game monetize. Anyone that’s launched a free to play game knows this isn’t completely correct.

The truth is that monetization and retention are strongly interconnected and you need to think about both as early as possible within your game. Monetization is not something that you can stumble into if you want to compete on the AppStore. 

But before you start obsessing over your in-app purchase prices and before you start obsessing over sneaky monetization mechanics  — you need to figure out how your game is going to survive as a free to play game. The best way to set up monetization in your game is to ensure that your game has 3 things:

  1. A clear definition of what you are primarily selling
  2. Assurances that your systems will last for years
  3. Ways of pulling the player to the end game

Completing these 3 steps will allow you to set up your game to monetize to its full potential.

Step 1: What are you Selling?

Every top grossing free to play game primarily sells the means to progress.

Progress is the strongest driver of monetization. The top grossing games don’t sell content (ex. DLCs), they sell progress towards an end game.

Progress comes in many forms and sizes. It could mean moving forward on a map. Progress could mean building up a farm. Progress could mean collecting and upgrading characters. To start, you need to define what progress means for your game.

Let’s take a look at 2 games, and what progress means for them:

Candy Crush

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Candy Crush’s core progress is to move forward on a map. Candy Crush focuses all of their monetization mechanics to help progress on the map. They sell boosts, extra moves or charms which all help you progress.

Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes

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Galaxy of heroes is all about upgrading & collecting heroes. Each game mode promotes the need to have a large collection of characters. As the game progresses, it demands an increasing upgrade level of your characters, requiring you to progress. They sell the means to progress faster: currencies to train your characters, the ability to fight battles instantaneously, and loot cards to unlock characters faster than your normally can.

Every top grossing game has a long path of progress which is the main focus of their monetization.

You must define the core progress for your game. What do you see players building over a long period of time?

Just to give more examples, here are some of the Top Grossing games’ Core Progress:

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For each of these games, this core progress is the central focus of their monetization strategy. All monetization mechanics give options for the players to speed up their progress.

When you’ve discovered what your core progress is — what the key central point you are going to be selling — then you can start designing monetization mechanics that speed up the player’s progress in interesting ways. You can start designing mechanics that pace the player’s progress giving you opportunities to monetize.

But there is one important step you need to do before you can start creating monetization mechanics: you need to ensure this core progress will actually last. Otherwise you won’t be selling progress for very long.

Step 2: How long will it last?

What you are selling must be able to scale for years.

It doesn’t matter how many monetization tricks you’ve got in your game. If what you’re selling won’t last, you won’t be successful.

This is usually where systems begin to show weakness. Not many systems can last for years. Many of the games that we all loved growing up were great games, but only lasted 10 or 20 hours before the system would crack. These games aren’t well suited for free to play.

An example of this happened when I was working on a racing game prototype. The core of the game was to race against an opponent to the finish while avoiding obstacles.

Our core progress was upgrading your car (similar to CSR Racing). The player collected loot from races to purchase upgrades which would improve their car’s stats. To progress in the game, the player needed higher and higher stats. The key stats to progress were: Speed, Handling, Acceleration and Boost/Nitro. As we tested out the game, we noticed: the more you improved the Speed stat, the harder the game became. The player’s cars were moving faster, which meant that the obstacles were becoming harder to avoid. We had a very limited cap that the speed could be upgraded to without demanding way too much skill from players.

With this cap in mind, we tried many things to avoid the issue. We made all obstacles travel with the player based on the player’s speed to make high speeds more manageable (instead of stationary obstacles, we switched to cars driving with the player on a highway). We adjusted the opposing AI’s speed based on your upgrade level to ensure that each upgrade was necessary. We tried many weird tricks to get the system to work, but all of them fell apart and were making the gameplay feel confusing.

In the end, the cap on our speed stat wasn’t high enough. In order for the game to be successful we needed the cars from the beginning of the game to be much, much slower than the cars at the end of the game. If we wanted the end of the game to take a months to reach, yet each upgrade along the way to feel meaningful to progress, the “Speed” stat was just not going to work.

This was a signal that our system wasn’t going to scale, and our game was not going to work as free to play.

Compare this Speed stat problem to a regular RPG system with Health and Attack. This system can scale almost infinitely.  A 200 HP monster when you have 20 attack is the same as a  200,000 HP monster when you have 20,000 attack. Attack and Health counter each other, allowing both to grow infinitely large. Speed had no counter stat, which made its growth eventually constrained. This is why many free to play games rely on an RPG system of Health vs Attack (ex. Clash Royale, Clash of Clans, Best Fiends, Puzzles and Dragons, Summoner’s War) this simple system can scale.

Look at your base gameplay — do the stats scale?

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Health vs Attack: The infinitely scalable system that many of the top free to play games use.

So how do you apply this to an early prototype? How do you ensure that your system will last?

2 basic tools you can use to evaluate your scalability:

  • Model your economy
  • Test your game in the Beginning, Mid and Endgame

Model your Progression

Modelling your game’s economy and progress early is an easy way to give you a sense of just how much content you need and how to pace your game.

Exactly how to do this is a very deep topic that I’d love to cover some day. If you don’t have the skillset on your team to model your economy with a tool like Excel, then you need to get someone who can. Without modelling, it is impossible to see just how you’re going to get your game to last.

But what should the goal be? How long should your game’s progress last?

10,000 hours or $10,000 dollars: that’s how long your system should last.

This of course is just a high level estimate (and easy to remember) but this is a good goal to have if your looking to reach the top grossing charts. Looking at the top games today, they easily go beyond these numbers. Games like Clash of Clans support purchases larger than $10,000 in their games. In comparison to Game Of War, this economy can support a purchases by a single user of over $120,000. These are insane values, but to give you a sense of just how long lasting and resilient these economies are. There is a lot of room in these economies to monetize.

With this model, you have a great tool to show what it will take to last. Compare your model against the models of your competitors in your genre and you’ll have even greater benchmarks for how much content you will need. If you want to beat the competition, your game has to last longer.

Test your Beginning Game, Mid Game, and End Game

When you’ve modelled your game’s economy, you will have a sense of what the beginning game, mid game and end game’s content will be. From this, you can build a prototype which can showcase how the game will feel in the beginning, in the middle and in the end. With this prototype you can ask questions like:

In the beginning, do player progress quickly?
Is each progress step desirable and felt as required by the player?
Is this beginning of the game still engaging or have you taken away too much of the depth?
Is the gameplay easy to get into?

In the midgame, has it sufficiently changed from the beginning game? Does it feel like the game is getting deeper?

In the end game, does the game still work?
Is the amount of skill required to succeed still feel achievable to all of your player types?
Is the end game sufficiently complex and deep? How does my end game depth compare to my competitors?
Is there a dominant strategy, or do you see your end game players debating over best choices?

There are many more questions to ask to ensure the depth of gameplay is there at each stage, but these 3 prototypes can give you a better sense that progress is happening and that your game will work at these 3 stages. This will ensure that the progress that you will be selling is desirable, and that the end game is worth reaching.

Using a model and effectively testing your game at multiple stages in the game is the basics of how to prove your game can last. When your game can last, then you now have the necessary base of a game that can monetize. Now it is time to start driving desire to spend.

Step 3: Why do I care?

You’ve got a core system that can last for years, and a clear definition of what you are selling. All that doesn’t matter if players have no desire to progress.

As free to play games, we are selling virtual items. In reality these things have no value. Our job as game designers is to create systems which create value for our virtual items. When our virtual items have value, we are much more likely to monetize.

Making virtual items valuable is not easy, but thus far most free to play games have focused on 2 ways to do this:

  • Visual progress & teasing a long term vision of the end game
  • Social Pressure

Visual Progress & Tease Long Term Vision

The majority of free to play games use visual progress cues to create a sense of value as you progress through the game. Visual progress can come in many forms, but it must showcase your progress thus far as well as tease future progress. Showcasing your previous progress gives value to your work so far. Gives you real value for your playing time or payments in the past. Teasing the future content gives the “carrot on the stick”. Shows players that there is lots more to come, and hopefully entices them to discover the new content still awaiting them.

The 3 most used examples of visual progress are:

  • The Saga Map
  • Base Expansion
  • Character Collection

#1 The Saga Map

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The Saga map in puzzle games clearly shows the visual progress of the player. Each time you complete a level, you progress on the map. At any time in the future you can scroll through the map and feel good about the progress you’ve made.

At the same time it clouds over the future worlds and hints at the mountain of content yet to come, giving you a reason to continue playing to discover the content.

#2 Base Expansion & Building Progress in Clash of Clans

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Clash of Clans and almost every game like it with a city/base-building component has this to create greater visual progress to the user. Looking at an early level base in Clash of Clans to a late base really shows just how far a player has come. Each time they enter the game they are reminded of their progress. Each base also feels completely customizable and your own. You decide where each piece of wall goes. This creates more attachment to the visual progress — this is your own base.

On top of this, players are teased each time they preview a greater opponent. They can look at the top of the leaderboards and be tempted by how amazing the bases look near the end game.

#3 Characters in Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes

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Looking at your character list in Galaxy of Heroes is the best way to see your progress and be teased of the future content.

You can see each of your characters and how amazing they are. This showcases their value. Just below your characters, you can see transparent versions of the characters you have yet to unlock, enticing you of the future progress pulling you along.

These 3 examples show how the top grossing games use visual progress to create value and desire. Each are also tightly tied to what the core progress is for the game itself.

When your core progress is visual, players are much more likely to feel like it is valuable and worth playing or paying for.  When progress is teased, players are much more likely to stick around to see what happens.

Social Pressure

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Want your game to monetize? Then make sure players are engaged socially within your game!

Deep Social mechanics is the key to building a game that retains the longest and monetizes the strongest. When a player is actively engaged in a lively community of players, then the content in the game is far more valuable. As a player, I am far more likely to spend . We’ve already written a lot about how strong community features in your game will heavily influence how well you can monetize:

  • Dawn of the Dragons (5th Planet Games): conversion rate for non guild members: 3.2% vs. guild members: 23%
  • Tyrant Unleashed (Synapse Games): ARPU for non guild members: $36.59, vs. guild members: $91.60

It is not a coincidence that MMOs like Habbo Hotel (pictured above) monetize so strongly with a core interactions that are quite simple. The deep social interactions that are possible in Habbo Hotel pull players in over a long period of time. Because of this strong social connection, players put a much higher value on looking good, showing off their progress and helping others. As a result players play longer and pay more money.

So when you’re thinking about monetization, make sure that you have truly defined what is going to be pulling players through the game on the long haul. Ensure you have strong visual progress mechanics that show off the player’s progress and tease the late game. Ensure that you have social mechanics which give real value to the content that you’re creating. If players have minimal desire to progress, then it doesn’t matter what monetization tricks you have — they won’t play long enough to spend.

The Last Step: Capitalize

You can see that Steps 1, 2 and 3 don’t really talk directly about monetization. There’s not much about skipping timers, VIP programs, limited time offers or designing virtual currencies. It’s because all that doesn’t matter unless you’ve got a long lasting game.

This is really why many monetization topics usually say “think about Retention before you think about Monetization”. What the real crux of it this statement is: don’t think about monetization unless you’ve got a system that can last. Obsessing over monetization mechanics before you’ve got a long lasting system is futile. However if you’ve nailed a long lasting system that can keep players engaged for a long time, the remaining steps to monetize become significantly easier.

When you’ve got a long lasting system, you can start creating mechanics that pull the player faster forward in that progression by paying or playing the way that you want them to. With enough desire to reach the end game, you can drive players to spend repeatedly to reach it. This is where true monetization begins.

More on the ways to capitalize on your long lasting monetization systems coming soon!

Further Reading:

Mid Core Success: Monetization, Michail Katkoff :
http://www.deconstructoroffun.com/2013/11/mid-core-success-part-4-monetization.html?q=monetization

Dimitar Dragonov, Freemium Mobile Games
https://www.amazon.com/Freemium-Mobile-Games-Design-Monetization/dp/1512322172

Critical Mobile Monetization Concepts, Joseph Kim
http://quarterview.com/?p=774

The Tower of Want, Ethan Levy
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tBG2G-9vl-M

Deconstructing Galaxy of Heroes

Over the last few weeks I’ve been working with Miska Katkoff of Deconstructor of Fun to put together a deep deconstruction of Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes. It’s now posted on Deconstructor of Fun.

Launched late last year, “Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes” by EA’s Capital Games is a new incumbent to the static top grossing charts. In the US, Galaxy of Heroes initially retained a Top 10 downloads rank and topped out at Top 6 grossing overall. Since the hype of the movie has died down, the game’s download rank waned. Yet still, the game has retained its rank in the Top 20 Grossing for Games. This tells us one thing: the game is keeping its players hooked. This game has the potential to stick on the Top Grossing charts for a while. Especially because the Star Wars license isn’t going anywhere for the next few years.

License games have been popping up everywhere recently, and many have achieved great success. Multiple Star Wars games have launched, yet despite the strength of the license none have really stuck on the Grossing Charts. Kabam’s “Star Wars Uprising”, Disney’s “Star Wars Commander” or Konami’s “Star Wars: Force Collection” are notable entries, but none seemed to take off when the new movie was launched in December… except for EA’s Galaxy of Heroes.

EA did what Kabam, Disney, and Konami did not. They created a game that lasts for years. They did this with a proven free to play formula. They built the game upon a solid, proven core loop. They reinforced this loop with a deep strategic battle and an evolving metagame. This game will retain players for years because it is well made, deep and complex.

Core Loop

At its core, Galaxy of Heroes is a turn-based RPG game with a collectible card style metagame. It is very similar to Summoner’s War, Heroes Charge, and various other Mobile RPGs. Players fight in bite-sized battles to collect loot. Loot comes in many forms but ultimately is there to give the player resources to upgrade their characters. Upgraded characters give access to bigger and harder battles, which subsequently means better loot.

The game starts off gifting you two characters: Chewbacca and a Jedi. Using these characters, you start off fighting your first battles. Each battle rewards you with Credits and Training Droids. Using these you can quickly upgrade your Jedi and Chewbacca to higher levels, allowing you to defeat more difficult battles. The game initially feels quick because you can constantly play and upgrade your team. Eventually, the game restricts your play sessions: You’ve run out of Energy and need to come back to play more.

This is a pretty standard battle & upgrade loop used in most games. Battles give you rewards, and rewards allow you to upgrade, energy paces the battles. After completing this loop a few times, things start to get more complicated…

Eventually, the game puts pressure on you to start collecting new heroes. You have a small team of Light Side Heroes (Jedi, Chewbacca, etc.) but in order to fight in the “Dark Side” battles, you need a team of dark side heroes. As the light side battles start getting too difficult, you’re nearly forced to start collecting dark side heroes.

To collect new heroes, players collect Shards. Each character has its own shard, and a player must collect a large set of these to successfully unlock the character. Shards can be collected one at a time by grinding on specific campaign levels, or you can get them quickly by purchasing data cards which reward a random character’s shards (a gacha mechanic).

But having a strong core loop is just the beginning. For the game to last for years you need to start building on top of this core loop, building up complexity and keeping it interesting. EA accomplished this by creating a strategic Battle System, and an Evolving Metagame that slowly unlocks depth. Let’s take a closer look at each now.

The Battle

The Core gameplay of Galaxy of Heroes is the battle. The battle system is based on a usual turn-based RPG system. Similar to Final Fantasy (and the hundreds of other similar RPGs), gameplay revolves around picking your team, battling wave after wave of enemies, and optimizing your strategy to keep your team alive.

Battle System & Controls

The battle mechanics themselves are a fairly traditional turn-based RPG system. Each side has a team of up to 6 heroes. The object of the battle is to defeat the opposing characters before they defeat yours. To defeat a character, you have to deplete their health. To deplete their health, you must attack them with your own team of characters.

To decide when each character’s turn to attack is, each character has a speed gauge underneath their health bar (a blue bar). The faster the character, the faster this blue bar will fill meaning the more often they can attack in the battle.

In most battles, you need to confront 3 waves of enemies. The last wave usually contains a more difficult boss. This slowly escalates the tension in the battle and demands that your strategy and your characters can survive all waves. In total, each battle usually lasts around 2-3 minutes. Although this usually depends on how easy the battle is.

The controls of the game are pretty simple — on each turn, a character is selected to make an attack. You can choose which opponent you want this character to target, and choose which ability you want them to use.

Comparing this battle system to the competition, this game actually requires more taps, and more choices to move the battle along. This goes against what most modern mobile RPG games have moved towards. Most new RPG games go for automated battles which minimal interaction.

Contrast Galaxy of Heroes battle with Heroes Charge and you can clearly see the difference. In Heroes Charge, each character is automatically attacking and receiving damage. You only need to trigger the special abilities during the battle.

Galaxy of Heroes asks for much more interaction during the battle and demands the player to make strategic choices. Every few seconds you need to make a decision about who a character will attack and which ability you will use. Overall this design choice makes each battle feel more strategic and demands that each choice matters. But this focus on constant strategic choice can only work if the strategy stays interesting. EA attempts to do this by making the use of abilities interesting.

Strategy through Abilities

The strategy in battle develops when you consider the variety of characters you can collect:

Each character has a different purpose in battle. For example, Kylo Ren is an attacker, while the Jedi Consular is a Healer. As a player you must strategize between these two different uses of characters. In a typical situation in battle, you have to decide which character you should attack first. Attack the enemy healer first, and you prevent them from regenerating health. Or take out their strongest attacker, who next turn could kill one of your team members. Not always an easy choice.

Similar to most RPGs, Characters have more than one way to attack the enemy. Each character in Galaxy of Heroes has multiple abilities that they can use. As the character levels up, players unlock new abilities which ratchet up the complexity and strategy available to win battles.

In battle, a character can use the basic attack as many times as they like, but each special ability is on a cooldown timer. Using the character’s ability will disable using the ability for the next 1 or more turns. This forces the player to think strategically about when they use their abilities. Use a healing ability now, or wait until the next attack? Use an ability that damages multiple enemies now, or wait until the boss appears? The strategy really comes out in choosing when to use these abilities.

Overall these abilities are very deep and offer nice strategic moments on how to optimize their usage:

In this example, my Admiral Ackbar has the ability “It’s a Trap!”. But the actual benefit of this ability is useful only if my team has a bunch of negative status effects. So the Admiral is excellent for dealing with situations where enemies’ special abilities give multiple negative status effects, but in other cases, this is a pretty weak ability. Similar to gameplay in Hearthstone, the game really comes down to getting the best impact out of your special abilities and minimizing the impact of your opponents.

Additionally, certain abilities focus on certain types of characters. For example, some abilities benefit only Jedis, others could punish Droid characters. Thus making the strategy involved in winning a battle not just to be about the decisions you make inside the battle, but also which characters you bring into the battle.

And this is really what the game ultimately becomes about. Players get matchmade against difficult opponents and attempt to strategize who they bring to the battle and how best to use these characters’ abilities to win against difficult opponents.

Pick Your Team: Types & Synergies

Instead of going for a single character RPG (ex. Diablo, Dungeon Hunter) Galaxy of Heroes went with a 5 character squad (plus one additional character that can be borrowed from friends). This design decision supports their core loop: they want as many opportunities to push the player to collect and upgrade many different characters.

As a player, it also adds to the fun of the strategy outside the battle. Because of the depth in the core battle, the decision of who to bring is not always as simple as just choosing your 5 best characters. So many decisions must be made: Who best benefits from being together on the same team? Who are my opponents weak against? Can I counter their best characters? Do I have enough healers to deal with their high-level attackers? Do I have enough Tanks to take the damage they are going to throw at me? This level of decision making is only possible with a multi-character team combined with the strategy of the battle.

To make this choice interesting, they needed mechanics that challenged the players’ assumptions of what the perfect team would be. Using Types and Synergies accomplished this. Because each character has a type (Jedi, Droid, Human) and some abilities specifically counter or aid these types, it asks the players to form teams that have the best synergy together. Very similar to Contest of Champions. Players seek to have a good balance between Attackers, Healers, Tanks and Support as well as having a good balance between Jedi, Droids, Humans and others.

On top of this, players will want to find teams that directly counter an opposing team, so if the team has a very strong Jedi Healer, going for a counter-Jedi such as Count Dooku is a good plan. But of course just having a Count Dooku isn’t enough — you need to ensure Dooku is upgraded to the level necessary to defeat the Jedi.

So overall you can see that even for a traditional RPG game, EA has ensured there is enough strategy here to make collecting and upgrading many heroes an integral part of winning difficult battles.

The Battle isn’t the Fun part

Despite all this strategy, rarely are players challenged by it. Most of the battles are trivial. As a result, the RPG battling system gets stale pretty quick. This is usually inevitable in an RPG system and something that is expected by the audience. This is a by-product of the Grinding nature of the game. Players expect that there will be thousands of battles that they need to grind through to get to their ultimate goal.

Comparing this to Heroes Charge’s automated battle, I’m a bigger fan of Heroes Charge’s system over Galaxy of Heroes. This is subjective, but although Galaxy of Heroes feels more strategic than Heroes Charge because it’s turn based, most choices remain a bore. As a player, these battles are better off focusing on the part that is interesting: choosing when to trigger special abilities. Heroes Charge does that by only asking the player to trigger the special abilities, not make a choice every turn.

Regardless of the battle system, even Heroes Charge becomes a bore after battling the hundredth time. So both Heroes Charge and Galaxy of Heroes both use a method to both monetize players experiencing this boredom.

Galaxy of Heroes has a currency called Sim Tickets. Using Sim Tickets, players can auto-play through battles they know are too easy and a waste of time. This currency is easy to get, so players quickly get used to auto-winning previous levels to collect materials when they need to. However, Sim Tickets also uses up the energy and cooldown timers for levels. So grinding too much on a single level that you need shards or materials from will quickly pull up a pay gate. A smart decision to increase monetization and pace players from grinding too much on a single level.

Also, Sim Tokens can only be used on levels that have been “3 starred” — levels which you have defeated without losing a single character on your team. Thus: their Autoplay feels earned. You earned the right to auto-win because you completed this level with no issue.

As a player, this feels great. During a session, I can strategize where I grind to collect the loot that I need. It feels good that I have an opt-in way to speed through these battles that doesn’t feel like cheating or that I’m fast-forwarding through the game. I can quickly get materials and resources needed to upgrade my heroes, and only battle when I need to. As a result, the battles that I do enter feel exciting and are worth my time.

Visuals and Audio

The visuals in the game can best be described as “Economic”. Not to insult EA, but these guys had a tall, tall order. They needed to model, animate and texture the many star wars characters in the game, and make them all look good on mobile. Comparing this game to Contest of Champions, Contest clearly did a much better job in making each character look unique and their animations bring out the traits of each character. However, Galaxy of Heroes looks like they took every shortcut they could to keep the costs down.

It’s clearly visible in-game when most Jedis all animate and attack in the exact same way. Many characters share the exact same animation rig and animate the same way in battle. It’s a clever shortcut, but it’s noticeable.

Here you can clearly see Darth Vader’s model has some shortcuts to keep his model from getting too far away from the rig they wanted to use. The models themselves are also very low poly. Which just adds to the economical feeling.

Audio, on the other hand, is a great fan service. Using the best practices of the licenses, all nostalgia is here if you turn up the volume. Many of the key theme songs play in the background, lightsabers have that timeless sound as they hit the enemy, and even when playing in some stages the alarm sounds of the death star can be heard in the background. EA clearly spared no expense in ensuring that by the audio players would be immersed in the world of Star Wars.

The Key: The Core Supports the Loop

Overall, as a player, the battles are interesting but get stale quickly. The overall battle system is far from innovative. It feels very similar to the way that battles work in many turn-based RPGs.

RPGs in general, are a tried and true Free-to-play mechanic, so I can’t fault EA Games for going with such a traditional system. RPGs provide a nice light strategy for the player that can build up complexity over time.

However most importantly: RPG battles set the expectation for the player for a lot of upgradeable stats. RPG systems are great for communicating the importance of upgrading and making meta-decisions. You can’t win battles unless you’ve upgraded your characters. This pushes the focus of the players’ attention to be on where money is made: on upgrading and collecting characters.

Metagame

This brings us to the metagame. EA designed a metagame system that stays interesting for years due to two key reasons:

Firstly player is given a variety of ways to battle. As a player, I can choose and optimize my grind in many different ways.

Secondly, they built an upgrade system that lasts. Just to upgrade a single character fully takes months, and is a massive undertaking. To build up a collection of many characters would take years.

Lots of Ways to Battle

The goal of any great metagame is to introduce complexity slowly over time, to ease the player into the game but also keep it interesting. Galaxy of Heroes delivers on this by slowly unlocking new modes which layer new challenges and each unlocks their own unique rewards. There is a total of 6 different modes that you slowly unlock:

#1: Dark + Light Campaigns

This campaign is the main focus of the game. Players engage in increasingly difficult battles to test their team against AI opponents. The only restriction is that the Light Side battles can only be fought with Light side heroes, and the Dark Side battles can only be fought with Dark Side heroes. These battles start off very easy but ramp up the difficulty quickly. Each battle rewards the player with the major currencies (outlined later) but these battles are mostly for collecting randomly dropping gear. Each level can drop very specific gear which is needed to upgrade specific characters. So as a player you want to unlock all the levels to be able to collect all the materials you may need for upgrades.

#2: Cantina Battles

Cantina battles allow you to use any character (light side or dark side) in your team. These missions are much more challenging than the campaign, but reward the player with Ability Upgrade Materials (outlined later) instead of Gear, and reward different character shards giving a different reason to play. This mode also uses its own energy system, so when you’re done with the Campaign, you can further extend your session by playing in this mode.

#3: Challenges

Unlocked later after Cantina Battles you get the Challenge Mode. Challenge Mode allows you to enter in newly designed challenges every day to reward with the major upgrade currencies: Droids, Ability Materials, and Gear. These competitions reset every day, giving the player more reasons to come back every day and compete.

#4: PvP Arena

PvP Multiplayer is unlocked fairly late in the game, but this mode allows the player to compete against other player’s characters in a ladder system. This mode gives prizes once per day based on your rank in the multiplayer arena. Players move up the ladder by competing often against teams above their rank. This system benefits players with high-level squads, but also demands that players have to play often in order to defend their rank.

Interestingly this mode does not have energy. You can compete in this mode as often as you’d like. However, after each battle, there is a cooldown timer of 5 minutes which prevents you from playing again quickly. This simple cooldown prevents players from burning out on this mode.

#5: Events

Events keep the game feeling fresh by cycling specific competitions into the game on calendar cycles. Each event asks the player to bring in specific character types, further pushing players to collect and upgrade. In the example here, the Grand Master Training requires only “Jedi” type players. It also gives a reward you cannot get in any other mode — Yoda shards to help you unlock the Yoda character.

#6: Galactic War

Galactic War is the final mode you unlock, all the way at level 40. By the time you’ve reached this far in the game, you should have plenty of characters and are looking for a new challenge. This mode is a war of attrition — the damage you take in each battle carries with you to the next. In this way, having a huge library of characters is extremely beneficial. The more characters you have, the higher level they are, the farther you get in this mode. The farther you get — the higher the rewards. And just like in all the previous modes, the rewards you receive here are unique. The specific characters and materials can only be found here.

The Key: All these modes keep the game fresh, and support the loop

The player experience here is great. As a player, I slowly level up and unlock new modes. Even weeks into the game you can find yourself unlocking a brand new mode in the game that all of a sudden feels very different from what you’ve played before.

But furthermore, each of these modes support the core loop in different ways. Each mode demands that the player collect more characters and upgrade those characters to the highest level. This is what you want out of your metagame design: everything being built to support the core loop AND a way to change the game over time to keep things interesting.

Upgrade System: It’s a Long Way to the Top

In a typical RPG game, the element that designers have to manage is their players upgrading their characters to their maximum level too fast. To counteract this, Galaxy of Heroes creates a long, complex road the player must take to fully upgrade each character.

Taking their influence from games like Heroes Charge, Galaxy of Heroes has a similarly complex system made of multiple parts. Each system can be done in parallel, and each system is important.

To outline this, here is the path to get the best Darth Vader in the game: Character Unlock System

First, in order to unlock Darth Vader as a character, you need to collect 80 Shards. You typically get a few shards each day from grinding the Dark Side Battles or completing daily goals. So 80 Shards will take you a lot of time and effort. Otherwise, you could pay a ton of money and see if I get darth vader in the premium gacha… but this is rare, expensive, and no guarantee.

After weeks of hard work, you can get 80 shards. But if you want Vader to grow to the highest possible level… you’re going to need a 7 star Darth Vader. That, of course, will take a lot longer:

Star Promotion System

According to this, it would take 1.88 Million Credits and 320 Shards to be able to upgrade Vader to the maximum level. This will take a long, long time.

But okay, in this game you don’t NEED a 7-star Vader to play the game, you can progress in the game with Vader and slowly grow his star level as time goes on. Star Wars thus includes 3 other training systems which can be progressed in parallel:

XP Training System

To actually grow Vader to have better stats, you must spend Training Droids to increase their level. Overall this system feels really fast compared to most RPG games. You can quickly gain 10+ levels using droids easily collected from most battles. However, your character’s level is capped based on your actual Account Player level. So in order to have the highest level Darth Vader, your overall account level has to be high (forcing you to actually play through the game).

Gear System

On top of a star system and XP training system, Galaxy of Heroes also includes a gear system. As explained before, each battle drops loot in the form of materials. Each material is needed to fill up slots in each character’s gear. When you fill up all the slots on your character… Upgrade it! And all the slots are empty again! Asking you to go back to the drawing board to find all the gear once again.

Overall this system feels like a small Kompu-Gacha (complete a set by collecting random things). But to pace this system, as time goes by, the gear gets exponentially more difficult to find. So to get to Gear Level 10 on a character will take exponentially longer to complete.

Ability System

Last but not least each of a character’s abilities can be upgraded separately by collecting ability upgrade materials. So just to add an additional progression layer, you also need to be upgrading your abilities by collecting materials.

 

The Key: Complexity that lasts for Years!

So going through all 4 of these systems: Star System, XP Training, Gear Slots and Ability Upgrades, you’ve finally landed the best Darth Vader. This, of course, takes months to do while being hyper-engaged and focused only on Vader. But keep in mind that this game requires at least 5 unique characters to play at the highest level — you need to be doing this for multiple characters!

Additionally, different modes, events, and battles require a different collection of characters. Darth Vader may not be the best character for every battle! You need a lot more than 5 characters at the highest level to compete!

Overall you can clearly see here that the upgrade system is complex, but serves its ultimate purpose: this game lasts for years. Instead of offering a linear, obvious path for players to slowly upgrade their heroes, Galaxy of Heroes offers many parallel systems which give players short term and long term goals. Multiply this out by having many different characters to always be collecting, and this game constantly has tasks and things for the player which give the feeling of progression. This is the way that Galaxy of Heroes stays interesting for years.

Retention Drivers

Just looking at their performance on the Grossing Charts, we can predict that Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes can keep players playing for a long time. So how did they do it?

To look at retention we have to look at what drives sessions in the short-term, the mid-term and the long-term overall aspiration. These drivers must change and be as visible to the player as possible to give a clear roadmap of how to reach the end game.

Short-Term: Daily Activities + Session Length

Daily Activities

Great daily sessions on mobile are marked by a clear session goal. A mobile game should present the player with clear goals as soon as possible when opening up the game. Clear session goals means that players will work to achieve that goal each day, and feel good about leaving when accomplishing it.

Galaxy of Heroes heavily incentivizes completing the Daily Activities to progress fastest. These activities ask the player to engage, at least a few times, in all major systems and modes in the game: Play a few dark side campaign missions, play a few cantina battles, play some arena battles, etc. Each item on this list rewards the player, giving a great feeling to coming back each day and accomplishing each task. Beyond this, accomplishing everything that is on this list will give a “Daily Activities Completion” reward. This further rewards the player for completing everything on the list. What’s great is that this all forces me to actually play to receive my rewards, further pushing players to engage longer each day.

There is always something to do

Remember when everyone thought that mobile games should only have short sessions? That you need to be able to kick the player out of the game before they played too much? Throw out that rule.

Total daily session length is a far better indicator for a successful free to play game than any other. Looking at games like Contest of Champions, Clash Royale, Mobile Strike and now Galaxy of Heroes, it’s obvious that games that support long, long session length are dominating the top grossing charts.

But how do you do this without players getting bored of your systems or consuming your content too fast? Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes can support Long Sessions because:

Firstly, Their content is very inexpensive to produce (thanks to the core gameplay). Each level does not take hours for a game designer to create, just small adjustments in a spreadsheet.

Secondly, they’ve designed so many modes into the game that use the same core, but challenge the player in slightly different ways. This keeps the game fresh.

As outlined above, in a typical session I can play in up to 6 different modes. Each of these modes I can play multiple battles each lasting up to 3 minutes. Each mode has its own form of energy, so if I run out of energy in one mode, I can move to the others. By the time I’ve completed each mode, another mode has its energy almost replenished. In many cases as well, a “Daily Energy Boost” comes into my inbox which gives me an even bigger boost allowing me to keep playing. It feels like a nearly endless cycle of opportunities to keep playing the game.

As a result, I can easily spend hours in this game every day, building up commitment, and keeping me playing (and paying) for months.

Mid-term: I want my Darth Vader

What drives the midterm is really all about completing your collection of favourite Star Wars characters. They tease this from the very beginning with everyone’s favourite villain: Darth Vader.

The Achievements in the game each reward the player with Darth Vader shards. The game makes it very addictive to attempt to complete these achievements to get these free shards. This slowly creeps up the player’s collection necessary to unlock Darth Vader. This just adds to the temptation. If you just play for a few weeks, you’ll get your favourite character!

But besides darth vader, because each mode directly promotes the player to collect more, having just darth vader isn’t enough. Each game mode teaches the player that to play optimally, they need a larger team of heroes. In order to get the ones you want, you’re going to need to grind for shards. And just to reiterate, shards are very difficult to find. You can collect just a few shards of any character each day, and it consumes your energy quickly.

This is an excellent mid-term goal for a game to have. Find and collect the shards of your favourite characters. This is great because is supported by the license itself. Star Wars has a ton of characters everyone is motivated to collect.

Long-Term Aspiration: Complete the Content, Build the Best Team

After a few months (or a lot of money) each player will have unlocked their favourite characters. Darth Vader, Boba Fett, Rey, Kylo Ren, Luke Skywalker, etc. After the collection urge is satisfied, the player must turn to new goals on the far horizon.

The first key driver of the long term retention has to be just the sheer amount of content. It will take a long, long time to complete all the campaign levels for the Dark and Light side, especially because the difficulty growth. This mode eventually demands that your team reaches near the level cap (60), which itself takes months to achieve. Adding additionally the incredibly complex and long lasting upgrade systems for each character, this content is going last for a long, long time.

Content is one way to drive long term retention, but content is only valuable if the player has the desire to complete it. Driving the desire the reach the end of content is not an easy task, and I believe that Galaxy of Heroes can still do more to tempt players to do this.

Galaxy of Heroes attempts to do this during the tutorial. A Hutt character bumps into you in the beginning, insults you, and the tutorial guide gives you a reason that you eventually want to beat this character. This is good, but eventually this goal should be for more social or innate reasons.

The main reason to reach the endgame of Galaxy of Heroes is to reach the top of the leaderboards. Build the best team to reach the top.

This provides the longest term goal and the main reason to reach the highest character levels in the game.

Monetization

Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes is a game with content that can last for years. This is the foundation of strong monetization, because in this game you can easily spend thousands of dollars without making a dent in the content. Furthermore, because Galaxy of Heroes strongly incentivizes collecting and upgrading a variety of characters to progress in the game, there is always a strong desire to spend to collect more characters faster than the game is offering them. To keep progressing, you need more characters and you need them at a higher level.

EA made 3 key decisions which helped drive Galaxy of Heroes’ revenue:

#1 Tapering Progress: Gotta Collect ‘em All

As mentioned in many of the deconstructions here, the best way to monetize is to get players hooked off fast progress in the beginning, but then quickly reduce their progression speed while teasing late game content. Players need to have both the desire to reach the end game and the frustration that their progress is slowing down.

The beginning of Galaxy of Heroes is filled with fast progression. Your account level is increasing quickly allowing you to rapidly train all of your characters with droids. Each character’s level is increasing faster than most RPG games. On top of this, gear is easy to come by so you’re able to upgrade your character’s gear very quickly giving you a strong sense of progress.

But eventually, things start hitting a tipping point. The characters you started off with are only 1 star, so each time you upgrade, you are reminded that you could be growing your characters faster if you only collected more shards. You’re given a couple 3-star heroes in the beginning which show the value of having such high star characters, giving you a sense that in the end, you’re going to need to promote your characters to higher star counts. Shards are hard to come by in the game’s economy but are much easier satisfied by spending real money on crystals and data cards. This is how Galaxy of Heroes converts players into spenders.

Adding to this, as players unlock new modes to compete in, they are inevitably showcased modes and villains that they can’t counter with their initial team. They see the value of having a variety of heroes but see a very slow progress to do it without spending. In different modes, they can collect a few shards for specific characters, but regardless — the best way to get the variety of characters is to spend money on Data Cards.

Because every mode in the game highly incentivizes having a variety of heroes, and grinding for new heroes is far more difficult than just spending money, this primes the player to spend.

#2 Sales & Subscriptions

Taking best practices from games like Heroes Charge, Galaxy of Heroes also made sure to include key features to convert players into payers as early as possible. Converting a player early is key to both retention and monetization: A player converted early is likely to commit to the game for the long run, and a paying player is much more likely to continue to spend if they retain. So to incentivize players early, Galaxy of Heroes was sure to include 2 key features:

Limited Time Starter Packs

As your account levels up by playing the game, you trigger starter packs. These appear in your shop. The packs offer one-time-only deals for a limited time. They offer guaranteed quality characters and heavily discounted amounts of in-game currencies. The deals start off at a low price point, but quickly escalate up to prices as large as $140USD. Each heavily incentivizing you to make that first purchase.

As a player this feels great — these purchases feel like the smart purchase. I get a high value pack with unique characters and currencies, and EA Games gets a committed player.

Subscription

Besides the Starter packs, Galaxy of Heroes also employs another common tactic in mobile RPG games: a subscription purchase. This purchase gives players 100 crystals each day for 21 days.

This mechanic is important because it both incentivizes the first purchase AND demands the player be engaged for a long period of time. This mechanic is also a great way to build commitment from your player base early, and as a player, it feels great — I get a huge discount on premium currency, and all I have to do is come back!

#3 Currency Design

Overall looking at all these features, what truly incentivizes purchases in this game is how they crafted their economy. They created an economy which pushes the player to play in the ways that they want, and escalate monetization quickly for spenders.

More Currencies means More Control

The way they accomplished this was not being afraid of complexity. Just looking at the sheer number of currencies in the game, you can clearly see that this game isn’t for everyone:

Why have these many currencies? Shouldn’t we as game designers seek ways to consolidate currencies?

If Galaxy of Heroes tried to consolidate some of their currencies, it would make for a more accessible game. Fewer currencies mean less clutter on the UI, less for the player to remember.

Besides accessibility, it allows players to have more choice on how they spend their currencies. For example, if they consolidated all energy into a single energy currency, players would be able to pick and choose which modes they wanted to play in and ignore the rest. This is exactly the choice that EA did NOT want players to have — they wanted to heavily incentivize players playing in ALL modes equally. This is the same reason why they have so many material types (Gear, Ability Upgrade, Droids, Shards) and within each type having so much variety in those rewards. This heavily incentivizes players to play in every mode. Ensuring that players actively want to play in each mode promotes their core loop further.

If players could ignore the “PvP Arena” mode completely, then the player would be completely cut out of the long term aspiration of becoming the best team. If players would feel okay with completely ignoring the “Cantina Battles”, then they would rarely feel challenged by the game, and feel okay with just spending all their time grinding in easy levels. Because each mode has its own energy, and each mode can have its own unique rewards, the player is heavily incentivized to compete and play in each mode.

On top of this, because there are more currencies in the game, and each currency’s sources and sinks are heavily restricted, this makes an economy balancer’s job much easier. They can easily model and predict the rates that players can gather and spend this resource, thus allowing much better control over the economy.

I believe Galaxy of Heroes was very smart in the design they had for their currencies. Going for this many currencies was the right choice.

The complexity that comes from having many currencies is worth the tradeoff for better balancing control and better monetization.

The Premium Currency won’t convert easily into everything.

The second smart thing that Galaxy of Heroes does, is ensure that their currencies are tightly controlled how they can be converted into each other. Especially the premium currency (Crystals).

Most of the currencies in the game aren’t directly convertible from Crystals. Crystals can only directly purchase data cards, skip timers, skip cooldowns, and speed up the energy timer. Compared to other games, the premium currency in Galaxy of Heroes is very restricted. These restrictions help to ensure the maximum potential of monetization.

In one mode called “Shipments”, crystals can be converted into certain shards, certain materials, and some currencies, but are restricted by a shipment timer. You can only purchase the item once per shipment. Afterward, you have to wait for the shipments to refresh.

This is a great way to further restrict currencies and open up better session design and better monetization. If a player wants a large amount of these currencies, they must either come back often to the game or pay quickly escalating amounts of crystals to cycle the shop.

Social Elements

Overall, Social is the weakest element in Galaxy of Heroes and thus is the most untapped potential for Galaxy of Heroes to grow. As a player, this is fundamentally a single player game, and it never demands that I work together with anyone to reach my final goal.

Allies, Borrowing Heroes

The only real social mechanic in the game is the ability to borrow other player’s heroes during battles. This allows you to “borrow” a high level hero each time you enter a battle, progressing you faster. It’s good for teasing game content and giving benefits for having active friends in the game. It also allows players that are higher level to help the progression for new players joining the game.

However, the system isn’t really all that impactful. Since I can always select a random player, it takes a long time before I start needing to add friends that are beyond my level. It’s a nice to have, but there’s no real motivation to add allies until I’m nearing the end game. This system would be much more impactful if the random heroes had a limit on it — you could only bring in a non-Allied hero a few times each session. This would mean eventually you will need your friend’s heroes. This would stress the importance of friends in the game earlier, which is a great way to increase retention through social pressure even for early retention.

Ranked Leaderboard & PvP

Beyond the Allies, there is also a PvP Arena mode. Each battle increases your rank in leaderboards, and matches the player against increasingly difficult teams of characters from other players in the game. It’s good for building up some light competition, but in my eyes, this is just the beginning of what a competitive mechanic needs to do.

The Key: More Social Needed!

To reach the top of the grossing charts you need social mechanics that push players to compete together. Social Pressure to play and pay together. Clans and Guilds to bind players together to compete. This is what is missing from Star Wars Heroes, and clearly is something that can be added to drive this game farther.

The blueprint for an effective guild structure for mobile RPGs can be found in games like Dungeon Hero and Heroes Charge. These games push players to join Guilds early, adding social pressure to upgrade and collect more heroes. They have mechanics including daily quests which reward the guild with their own currency and rewards all members in the guild for doing so. Guild Leaderboards to push the guilds to compete with each other. These are the basic building blocks of including social pressure into the game. I’m confident that EA knows this, and is working on these features for an update in the future.

Summary

Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes has done what all free to play games must do: create a design that with a strong core loop that lasts for years. Each of their key systems is designed to do this:

  1. A Strategic RPG Battle that demands the player collect and upgrade many characters
  2. A Metagame with many different modes to progress, but each demanding different characters at high levels
  3. A Character Upgrade system which is complex and nonlinear, demanding the player spend months to fully upgrade each character
  4. A tight economy which pushes players to play in every mode for hours for optimum progress
  5. But stepping back from the mechanics, Heroes of the Galaxy did what all Free to Play games must do when adding a License. Their license does more than just help market the game — it supports their core loop. Star Wars as a license drives the player’s core desire to collect and upgrade their favorite characters. Who wouldn’t want to collect a powerful Darth Vader? EA knew this and tempted players with this throughout the game.

Rather than just slapping a license onto a game, EA Games ensured that the license supports their core loop. Further pushing the game’s strong long-term retention, further pushing this game to be a strong top grossing title.

How to Soft Launch (GDC 2016)

This year at GDC I spoke about how to soft launch games. A deep dive into how Wooga looks at soft launches, and specifically what you can expect in terms of Cost, Learning and Growth.

Click Here to Download the Slides and watch here if you have GDC Vault Access

Summary & Takeaways:

  • Soft Launches have changed significantly
    • Soft Launching in 2011 was much easier — especially because of the free traffic through facebook virality
  • Soft Launches are more important than ever
    • Wooga learned this the hard way with Agent Alice. You have to validate your LTV & CPI before launching if you want to launch with an effective marketing budget.
  • Soft Launches aren’t cheap
    • Futurama and Max Ammo’s costs were around $250,000 for 5 months of soft launch. This is user acquisition costs only.
    • Wooga Soft launches now typically take 4-6 months, this is mainly to give time for both Validation (ensure LTV > CPI) and Growth (attempt to improve metrics before launch).
  • You can use Low CPI Countries, but only to test, not to validate
    • Don’t use the KPIs ( LTV, Retention ) in your Low CPI test markets to validate your game. Wooga has found that these KPIs change unpredictably from country to country. You can only predict a hit in your key markets (usually Sweden and Canada)
  • Retention is more influenced by Marketing User Quality than Features
    • Don’t just look at your day-to-day or week-to-week retention to see the impact of your changes. It’s very easy to inflate or deflate your retention profile by adjusting your marketing mix (what % of your users come from which acquisition source).
  • The only way to see real impact of your changes in Soft Launch is to A/B test
    • If you NEED to see the real impact of features you need to A/B test. But because Soft Launches have such low DAU, the time needed to get real results from this will drag your soft launch timeline out.
  • Growth of Retention is SLOW
    • We at Wooga typically see an average growth of our retention numbers by 0.5 to 1.5 percentage points per month (1d/3d/7d). So if your retention numbers are far off your target, its going to take a long time to get them up.
  • Large Retention Jumps are usually improved with: Funnel Optimization, Tutorials and Difficulty Adjustments
    • Large Retention jumps don’t typically happen, unless your game is fundamentally broken.
    • The largest bumps in retention that Wooga has seen have come from 3 things:
      • Funnel Optimization: looking for where users drop out
      • Tutorials: optimizing and paring down the tutorial
      • Difficulty Adjustments: looking for frustrations and smoothening progression
  • Growth of Monetization can be done
    • We at Wooga have seen that monetization can grow, especially during post-launch.
    • So if you’re LTV CPI equation is not working only because of monetization, you can still grow monetization during post-launch

Overall:
Soft Launches will not save your game.

If you don’t see strong metrics during Soft Launch, then don’t expect the Soft Launch to give you the clear learnings of how to fix and grow your game to be a hit. Costs are high, Learnings are difficult, and Growth is slow.

 

 

 

Deconstructing Clash Royale

Supercell has dropped a bomb on the mobile gaming market. Their new game, Clash Royale, soft launched just as 2016 got started. They have soft launched in only 8 countries, but this game is already a sure success. Supercell has already committed the game to a global launch in March.

The game is already Top 3 Grossing in Canada

The game is already Top 3 Grossing in Canada

Supercell has made a lot of smart choices with this game. They have a fun, competitive, forward-thinking game that exemplifies what modern free to play design should feel like. Previously I’ve talked about just how difficult Multiplayer on Mobile is to get right, yet here Supercell threw out the rulebook. They’ve now proven that Synchronous multiplayer can work on mobile. Many have even gone as far to say this is the first successful MOBA on Mobile.

Whatever you want to call this game, it will be a success, and it did so while breaking many of the rules.

But enough praise for the game, today I’d like to talk about my favourite subject when it comes to mobile game design: sessions. Specifically, where I think Clash Royale succeeded in creating session design that pulls players back each day.

They did so with 2 clever systems:

  • Free Chest Systems
  • Chest Slot System

Overview of the Game

Clash Royale is a card-based real-time strategy game. The best way to explain it is to watch:

Player use cards to spawn various units to attack opposing player’s towers. The goal is to destroy their towers before they destroy yours. The strategy is in choosing when and where to place your cards: to counter your opponent’s units, and to ultimately press the opponent enough to destroy their central tower.

Overall it is a hectic strategic game that lasts only a few minutes. It feels like a real-time hearthstone match mixed up with the clash of clans gameplay.

The Core:
  • Winning a battle will reward you with chests (in various ways)
  • These chests give you random rewards: gems, coins, and random cards
  • Cards can be upgraded with enough duplicates of the same card, and enough coins
  • To win, you need a variety of Levelled up cards
The Goal:
  • Players want a collection of competitive cards
  • To win as many matches as possible
  • To get as many crowns and trophies as possible
  • To reach highest Arenas
  • To reach the top of the leaderboard (With your clan or by yourself)

The loop is focused on collecting and gathering cards. Not unlike Hearthstone. The big modification though is the ability to upgrade these cards.

bomberupgrade

Comparing Clash Royale to Hearthstone, the ability to upgrade cards changes matchmaking and progression quite a bit.

To upgrade a card, you need to collect duplicates as well as coins. The real key comes in the rarity of the cards. Some cards are inherently better than others (ex. the Giant), and since they are RARE or EPIC, they drop a lot less than others. So not only do you want to collect these rare cards, you also need to collect a lot of them to fully upgrade the card.

This strong desire to collect and upgrade your cards is what drives all systems in the game. Each session is about attempting to get as many chests (and thus cards) as possible. To collect cards the fastest, the player has to play by the rules that Supercell desires to drive retention and monetization.

#1: The Free Chests System

To analyze Clash Royale’s sessions, let’s start with the most obvious system: how Clash Royale starts and ends its sessions.

For any game, good session design is marked by two things:

  • You’re rewarded each time you come back to the game
  • The game quickly gives you a short-term goal, that can be accomplished within that session, or at least within a few sessions

This is usually accomplished in most games by a few things:

A Rewarding Start:

Good sessions always start off with a instantly rewarding mechanic. Most games aim to have a collection of resources each time you return or a Daily Reward System. This gives the player a good feeling instantly after starting up the game.

Rewarding Start

Short Term Goal:

But having an instantly gratifying mechanic isn’t enough. The player must quickly form a goal which will drive the player further into the game. They need a goal which asks them to engage in the core gameplay.

This dynamic is usually created by a Daily Mission system or wanting to use up all Energy.

Session Goal

Clash Royale creates these 2 dynamics with 2 systems: A free chest every 4 hours, and a crown chest after collecting 10 crowns.

clash-royale-chests

The free chest system marks the beginning of your session: you come in, open up your free chests. It feels rewarding just to come back.

20160111042712a0eavbdtriwnw35g

Secondly, the crown chest. To open you must collect 10 crowns from opponents. This gives me a nice short term goal. Even if I am far away from ranking up, I want to collect 10 crowns so I get the crown chest. Realistically this goal can be accomplished in 1 session, or at least within a day.

This is perfect for driving a strong session length. A clear goal as soon as they’ve opened up the app. Something that the player feels good for accomplishing.

Crown_Chest_Tip

This chest can be opened once per 24 hours, which gives a strong daily goal for players. Players wanting to get the maximum number of chests come back each day and play enough matches to collect 10 crowns.

These 2 chests, which take up a small portion of the UI, incentivize strong sessions per day and strong session length.

#2: The Chest Slots System

Secondly lets look at the Chest Slot system.

Each time you play a round, if you win (score more crowns than the opponent), you will receive a chest. This chest is randomly chosen from Silver, Gold or Magical. Each chest takes time to open: 3h, 8h or 12h. You can only open 1 chest at a time, and to restrict things further, you only have 4 slots to store chests.

chest-drop-order-clash-royale

No other game on mobile has used this pattern for pacing players. This is the first I have ever seen someone attempt something like this. Instead of pacing the players through energy or construction timers, they went with a system that limits the rewards players get. Players can play as often as they like, but in order to progress and upgrade their deck, they need to pace themselves.

This system can only work if they know that :
#1: players won’t grow tired of playing their game… no matter how much they play
#2: their matchmaking and card upgrade system can prevent players from progressing into the higher leagues too fast

#1 is no easy feat, but I believe they accomplished it. Clash Royale is a game, like Hearthstone, that has a shifting meta, no clear answers. Every battle feels different, especially because its synchronous multiplayer.

#2 is based on the big change they made over a pure Trading Card Game system. Because you can upgrade each card, eventually the player will be confronted with decks that are stacked against them. No amount of skill will be able to defeat a deck with higher level units. Because of this, players will eventually need to play the chest opening game. There’s no avoiding it.

Matchmaking aside, what about the overall feeling of the sessions?

This system fulfills the goals of Flexible Sessions. Rather than blocking the player from playing the game, they ask the players to be smart about how they spend their time.

But what about having to come back every 3 hours to clear out a single chest? Why not allow for chests to be opened up automatically? Opened up in queue?

My guess is that Supercell knows the pain that the chest slots creates, and this is intentional for retention and monetization purposes. Players have to organize themselves to hit all their timers. This uncertainty of hitting their Chest Timers drives players to come back, and pay to speed up the timers when they know they won’t be able to return optimally. I know for myself this chest slot system has converted me into paying to skip timers.

But regardless if you’re chest slots are full, the player can continue to play, which really is what drives the flexible sessions. Even if you’ve filled up your chest slots there is a lot of productive things you can do in the game:

  • You can continue to play and push as far up the leaderboard as you can go with your current cards
  • You can continue to collect crowns for the Crown Chest
  • You can donate cards and request cards from clan mates
  • You can chat and read messages from other clan mates
  • You can watch other battles from around Clash Royale (and be teased of late game content or tempted to speed up progression…)

So although the Chest system is restrictive, its not nearly as restrictive as a straight up energy system. And having this “soft” restriction allows highly engaged players to opt-in to leaving the game when they feel smart about it.

Conclusions

Supercell have a big success on their hands with Clash Royale.

They crafted strong sessions with 2 systems:

  • A Free Chest system that gives rewards just for arriving and setting a strong session goal
  • A Chest Slot system that effectively paces players without energy

This base of strong session design is driving strong retention and monetization. I don’t expect Supercell to change much as this game moves towards global launch. I expect that they are mostly focusing on making their end game deeper and more competitive. This will drive the game even further up the Top Grossing charts, and drive even stronger long term retention. This game will be on the charts for a long time to come.

Overall Supercell clearly have opened up new doors with their designs. It shows that synchronous multiplayer can work on mobile, and energy is not needed to pace players properly. Lets see whether this ushers in a new “Clash of Royale Clones” or developers can apply these design lessons to new games on mobile.

Free to Play Monetization: Making The First Purchase

When a player first starts a new free to play game, they have very little intention of spending money. No matter how good your game is, no matter how good your brand is, it’s unlikely that players are willing to drop money soon after starting the app. There’s a period of time where players wait and experiment before making their first purchase.

Usually during this early time, heavy monetization should not be your main concern. When free to play first began on mobile, the common approach was to throw monetization in the player’s face immediately. Developers would do whatever they could in the first session to convert players. This has changed.  Modern free to play design puts much more importance on being generous with currencies and content from the first session, and pushing for monetization only after the player really has tried out the game. This method results in players playing longer, and more likely to spend more often through their lifetime with the game.

But there’s an obvious concern here. If you’re being so generous with currencies and content in the beginning, how can you monetize effectively in these early stages? Is there any way to get players to pay early without making them turn off the game? Yes!

With smart design, monetization does not impact retention. More likely, strong monetization actually improves your retention. After a player has dropped their first dollar in a free to play game, they are more likely to stick around. Especially if you make sure that their first purchase feels good.

That really should be your goal: A great feeling first purchase.

The High Conversion Item

A great feeling first purchase is commonly referred to as the high conversion item. It is a virtual item or a mechanic which is likely to incentivize a player’s first purchase.

The first example that comes to mind of a high conversion item is the “Double Coin” boost in Endless Runner style games. Every game play after a player has purchased this boost will give double that amount of collected coins. It’s a single purchase ($2) which can only be made once, but is permanent unlike most In-App Purchases. Any engaged player will see it as a great deal and be more likely to spend their first dollar on the game with this purchase over the regular currency purchases.

Jetpack_Joyride_counterfeit_coins

So how do we create this type of mechanics for different genres?

It’s actually quite simple. The optimal components of a high conversion item are:

  • High value to the player
  • The value pays off over time (only if the player is engaged)
  • It’s limited by either time or use

High Value

If the item you are selling is not desirable, players won’t convert. Players want to feel smart about making that first purchase, and are unlikely to fork over cash unless they feel they are getting a great deal.

But creating the feeling of getting a great deal is easy when you think of common pricing strategies. The easiest for showing value is Price Anchoring. Ensure the player has been shown the “usual” value of gems and items, but offer an option which is clearly lower than that. This will create the feeling of a deal.

deadpool

A great example of this is Kabam’s Contest of Champions. In the first session, the player is constantly brought into the crystal vault and shown the regular price of crystals. They are also shown the value of heroes and currencies during the first session. The player’s value and price have now been anchored. After this is in place, there is a starter pack with tons of currency and a guaranteed awesome hero (Deadpool) to get you started. They have hinted at the value, and clearly shown that this is a low price. This is a high value purchase for the player.

Pays off over Time

But just creating an “on-sale” pack of regularly purchasable items is not the optimal way of asking a new player to make their first purchase. The best conversion items also aim to drive the player to play more. To do this, the value of a conversion item must only pay off over time. Instead of giving massive value upfront (ex. a bunch of currency that can be spent quickly), the player should have to play and engage with the game in order to see the purchase’s true value.

Giving too much upfront can mean that a paying player will spend all the currency quickly, feel like they have “beaten” the game, then leave. Instead, asking the player to engage in the game because of their purchase can turn a monetization mechanic into a retention mechanic.

Monthly Jewel Purchase. Spend a little, get a lot. But only if you come back daily!

Monthly Jewel Purchase. Spend a little, get a lot. But only if you come back daily!

The best example of this is Heroes Charge monthly card or COLOPL Rune Story‘s monthly jewel. A player can pay a small amount of money to receive premium currency over a month. In order to collect it, the player has to come back each day. This builds investment in the player. They paid the money, they have the opportunity for massive value, but this value can only be unlocked if the player is engaged.

Aim for your high conversion item to only unlock its true potential if players commit to returning to your game.

Limited

The last tactic of a high conversion item is about making it limited in time and/or in use.

Just as I spoke about before, the Contest of Champions Starter Pack is a great value purchase. It’s also on a timer — you can only purchase the pack within a set amount of days, which puts pressure on players to make up their mind. This pressure increases the conversion rate.

But also the conversion item should be a once-in-a-lifetime type of offer. Limiting the number of times the player can actually purchase this item is important. Especially since this item provides such high long term value, you don’t want the player to get addicted to spending only on this item, rather (eventually) have to convert to spending on regular purchases.

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A good example of limiting the use is the Clash of Clans builder. It’s a high conversion item. If a player purchases the builder, a player can construct 2 buildings at once, effectively doubling their progression speed and allowing them far less restrictions when their economy is under attack from other players. Builders are very high value which pays off over time. However, the builder hut can only be purchase 5 times, with each stage getting much more expensive. The value eventually has to come in line with the actual costs, and making sure this is capped allows the economy to be effectively balanced.

Ensure that your high conversion item is limited by both time and of use. You want to pull the player to eventually start making your regular purchases.

In Summary

During the early stages of a player’s engagement in your game, it is important to build a High Conversion Item. This item must:

  • Demonstrate a high value to the player
  • The value can only pay off in time, building investment in the player
  • Be limited by both time and of use, to ensure its felt as special, and that players eventually move over to regular purchases.

Using this as your guide, you can create a strong high conversion item that will drive monetization and retention.

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