Sunday, September 16, 2012

Clash of Clans - the Winning Formula



I see a pattern here. First it was Hay Day, which is Supercell's first poke at farming games and hands down the best farming game on iPhone and iPad. Now Clash of Clans is doing the same thing to the strategy games by outclassing genre veterans with ease. 

What makes Clash of Clans a great game is the trademark Supercell winning formula approach to game development. First you take an existing social game theme. Then you benchmark and reverse engineer the best titles in that genre in order to create a strong and natural feeling core loop. You follow up by building a game around that solid core loop. Sprinkle a new and improved game play twist and dress it up in stunning graphics. Finally you polish the game to perfection with a limited beta launch by making the game available only in Canada. Once it's polished and the KPIs look solid it's time to come out with a bang and take app charts by storm. 

But even though Clash of Clans is the best there is it's still not the best there could be. Despite being extremely polished and reworked on the basis of the genre benchmarks Clash of Clans has plenty of room for improvements in some key game play mechanics as well as in the virality and even monetization features. 


The Core Loop


There are three major parts in Clash of Clans' core loop: Collecting Resources, Building & Training and Battling. Nevertheless not all of the parts of the core loop are equally important as the importance of each part is influenced by player's ongoing goal in the game, which creates different style game play styles from resource gathering and building heavy to active battling. 


Collecting Resources - beautiful use automated farming mechanics

Coins and Elixir are the two soft currencies in Clash of Clans. In order to produce Elixir and Coins player simply needs to have Elixir Collectors and Gold Mines. Resource production is automated meaning that player doesn't have to initiate resource production nor wait till resource production has finished production. Also to be noted is that the resource production facilities have a maximum cap, meaning that they will keep on producing resource till specific amount after which they will stop production till player has collected the accumulated resource. To increase resource production maximum cap player needs to upgrade the resource facility.
User initiated farming mechanics vs. Automated farming mechanics

The resource production is perfectly done in Clash of Clans. Firstly it's always rewarding to return to the game as you can harvest all of your resources at the start of every session. Secondly the automated farming mechanics encourage new players to visit the game more often as the resource facilities reach their max pretty quickly in their early stages. 


Building & Training - everything is interdependent

Roughly put; everything that has to do with building consumes Coins while everything that has to do with troops consumes Elixir. This means that starting a construction, research or an upgrade takes either  Coins or Elixir (never both) as well as time to finish the tas. Time taken to upgrade a building depends on the building's current level, so that upgrading buildings is fast in the beginning and extremely slow on later levels. Same steep curve applies also to the price of upgrades.

Upgrading buildings is crucial for progress as player needs more and more resources to build bigger and better units. What's genius about the upgrading flow is that everything is tied to one-another meaning that players can't just keep on upgrading one specific building but instead have to upgrade everything.

For example take a look at the image below. To upgrade a Gold Mine player need Elixir while upgrading Elixir Collector requires Coins. This ties the resources together as upgrading one resource production facility takes always exponential amount of resources produced by the other resource facility. There's always a specific maximum level for each of player's building based on the level of their HQ. Upgrading HQ takes tremendous amount of Coins and in order to store those Coins player needs Coin Storages, which cost huge sums of Elixir... well, you get the point...
Everything is interdependent in Clash of Clans' economy
Nevertheless the greatest building/progress restriction is the fact that player has only two builders. In other words player can simultaneously have only two building/upgradings at the same time. Overcoming this restriction takes only $5, which is the price of a third builder (I'm sure many of us have made that purchase). In case you want to have a fourth builder, well the price just went up to 10$. Talking about great use of price elasticity!

Battling - stop punishing the player

Training troops consumes Elixir and takes time. The better troops you produce the more Elixir it costs and the more time it will take to produce them. But time and Elixir are not the only ones restricting players from building the most massive army. Every better unit takes also more housing space, which creates demand for bigger Army Camps. Army Camps need to be upgraded, this takes resources, time and of course upgrades to the HQ... and you're back in the devilish interdependent economy of Clash of Clans.

Units cost Elixir and time. Better units require more space
limiting the size of player's army.

Here comes the sad part from player's perspective: all the troops you use in a battle are consumed win or lose. So you face a situation where you build and army, attack and lose every single troop even if you won the battle by a landslide. 

Sure from economy perspective consuming the whole player's attacking force creates a great sink for Elixir but from retention point of view I really think battling should be reworked. Kabam's Edgeworld does in my view the battles better as it allows player to retreat (raid other players) as well as to keep all the units who survive a won battle. Not only is this approach more user friendly but it also creates demand for super units, which player can take from one battle to another. And believe me, super units, in which players emotionally invest to, sell like pop corn in a movie theater. 


The Progress

Solid retention in Clash of Clans is mainly due to the steady and visible progress players have in the game. Second key factor in the retention is the well extremely well designed core loop, which reward player for being active and promises progress for each return session. Finally it's also about those notifications, as just when you think you won't be coming back to the game any time soon, you'r iPhone and/or iPad informs you that the awesome building you forgot you were even building is ready now.

Clash of Clans has some great first time flow, as it creates emotional attachment to the game area aka. player's village in a matter of 5 minutes. Game starts with Player entering her village, which is after a couple of dialogs attacked by goblins. Player defends the village with a cannon (learn defense) and launches a counter attack (learn battling). After the counter attack player gets back to the village and goes quickly through the core loop (build resource production, build barracks, train troops) till it's time again to launch a second attack against the goblins. After the second attack the game slows down to normal progress speed and introduces the achievements (which work in the beginning as quests) to the player.
You start small...
But progressing is not only about getting more resources and upgrading your buildings and troops. Progressing is also a lot to due with the way you village transforms visually. The puny village of the first session will slowly but surely transform into a combination of Lord of the Rings and Warcraft.
...but you end up EPIC
What's cool and new with Clash of Clans compared to similar games is the single player mission flow. Sure it's super hard compared to the rewards you get for beating goblins and yes Edgeworld had also single player missions but the way they are presented on a separate map makes them just really compelling - till player engages in the player vs. player battles... 

Players can choose whether they want to fight other players or AI (goblins).

The Virality 

The ultimate goal in Clash of Clans is to beat other players and be a part of a winning clan. First few days player is protected from attacks from other players but once this shield is dropped you become free game. In other words after the shield is dropped your village will be destroyed between 1 - 3 times a day. Protective shield is re-activated for several hours after each lost defense.

There are two ways player can stay away from destruction (or so we are told). Firstly players need to build up their defenses, which defend the village automatically in asynchronous PvP battle. Walls, traps, cannons, watch towers, mortars - you name it! Secondly players need to join a clan by restoring the castle next to their village (awesome way to introduce clans!). 

The broken clan castle is found on the game fiel. Great way to set up a long-term
goal and avoid overwhelming new players.

Once in a clan players can chat and in theory plan attacks or revenge in behalf of other clan members. In practice yes, you can chat and even donate some troop but you can't coordinate attacks, simply because in Clash of Clans you can't really choose who you will attack. You can only revenge to someone who once attacked you or you can just attack random opponents who're close to your own experience level. 

So what's the point of being a member of a clan apart from getting few low quality reinforcement troop for your next attack? Well, if you're a member in a powerful clan, you all get awarded. There are weekly tournaments and those who wreck the most combined damage get awarded. So yeah, clans are fun for few dozen of people but not for the vast majority of daily players. Plus it would be nice to even get a notification that a weekly clan tournament has been restarted.


Clans don't really clash because you can't yet attack other players from this
view nor co-ordinate attacks against chosen opponents.

Second issue is with friends. Players can sync up via Facebook, which enables them to see all of their playing friends. But after syncing up things fall flat. You can visit your friends or view their clans (and join them). You can't attack your friends. You can't message your friends. You can't gift your friends nor can you request anything from them. Not to mention that you can't even invite players who are not playing to start playing.


All these people I know and no way to communicate with them.
Third issue is the lack of World Map is a serious downfall as map creates true rivalries between players and rivalries fuse retention as well as monetization. For example in Kixeye's Backyard Monsters you can see you neighboring players, attack them, conquer new territories onto which you can create outposts.


World Map in Kixeye's Backyard Monsters

The Monetization 

Clash if Clans has a whale based monetization because the prices increase as the game progresses creating a situation in which majority of players (retained users) pay higher prices than minority (new users). In short: ARPPU goes hand in hand with retention.

In Clash of Clans players pay for speeding time and boy there are a lot of waiting in the game. As described in the core loop chapter every action takes time from building to upgrading and from training to improving units.

Gems are used to instant finish what ever player is doing. And that's where the catch is. In the beginning whatever you are doing takes little time, which not only is good for retention but it also encourages to instant complete production with the free Gems you have from the start. So in the beginning it's pretty useful and cheap to progress fast and the free Gems you get for completing achievements just push you in that direction (+ first time flow forces player to use Gems so many times that it starts feeling right). But as the game progresses the production times increase. Pretty quickly you are waiting days for productions to be completed - and some players will continue paying (now tenfold) to skip the waiting. 


Smallest price point is $4.99 creating gigantic ARPPU and ARPU.

Gems can also be converted into Coins or Elixir. I usually like to sell separately virtual and premium currencies as it encourages paying players to make several purchases. For example if resources were sold separately buying Gems would help the player to instant finish a production. Then the player would want to start a new construction right away, which would create demand for Coins or Elixir. Player would lack the soft currency because he just speeded up the production instead of waiting so not enough time has passed and the resource production facilities are empty. Of course players can instant finish resource productions but that doesn't create re-buys in the same session - only increases consumption of Gems.

Also Clash of Clans still lacks power ups. Magnificent consumable weapons players can use to improve the success of their attacks (don't underestimate players' willingness to revenge the attacks on their villages). That would convert players who have progressed far but don't find it compelling to pay $30 to speed up a single production. 


The best there is, but...

Clash of Clans is an amazing game. Supercell has thoroughly gone through all the benchmarks in the genre and created a game, which simply outclasses genre veterans such as Kabam and Kixeye. What's even more impressive is that this is Supercell's first poke at the whole strategy genre. 

Clash of Clans is a combination of well balanced core loop, extremely compelling graphics and super smooth gameplay. What makes the game top grossing is the combination of very solid retention and whale economy, where retaining users end up making higher average purchases due to rising costs.

But even though Clash of Clans is the best there is there's still room for significant improvements in game play (battle mode), virality (world map, interaction with friends) and even monetization. Now the question is whether there will be someone else who comes up with improved version of Clash of Clans or will Supercell continue it's dominance with future updates. I believe in the later one, because Supercell has shown that they have the patience to perfect their games. They're not moved by financial quarters and their deadlines seem to be tied to the quality of the product instead of a random date set in executives' mind. I believe that Supercell has the winning formula to make great social games.

20 comments:

  1. Great analysis, Michail.

    My coworkers hooked me into playing Clash of Clans when it first launched and even though I'm not typically into appointment-based games, I thoroughly enjoyed it... for only a week.

    I stopped playing because of its heavy focus on monetization. The increasing time delay to build or upgrade buildings and units became frustrating. The cost to speed up was far too high for me to justify and in general, I hate paying for speed ups. I much prefer purchasing non-consumable content that enhances the game or unlocks new abilities.

    In addition, the game introduces clans far too late. After several days of playing, I never earned enough coins and elixer to restore the castle and join a clan with my friends. Unlocking this sooner would almost certainly increase the number of players that join a clan retention through its social, community element.

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  2. Thanks Ryan!

    I agree with you on the too steep progression of the production timers. In Kabam's games you go from seconds to minutes and from minutes to tens of minutes, then hour, a couple of hours etc. In Clash of Clans they jump from tens of minutes to several hours and then quickly to several days. And it really kills the fun and I bet some retention too.

    Nevertheless these are a matter of tweaking and content. When you launch a game you're forced to have long timers and a lot of waiting/grinding simply because you don't have enough of content to last. But once you get few updates in and add that content you can simply reduce the timers and hopefully see increase in retentions.

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  3. Well written. The game for me was incredibly addictive, more-so than other farming and strategy games I've played. I agree with both of your observations (above) that the timers are probably a bit too heavily focused on monetization. I get that urge to open my wallet and purchase gems on a daily basis but for Supercell, in an industry where Zynga is shedding employees and app are make it or break it, that's probably a great thing.

    I look forward to future updates that may level the playing field while introducing new upgrades that keep the game fresh. So far, I'm hooked.

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  4. Well written and put together...
    I hate this game because of its monetization! Its insane and it totally takes you out of the game! I didn't play this game for a week and i didn't feel like playing it again as Supercell only wants to take your money. Its so irritating, and also the gems you get for the price are far too less.

    The only good thing that can happen is that if the player himslef decides that he wants to take off the shield or not. You know like some peace time... in Stronghold Crusader! Create economy and don't attack and don't get attacked! Once you decide you're good with your economy just attack people and get attacked! That way the player doesn't have to worry if he has large storage of gold and elixir no matter how many days it may take you to get the gold/elixir or upgrades!

    Regards,
    Hunk.

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  5. For more info and a good FAQ on how to keep this fun check out www.squidoo.com/clash-of-clans

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  6. Don't let the haters fool you, this game is amazing. So what sometimes you have to wait a few hours/days for things. It's worth it, and it keeps the game flowing. Also, while waiting, you can battle or maybe even interact with the REAL WORLD and come back to the playing arena. Super fun game...been playing for 2 months and it only gets better.

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  7. Gunshine was pretty awesome too--Super Cell are no newbies to strategy.

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  8. thank you so much for taking time to write this up - wanted to bring a spelling error to your attention :D

    " This means that starting a construction, research or an upgrade takes either Coins or Elixir (never both) as well as time to finish the tas. "

    don't think "tas" is a word >.>

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  9. Nice review!

    Biggest problem with the game ismissing though:

    You´ll never get to know that the % of farming gold og Elixier goes down when your Town Hall goes Up (level up)... that sucks big time! Example: If you don´t have all the expensive upgrades ready, and go the X-Bow and more Walls from Lvl 9 Townhall, It´s extremely hard to get the same amout of gold/elixir as with lvl 7/8 - specially, if you have 5 builders! SO WORD OF ADVICE: DON´T LEVEL UP TOWN HALL before you have best walls! (Wall are kinky expensive).

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  10. PLEASE UP DATE THE GAME WITH A LOT MORE THINGS ITS WAY TOO SIMPLE
    ABILITY TO ATTACK FRIENDS
    ABILITY TO GIFT FRIENDS MONEY ETC.
    AND MORE THINGS LIKE THE BARBARIAN KING
    AND PLEASE FIX THE MATCH MAKING IT IS REALLY BAD IT SHOULDN'T BE BASED ON TROPHIES!! TOWN HALL OR LVL!

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  11. Anish, you realise this page isn't run by Supercell right?

    Great breakdown Michail.

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  12. So true, so true...

    Great job you did with this review!

    Congrats!!

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  13. I really like your article but I have to correct you about the core loop: when you do battles you can earn coins, elixirs and rankings.

    Thanks for your blog! Love this!

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  14. Too good..loved this game..:), you can also Play Games For Free here

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  15. Asking questions are in fact pleasant thing if you are not understanding
    something totally, however this piece of writing offers good understanding
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    ReplyDelete
  16. Hi, Michail!
    Thank you for a very interesting article!
    I have one small (or big) question.
    Could you explain the role of the dark elixir in the game loop?
    Why was it necessary to introduce this mechanics?
    Maybe she needed since higher level players have a lot of basic resources and dark elixir creats new goals and forcing them to participate in raids?
    It would be very nice to hear an explanation from the person who knows this for sure, and can explain clearly!
    Thanks in advance!
    Best regards,
    EP.

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    Replies
    1. It's simple. When players get to a certain high level, they will also have built a healthy coin and elixir mining ecosystem to not have to spend more money on gems. The introduction of dark elixir and its requirement to create elite troops gives high level players, who are players who are likely to have spent some amount of money in the past to reach such high levels, an incentive to spend more money on this very rare resource to advance their game some more.

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  17. This was really helpful post. Thanks a lot for sharing your tips!
    Needed this a lot.

    Best regards and have a greta day,
    Robert

    ReplyDelete