Monday, February 3, 2014

Game of the Week: Colossatron

Halfbrick's Colossatron: Massive World Threat is a paid game with several well-integrated free-to-play mechanics, such as dual currency and pay-to-continue. It's one of the most engaging, graphically unique, well designed, and masterfully executed games you can find for $0.99.  

Progression in Colossatron is very straightforward. There are seven countries, each of which consists of four cities. In order to progress from one country to another, a player needs to beat all four cities in a row. The cities are progressively harder, so it’s no easy task. In case a player fails to beat a city, he has to start again from the first city of the country he’s in. 

Colossatron is a blast! Everything from graphics and gameplay to the storyline is polished to perfection.
Gameplay in Colossatron is extremely easy and rewarding - at least during the first levels. The game is built around a giant robot snake (aka the colossatron) that destroys cities, which are defended by an army. You could think that a player needs to control the colossatron. Instead, a player’s role is to catch floating powercores and insert them tactically into the rampaging snake robot. Check out the video below to make sense of what I mean. 

Combining powercores in the heat of battle is simply a lot of fun! Some combinations are straightforward and logical, for example by inserting three missile launcher powercores, you get one big missile launcher. And, of course, combining three big missile launchers turns into one massive missile launcher.  Other combinations of powercores are more tricky, for example combining a laser beam with a missile launcher creates a flamethrower powercore. 

There are both soft and hard currencies in Colossatron. A player earns soft currency based on how much destruction he causes within a level. Hard currency is earned in more special occasions, such as destroying all four cities, or by randomly finding a hard currency power core inside a level.

A player mainly sinks soft currency by modifying the the colossatron between levels. Hard currency, on the other hand, can be used either to unlock and permanently boost powercores or (and more importantly) to instantly revive the colossatron and thus avoiding having to replay all the previous cities. This pay-to-continue mechanic is most likely the best monetization source in Colossatron as nothing is more frustrating than coming an inch away from beating the country and being forced to replay all the four cities from the beginning...  

There are two main reasons why Colossatron: Massive World Threat still unfortunately remains a niche hit: 
  1. It's a paid game in the free-to-play world. With the price tag of $0.99, game installs are limited to a fraction of what could be with a free game. It’s a shame as this is a game I believe a lot of people would love. 
  2. Level design: Simply getting rid of the price tag won't turn Colossatron into a successful freemium title due to the structure of the current level design, as well as the overall amount of levels. 28 levels are simply not enough. The little overshot level design would also quickly result in an overwhelming content treadmill for the team. Maybe streamlining some of the videos between lands and reusing land graphics would help with content creation. But based on how polished the game is, I'm in doubt that the team would compromise production value just to publish more levels. 

Do yourself a favor download Colossatron and check out the launch trailer below:
App Store:
Google Play:
Amazon Appstore:  



Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Game Of The Week: Heroes of Honor

In short, Heroes of Honor is a combination of Kingdoms of Camelot and Game of War supercharged with upgrade and evolve mechanics and made fun by a new take on battle mechanics. 

Heroes of Honor (HoH) by Nonstop Games is a very interesting, captivating and fun game. It's an immersive strategy game wrapped in a fantasy theme. Yes, there are hundreds of similar titles in the App Store, but there a are few interesting elements that make HoH stand out.

The city builder element in HoH is similar to what we have seen in Kabam's games, such as The Hobbit and Kingdoms of Camelot. HoH has added new elements, where players can freely place buildings on the map as well the command workers to mine gold or chop wood. These elements make HoH a lot more approachable than Kabam's similar titles. Small details, but the impact is quite big.

What makes HoH stand out of the pack though is the map feature. Not only do players roam around the map in real-time, but they also battle AI, each other, and conquer outposts. Because of the real-time element, the map alone is a meta game allowing players to spend long sessions simply scouting and chatting in global and guild chats. 

The battle mechanics in HoH are really engaging despite being extremely simple. There are three type of units in the game: magic, range & melee. To win a battle (tactically) players need to have the right type of combination of the three types of units. And to make things even more interesting, different units prefer different terrains. Thus, a successful attack is a combination of the right units and a well chosen terrain. Because controlling multiple armies at the same time is easy in the game, waging war in HoH is truly fun. 

There are countless fantasy themed strategy games in the App Store, but what makes Heroes of Honor truly stand out of the pack is its map feature, battle mechanics and the consumable hero items economy

Armies in HoH are commanded by hero characters, which again is nothing new to players who have played Kingdoms of Camelot or Game of War. What makes the hero feature truly one-of-a-kind is the items economy. Each hero wears items, which improve their attributes. Players can upgrade these items with a rare resource mainly earned in battle. Players can also craft new items by combining items. And of course, participating in in-game events rewards players with new hero items, which again can be upgraded and combined with other items...  

Where HoH fall currently short is social. The guilds don't really seem to add any meaningful value and it's not possible to communicate with players on the map. The art style of HoH is also something that, in my view, could have been improved as it's now neither casual nor hardcore but rather a weird mish-mash of both styles. 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Boom Beach - Developing the Next Big Thing

It’s been well over a year since Supercell last launched a game globally. Boom Beach, company’s likely new global title has been crushing it in the Canadian App Store for 2 months now and its safe to say that fans and the game industry are waiting for the game’s global launch. 

In many blogs and posts Boom Beach has been mistakenly described as Supercell’s own Clash of Clans clone. But despite several similarities at the core Boom Beach is a very unique game, which creates some unique hurdles. 

In this post I will deconstruct the game and pointing out the key core differences between Clash of Clans and Boom Beach. As the game is still in soft launch phase during writing of this post, I'll also pay attention to elements in the game that will most likely be addressed before global launch. Finally I will discuss opportunities, which Boom Beach has not yet seized.

1. Battle Mechanics – the Unexpected Hurdle

Personally I love Boom Beach’s battle mechanics. They give players just enough control to make the battle tactical, but keep the gameplay at large enough scale so players don’t need to micromanage the battle. I also enjoy how unlike in Clash of Clans, attacking doesn’t consume your deployed troops unless your troops fall during the battle. But, despite looking and feeling great, the design for battle is actually the most troublesome element of the game leading to many unexpected issues.

The main issue with the game’s battle is that the only way to win is by destroying the enemy HQ. So, instead of tower defense, the battle actually follows game design of capture-the-flag games. This leads to a situation where failed attacks result in purely negative consequence as a player loses his troops and doesn’t get any loot in return. A design intensified by the fact that attacks from other players can come only from single direction. Battle design also restricts creative home base design, as the HQ is the only building players needs to guard. Because of all these factors, designing defenses of your base tends to be quite unimaginative. 

Despite destroying enemy’s Vault, Gold and Wood Storages player won’t get any loot and will lose the battle. Only the destruction of HQ matters in Boom Beach.

Because of the very harsh win conditions and the inability to raid enemy bases, the PvP battles are quite unrewarding. In order to tackle the issues created by the battle mechanics, it seems that the team behind Boom Beach has taken an approach of expanding the PvE game. But instead of fixing the problem, I’m concerned that they might have created another hurdle.

There has been surprisingly little amount of updates during soft launch of
Boom Beach and the main focus seems to still be around PvE instead of PvP.

Because the AI bases are relatively easy to destroy and the player has in-consumable troops, even an unskilled player can win half a dozen battles during one session. This leads to players avoiding the punishing PvP and instead concentrating on the rewarding PvE. This turns Boom Beach currently into an awesome single player game with a lagging social game. 

2. Adding Meaningful Social Gameplay

Perhaps the most interesting missing component in Boom Beach’s current version is that it lacks almost any social gameplay elements typical for the genre. There are no guild structures, no interaction between friends, no collaboration features, and no means to communicate with other players. I believe that, again, due to the redesigned battle mechanics, adding social gameplay elements typical for the genre isn't that straightforward.

Social elements are crucial for success of a freemium simulation game. The main goal for a player in these type of games should be to progress as fast as possible. But the speed of progress is very player-specific metric and hard to measure. To solve the issue of progress measurability we use social mechanics. When players collaborate with each other in a game, they are bound to compare each other’s progress. Comparing progress leads to two kinds of feelings. Firstly, those players who are clearly lagging behind will want to progress and catch up with those ahead of them. On the other hand, advanced players will feel good about themselves and won’t want to lose the feeling of being ahead and above. 

Redesigned battle mechanics create an unexpected hurdle for Boom Beach's future social elements. Since players don’t lose their attacking troops with every battle and there’s no defensive squad on a player’s island the demand for troop reinforcements compared to other social tower defense games is significantly lowered. And as we all know, the primary function of guilds in these types of games is unit donation between guild members. Currently Boom Beach does not only lack guild structure, but it also lacks the demand to drive collaboration between guild members if a guild structure is implemented.

Meaningful social layers creates communities. Currently it remains to be seen what
Boom Beach's social gameplay will look like.

Currently the first two weeks are pretty much nailed in Boom Beach but the lack of a social gameplay is something that yet cripples the long-term retention and monetization of progressed players. I'm very curious to see how the social element will be implemented in the game and positive that it will raise the game to a new level. 

Of course troop donation the only way to drive functionality of guilds. I think what would work with Boom Beach is the same social mechanic that is used in Puzzle & Dragons (deconstruction of Puzzle & Dragons). Allowing players to lend landing crafts of other players for a single attack would add that missing element of collaboration.

3. Balancing Game Economy

A game’s economy is something you tweak the most during soft launch. A good game economy allows fast initial progress, which then starts slowing down, as the game economy exponentially demands more play to progress to the next level. Tweaking a game’s economy takes a lot of time, as the goal is to find the perfect balance between retention and monetization.

What I don't like as a player in Clash of Clans is that I lose all the deployed attack troops regardless of the battle outcome. I still think this is frustrating and unintuitive. I mean why should I lose my units, which have clearly won and survived a battle? Well, in Boom Beach players lose units only if they fall in the battle, which feels great, but results in game economy issues.

The combination of relatively easy AI levels, significant resource rewards for winning AI battles, and low consumption of troops all result in still rather loose game economy. Often a good way to offset surplus in the economy is to create more demand points, but this is also something where Boom Beach currently stumbles. The amount of buildings and especially building levels is quite low, which results in a situation where players often have enough resources for the next upgrade once the previous one is done. Working around the inter-dependable economy seems by adding upgradable buildings and building levels as well as tightening free supply of premium currency are steps that will most likely be taken.  

There are four in-game resources in Boom Beach: Gold, Wood, Stone and Iron, which are gradually unlocked through in-game progress. In my opinion the game economy is broken for Gold, weak for Wood, pretty solid with Stone and great for Iron. The economies of Stone and Iron are functioning mainly because players can’t produce a lot of them. The Stone and Iron storages are small and all of the high level buildings demand these resources. This results in players attacking AI and each other to get more of these precious and scarce resources. But, because of the extremely generous supply of premium currency, Diamonds, players can constantly purchase the missing resources, which again wounds the economy.

Currently Boom Beach's game economy is rather loose and players seldom find themselves missing
extensive amount of resources. And when they do,  often the surplus in premium currency supply off-sets the
urge to pay.  
But as said before, tweaking game economy is one of the main challenges during the soft launch. Personally I'm just a big fan of economy designs and looking forward to seeing how the team behind Boom Beach will iron the game's economy on its march towards global launch.

4. Increasing Visual Progress

Boom Beach is a visually stunning game. The home island is simply gorgeous with waves striking the beach and palm trees swaying in the wind. The same applies for the very approachable yet distinctive looking characters. The problem, however, is that the game doesn’t seem to yet evolve visually. After a month of gameplay player’s island will look pretty much the same as when they started the game, with just a few more buildings and a little less trees.      

Lack of visual progress is clear in this comparison between player's island after
a few days of playing and a current #1 ranked Boom Beach player in the world.

When the game is all about getting more resources and upgrading your buildings and troops there should be very clear visual feedback for these activities. Clash of Clans is a great example as with progress the puny village of the first sessions will slowly but surely transform into a massive fortress. Even the color palette in Clash of Clans changes from happy green and orange to black and purple. Besides, seeing the home bases of more advanced players is also extremely motivating for entry-level players.

Clash of Clans is a great example of strong visual progress as over the time spent
playing the game player's small village turns into a massive fortress 
Sadly the lack of visual progress in Boom Beach applies to the units as well at the moment, which look the same after upgrades. Because of this and the lack of a social layer there’s not much incentive to rush the unit upgrades. It’s not like my opponents can feel the power of my level 3 Zookas when they can’t even tell which level my units are based on their appearance.. Also, the fact that there are only five different units at the moment is seems very low to me. Even Clash of Clans launched with 10 units.

The Opportunities

When you start playing Boom Beach, the first thing you say is “Wow! This is the next big thing!” The graphics, the theme, the unrivaled smoothness and the reworked battle mechanics just feel right. Yet after a good while your daily sessions start declining hand to hand with you in-game goals. 

I believe that this game has the potential to be the #1 game in App Store. Yet it first has to clear out the obstacles around battle mechanics, social gameplay, game economy and visual progress as well as seize the opportunities, which the current game design allows. 

The Battle Map
Progression from single player to PvP is done beautifully via map-based progression. As a player unlocks new map pieces his map is gradually populated with other players, as well as additional AI islands. Map-based PvP is also a step forward from Clash of Clans' “Find a Match” button.

While map-based progression is beautifully done, it’s also one of the biggest underperforming features. With a map populated by resource bases, conquerable islands, and a dozen of active players you’d be expecting heated battles over scarce resources driven by channels of communication, which allow chatting with other players on the map. Really, what could be more fun than forming packs, coordinating attacks and betraying your newly formed alliances to start new ones?  

With all its beauty and functionality Boom Beach's map is still the most
underperforming feature and thus the biggest opportunity.

Sadly enough, Boom Beach doesn’t currently offer any interactive elements within its map feature. It's simply a tool to match players at the same level and encourage players to conquer and re-conquer AI islands.

The Gatcha
Once in a while freeing a village will grant a player a Gem. These gems can then be used to create a statue in the sculptor building. Each statue will give a player a random permanent boost to troops, defenses or resources. This could be an extremely powerful gatcha feature but at the moment it simply fails to deliver because of four main reasons: 1) the boost from a statue is insignificant, 2) all the statues look the same, 3) you can’t rob gems from other players, and 4) the amount of (inconsumable) statues, which a player can build is very limited.

Gems is a small step towards the gatcha. The feature fails yet to deliver because four reasons: 1) insignificant reward 2) lack of distinction between statues 3) players can't be robbed of construction pieces 4) in-consumable statues 

Imagine the same statue feature done following benchmark gatcha mechanics. First of all, statues would be consumable allowing players to combine different statues with one another in order to create massive and rare boosts. Secondly, the main source to get Gems, which are used to construct statues, would be from other players instead of AI. Thirdly, players could be robbed of Gems in their possession. This would allow players to target each other based on missing Gems. Fourthly and finally, there would be timed events, during which players could hunt for unique gems from AI and each other.

*Correction: Boom Beach has introduced events to the game, which are a source for rare Gems

There are a three key elements that tend to characterize successful in-game events. First, the event is limited in time. Second, there’s an event-specific in-consumable reward, which players receive if they are able to complete the event during given period of time. The uniqueness of the reward is important for engagement, while the in-consumable nature of the reward turns the completion reward into a status symbol. Third, giving a reward for completing an event after the actual event has ended is a way to boost retention.

I was initially thrilled to see that Boom Beach had in-game events as Supercell has been notoriously lagging in this aspect of game design with both Hay Day and Clash of Clans. The in-game event started by the introduction of Dr. Terror who prompted me to attack his island over and over again. Yet the event just didn't click. There was no promise for a reward that I’d get for beating Dr. Terror multiple of times, the attack intervals were very short at the time, and Dr. Terror’s island got exponentially tougher and in fact impossible for me to beat - emphasizing skill over time, which is something you should never do in F2P games. Finally when I ran out of time, the event ended with no notification.

Apart from balancing the event correctly I’d also suggest moving the emphasis from skill to time. This way players won’t quit the event because it’s just way too hard and actually monetize through unit training speedups in order to beat the AI opponent in given time.

Risk Well Worth Taking

Supercell’s winning recipe in game development hasn't been a secret. First you take an existing successful social game theme. Then you benchmark and reverse engineer the best titles in that genre in order to create a strong and natural core loop. You follow up by building the game around the solid core loop. Sprinkle some new and improved gameplay twists and dress it up with stunning graphics. Finally, you polish the game to perfection via soft launch in Canada. Once the game is polished and the KPIs look solid, it's time to come out with a bang and take app charts by storm. 

Battle Buddies and Boom Beach didn’t follow the winning formula. Where Hay Day imitated the best practices in farming games and Clash of Clans did the same with social tower defense titles, Boom Beach follows the beat of its own drum. 

I personally think Boom Beach has the potential to be the greatest game out there, but with no clear benchmark, the task is much more harder compared to previous success titles. Luckily the team has all the time and resources they need to make it happen. I know I'll be rooting for them.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Mid-Core Success Part 4: Monetization

I left monetization as the last piece in the mid-core success series simply because I see monetization as a result of a well-functioning core loopstrong retention and meaningful socialmechanics. Thus you won't find best tricks and tips on how to get people to spend in this final post of the mid-core series. Instead, I'll present monetization as a flow of all 3 of the success parts introduced in previous posts.

Formula for Monetization

On a high level, the formula for monetization is actually pretty simple: DAU (Daily Active Users) x Conversion (% of payers) x ARPPU (Avg. Revenue Per Paying User). Even though there are three key variables in the formula, we tend to focus on only the two latter ones with the discussion revolving around whales, price points, DARPU, amount of payers and all those little 'tricks' developers employ to incentivize players to pay and pay more.

Personally, I have a different approach. I honestly believe that in order to achieve that desired financial result you have to simply forget all those monetization features. Instead of monetization you should concentrate on retention, game economy and social mechanics.

I believe that demand for players to convert is created by slowing down the rate of progress in line with time spent playing a game. Social mechanics are vital in monetization because they make players compare their progress to others’ and thus tend to create a social obligation to keep up. 

Players are primed to spend when their progression slows down over time and they
are constantly comparing their progress through social interaction inside the game. 

The Monetization Don’ts

There are two commonly used approaches I suggest avoiding when it comes to monetization. First is the concept of in-game items, which players can only get by spending real money. Second is the concept of in-game sales.

1. Premium Items

Adding in-game items, which are sold only for hard currency, is the most-used way to create a pay-to-win game. By adding these super powerful items and offering them only to players who are willing to spend real money on the game, you’re essentially discriminating against the non-paying players, aka. the majority of a player base. 

If there’s absolutely no way to earn these powerful premium items, the players who have them will be seen more or less as cheaters when they rack up wins. And who wants to play against ‘cheaters’? Also, who wants to win when everyone around him knows he paid to get the W?  

Zynga's Respawnables encourages player to purchase premium weapons, which
players can get only with hard currency. These premium weapon eliminate all the
need to progress and unlock new weapons thus killing the core loop. 

2. Sales
The problem with constantly running in-game sales is that they significantly change players' purchasing habits. Sure, you'll get those nice sales spikes when the sale is running, but once the sale is over, your numbers will drop way below the levels where they started. In other words, you'll teach your players to purchase only during sales and avoid making purchases at other times.

Product Managers, who like to run sales, tend to underline that they are selling virtual items (at least that's what I used to say a few years back), which is essentially an infinite resource. But virtual items have value and that value is progress. So running sales actually allows engaged players to progress faster and thus increases the demand for more content.

Game of Wars by Machine Zone is notorious with their pushy sales. They run so many sales that
I'm actually unsure if you can purchase something that's not on sale.

Don't get me wrong though. I'm not totally against sales. Personally, I like to do two kinds of sales. First are sales aimed at players who haven't yet converted. Encouraging these players to make their first purchase, then stopping offering sales to them after the purchase is made is a sound approach. The second is seasonal sales. Halloween, Black Friday, New Year etc. Seasonal sales won't affect a player’s purchasing habits, as the season communicates clearly the uniqueness of a sale

Treat Monetization as a Flow

In my mind, sustained monetization is a result achieved through excellent game design, balanced game economy, engaging social mechanics and a fresh approach. 

Personally, I like to look at monetization as flow. It all starts when player begins the game, by creating the impression that this is a cool new game, full of action and entertainment. It's a game players haven't played before.

After wowing the player and getting her to come back, it's time to get to work. Make sure player enjoys playing the game. Gradually show all those interesting features that make the game experience so much better, and most importantly, create demand for the player to progress.

When your players want to progress, it's time to get those social mechanics in. Make sure that players can collaborate in a way that benefits both players. Also, make sure that the collaboration between players happens in an environment where both of them can show off.  

When your players are wowed from the get-go… When your players are enjoying your game and want to progress… When your players collaborate and show off their progress… Then you have a mid-core success.