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Incentives

I have been playing Clash Royale for much longer than I ever really expected to. In fact, near as I can tell, it’s been almost a year. Pretty good for an ostensibly F2P game… that I’ve probably dropped $30 into over that time period.

As Syncaine points outpoints out, Supercell has come a long way in fixing what were some unquestionably amateurish mistakes in the engagement department. The initial rollout of Tournaments, for example, were a total disaster – hundreds of thousands of people spam-clicking on the refresh button to try and sneak into one of the 50-player tournaments, which required other players to pay to host them. Like, what?

Tournaments are now a totally legit game path akin to Hearthstone (or any number of other games’) Arena matches where you pay a nominal gem fee and fight other people at your win count. Twelve wins (max rewards) or three losses and you’re out. Supercell has further expanded tournaments to help introduce new cards too, forcing people to have decks using said new card, but granting access to 100% of all cards, including Legendaries, inside the tournament. So not only do you have the ability to playtest the new cards, but more casual players can even play around with the Legendaries that might not ever see.

As always, the first hit of crack tournament is free to everyone.

However, I am finding Supercell’s other attempt at engagement incentives to be less thought-through. Specifically, they introduced Clan Chests, which is basically a chest that gets stuffed with more free goodies the more Crowns that your clan racks up before the deadline. Crowns are basically tower kills, and everyone earns them by playing ladder games.

[Note: Crowns aren’t consumed. Each one gained will fill all Crown meters.]

On the one hand, it’s a good incentive for social engagement. Since a 10/10 chest grants guaranteed epics and thousands of gold, everyone wants the maximum award. Said maximum requires 1600 Crowns in about 3 days, which comes out to be around 32 Crowns per member in a 50-member clan. Since Crown chests are opened after 10 Crowns collected and reset on a daily basis, the general idea is that it will take just a few extra games more than normal, assuming that you are unlocking the Crown chest on the daily anyway.

On the other hand… it really weeds out the casuals. Anyone can see any clan member’s contribution to the Clan Chest. The clan I’m in has already stated that any member with less than 30 Crowns during the Clan Chest will be kicked. Which is fine, whatever, I’m not in a family clan or anything. But it bears mentioning that getting even 10+ a day to unlock the normal Crown Chest results in more (winning) games than you have spots for chests.

Effectively, not only does opening the Clan Chest require one to “waste” chests (or pay Supercell money to open them faster), it arguably “wastes” surplus Crown Chest Crowns too. It ends up being a flurry of obligatory activity just to stay in the same spot.

Worst of all, though, is how the system pretty much perverts the upper brackets. There are 10 brackets currently, with the top starting at 3000 trophies. Each bracket makes the chests you earn contain more stuff, so there is no particular incentive to tank your trophies to a lower bracket. That said, there is zero difference between 3000 and 4000 trophies (where I am), and all Crowns are worth the same for the Clan Chest. Ergo, the optimal play would be to fill up my chest slots (which happens really quickly), and then tank my trophies by intentionally losing until I get less advanced opponents, then start 3-Crowning them with overleveled troops.

I haven’t gone full asshole yet – usually tanking down to 3500 trophies is enough – but I have absolutely encountered people with maxed troops nowhere near where they should be on ladder, just to cheese the system. And it’s pretty clear that the overachievers in my clan who are racking up 100+ Crowns within the 3-day period are not doing so at their “proper” place on ladder.

I mean, I kinda get it, from Supercell’s side. There is an elegance for all Crowns being equal. And then there’s… err… uh… hrm. Actually, I can’t imagine why else Supercell isn’t fixing this issue by perhaps making top-bracket Crowns count for more. Or giving people above 3000 any reason to care what occurs beyond that number. So what if high-ranked clans get to complete the Clan Chest faster than anyone else? Those last troop upgrades take forever and a day already.

The only reason I can think of is perhaps Supercell needs high-ranked players to be playing more to make the matchmaker work better at the upper end, but that’s not really what’s happening here anyway. The smart players are giving free wins to dozens of people on the way down in order to 3-star newer players on the way back up. This does not make for compelling gameplay for anyone.

Supercell has proven to be pretty nimble when it comes to changes, and have also demonstrated the ability to eat crow over incredibly obvious bad ideas (e.g. the lack of an emote squelch), so I’m hoping that they change this system at some point. As it is, it just creates all the wrong incentives for all the wrong people.

Subtraction Through Addition

One of the new features in Clash Royale are “Tournaments.” Indeed, Supercell believes Tournaments are so important as to rearrange the entire app UI around to feature them prominently. Which is wierd, consider Tournaments are about the most poorly designed thing I’ve seen in any game.

Just imagine this x100.

Even the premise is dumb. At the lowest level, someone offers to pay 500 gems to “host” a 50-man “local” tournament, 49 people join for free, and in this pool everyone plays as many games as possible within the allotted time. The winner of the tournament – which would ideally be the person who started it – will always get less cards than they would have otherwise by spending the gems in the shop. Perhaps the joy of creating all this free content for people should suffice, but I don’t anticipate this lasting long. Especially given the fact Supercell introduced a one-time achievement refunding the cost of the lowest-level tournament. Once that dries up… then what?

Part of the design of the tournaments was to reduce the ping issues by concentrating players in closer geographic regions. Which is okay, I guess. But how is that really a solution at all? The tournaments can last for X amount of time (hours or days), but you are of course limited to just the pool of players in the tournament. I haven’t had an issue finding games once in a tournament, but I don’t see how it is effective for, you know, everyone else.

And don’t even get me started on actually getting into these tournaments. There is a “search” interface that essentially brings up around 10 tournaments, and invariably they all show 50/50. Sprinkled throughout are 49/50 that get your hopes up for a second, before a series of rapid Join presses revealed that they are full. Hell, I saw a 1/200 tournament appear and apparently fill in the time it took my thumb to move half an inch. What moron designer thought this was a good design? Were these not play tested at all? Was there a particular reason why they did not include a “join next available tournament with X criteria” function?

Like I mentioned, I did indeed manage to get into one of the tournaments by some stroke of luck. And it was… okay. I do appreciate the idea that it uses a different ranking system than the outside game, so you are free to experiment more. Plus, since tournament rules are in effect, all the cards are more balanced – no more cheese like someone dropping a level 11 Royal Giant on your lane and calling it a day.

That said, the tournament absolutely encourages you to spam games. Your ranking is determined by trophies, and since you can take them from anybody, that means someone trying to sit on 1st place will soon find themselves slipping down if they don’t keep up. Which, I suppose is better than the alternative, unless you happen to be the highly ranked. For me, I got inside the top 10 after about four games and just sat on my rank with the knowledge that I either had to claw my way to 3rd+, or be fine with 8-10 free cards depending on how many people occilated. Iroically, as I stared at the screen deciding my next move, I actually gained a rank from someone else above me losing a game.

In any case, I find the tournament feature to be an overall net negative for a game in which my interest is already waning. My range in the regular ladder seems to fluctuate between 2800-3000, which means every win is an absolute struggle. Or would be, if I didn’t face people with the previously mentioned level 11 Royal Giants. Which, I guess, is the ladder system working as intended. But it is work, and sometimes ends up taking 30 minutes to get enough chests to last the entire day, even on vacation.

“So stop playing.”

Yeah, it might end up coming to that. Especially since Supercell seems inclined to make no changes to that godddamn Ice Wizard or the Royal Giant.

On Trolling

Two years ago, I talked about countering toxicity via intentional game design. The example was Hearthstone, which continues to be relatively accessible and innocuous. Blizzard accomplished this by limiting non-friend player interaction to a handful of emotes. Granted, a whole new implicit language of BM (bad manners) has developed in the meantime, but there is both a timer attached to the emotes and, crucially, the ability to disable them from your opponent.

I bring this up for two reasons.

The first is that Supercell finally came out and addressed the rampant trolling emote spam that takes place in Clash Royale. And by rampant, I mean I get surprised when I do not see gloating emotes during a game. Supercell’s response? Trolling helps their bottom line:

The same principle – evoking strong emotions – is at the heart of why we’re not planning to implement a mute option. Emotes are loved by some and hated by others – even within the Clash Royale team! We believe these strong emotions are integral to the core of the game.

Clash Royale is not a single player game and shouldn’t feel like one. Emotes are an important reminder that you’re facing another human being – maybe they’re a nice guy, maybe they’re not – but there’s a person at the other end of the Arena and not a robot. You can communicate with them and they can respond, regardless of language or cultural barriers.

Given advancements in AI, it’s possible we’re already playing against robots.

Now, Supercell didn’t come out and say that this helps their bottom line, but… it does. Get spammed with emotes, get tilted, lose, then you buy a bunch of gems to unlock more shit. Or win against impossible odds, feel good, buy some gems. It’s all the same. Which is fine, whatever. But I still fail to see how adding the option, buried in the menus somewhere, to mute emotes automatically isn’t possible or would affect one goddamn thing other than the trolls.

The second reason I brought up Hearthstone is because, as I’ve mentioned before, Overwatch makes me salty. And what makes it worse is the direct communication feature between teams. Again, what possible good exists in letting Team A talk to Team B? Because what I mostly see is stuff like this:

Overwatch_Trolling

Absolutely useful features.

Honestly, this is downright mild in comparison to the “die in a fire” and worse from the earlier days of gaming. Or probably current days of gaming if you’re a woman and have a microphone.

But the more time passes, the less value I see in having much in the way of communication at all in these sort of games. In MMOs? Yes, of course, there is a need to build social bonds and such. Nobody is building anything with emotes in Clash Royale other than ulcers and kidney stones. Nor with chatting in Overwatch, really. So… why have them in these games? Habit alone?

Unless, of course, your business model is based on exploitative psychology.

Royale Plateau

I am nearing my end with Clash Royale. And not by choice.

One thing to note about Clash Royale is that it, like many games, is very rewarding right away. You get free treasure chests every four hours, with a maximum stack of two. Every eight hours, you can request cards from your clan. You have four slots for treasure chests from winning games. Every X hours, you have a Crown Chest that you unlock by accumulating 10 crowns (from destroying towers). My play pattern basically means I’m opening 1-2 chests every time I boot up the game.

The problem is you run into a very real payslope eventually.

I have been “stuck” in the Royal Arena 7 for going on a month now (or more). My highest trophy count is 2575, which is still pretty far from hitting the last Arena level. But for the most part… I don’t care about that, since nothing new unlocks at Arena 8.

In the meantime, day after day, I open chests and get the same rares/common cards. Upgrading from level 8 commons/level 6 rares to the next higher level is something that takes weeks-worth of gold, for only very marginal gains comparatively.

But it’s not even about that either. My progression is stuck. Here is my setup:

ClashRoyale_Deck

The Baby Dragon slot fluctuates between Barbarians and/or Mini PEKKA.

It is essentially a Judo deck – a reactive deck that relies on countering my opponent’s push and then winning via superior plays. It lacks the sheer ridiculous power of some other deck openers, but it is decently resilient, as evidenced by my trophy levels. Could I use other cards? Maybe. My only level 3 epics though are Freeze, Crossbow, and Mirror. Meanwhile, everyone I face seems to have level 3+ relevant epics and legendary cards. I keep thinking that if I were to get Prince up to level 3 or Balloon or something, that would provide enough of an incentive for me to change my deck.

Then I realized that my little skeleton bomber is a strictly worse Princess or Ice Wizard. All cost 3 elixir, all fill similar roles, but the latter two are (of course) legendary cards that could change the course of games all by themselves. This is a poisonous sort of knowledge though, as each and every chest I open that doesn’t contain a replacement legendary is a waste of time. The expectation that such a legendary will be opened is fallacious, of course, as the odds were remote in the first place, much less that this particular chest will contain one.

And so, here I am.

Most people would say “at least you got 2+ months of entertainment from a mobile app.” That is true. But in experiencing these last MMO-esque gasps yet again… well, it makes me long for the mercy of a quick, definitive end of gameplay. You know, to finish a game before you’re done with it.

CR: The Prince

Just as a petty “I told you so” per Supercell’s latest patch notes:

Prince: Charge speed decreased by 13%

  • The Prince is currently the most used card in the game, but despite very popular opinion, he isn’t overpowered when looking at his win rates. However, his ability to take down a tower on his own when left unchecked can be quite startling. Slowing down his charge speed a notch will give more time to react and counter.

So, yeah, like I said, the Prince is the most used card in the game.

Now, they say in there that he’s not overpowered when looking at his win rates. Personally, I’d like to know what those win rates actually are. But honestly, that doesn’t really indicate to me that he isn’t overpowered. I’m no longer running my Prince because A) he’s level 1, and B) everyone specifically keeps direct counters to the Prince in their deck. For example, I’m running the Witch, melee Goblins, the Goblin Hut, and can technically toss my Giant Skeleton in front if needed. If I didn’t have to worry about the Prince destroying a tower in 9 seconds by himself, I’d be swapping out at least two of those for more offensive cards.

So, to me, a card that everyone uses is de facto an overpowered card even if the card does not necessarily guarantee a win. Good players take note of the metagame and include counters. It seems obvious said good players with said counters would win more often, bringing down the overall win rate of the most popular card. But the Prince is popular for a reason, and his mere existence suppresses the diversity of the rest of the decks. The Prince is like Hearthstone’s Dr. Boom – he won’t instantly win you the game, but every deck you create has to keep him in mind.

In any case, Supercell seems to have a monthly balance schedule, and I anticipate seeing the Prince nerfed again in April. If not because he is literally overtuned, then because he will continue being the most popular card in the game for his ability to force an answer from your opponent or die.

Royale with Cheese

Like with many bloggers, I have been playing Clash Royale for quite a bit lately. It has been an interesting experience – my feelings on the gameplay, the payment structure, and overall package has oscillated wildly, sometimes several times within the same day.

The basic structure of the game is dropping troops to go destroy towers, MOBA creep style. Resource parity (1 elixir per second) and the random nature of “deck” draws (4 cards out of 8) makes for an often nail-biting experience. While I hesitate to use the term CCG, considering there are nearly 50 different cards, Clash Royale does have that seductive element of deck-building and metagame strategy that makes the genre difficult to put down.

ClashRoyale1

I love waiting arbitrary amounts of time.

The game is not without its cheese, however. The reward mechanism are Chests, which are time-released and tied to the general Arena rank you were when you earned them. There are four empty Chest slots to fill, and the shortest timer is 3 hours; you can cap out your Chests in four matches, which can be done in 10 minutes. You can open these chests early with the cash shop currency, of course, or spend dollars buying gold, which is necessary to level up your cards. Cards, incidentally, which are randomly opened from chests.

The random card distribution mechanism is the source of most of my ire these days. There are card rarities, of course, and the Epic cards are some of the most powerful. It isn’t that they are impossible to counter, but rather they need to be countered somewhat immediately. The difference between not having a given Epic card and having one is immense. Getting a 2nd copy will let you level it up to level 2, which is a 10% stat gain. So not only is it possible that you won’t get a powerful Epic troop, you might be facing someone with one that will always win against your own even if you do get one.

The Prince in particular is one I have harped on elsewhere. He costs 5 elixir to deploy and can easily be swarmed with low-HP, high-volume units, sure. But if he isn’t, he deals double-damage on the first hit on your tower, and will often completely destroy it before you can even drop more troops… unless you are specifically pooling elixir to directly counter this strategy. The Giant can also destroy a tower if left alone, but his ponderous gait and inability to deal minion damage means 1-2 skeletons can finish the job. It’s hard to even say that the Prince is a high-risk strategy though, because even if he can be countered by being swarmed, he’s still, you know, a high-damage troop. One that you have to plan around in every single match lest you be taken unawares.

ClashRoyale2

Current deck. Would not recommend this setup.

I continue to play Clash Royale though for a reason that’s somewhat surprising: I can. I still boot up Clash of Clans periodically, but my play is limited to ~3 minutes every 1.5 hours due to the structure of the game. I was originally playing Clash Royale the same way, mentally declaring it a toilet game, e.g. something you only play once you have empty chests available. But… you don’t have to. As Syncaine notes, you can still play and get rewarded with trophies for wins, which eventually pushes you to the next Arena rank, which makes the chests you acquire contain more and better goodies.

After a particularly brutal series of humiliating defeats dropped me out of the Arena 4 bracket though, I realized that hey, it’s actually kinda fun just playing the game and trying different things. You’ll encounter bullshit matches against vastly superior troops, sure. The leveling system structure even means you’ll face opponents who have towers with more HP and damage than your own. But… but! There is literally nothing stopping you from pressing the Battle button again. There is no Energy gauge to limit your screen time to some arbitrary, cash shop optimized level. Getting zero progress rewards does suck and makes my eye twitch with the inefficiency of it all… but, hey, I’m pushing buttons and playing a game.

Which is surprisingly and embarrassingly uncommon for phone games of any genre.

So I say give it a shot, if it sounds interesting to you. The early game experience is kinda terrible I’ll admit – people running around with Princes in Arena 1 and Arena 2 are terrible people – but once you get a handful of epics, the game opens up considerably. Well, as considerable as a two-lane MOBA-esque quasi-CCG can.