LEGENDARY: Game of Heroes - a Master Class in Live Operations
This is a guest post by Andrew Payton, who runs product and live operations at FoxNext. Before that, Andrew has held product and production roles at Square Enix, Mattel, Warner Bros and 505 Games. If you enjoyed this post, make sure to comment and give Andrew a shout out!
Legendary - Game of Heroes is an original IP Match-3/RPG released globally for iOS and Android in August 2016. It is the first title by San Francisco-based N3TWORK, though the company’s core team has deep roots in the mobile gaming space. In Legendary, players collect and level up cards, and use those cards in match-3 battles via mechanics pioneered by Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords (released on DS and PSP in 2007). Legendary is a self-styled “Western Puzzle & Dragons” and, at first glance, it is precisely that. The gameplay and collecting/upgrading mechanics are instantly familiar to anyone that has played P&D.
Yet Legendary outperforms all of its comparable rivals in the top-grossing rankings. This includes three titles that have been very successful in their own right, and each of which has distinct advantages over Legendary:
Puzzle & Dragons (11/2012), which enjoyed the first-to-market advantage;
Marvel Puzzle Quest (10/2013), which was an early adopter of IP and with one of the strongest IPs in the world;
WWE Champions (1/2017), which is newer-gen GaaS- and IP-based.
The simple premise of this analysis is to answer the question, “How has Legendary bested its competition despite their advantages?”, via a teardown of its unparalleled live events design. Key take-homes are how deeply embedded live events are into the core loop; the emphasis on guilds and leaderboards; and the use of step gachas. (As a bonus at the end, this analysis also provides a brief overview of the ads integration and VIP system in Legendary, which are also exceptional.)
Weekly Events: Core Loop
The first and most basic aspect of Legendary’s live events design is that live events occur on a weekly basis running Wednesday to Monday, and these weekly events are the absolute cornerstone of the game. The game features the traditional trappings of a single-player campaign and daily dungeons, each of which reinforce the need to collect and develop a diverse array of cards at the core of the game; however, these systems become increasingly irrelevant as players dive into the weekly events.
Weekly events alternate between two modes, “Slayer” and “Commander.” While these modes have some differences in terms of mechanics, they are similar enough that covering only the Slayer Event is adequate for the present purposes. Additionally, not every minutiae of the Slayer Event will be covered here; the hope is to provide an overview of the system highlighting the critical features that enable Legendary to stand above its competition.
In the Slayer Event, players spend Solo Boss Keys to defeat Solo Bosses. These are bosses that players attack individually then are able to “Rally” friends and guildmates (i.e., send out a request to up to 5 other players to attack the boss) in order to defeat the boss. Each boss has a set amount of HP (which scales as more bosses are defeated) and a timer that gives players 3-12 hours to defeat a given boss before it disappears or resets. In exchange, participating players earn Guild Boss Keys, Solo Event Trophies, Event Character Coins, and Event Gear Coins. These rewards also scale as players defeat increasingly difficult bosses. Players then spend the Guild Boss Keys to defeat Guild Bosses. These are bosses that a guild works to defeat as a group and are otherwise similar to Solo Bosses in design. In exchange, participating guild members earn Solo Boss Keys, Solo Event Trophies, Guild Event Trophies, Event Character Coins, and Event Gear Coins. (See the core loop diagram below for a visual aid.)
The basic design results in a deeply engaging and social loop. Players are incentivized to collect strong, active friends (via the in-game Friend system) and to be involved in a strong, active guild so players can Rally these allies to defeat Solo Bosses and earn Guild Boss Keys. (The “Rally” mechanic also incorporates a cooldown timer for a given ally, further driving players to collect friends and be in a good guild.) Players are also incentivized to have a strong, active guild in order to defeat Guild Bosses and to earn Solo Boss Keys. With a large, strong, and active group of friends and guildmates, players can chain together bosses, rotating between Solo and Guild Bosses practically indefinitely as players leap to one another’s aid. Early in an event, when the bosses are relatively easy, it can be thrilling as everyone leaps online at event start and rips through dozens of bosses in quick succession. As the event progresses and bosses grow in strength, it can take tremendous coordination to ensure bosses are defeated in time.
Leaderboards and Rewards are the other critical aspect of the weekly event core loop. In the process of slaying Solo and Guild Bosses, players collect Solo and Guild Trophies. The Solo Trophies determine a player’s rank in league-based individual leaderboards, as well as their rank on a global leaderboard for all individuals. The Guild Trophies determine the guilds’ rank in a global leaderboard for all guilds.
In the league-based individual leaderboards, players compete in leagues of ~150 players across four tiers of competitiveness. Each week, the highest ranking players in a league are promoted to a better-tier league with better rewards while the lowest ranking players are relegated to a lower-tier league with worse rewards. The rewards include hard currency (“Gems”) and a high-value Guild Wars card that is exclusively available in the rewards, which creates a strong compulsion to perform well individually. The league- and tier-based approach works very well to foster a sense of competition within your cohort as similarly powerful players are matched together, and it also creates objectives week-over-week as players attempt to climb (or avoid falling out of) tiers. Additionally, the top 100 players globally receive a second set of hard currency and additional copies of the card (for the purpose of “Awakening” it to make it more powerful). This latter leaderboard is a great touch since it drives even fiercer competition among the most elite players who may not be facing one another directly in their league.
Players also receive a secondary set of rewards based on their guild’s performance in a global leaderboard. Included in these rewards is hard currency and Mana, which is the resource used to Awaken a hero (i.e., two copies of a hero + Mana = an Awakened Hero, and heroes can be awakened five times). This is the only reliable way to acquire Mana (it’s not even available as an RMT), which creates a massive incentive to join a strong guild. It also creates a powerful source of social pressure for would-be slackers that threaten to drag down everyone else in the guild.
Weekly Events: Event Heroes, Event Gear, and Step Gachas
With only the above system, Legendary would have a compelling Live Events system that drives engagement through individual and guild competition, and drives monetization indirectly via the need for strong cards to defeat the increasingly difficult bosses. N3TWORK could have stopped here and would have a viable approach to weekly events. However, Legendary drives deeper engagement and far stronger monetization via systems design that leverages an aggressive content treadmill and expert use of step gachas.
One of the key differences between Slayer and Commander Events is the fact that certain cards are designated as either Slayer- or Commander-type heroes and these heroes receive buffs to their attributes when used in the corresponding event. For example, the below card is a “10x Slayer” meaning it receives a 10x buff when used in this week’s Slayer Event. Additionally, every card has a gem color associated with it (“Light Affinity” in the below example) which has strengths and weaknesses against another color (e.g., Light Affinity is strong against Dark Affinity). As the weekly events rotate between Slayer and Commander, they also rotate through the six colors of gems in the game. For example, this week’s event features a Dark Affinity boss, which means the below Light Affinity 10x Slayer is the ideal hero for defeating the boss. You are not required to use this card, but you absolutely want this card (and multiple copies of it), if you are going to defeat bosses deep into the event. Additionally, the card is only a 10x Slayer for this week so when the next Light Slayer event surfaces in 12 weeks (two events times six colors), it will only be a 4x Slayer and you will want the new 10x Light Slayer. Undoubtedly it is easy to see how this is a recipe for success: every week a new card is introduced that is singularly valuable for that week, and that week alone.
Legendary makes the most of this system through a Step Gacha (see below for the individual steps). As players progress through the steps, they receive a guaranteed 3* copy of the card at Step 2 then a guaranteed 5* copy at Step 6 (and cards max at 6*). The only guaranteed cards in the remaining steps are one or more copies of 3* heroes, and the steps do not reset (i.e., once you hit Step 7, continued purchases are at Step 7).
By placing the guaranteed 3* copy at Step 2, and for a relatively low amount of hard currency, it makes it a no-brainer to go two steps deep and thus ensures a weekly hard currency sink to counteract the weekly rewards (resulting in a slow drain on hard currency for low-level spenders and non-spenders). For more competitive players, the second guaranteed copy requires much deeper monetization than the first (i.e., 13.4x the hard currency of the first copy).
Additionally, every week this step gacha features a secondary event hero that has strong synergy with the primary event hero and against the event boss. For the most competitive players in the game, this card is incredibly valuable. It is never guaranteed and is quite rare, requiring many pulls at Step 7 to acquire (where each pull is roughly 40% of the cost to acquire both copies of the primary hero). The chase for this secondary card is undoubtedly a huge driver of monetization, and by placing the second guaranteed copy of the primary hero at Step 6 of 7, it makes it much easier to justify at least one pull at Step 7 to try your luck for this secondary hero.
Every week also features a unique Gear Card. When creating a team, it has slots for 5 heroes and 5 pieces of gear. Gear provides buffs to your cards, debuffs to opponents, and other interactions like spawning extra gems of a specific color at the start of the battle. The weekly gear card always has a powerful interaction with your team (e.g., special buffs to 10x Light Slayers) and/or against the boss (e.g., automatic dispel of the boss’ powerful buff), and usually also spawns gems corresponding to the color you need. Acquisition requires a separate step gacha designed similar to the first (i.e., a guaranteed 3* copy at Step 2). The gear system is lighter than the hero system, and stacking copies can be less efficient, but it nonetheless serves as an additional weekly sink (and is a much less costly asset for N3TWORK since gear is not displayed in battle).
Since players only receive 3* or 5* copies of the primary hero and gear, Legendary uses this as an opportunity to drive secondary engagement via upgrading (“Evolving”) the primary hero and gear to 6*. As players defeat bosses, they receive Event Hero and Gear Coins in addition to the other rewards. These Coins are then used to purchase Hero and Gear Coin Boxes in the shop, and each box provides a fraction of the materials needed to evolve a given card.
As players open these boxes, they also receive boxes that can only be gifted to guild members. This results in highly active guild chat and a strong sense of unity and reciprocity as players coordinate the exchange of guild boxes to aid in maxing out their hero and gear cards. There are no monetization opportunities associated with these mats, so this system is strictly intended to drive engagement, particularly by deepening the dependence on guilds. For reference, with moderate play in a mid-tier guild, it is relatively easy to acquire and max out two copies of the hero plus the gear with little to no weekly spend; however, top players and guilds will need to invest heavily, in both time and the step gacha, in order to compete.
Because these hero and gear cards are singularly powerful in the weekly event, meaningful progress is de facto gated by ownership of these cards. However, because participation is not hard gated, the player has a sense of agency in the decision to engage and to purchase, and in how deep the player goes. In fact, one strategy for newer players is to use their keys to do little to no damage, rally their powerful friends/guildmates to defeat the bosses, and thereby collect rewards for having participated. This design enables players at every point in the lifecycle, and at every monetization threshold, to make meaningful progress and contributions at their own pace while placing it under a very high ceiling.
Weekly Events: Collections
But wait, there’s more! The final piece of the puzzle is the Collections system. This system rewards players with free heroes for crossing certain milestones as they compete in the weekly event and collect and evolve the heroes associated with the event. For example, by gathering enough hero materials, the player can collect a free 3* copy of the primary event hero. If the player then evolves the hero and gathers enough trophies, the player receives a free 5* copy of a hero from a past event of the same type (e.g., a Light Affinity 7x Slayer, to continue the example used throughout).
The Collection system also features the ultimate prize for the week: a Light Affinity 13x Slayer. This is the only card of its type in the game and the only way to obtain it is to acquire six unique cards and evolve those cards to at least 5*.
The six cards consist of the current week’s primary and secondary hero from the step gacha discussed in the last section, as well as a second step gacha pack that contains an additional secondary 10x hero and three 7x heroes from a past event of the same type (one of which is the 5* hero you obtain for free via the Collection system). This secondary hero step gacha is deeper (10 steps), contains the four heroes not available in the primary hero gacha, and it guarantees only 3* copies except at Steps 6 and 10 where it guarantees a 5* copy of the secondary 10x hero.
Thus, if the player wants to acquire the 13x hero, they will likely need to:
Get the primary event hero and one of the three 7x heroes for free via the Collection system;
Get one of the secondary 10x heroes from the primary hero step gacha with no guarantee;
Get the other secondary 10x hero from the secondary hero step gacha with a guarantee at Step 6;
Get the other two 7x heroes from the secondary hero step gacha with no guarantee.
Players then need to upgrade these heroes to at least 5*. Because the 7x cards are from past events, they were more easily upgradeable if you obtained them during their event. This also means long-term players have an inherent advantage and are rewarded for their continued engagement and monetization. However, if you did not get these cards during their event then you will also need to purchase a “Catalyst Step Gacha” which provides the materials necessary to upgrade these heroes.
The Collection system thus serves dual purposes. On the one hand, it rewards engaged players with free, valuable troops for the weekly event (including free players), and rewards long-term players/payers with a head start on an incredibly powerful troop. On the other hand, by introducing this one additional new troop, it more than doubles the monetization potential from the primary hero step gacha and the gear step gacha by locking the pursuit of this highly coveted troop behind two additional step gachas that require much deeper monetization.
Legendary Level Live Operations
To summarize, Legendary - Game of Heroes serves as a best-in-class example of Live Events design. Its weekly events are incredibly engaging and are woven into the heart of the game to an unparalleled degree. Highlights of the system include:
Core event design that creates soft barriers to progress and provides players with both engagement and monetization systems to overcome these barriers.
Step gacha packs that drive deep monetization.
Individual leaderboards where players compete for rewards in a League each week and in a promotion/relegation system week-over-week.
Global leaderboards for individuals that reward only the top players in order to foster fierce competition at the highest level of play.
Guild leaderboards that create social pressure by providing exclusive and highly-desirable rewards.
Collection mechanics that simultaneously provide an avenue for free players to make meaningful progress and incentivize payers to monetize at the deepest level possible.
A trading system that encourages chat and reciprocity to create more meaningful bonds within a guild.
The biggest shortcoming of the Live Events design in Legendary is that it can be too much of a good thing. As mentioned at the outset, the differences between the two alternating events, in terms of UX, is fairly negligible and, as detailed above, if you are playing the event “correctly” (i.e., in an active guild and have an active friends list) then you can juggle between solo and guild keys endlessly leading to an incredibly time-intensive game. As a result, the event design turbocharges the problem of event fatigue and hurls players toward the point of churn. The deep competitive, guild/social, and collection systems serve as the countervailing force.
The other key downsides are the complexity for players and the content treadmill for N3TWORK. It took a lot of words to explain the weekly event system, and this did not even cover all of the details! N3TWORK has also signed themselves up for at least 3 new cards and 1 new gear every week ad infinitum. While Gear is primarily a burden on the design team, the cost to create three 3D, lightly-animated heroes every week is certainly nontrivial. Good tutorials and FAQs go a long way for the former. For the latter, it is easy to justify the content treadmill as the cost of doing business; the results speak for themselves, after all.
The net outcome for players is that the Live Events design is slightly confusing at first glance, then incredibly engaging and rewarding for weeks/months, then laborious and monotonous. That said, N3TWORK is aware of some (and likely all) of these issues. Steps have been taken to reduce the engagement requirements, though these have been largely unsuccessful to date. N3TWORK has also introduced other modes (e.g., a “Bounty Hunter” event and Guild Wars) that are less time-intensive and help add gameplay variety. However, these modes are typically run in addition to the standard events (presumably because these other modes also monetize much less effectively). Unfortunately, this means the addition of new modes only serves to magnify the problem of the time-intensive nature of the game.
Despite these shortcomings, Legendary’s weekly events are phenomenal. During the period of a player’s lifecycle where the Live Events system is firing on all cylinders, it works extremely well. It feels great playing at whatever pace you desire, and it feels good to spend nothing, $10’s, or $100’s each week in the process. Legendary’s live events have undoubtedly been an instrumental part of how an original IP, and the studio’s first product, has ascended to the top of its category.
Bonus: Ads Integration
Legendary’s ads integration is fantastic! In order to level up a card, players must sacrifice other cards, and players are restricted to a maximum sacrifice of 6 cards at a time. When players sacrifice these cards, they receive a base XP value for the sacrifice then roll the proverbial dice and get an XP bonus ranging from +5% to +100%. Players are then presented with the opportunity to watch an ad to get a free re-roll, and they are guaranteed to get at least a +15% XP bonus if they do so. The result is a system where it is self-evidently worth watching an ad any time you receive a +5-15% bonus (which, unsurprisingly, happens often, but with no clear pattern that would make it patently disingenuous) and it can feel incredibly rewarding when you hit a big XP bonus thanks to the ad. You find yourself watching ads regularly with pleasure even though it has clearly been balanced with this system in mind.
Double Bonus: VIP System
Legendary’s VIP system is the standard approach where the more you spend, the more and better free stuff you get every day; however, it has four critical differentiators:
You only get the daily VIP benefits if you maintain a VIP Subscription, which means it leverages past spending to encourage ongoing spending and avoids the problem of payers parking on a specific, desirable VIP tier;
The VIP Subscription leverages the App Store’s auto-renewable subscriptions to maximize the value of long-term players (i.e., that sweet, sweet reduction to a 15% platform fee after 1 year);
The VIP Subscription includes a first-time buyer bonus featuring hard currency equivalent to the value of the purchase (for a powerful anchoring effect to get players to jump the initial hurdle);
The VIP subscription includes “Lifetime Rewards” that improve as you reach higher VIP tiers, which encourages players to maintain their subscription indefinitely (and to spend beyond the sub).