I’m real done with Clash Royale.
My trajectory was set for a while now. I have been playing near-daily for over four years now, after all. While there have been a lot of new cards developed in that time, systemic issues made them functionally useless – when you are playing in the top leagues, you need max-level cards to succeed, and all new cards start at level 1. Still, Supercell managed to make a few intelligent changes along the way that kept things moving. For example, nowadays new cards are “boosted” to your King Level for a month, meaning I can actually use them straight away.
The problem is that Supercell hyped up the “Clan Wars 2” changes that were aimed at breathing new life into the clan part of clashing. And the delivery wasn’t just flat, it actively destroyed what existed and replaced it with some real shit.
Odds are none of you play Clash Royale or particularly care either way, but hang with me a second.
The old system had a two-day cadence. On Day 1, your clan had a rotating set of three “collection” battles. For the most part, these battles were way different from normal battles: you had options like Draft (build a deck), Classic Deck (get a random pre-built deck), Sudden Death, and so on. The important bit is that these game modes are quite fun AND don’t require max-level cards. Win or lose, your clan gets X amount of random cards that they will later use for the actual clan battle. On Day 2, your clan all has to use the same cards that were collected to build the best deck they can, and fight other people under similar limitations (but different cards). Your card levels matter here, and sometimes the card selection forced you into a deck archetype you aren’t comfortable with.
The new system? You need to build four decks using your own cards, and none of the cards can overlap. Then you participate in a “River Race” in which you… use those four decks playing 1v1 battles. Just like you were playing ladder, aside from being stuck with sub-par decks due to the no-overlap limitation. Each deck has a 12-24 hour cooldown. There is technically a wrinkle insofar as you can instead attack enemy ships directly, which results in a weird PvE-ish situation, and can cause said enemy clan to be forced to repair their ship instead of doing attacks and acquiring more Fame (which determines how fast your boat goes).
My clan completed the race within 2-3 days and netted 1st place. There doesn’t appear to be any particular reason to keep playing the River Race after that. Maybe you can still get some gold or something?
Regardless, this update took the one interesting part of the game – the unique game modes – and jettisoned them away. There still is a rotating game mode that can be fun, but it only changes a few times a week and there are some stinkers in the rotation. Everything else is basically just 1v1 ladder. Well, it’s ladder for the first game, and then you are stuck with whatever shit decks you can throw together with your remaining cards as you face three Hog Cycle decks in a row. I’m better off than most insofar as I have mostly max-level cards… but I hate ladder. It’s the same shit meta month after month, and all I’m doing is just grinding gold to upgrade cards I don’t actually use.
The funny thing is… some people will say this is a success. After all, I have given Supercell $100 or so and I have gotten untold hours of entertainment over four years. From a mobile game! And yet I could not possibly be more burned out, worn down, disgusted. Well, I could, and have been, with other games like MMOs. But I haven’t played MMOs in a while precisely because of this level of burnout, and I don’t like experiencing it from a mobile game too.
That’s my own damn fault, of course. I could have been wasting (more of) my time on Reddit or whatever instead of still playing a game I was growing to dislike on a daily basis. Nevertheless, I suppose that is the price we pay for seeking games to worm into our daily routines: they leave holes when you eventually root them out.
It Also Gets Harder
You know, I used to look down on “mobile gamers.” Or rather, they just never figured into my headcanon for what a real gamer was. Your mom playing Candy Crush is not the same as you playing a MMO for a decade on a $1200 PC. Nevermind how both developers are technically under the same corporate umbrella these days.
This past week, I went three days in a row without playing games.
Some of that was due to literally not having the time. My window these days is precisely between 8:30pm and 10:30pm, which is after the baby goes to sleep the first time, and when he wakes up for another bottle right before I should be going to sleep. Two hours seems like a decent chunk of time, but that is also the time I have to burn to get chores done around the house. By the time my ass hits the computer chair, it’s 9:50pm and… what then? What am I meaningfully playing for 40 minutes?
Of course, I am not counting the time spent playing Clash Royale. Or sometimes Hearthstone (Adventures). Those ~12 minute increments add up throughout the day in ways they could not via any other games. But these are not real, substantial narrative experiences.
After a while though, I have to start asking myself if that is what I even want. Maybe not in 40-minute increments, but surely I could make time elsewhere, if it were that important to me? I certainly seem to default back to Reddit browsing and low-effort time-killing readily enough. Almost as though I’m enjoying myself.
Luckily enough, I got through the ennui by the end of that week. But it did get me to thinking about what kind of gaming experience I was looking for.
Season Pass, Revisited
Two months ago, I was pontificating on the Clash Royale $5 “Season Pass” scheme, and the broader context behind this type of microtransaction.
This month, I have completed my third Season Pass purchase in a row. That $15 is more Supercell has seen from me in almost two years of playing Clash Royal, so clearly they are doing something right. But what changed in my thinking?
Floors and ceilings. And defined value.
If you browse any of the Personal Finance subreddits out there, one of the frequent topics is renting vs buying a home. What is correct for your specific scenario is, of course, specific for your scenario. One of the interesting lines that comes up though is this: rent is the most you will have to pay a month; a mortgage is just the minimum. As any homeowner knows, you have to cut a check to the bank every month and then pay for whatever shit may have broke in the meantime. Last summer, for example, we discovered dry rot in the roof by way of water leaking down pipes into the basement. You might come out ahead in the long run with a house, but that depends on running a long time.
In games like Clash Royale, the payment ceilings are effectively nonexistent. Most of the time, you are paying cash for random results and could end up spending $100 or $1000 for whatever it is you want. With that much uncertainty, it is better to… spend nothing. So I have been, for years, minus some 10x value offerings. Those had been great deals, but they were not real floors either – just chests and gold and random goodies that got me a leg up in the front door, so to speak.
The Season Pass is a true Floor. For $4.99 you get X, Y, and Z. Someone broke it down back when it first released but there was some extra value above and beyond the defined benefits. For example, unlimited resets on some of the Challenges. Sure, that effectively means “you get all the Challenge rewards.” But you could technically get all the Challenge rewards if you play well enough. With the Pass though, the anxiety is gone. I can play a few rounds while watching the baby, because if I have to put the phone down I won’t be screwing up my only shot at completing the run.
Much like with Humble Bundles, there is a relief that comes from knowing one small payment obviates any “need” to pay more money for the month. You don’t have to think about it anymore.
Of course, it is all a mental trick devised by mercenary psychologist-economists to get people to part with their cash. Nobody “needs” to pay any money to Supercell, and the “value” that comes from the Season Pass is, in part, derived from the fact the company has hitherto been miserly with normal rewards. If, if, you have been worn down by the unceasing barrage of unfettered capitalism though… well, the Season Pass is not the worst possible capitulation.
It sure as shit is going to get you farther than $5 will in Hearthstone.
State of Play
So it’s been a week, eh?
I am not going to go into too many details, but work has been crazy these last few weeks. More specifically, I was reassigned to an interim position after a string of terminations left a critical seat empty. This is not a promotion – in fact, the seat would technically be a demotion if I were taking it over for longer than the six months I am covering. It’s more work, less pay (I’m being paid the same as before), more stress, and I even have to supervise people. I am slowly turning things around, but there was a lot of cleanup to do. Luckily the remaining team is relatively solid.
Regardless, the position drives home the fact that we inhabit an absurdist universe in which “lower” jobs require more work and get paid less than their cushy, “higher” job counterparts for no reason.
In the brief time I have for gaming, I have been focusing on three titles.
Clash Royale is still a thing I play on a daily basis during breaks. I keep thinking I am approaching the end of my patience with the title – and I am certainly approaching the end of reasonable progression – but without it, there is a rather gaping hole in my mobile gamespace.
Slay the Spire has recently reeled me back in with the beta release of a 4th character. The Watcher has a lot of interesting cards and mechanics, although the balance is certainly off. Hard to complain though, given how you have to specifically opt into the beta, and there are almost nightly patches to introduce new cards and change the old ones. My play time here is approaching 150 hours.
A recent addition is Kingdom Come: Deliverance. I will have a lot more to say later, but it is an interesting game so far nonetheless. As you might expect though, I am playing it all wrong.
When the videogame historians look back on this particular monetization strata, it will undoubtedly be the Season Pass era. Or perhaps the Microtransaction era more generally, to include loot boxes, but with legislators and science slowly turning against loot boxes, I feel like more and more games will be making a hard turn into the Season Pass model.
To be clear, I am not referring to the Season Passes of yore, in which you essentially pre-ordered DLC. The new hotness is basically a month-to-month subscription. This most recently slapped me in the face in Clash Royale:
Someone on Reddit wrote up all the incentives that your $5 will purchase, and the list is somewhat enticing. None of them are technically P2W, which is itself a moot point because you could drop $99 on shit from basically day 1 in Clash Royale anyway. Indeed, if you look at the package in comparison to what your hard-earned cash could buy normally, you’re effectively getting 10x-11x the normal value. Five dollars will get you 500 gems, which can convert to 10,000g or two emotes or two Lightning Chests… or basically give you 40,000+ gold, 800 more cards (including 60+ Epics) and a bunch of other stuff.
Of course, Supercell doesn’t want it to be an either/or scenario. You can do both. Having an exceptionally generous Season Pass can lure F2P players into making their first purchase, after which it is easy to make another. One of the “perks” of the one in Clash Royale is an auto-announcement in Clan chat that you purchased the pass, and thereafter your name shows up in gold coloring in chat and battling. Turns out that adding gold leaf to a scarlet letter makes it rather desirable.
The dilemma I face is the same as always: I am caught in eye of the monetization storm.
As the screenshot shows, I am one Miner card away from having a fully-maxed deck. I am sorely tempted to purchase the Season Pass entirely to get that last Miner card. It would normally not be too difficult to trade for it within my current clan, but there are at least three other members currently asking for Miners themselves, and none seem keen to trust me in giving up one of their so I can max the card and satisfy an effectively infinite number of trades thereafter.
After that though… what then? I have dozens of technically maxed cards that I cannot actually max out because I lack the gold to upgrade them all. Not that I would need to max them out in the first place, considering I don’t use them in decks. The deck I have is the one I enjoy the most. The last two slots are technically flex slots, but I have tried a bunch of alternatives and found them lacking.
Would the new Fisherman legendary card be a good fit? Completely irrelevant. New legendaries may as well not exist, because I would need literal dozens of them to get them anywhere near usable levels where I’m sitting on the ladder (~5800 last season) and in 2v2. Granted, the Fisherman has some utility outside of his base HP and damage – the ability to hook and pull troops around like Roadhog from Overwatch – but I’m still not bringing that to match that matters.
In any event, the Season Pass model gives me pause. In the context of cash purchases within Clash Royale, it’s a great deal. Would I pay a $5/month subscription to Clash Royale though? Nope. It’s not a subscription though, as there are no reoccurring payments. “Cancel any time!” And yet there will be tens of thousands who do re-up every month, for the rewards or the conveniences lost.
Technically this should be positive Consumer Surplus territory… so why do I feel so dirty?
Possibly because I felt the hook twitch. Supercell isn’t reeling in the line yet, but it’s there. Subscription versus Season Pass is a distinction without a difference, and yet those who would riot about the former in their game are praising the latter. It is a trick of psychology, a stark reminder we can be tricked, and evidence that we face amoral corporations that have a fiduciary obligation to their shareholders to trick us out of as much money as possible.
For however bad loot boxes may seem, never forget that loot boxes are apparently not enough.
As I have begun my homebound tour of baby duty, I have a new appreciation for mobile gaming. Because it is the only gaming I can conceivably complete. While there are only three games in particular that I’m playing at the moment, I’m becoming well acquainted with the specific attributes of each one.
How long it takes from the moment you press the icon until you can start making selections. This probably shouldn’t matter as much because if you’re counting seconds you likely weren’t going to be having a lot of fun to begin with. That said, it became important to me once I realized that it takes Hearthstone 38 seconds to boot up.
Thirty. Eight. Seconds.
That’s just to get to the quest screen, by the way, not actually playing. In contrast, Clash Royale takes 17 seconds and Gems of War takes… huh, 32 seconds. For some reason, Hearthstone seemed more egregious.
How the game reacts to being minimized or otherwise losing focus. This attribute is a bit tough to precisely quantify because apparently it matters for how long the interruption lasts. Sometimes you can minimize to shoot off a text and be fine, and other times the app requires you to log back in.
Hearthstone used to be the worst at this, not only requiring a re-login, but also counting a Dungeon Run as a loss if you minimized in the middle of a boss instead of on the reward screen. As of some patch ago, you can safely minimize without losing progress.
Clash Royale is finicky, but even when there’s the equivalent of a re-log, it’s very brief. Things are significantly different if you are in the middle of a battle though. In some cases you can get back in, but you are generally penalized as “leaving the match.”
Gems of War, in my experience, doesn’t care and will be right back up instantly.
Can the game be played with one hand… if you know what I mean. Because you have a baby in the other hand.
Both Hearthstone and Gems of War are perfectly playable with one hand. Both games are basically turn-based, and even if you’re playing a human opponent in Hearthstone, you have a minute and a half to complete your turn.
Clash Royale on the other (one) hand is technically playable, but sometimes entire matches can be decided on pixel-perfect placement of troops at precisely the right moment. So in this respect, I’d say this isn’t a one-handed game.
They all have them.
Overall, I will say that Hearthstone’s Dungeon Run modes have been the MVP for me this far. When I said I had no desire to play Dalaran Heist anymore, that was before I got stuck watching a baby for 12+ hours a day. I’m already halfway through beating Chapter 1 heroic mode with every class, and being grateful I have something to do.
Know what’s downright quaint? This Time-Poor post from back in March.
Two or three weeks sans gaming isn’t too bad in the scheme of things. Or wouldn’t be, if there was some kind of known endpoint. I’m a planner, a schemer, an optimizer. Meanwhile, my baby is an agent of chaos. Sometimes he’ll go three hours between feedings, and other times I’m feeding him every 30 minutes for an hour and a half. And since you can’t really do much else, the TV is on in the background, and when he finally calms down, you might be interested in the rest of the show.
This whole experience thus far has given me some first-person views of the gaming edifice though.
On Sunday, I actually had a solid 1-2 hour chunk of time to do non-baby, non-household chore things at like 11pm. The whole world felt like my oyster! Unfortunately, I hate oysters, and I found myself browsing Reddit – which I do on my phone anyway – and then playing a few games of Slay the Spire. The thought of diving back into Divinity: Original Sin 2 was, well, unthinkable. What would I do? Walk around, get in one combat, then turn the game off?
It got me thinking about uninterrupted time, and how often some games require it. The traditional expectation of it being required is when a game functions on Waypoint Saving. But if you have a narrative experience that you care about at all, then uninterrupted time is required. But even if a game doesn’t have a narrative, you might still need uninterrupted time in order to progress in the “what was I doing?” fashion. Or perhaps even the mundane “what buttons do what again?” sense.
Games with grinding are also right out. It used to be “ain’t nobody got time for that” was because life is full of so many other, better games you could be playing instead. Nowadays, for me, it’s literal.
Having said all that, I find time for mobile games. Clash Royale is still an hourly diversion. I bought You Must Build A Boat and also downloaded Gems of War, both of which can be played in small chunks. I was looking at Terraria, but was scared away by a review stating the last update was in August 2016. Instead, I (re)bought Stardew Valley. While I haven’t tried it out yet, I’m hopeful that it can also scratch the progression itch in a more nutritive way that gacha games cannot.
We’ll see how it goes.
Opaque RNG is Indistinguishable from Rigging
My patience with enforced 50% win rates is paper graphene-thin.
“A fair game is one in which you win half the time.” It’s hard to argue against such a notion. What is more fair than a coin flip? The problem is that players aren’t equal sides of a coin, nor are the thousands of potential actions reducible to two, easily predictive binary outcomes. Some approximation is required. Or a developer thumb on the scale.
I am still playing Clash Royale despite the disastrous pivot towards blood stone squeezing, and the conceptual breakdown of all progression for long-term players. But some of their shit is driving me up a wall, and will eventually drive me from the game entirely. Specifically, Clan Wars, and even more specifically, a particular game mode with preconstructed decks.
To be sure, there are learning curves involved. Supercell basically took some “top decks” and added them to a pool, from which you are randomly assigned one for a single game. The problem is that some of these decks are just objectively terrible with no redeeming qualities, and still others are straight-up countered by some of the other matchups. For example, these two Classic Decks Battles:
In the first match (at the bottom), my Royal Hogs are immediately countered by Valkyrie, Mega Knight is immediately countered by Inferno Tower. Amusingly, Royal Hogs are also countered by Inferno Tower and Mega Knight by Valkyrie, assuming my opponent times it right. Meanwhile, while I can counter his Goblin Barrel with Arrows, they both cost 3 Elixir and thus end in a wash… with the slightest error on my part resulting in easily >30% tower damage. Meanwhile, my Zappies are basically useless, my Inferno Dragon even more useless, and I can’t use Arrows to counter his Princess or Goblin Gang because then I become vulnerable to Goblin Barrel. I also can’t hope to Fireball him out because he also has Rocket, which deals way more damage than Fireball. The ONLY way anyone could possibly win with the deck I was given was if the opponent was AFK. 1
For a WoW analogy, think Warrior (me) vs Frost Mage (opponent).
The second matchup wasn’t technically as lopsided, but still awful. Bandit is straight-up countered by pretty much every card in the opponent’s deck. Rascals + Zap took care of Minion Horde every time I threw one down, and Hog Rider/Mortar/Goblin Gang meant I could be punished immediately for dropping Elixir Collector or Three Musketeers. Which is what happened, pretty consistently. If I played better, I might have been able to distract a Mortar with my Valkyrie or Bandit in the other lane, and then split a Three Musketeers or something in the middle, followed by a split Minion Horde. Even then, if he played defensive for 20 seconds, my shit would have been countered.
Were these match-ups truly random? Or “enforced” 50% win rates? There is no direct economic incentive for Supercell to “rig” the Classic Decks Battle mode, but the RNG is opaque and it would certainly be a method to ensure that winrates do not get too lopsided.
The third clan war battle I played was Draft. In this game mode, you are given a choice of one of two cards, four times total; whatever you don’t pick goes to your opponent. I’m not sure if the card pairings are 100% random, but you can absolutely get stuck with some extremely shitty decks and/or matchups. And yet I’m fine with that. You as the player have some agency, even with imperfect information, e.g. choosing Minion Horde when opponent might have chosen Arrows. Indeed, Minion Horde in particular is a classical risky pick because of how many cards can counter it… but if your opponent doesn’t have any of those counters, it can be an overwhelming advantage.
My feelings on enforced winrates have changed over the years. Initially, it seemed fine. Necessary, even. But it is rigging, especially in the methods that many game developers go about it: pairing you with terrible teammates, matching you against strong counters, etc. The end result is that I simply cannot trust game developers with (opaque) RNG anymore. They have no incentive to be actually fair – however fairness is defined – and every incentive to produce favorable (to the devs) results. Even if they showed me the specific game code that chooses the matches, I have no reason to believe it operates in that way. This age of monetization and consumer surplus erosion has pushed me past the Cynicism Horizon, from which no trust can escape.
The only thing that game designers can do, and the thing they should be doing, is increasing player agency in the RNG elements. Drafting feels fair, even when the results are not. Maybe it is just another psychological trick to employ, giving someone the “choice” between a rock or a hard place. But it is an important one for not appearing so nakedly rigged in favor of one particular outcome.
1 If you can produce some videos of pros beating non-AFK people with the decks I was given, I’ll concede that I need to L2P. I typically end the season at 4800 trophies and can acknowledge mistakes, but on paper and in practice, those match-ups felt lopsided as hell.
How to Lose Friends and Mismanage People
Posted by Azuriel
The r/ClashRoyale subreddit was going through a revolt over the “Clan Wars 2” update, and the Community Manager was, uh, not managing well. In one of the early threads that highlighted the fact that small clans are stuck facing the same large clans for five weeks in a row, Drew said:
Do you even need context to understand how monumentally stupid this was to say?
Context makes it worse. The old Clan War design made it so that the people who did Collection Battles were the ones that needed to do attacks on War Day. The system was opt-in and every clan you were competing with had the same number of attacks. The new design just gives everyone in the clan four attacks per day and matches you against clans of varying population. This leads to situations where you can be in a 20-person clan with the highest-skilled players in the world who win every battle, and still lose every race for five weeks in a row to a 41-person clan filled with people who AFK lose every battle (losses still award some progress).
So while Drew tried to back-peddle with the “just playing Devil’s Advocate!” card, it’s hard to read the Clan Wars change as anything other than what it appears to be: a concerted effort to destroy small clans in favor of zerg clans. Drew all but confirming that with his “question” did not help anything.
Know what it reminded me of? Guild Leveling in WoW. Remember that? If not, here’s a post from six years ago when Blizzard finally removed the “feature” that was the death knell of my own tight-knit guild. Like this Clash Royale update, it essentially penalized smaller guilds and rewarded large ones, as if that is something that ever needs additional encouragement. “Everyone can earn rewards… eventually! Just choose between getting them immediately, or hanging with your friends while knowing everyone is paying an objective, tangible price for being together.”
Don’t worry though, Drew has the easy solution: get a
To be entirely fair, Drew released a new Reddit post titled “Quick Update from the Dev Team” on the subject as I was typing this out. It’s not a roadmap, but he does highlight just about every complaint from the community that Supercell received in the past week, e.g. since the update, along with some potential fixes. The relevant section:
Hmm… yep, that’s a pretty accurate assessment of how terrible the update has been.
None of this is particularly relevant to me anymore, as I left my clan and uninstalled Clash Royale already. Do I miss it? Eh… not really. As with most things in life, holes get filled in with random crap if you let it. I find myself on Reddit more, or lowering the bar even further for random trashy manga via Tachiyomi. It’s not as though I got any extra time in the day after I left WoW either.
Nevertheless, I do find it infinitely amusing (and annoying) about how Time is a Flat Circle when it comes to developers making the same sort of mistakes, over and over, forever. When the forums are in revolt, don’t play Devil’s Advocate. Maybe never play Devil’s Advocate at all. Don’t go out of your way to reward big zerg guilds, as they almost always have an advantage already. And when you inevitably lurch away from an immensely dumb design decision, take a look around the table and see if there wasn’t anyone who was warning you about how dumb the idea was at the time.
If there wasn’t someone there at the table, well, maybe you need to add a few more chairs, eh?
Posted in Commentary
Tags: Clash Royale, Devil's Advocate, Game Design, Guild Leveling, Zerg Guild