Disney Heroes - A Solid RPG That Tests the Limits of an IP
Disney Heroes: Battle Mode was announced in April this year and launched globally in May as an impressively feature-complete hero brawler, developed by PerBlue Entertainment. The game mainly caters to millennials who were raised watching Disney films and are familiar with the more modern IPs. The game features many characters from the Disney & Pixar Universe, all mashed into a single game.
Can Disney’s crossover live up to expectations?
From a gameplay perspective, the game is inspired by earlier casual hero brawlers like Heroes Charge (2014) and Soul Hunters (2015) and caters to a more casual to mid-core audience. The characters are the selling point of the game (which can be said for every Disney product) and it’s clear that was the intention.
The game makes the entire cast of heroes visible from the beginning, showing the player the carrots: their favorite characters. It even discloses the length of the stick by telling the player exactly what to do to collect every hero. Hero accessibility ranges from easily acquirable to practically premium, but even these can drop for very lucky players.
Guest Autor: Niek Tuerlings
Game Designer on June’s Journey at Wooga, Berlin.
Disclaimer: The article is the author’s own professional view on Disney Heroes.
Wooga GmbH. isn’t affiliated with this assessment in any way.
Disney Heroes’ Core Gameplay
The player starts off with a handful of heroes and by engaging with the single player campaign, they quickly start collecting enough different heroes to be able to create a team of their five favorites.
The core gameplay consists of selecting a team, starting a level where this team fights against other teams of AI controlled opponents. After winning the fight, the player is rewarded with rewards, depending on the game mode.
During the fight, the only agency the player has is choosing when to activate each hero’s first and main skill when their energy bar is full. When getting stronger, heroes gain three more skills but these are activated automatically.
In the meta-game, the player is gated by two things, stamina and what the game calls team level. Stamina generates with time. Team level is generated by player engagement. All hero levels are limited by the team level, hence the name. New heroes can be collected by finding an initial amount of hero chips. After acquiring, heroes can be improved in four different ways:
Rising their star level by collecting more chips
Increasing their level by earning XP in battles
Promoting them by equipping them with badges
Improving their skill levels using gold
It’s interesting that improving hero skills is the only significant gold sink. Gold is also used to promote heroes after finding enough badges but the amount is substantially lower than the amount that is needed for the skills. The reason for this that Disney Heroes lets the player upgrade hero skills from the get go. Other games like for example Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes require time-limited event currencies for this. Assumingly a decision made for simplicity reasons and the different age groups for both games.
Motivational Pinches - The Heroes
Currently, Disney Heroes features 42 heroes, a decent but not copious amount for a game in this genre. Each hero has a different skill set and a team always consists of 5 heroes. This means players have more than enough potential team compositions to experiment with, although not every team is viable. Balanced teams usually have at least one and sometimes two heroes of each type (Support, Control, Tank & Damage). This is the core of the game’s fun, which is why strategic and competitive players are the main audience Disney Heroes caters to. Next to this, the ability to chat, cooperative or competitive combat and the ability to form guilds cater to player’s social desires. The storytelling isn’t the game’s strongest suit, but it can initially tickle the player’s explorative cravings.
Desire for Heroes
Each battle generates random drops of badges and hero chips. Together with potential hero drops from different kinds of loot boxes, these variable rewards create the desire to keep playing. The hero collection screen neatly exposes all available heroes to players, which is especially attractive to the ones with strong collecting ambitions.
The game has a Daily Quest system, and since this provides the bulk of the player’s team level experience, this should be the biggest reason to come back every day. It works for a while, but Disney Heroes keeps offering the same quests each day. It’s a list of quest that asks players to engage with practically every game mode, and always in the exact same way, day in day out. This sets the precedent for players to find the most effective routine, which then becomes boring and presumingly hurts the game’s long-term retention. A more varied quest system with a random selection of daily quests (as opposed to just showing all of them) should be able to reduce this monotonous daily ritual.
Disney Heroes offers an abundance of game modes which all use the same brawler mechanic. At first glance, it’s strange to call a game that has one single core mechanic ‘varied’, but when looking closer at the characteristics of each game mode, one can see that each mode has its own specific purpose. What the game does well is using its different currency rewards to make all game modes dependant on each other, ultimately feeding into the same goal; leveling up the ultimate team.
Loot boxes, competitive PvP with global leaderboard, tournaments, guilds, daily events, a collection system with upgradable powerups and a synchronous cooperative multiplayer mode, it’s all there.
To understand the intricacies of the game’s engagement potential, a study of its progression is required, which can seem pretty complex at first glance. For clarity, an infographic is included at the end of this paragraph, outlying the main features, their interdependencies and the currencies they use and generate.
The campaign is the main storyline of the game. Beating new levels progresses the story and replaying beaten levels is the main source of badges. This feature also offers an elite campaign where next to the badges, new hero chips can be acquired. The friend campaign is a game mode where heroes are paired with another hero to beat levels that require a specific kind of stamina. Beating a hero’s friend campaign unlocks another (fifth) way to improve heroes; equipping them with Memory Disks. Episodes in the friend campaign are gated by the hero pair’s relationship, which can be improved by sending these heroes on missions together. Missions are nothing but a timer started by the player which rewards friend experience when it runs out. Heroes sent out on a mission can still be used in other game modes.
After the player has battled their way up through 2 campaign chapters the market opens up. The market is the place where earned currencies can be traded for hero chips and badges. During the day at specific times, players are incentivized to check back into the game and review the newly refreshed products in the market, next to claiming some free stamina.
Disney Heroes offers six game modes that unlock at different times during its progression which reward currencies to buy specific hero chips in the market. This means that if a player chooses a hero to be on their team, there is a big chance they need to engage with one of these features to be able to purchase the chips needed to upgrade this hero. The 1) arena is the place where players can match their favorite team composition against other players in a single battle. The 2) coliseum does a similar thing but requires three teams of heroes. 3) Creep surge is a cooperative mode with the player’s guild members, happening during a fixed 4-hour window every day. Then there is the 4) city watch, a single player mode where the player’s entire hero collection has to be used to win 15 battles without hero HP and energy being replenished. Then there is the 5) heist, a real-time cooperative multiplayer mode where players can join 4 others to hunt down a thief that’s trying to steal the city’s treasure. Lastly, the recently released 6) guild war makes guilds-versus-guild battles possible by asking other guild members to submit their best team compositions and letting them all fight in a battle every couple of days.
These six game modes cover all possible applications of the core gameplay and make sure to give the player a nice vertical slice of the game. The currencies that flow out tie back directly into the Market.
Disney Heroes also offers two game modes that are built to strengthen the daily retention cycle. These modes don’t require anything to be played but have a limited amount of tries each day. The first is trials where, depending on the day of the week, a subset of the player’s heroes perform battles five times a day. Trial battles guarantee a drop of useful rare badges that would otherwise take stamina and multiple tries to acquire in a campaign mode level. After a battle, the player has to wait 10 minutes to be able to start the next. This restriction makes the player feel smart by letting them sequence and organise their session by engaging with other modes during these 10-minute timers.
The port has the same timer but only two tries per day and doesn’t reward badges but experience boosters to level up heroes of the player’s choice.
The game also includes a social system with guilds, groups of players working together trying to beat the surge mode every day and battling each other in guild war every couple of days. A daily check-in is included as well, which simply requires everyone to tap a button once a day. The more guild members who do this, the higher everyone’s rewards. Simple and effective. Guildies can also post (copies of) their heroes to others to be used as mercenaries in the city watch and the surge. Now there’s something called guild influence, a currency that is earned next to team experience when completing daily quests.
This is a shared currency that the officers and president of the club can use to unlock perks for all guild members. What the game doesn’t do very well is expose these perks. It’s likely that many players who have been in guilds for a while and never look at the relatively hidden perks section don’t know all the extras they receive by being in that guild, since it’s not exposed within the features themselves.
Another notable feature is enhancements, which provides the player with a way to convert the huge amount of badges they don’t need into boosts for the badges they do need for their heroes. Lastly, two exclusive market categories with slightly better deals (available from team level 31 and 41) can be unlocked by random chance and only for a short period of time.
Game Mode Dependencies
As mentioned, one of the biggest strengths of Disney Heroes is how every feature is interwoven into the others. Ignoring one mode is detrimental to the player’s progress and oftentimes disqualifies the player from optimizing their team in some way.
For example, at team level 25, the player is introduced to the aforementioned friend campaigns. Because of the initially awkward gameplay where it’s for once notpossible to influence the hero composition of the battles, this game mode is likely to be ignored by players who like to have agency here. However, after discovering the existence of Memory Disks (which boost one of a hero’s skills), these players might change their minds, but will then realize that completing a friend campaign requires hero friendship to progress. This is generated by sending these two heroes on specific missions repeatedly. This is a good example of how the game’s high amount of currencies and statistics give the game designers the possibility to increase feature engagement by creating interdependencies like these.
The only modes that are outside the loop are the heist, the challenges and the guild war, which is logical since they have been released only recently, months after the game’s global launch. While all three modes struggle to find a meaningful spot inside the game’s loop, challenges is having a particularly hard time since it offers only a cosmetic reward for a heavy hard currency price.
Less and less gameplay
One interesting thing about Disney Heroes is the more players engage with it, the more it steers their focus away from the core gameplay. Tapping the right skill at the right time is only fun for so long and the game averts the player from it after the meta-game has hooked them. At team level 30, fast forward is unlocked, which increases the speed of the battles to a higher (but still manageable) speed. Combine this with auto-mode (a premium feature) which automatically triggers the manual skill of the characters, and we now have a mostly self-playing game where the only tactical choice is starting the right battles.
By analyzing the infographic above one can discover a currency called Raid Tickets. These tickers make it possible to skip grinding through campaign- and trial battles by simply giving the rewards. It would be logical to assume that this currency is a rare good given its ability to save loads of time, which in free-to-play usually means you have to pay for it, but nothing is further from the truth. Paying players are drowning in them. The drop chance for raid tickets is pretty high during the the campaign missions and even after having bought the smallest currency package with real money only once, players get plenty of tickets every day. Generous, but also a missed opportunity to monetize further.
Before diving in more detail about Disney Heroes’ monetization potential, it’s important to note that it has an elaborate VIP system. It offers 20 levels which unlock numerous options, some of which are a given in other games, like the ability to buy more stamina for diamonds or skip timers for diamonds. With every VIP level the player reaches, the premium properties increase gradually and sometimes even unlock quality of life features that reduce the need to engage with some of the single player modes.
Looking at the game’s currencies, all speedups and premium purchases require one hard currency; diamonds. Packages of diamonds can be bought instantly as usual, but subscription models are also on offer. Their top 3 most purchased products are the Pouch of Diamonds, the Fistful of Diamonds and the 30 day deal. Especially this last purchase offers a lot of bang for the player’s buck but it requires commitment to keep playing for 30 days. Not a bad way to increase retention, but only when players are able to keep intrinsic motivation to use these diamonds.
Although the game has a huge amount of diamond sinks, conservatively spending players can easily rack up a nice balance of these glinstering gems since quite a lot are given away as well, especially to people who sign in and engage with the competitive features every day. It does a good job making the player consider spending diamonds every day, and since the stamina bar takes ages to fill fully (6 hours at game start and up to 16 hours for high-level players) it’s very attractive and almost required to use the “Get More Stamina” function to exchange diamonds for stamina. After getting used to this, the step towards buying a steady influx of 120 diamonds per day is easily done. So it seems that having a slowly replenishing chrono-currency can create a shortage that is not going to increase the amount of sessions per day but can greatly increase buyer conversion if the game is centered around grinding to progress. A classic example of scarcity creates demand.
The fact that progression can be bought so easily defines the game as pay-to-win. Disney Heroes cleverly masks this by placing players in a vast amount of competitive tiers (leagues) that are easily progressed through at first because they are filled with many players who are not engaged or have churned already. The power gap between payers and non-payers only becomes visible in the highest leagues, which (when played at a regular, engaged pace) are reached after weeks if not months of play.
Something that can be questioned about the game’s monetization strategy is the lack of a feature that uses loss-aversion. Failing a campaign battle refunds all sunk stamina but 1, for some reason. Badges, Gold and other rewards earned during the battle are also lost, but this isn’t shown on the loss screen. This removes all excitement from trying to progress the campaign, although it probably also reduces churn. In the end it’s a matter of consideration what’s more valuable. Since Disney Heroes doesn’t have move-based gameplay either, it is more challenging to give the player a way to cheat in case of losing and still give them a possibility to win after paying some diamonds.
Liveops and Events
Successful games feel fresh and well-maintained. Therefore it’s crucial to add events that change frequently and follow common trends like seasonal content and daily deals. Disney Heroes contains an elegant but relatively cookie-cutter event system with little surprises in its design. Sales can be ignored easily and aren’t shoved in the player’s face, although a more subtle encouragement to take a look is created by putting giveaways in between.
An example of a good Disney Heroes sale is one that is targeted to players at a specific time of their life cycle; the Badge Buster Bundle. For this example it’s important to note that badges become more and more tedious to grind nearing the end of the game’s content. One purple badge (like the Mickey Mouse Club one pictured below) requires 50 bits (parts) to be grinded in campaign levels. The drop chance is about 25%, which means at a cost of 12 stamina per gameplay, one badge costs about 2400 stamina. This takes players about 4 days if they spend about 300 diamonds per day on buying additional stamina (or about 2 weeks if they don’t).
Usually, every hero requires different badges to promote tiers, but in Purple 4 which is the highest tier at this point, out of the six badges they can have equipped, one they have all in common is the Mickey Mouse Club badge. Since every hero needs this badge it’s easy to sell and has amazing value to players since it offers them to skip the grind of spending about 10k stamina to collect the bits for these 4 badges manually. Of course they sell four badges per bundle, so players who want to supply their full team of five heroes with this badge have to buy the bundle twice.
Disney Heroes plays all the tricks in the book regarding player engagement and executes these with mixed results. All the ingredients of success are there; a strong IP, a great (although long) first-time-user experience, a great feature unlock pacing, a super-scalable asset pipeline making it very easy to add content (heroes) every couple of weeks, Disney’s deep pockets for increasing user acquisition spend and on top of everything else, a healthy reward-space with enough resources and currencies to keep on selling.
Regardless off these factors, the game’s long-term retention is low compared to others in the same genre, which is most likely caused by putting too little focus on gameplay and too much on statistics and grinding in the late game. The more players engage (time-wise and especially money-wise) less use for the battle gameplay is needed. Facilitated by the monotonous quest system, all that is left is a dreary daily routine that revolves around finishing daily quests, without creating enough meaning for the rewards this provides. Depending on the player’s dedication to keep staying on the maximum team level, they might stick around for a while longer, but will eventually start feeling the lack of incentive to use what they have worked for.
It’s difficult to know the necessary User Acquisition investment, but the game’s asset pipeline is compact enough to not need the entire staff of PerBlue Entertainment to keep maintaining it. Looking at the revenue it’s making monthly and trusting that a sufficient amount of players stick around at least long enough to convert, Disney Heroes shouldn’t have too much trouble breaking even. But becoming top-grossing like Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes is most likely out of reach.