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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- A Strategic RPG Battle that demands the player collect and upgrade many characters
- A Metagame with many different modes to progress, but each demanding different characters at high levels
- A Character Upgrade system which is complex and nonlinear, demanding the player spend months to fully upgrade each character
- A tight economy which pushes players to play in every mode for hours for optimum progress
- 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.