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Gaming Middle Class

Gevlon had an interesting post musing about the gaming middle class.

The current situation is this: if you are a time-rich player without a lot of money, there is no better time to be a gamer than now. Just think about how many F2P titles out there that are available. Similarly, if you are a money-rich gamer looking to get their whale on, look no further than damn near anywhere. If you fall somewhere inbetween, then you essentially get the worst of all possible worlds – pwned both by the time-rich players able to dedicate more time than you, and the money-rich players who buy every advantage.

Making things even worse, Gevlon notes the very model seems to squeeze out the middle-class:

The same question can be asked in every monetized game: why pay anything unless you go full whale? Either enjoy the game for free (if it’s enjoyable), or pay enough to be the king of the hill and enjoy pwning “n00bs”. I believe more and more people will realize this and stop paying/playing. Which in turn creates the wrong impression that potential players are either free or whale, making the games more monetized.

I have experienced this several times in the various phone apps I use to kill time. Clash Royale is an example, insofar as you should either be going all-in or not at all. If you buy a little advantage in the form of bonus chests or upgrades from the shop, you will likely be able to leverage that to boost your rank on ladder. Problem is, you then are facing either whales who are less skilled than you but are leaning on overleveled cards, or people who spent a lot of time getting to that rank with their normal cards and are likely better than you head-to-head. Eventually you will settle at your 50/50 skill range, but that doesn’t make the games in which you lost to overleveled garbage players feel any better.

Another example is a gacha-style anime-inspired game that I will leave nameless, as they are all basically the same. While you can unlock new heroes randomly from “vending machines,” there is a special vending machine that only unlocks when you reach VIP level 9. Ranking up your VIP levels is 100% dependent on spending real money buying diamonds, and VIP 9 requires $200 total to reach. That’s right, two hundred US dollars. This is quite literally pay-to-win, as the special vending machine has exclusive heroes much more powerful than anything else.

Nevertheless, I have still spent ~$35 and ~$20, respectively, in both games over the year or so I’ve been playing them. Like many games of their ilk, a “small” “investment” towards the beginning of the experience allows you to remove some obnoxious barriers for the rest of the game. In Clash’s specific case, there was 10x value deal that remains the best deal to date, such that if one was ever going to spend cash, it would be for that.

As noted, the trouble is that the very monetization scheme punishes middle-class gamers, further polarizing the remainder. How would you even focus on the middle-class in this or any scenario?

Well, just ask the WoW devs.

After thinking about it, the (intentional or not) design philosophy behind WoW from Wrath onwards caters almost directly to the middle-class gamer. The time-rich player will be decked out in the best gear either from raiding or grinding, no matter which expansion we’re talking about. The middle-class though, is unlikely to be able to raid very much given inconsistent hours. Enter LFD, enter LFR, enter Badges/Honor/etc.

Many people will try to exclaim that constant gear resets – happening on a patch basis rather than expansion – hurts people by invalidating all the work you did. Guess what: if frequent gear resets hurts you, you’re time-rich. If you want pain, try doing anything useful outside of a progression raiding guild in the Burning Crusade. If you were not cresting the wave of attunements at the right time, you were stuck in the backwash with little way forward.

So, if you want a model for capturing the gaming middle-class, WoW is it (and presumably FF14). Subscriptions to put everyone on the same field, then allow the time-rich to grind/raid their way to advantage, but cap said advantage with things like weekly lockouts and frequent gear resets. Keep the delta between the haves and have-nots at a reasonable percentage. Make progression possible without needing to specifically put a videogame event on your IRL calendar. Season with some whale-bait (WoW Tokens, cash shop) to taste, and you’re good.

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Love/Hate the Meta

Metas are interesting things.

In Hearthstone, the latest expansion (Knights of the Frozen Throne) just recently came out. New expansions and nerfs and such destabilize the meta in CCGs pretty well, and this expansion more than most. Whereas the previous Hearthstone meta was all about Pirate Warrior and aggro, the new one is more Control-oriented. Well, that and Jades. And Murlocs. So, basically, Druids and Paladins are 60% of the entire field until people get done experimenting and deck lists get more refined.

I so, so hate this transition period in Hearthstone. Because honestly? Hearthstone isn’t a CCG I especially like to experiment with. I like when the meta is stable, and I have a pretty good idea of which cards my opponent could be playing on any given turn. About to be Turn 7 against a Mage? Better watch out, because he’ll deal 4 damage to my creatures by playing Flamestrike (as a somewhat dated example). In other words, having some knowledge about common net decks allows you the ability to constructively play around cards. When people are throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks, you either have to play around cards they don’t have (and get wrecked), or not play around cards they do have (and get wrecked).

And, to be fair, some of my acrimony is based on the fact that I have so few of the new cards. Crafting Legendaries without a stable meta is extremely risky, as the value of any particular one is dependent on what rises to the top of the heap over time. Craft the “wrong” Legendary and it will take ages to get enough Dust to craft the actually useful one.

Thus, I like a well-seasoned Hearthstone meta over this period of chaos.

Meanwhile, the Clash Royale meta has been stale for almost half a year now, and it’s driving me nuts. Supercell had a balance patch in the last few weeks, and it has definitely caused some cards to go from Hot to Not pretty damn quick (e.g. Night Witch). Some of these changes have had noticeable ripple effects – nerfing Night Witch means that Executioner is less necessary as a hard counter, which then lets cards that were countered by Executioner to flourish, and so on.

…but ultimately the meta is still stale as shit. Win conditions are still Hog Rider, Royal Giant, Golem/Giant beatdown, LavaLoon, Splashyard, and Siege. About the most interesting development in the past few months has been the Bridge Spam strategy, 3 Musketeers + Heal, and maybe Miner + Poison. Now, perhaps nine different win conditions sounds like a lot, but the problem is that these strategies are so oppressive if one doesn’t actively “hate” against them, that you end up needing to use cookie-cutter counters for half (or more) of your deck.

For example, you’re going to need something to deal with Beatdown, which consists of stacking a bunch of glass cannons behind a slow-moving tank. Most people go with Inferno Tower, which can melt tanks after a charge-up period. Beatdown decks have counters to this, of course, which often reset the charging, if not blowing the tower up entirely (e.g. Lightning spell). So, you’ll probably need two strategies to counter… but that second strategy can’t be something like the Mini P.E.K.K.A, because Lightning blows him up too. Often, the strategy then becomes to ignore the tank and rush the opposite lane, hoping that the other player drops his glass cannons there instead of behind the tank.

So, in practice, there are really only three kind of decks, not 9+: Beatdown, Cycle, and Chip Damage. Personally, I have always enjoyed Chip Damage decks, as my favorite card in the game is Furnace, which spawns suiciding Fire Spirits every couple of seconds. It’s definitely out of meta, but that hasn’t bothered me too much, up until Beatdown/Cycle decks became refined enough to counter Chip Damage decks by accident.

“Just adapt.” Of course… except in the 4000+ bracket, if your cards aren’t at par (or over-leveled) with everyone else’s, you are at an incredible disadvantage. A level 9 Fireball (4-mana) will one-shot a level 8 Wizard (5-mana), and likely deal some tower damage at the same time; a level 9 Wizard will survive with a sliver of health. These sort of unit interactions are critically important in guiding your strategy, and will make or break games. Thus, I couldn’t change strategies if I tried – unless I wanted to drop down the ladder for months until I scrounged up enough gold to level other cards.

Hmm.

Originally, I thought there was a contradiction between how I felt about the Hearthstone and Clash Royale metas. In Hearthstone, I hated the fluidity of the early expansion meta, whereas in Clash Royale I hated the opposite. But thinking about it, the common denominator is how onerous it is to adapt to either meta. I can’t experiment in either game because I’m not willing to spend more cash. Without cash, my mobility is extremely limited. With low mobility, I cannot adapt to changing metas, which means I effectively get shunted off the playing board when my cards get hard-countered.

It sucks, man. The more you like these “F2P” games, the more punished you get.

Mobile Mindspace

The rise of the mobile gaming over the last couple of years has been covered rather extensively already. And up to this point, I would have argued too extensively. As a phenomenon, it is certainly interesting seeing a market emerge in real-time, but it never really seemed to impact me. The “gamer” population swelled with the ranks of people playing Candy Crush, which had little to do with any core gamers. Maybe a few well-known studios released a mobile app, whatever.

This past weekend ended up being pretty busy, but I still managed to squeeze in around 5-7 hours of gaming. And close to 100% of that time were spent in mobile games on my phone.

Granted, a few of those hours would have been dead time had I not had my phone with me. But close to half of the total was literally me sitting at my computer desk, dicking around with Clash Royale and similar “time wasters.” Part of it was undoubtedly post-game depression stemming from completing Mass Effect: Andromeda. It is always tough for me to mentally transition from 80+ hours of one title into a brand new game that promises similar hours required.

The other part, though? I am wondering whether it is due to my age that I am gravitating towards more instant gratification. Or maybe traditional game designers are getting worse at their jobs?

I spent approximately 20 minutes playing FFXIV over the weekend. I logged in, talked to some NPCs, teleported to some cities, talked some more, then had to take a minute Chocobo ride back to the main base camp to complete the quest. The main story quest, mind you. I had more fun in the 60 seconds of dead time on the Chocobo than I did in the entire 20 minutes playing overall, as I was able to boot up a mobile game, snag some rewards, and restart some locked chest timers.

Now, of course watching chests explode with goodies is a cheap, diversionary tactic at best; it is hardly fair to compare such things to the slow burn of a (supposedly) epic narrative. At the same time, those now-empty chest slots drew my eye to the 2v2 Battle button hovering just above, fat with the promise of compelling and amusing gameplay just a press away. And if I just get 6 more crowns from destroying enemy towers, I can unlock another chest with even more goodies. Hmmmmm.

Needless to say, I logged off FFXIV soon after getting off the Chocobo.

I guess what I’m getting at is the shift towards mobile is a multi-layered “problem.” There is the vapid dopamine rush from getting easy rewards, sure. There is also the front-loaded fun gameplay in quick gaming sessions. Then there is a whole class of game (MMOs) which are utterly reliant on back-loaded… everything. And it is not even that clear that such back-loaded fun is actually required to be back-loaded – that is simply how things have traditionally been done. Why doesn’t Waking Sands in FFXIV have a teleporter when just about every other town does? Is there a legit reason?

I am beginning to question everything. Opening a chest is a vapid reward. Is it more vapid than gaining levels in a traditional MMO? I am playing a Monk in FFXIV, and even after the revamped combat that came with the Stormblood expansion, I’m getting bored to tears with such a limited amount of abilities. I am stuck with limited abilities because the designers don’t want me to get all of them at the beginning because they are afraid I won’t feel rewarded enough in levels 20-60 after having received my full rotation. And they are right to be worried about that – it sounds awful.

Know what else sounds awful? Spending my time playing this game when I can play something else and be having fun right now.

Mobile gaming has not completely consumed my gaming mindspace, as evidenced by the fact that I spent 90 hours in Mass Effect just before this. But I am finding that the proverbial Fun Floor has risen dramatically over the last few months for me, more than it ever has before. Presumably, I am going to remember the twists and turns of FFXIV’s (later) story way beyond Quick Battle #4,872, and thereby justify the time investment.

But sometimes you just want to, you know, have fun when you play videogames. Right now.

Skill Punishment

I continue to play Clash Royale on my work breaks, and often inbetween games while at home. On the ladder, the start of the Challenger 1 tier is at 4000 trophies, and I fluctuate between that and about 4200. The next tier up requires 4300, but the end-of-season rewards aren’t that much better, especially for the nonsense that one has to put up with on the ladder. Specifically, players with less skill but higher-level cards they got either from grinding one specific deck, or using cash.

Usually the latter, honestly.

The problem – or, rather, Supercell’s money-making feature – is that new cards come out about once a month. Sometimes the card is OP, sometimes it’s junk, sometimes it just makes the gameplay more interesting. Trouble is, my skill level is such that I am actively punished for changing my deck.

This high in the ladder, anything less than a level 11 common or level 9 rare card is mostly garbage, with only a few exceptions. New cards come out at level 1, and require you to both collect the necessary amount of cards (which is not a given) and the necessary amount of gold to upgrade the cards. Going from a level 1 to level 11 common costs 35,625g; rares cost about the same, 35,600g, to get to level 9. The cost of upgrades is exponential, with the “hump” between level 10-11 common and level 8-9 rare being 20,000g by itself.

It is not inconceivable to accumulate the 20k gold by normal gameplay within the month, but 35k gold is really pushing it. Nevermind how all the gold is being funneled into upgrading a new card, rather than the cards in the actual deck grinding the gold. The next level tier above 11/9 costs 50,000g, for example, and might be enough to start winning you games that you should have lost. Or you could play with the new cards and probably be rolled.

The latest preview shows that there are 5 new cards to be released, including one Legendary card. Seeing this on my screen after grueling matches between either equally skilled opponents or P2W whales is demoralizing beyond belief. These new cards could be something cool, something to revitalize my flagging interest in the game. But I can’t afford to keep up.

This is absolutely a Red Queen scenario too, because while you might not be upgrading, everyone else is, and that makes your own cards weaker over time. For example, one of my favorite cards is the Furnace, as it spawns little Fire Spirits every 10 seconds; people typically don’t know how to deal with it, and often end up wasting Elixir trying to play around it. Trouble is, if your opponent has a higher level Princess Tower (e.g. one of the towers you need to destroy to win) than your Furnace, the Fire Spirits get one-shot for free versus forcing your opponent to respond or take gradual damage. For this reason, I poured a lot of resources into getting the Furnace to level 9 ASAP. Nowadays, half of my opponents are level 12, which means my Furnace is practically useless. Over time, this is just going to get worse, as more and more people continue leveling up.

Supercell has ways out of this death spiral, although I’m not entirely sure it’s enough. The various tournaments you can play in cap the levels of cards such that everything can be relatively balanced. More recently, they re-introduced the 2v2 mode and allowed you to play it while earning treasure chests and Crowns. The 2v2 mode actually uses your potentially over-leveled cards, but the introduction of a partner and the general chaos of the fights obfuscates the level disparity at worst, and sometimes negates it entirely at best. For the past week, I have opted to fight zero regular ladder games because 2v2 is immensely less frustrating to lose. And even when you do lose, you don’t actually go down in ranks.

That being said, the situation still feels pretty grim. Supercell recently changed the matching algorithms such that you can’t really sandbag your ranking anymore; even if you intentionally drop 500+ ranks, you end up facing other skilled players who have sandbagged themselves too, potentially trapping yourself at lower levels. And while the 2v2 mode is technically here, it also has an apparent time limit. Nevermind the fact that if the 2v2 mode actually sticks around and “resolves” my issue, that means Supercell forgoes the thumbscrew that is the ladder system.

The ideal gamer response seems to be… being mediocre at the game. That way, upgrading cards doesn’t take tens of thousands of gold, and thus you have more free gold to more easily try out newer cards as they are released. Plus, you know, you are less likely to be as invested in continuing to play the game, thus less tempted to throw down cash to stay competitive.

Eroding and monetizing every inch of Consumer Surplus has always been the end-goal for these companies, but more and more I am understanding exactly how malicious it ends up feeling.

What I’m Playing

WoW: I have been pretty consistent in logging into WoW each day, although I believe my subscription has already lapsed. I’m about halfway into Honored with the Legionfall Reputation, the last pieces of gating between me and flying. Despite this, it’s debatable that I renew my sub.

The problem is precisely the same problem with Legion all along: alts are punished.

Yes, alts are not as punished as they were before. The Broken Shore offers easy loot, your main can mail an Artifact Knowledge book to bump that alt up to level 20 (or 25 now for me), unlocking flying on one character unlocks it account-wide, and so on. The issue is getting there.

It’s time to face the facts: the new Druid main was a mistake. Boomkin is awful in solo PvP, and awful-feeling in solo World questing when other people are around. Sure, Sunfire will tag all the mobs, yay. Now watch as every cast is interrupted by the mob in question dying to other people who get to press buttons.

PvP is basically impossible. Mages burst me down in literal seconds, and there isn’t anything you can do against melee classes. If someone is distracted or can’t reach you, sure, Boomkins can blow you up with some long-casted spells. But so could a Hunter with auto-shot.

So here I am, stuck with a class I no longer want to play, but cannot really drop either. I mean, I can, but that just means that I will have to redo a whole lot of effort, e.g. grinding reputation all over again. Being stuck inbetween impossible choices doesn’t make for a particularly enjoyable experience.

Divinity: Original Sin: This is an RPG that has lasted a whole lot longer than I ever expected it to. I think my current time counter is at 70 hours. Combat remains extremely entertaining, if not maddening at times. Crowd Control is absurd, with half a dozen different ways to lose your entire turn, multiple times in a row. This goes both ways of course, but there are always more enemies than PCs and you only have to be hit once or twice by CC to change the entire tide of the battle.

As fun as it is… I’m trying to wrap things up as soon as possible. Because…

Mass Effect: Andromeda: …I haven’t even booted it up once. Not because I’m particularly apprehensive (at least there has been a patch to smooth out facial animations), but because I anticipate dropping all other games until I finish playing it.

Final Fantasy 14: Redownloaded the client both because of the free login promotion, and because my friend finally made the necessary PC upgrades to play the game. I figure that FF14 is about due for another attempt, and the lull between now and the 2nd expansion is perhaps as good as any. Might clash with ME:A though.

Clash Royale: I continue to play and be frustrated by this game on a daily basis. I did managed to hit Challenger 2 (e.g. 4300+) again this month, but the 4000ish range is simply annoying beyond belief in terms of just farming chests. Meta decks abound in this range, and it’s almost expected to face over-leveled cards in every match. I’m talking about level 13 Royal Giants, Level 3 Lava Hounds, Level 6 Balloons, and so on.

Funslope

I have been musing a lot about Hearthstone and Clash Royale lately.

In Hearthstone, I bought around 22 packs of the latest expansion with accumulated gold and… things didn’t feel particular satisfying. A lot of duplicate commons, and only one Legendary (the hunter quest). I kinda screwed myself over inadvertently though, as I opened a pack reward from the Tavern Brawl, which ended up being Carine, a duplicate Legendary of mine, thus removing my pity timer.

According to Reddit, the latest expansion will cost you about $400 to get all the cards. Let that sink in a moment. $50 will get you 40 packs, and I opened about half that and got hot garbage. Spending enough money to buy a AAA videogame on release will likely not even get you remotely competitive in a F2P game.

This sort of begs the question though: how much should it cost to be competitive in a(ny) game?

On the one hand, I think cost analyses for an entire expansion are a bit ridiculous. Out of the 135 cards available, how many are actually any good? Cutting out the terrible Legendaries will reduce Dust cost by 1600 apiece, for example. Then there is the consideration of whether you really need all the cards on Day 1. There are going to be weeks and weeks of Un’goro, during which you can accumulate more packs naturally. Granted, if you are still buying Un’Goro packs a month before the next expansion’s release, you won’t have any buffer there.

On the other hand… well, it’s all terrible. A bunch of cards just rotated out, so if you aren’t rolling in the latest expansion cards you may as well just give up. Or go play Pirate Warrior and hope the other guy doesn’t have one of a thousand new taunts.

Clash Royale is a different F2P game, but I am encountering similar breakpoints. Specifically, I had a deck that I focused all my in-game resources on, the meta shifted, and now my deck gets hard-countered very easily. You can switch your cards out, but leveling cards takes increasing amounts of gold, and thus I can only field under-leveled cards against people with focused decks.

How easy should it be to max out your stuff though?

Personally, I feel that answer should be “immediately” for competitive PvP games. What is the point of a ladder in these games if you can buy your way to the top? It honestly reminds me of the gacha games, which have “VIP Levels” that unlock as you spend more money buying diamond currency. Well, except these gacha VIP levels are permanent and don’t reset each time new cards come out.

Alas, this is not the case.

What is worse is the simple fact that these games also do not have logical endpoints. They are fun. Then, gradually, they are less so. At what point on the Fun Gradient can you draw a line? I suppose games like Hearthstone are little more cut-and-dry since expansions are released, cycle out, and otherwise contain clear demarcations on the calendar. Clash Royale, meanwhile, does not. I am having less fun than I did a few months ago, but still more fun than either nothing or another game. So I continue to play, with internal injuries accumulating from the dissonance.

And just to be clear: these games are engineered this way. Payslopes? More like Funslopes. And at the bottom of this slope is just a money-pit that you fill with cash to try and make a softer landing.

Relative Value of Money

Gaming has gotten pretty complicated for me these days.

The annoying part of this situation is that the complication is all by design. Clash Royale recently celebrated its 1-year anniversary, for example, which means I have been playing this mobile game off-and-on for about a year. Just the other day they teased a “one time sale” that included 100,000g and a Magical Chest for roughly $25. At the stage of development I’m at in the game, that amount of gold would effectively allow me to upgrade two units. Two. For $25.

And I was seriously considering it.

The only real thing that stopped me was that the deal wasn’t as good as the prior deals I did take advantage of. The $25 thing was only a “x4 value” whereas I dropped $25 on a different package several months ago that was a x10 value. At the time, it offered a rather significant boost of power, and allowed me to finally snag an Ice Wizard, which I have used in every deck to this day. Conversely, it is not entirely clear that upgrading two units for 100,000g would see similar returns.

In addition to Clash, I am playing three separate gacha-esque games with similar payment models. Four, technically, if you include Fire Emblem: Heroes in there. I haven’t spent near as much in those as I have in Clash, but I do boot them up every single day for the feeling of incremental progression. And all of them are offering “amazing” deals for $10, $25, even $99.

Then look what happened with WoW. There is currently a “sale” on character services, which means it “only” costs $18.75 for server transfers. Since I had over $180 in Blizzard Bux from cashing in WoW Tokens, I decided to use some of those funds to move the survivors of Auchindoun-US over to Sargeras-US. Moved about four toons thus far, and thinking of a fifth. That’s $75 already. Not $75 from my bank account per se, but I could have nearly bought StarCraft 2: Legacy of the Void and 50 packs of Hearthstone’s latest expansion with that same amount of funds.

All of this is why I take a somewhat adversarial stance with game designers. If these were all B2P games, we would not be having this discussion; instead I would be lamenting about how there aren’t enough hours in the day to play all these great games. Instead I’m talking about services within a game, or progression boosters, any of which are more expensive than actual, other games. I just bought Mass Effect: Andromeda from GMG for $41 and some change. That’s roughly two character transfers in WoW, or a few unit upgrades in Clash Royal.

Now, there’s the argument that there aren’t that many games you could even play for a whole year and not tire of. Doesn’t Clash Royal deserve my money for how much amusement it has generated? Isn’t plopping down some cash on these games technically cheaper than paying full price for new releases every few weeks/months anyway?

I think those are the wrong questions, and intentionally engineered to take advantage of cognitive dissonance. Because we aren’t asking those questions up front – we are asking them after having “invested” dozens (or hundreds) of hours into the game. If you told me at the beginning that it took 50,000g to upgrade units in Clash Royal, I would have balked. But having stewed in a pot of nearly boiling water for a year, it all seems reasonable. “Of course it makes sense that I used to get upgrades every three days, and now only get one a month.” Not really, no.

(Especially not when they end up nerfing units a month later. No refunds here.)

The value of money is mostly relative. Going from making $20k to $30k is life-changing, whereas going from $100k to $110k is likely not. However, money is also fungible. Dropping $10 or $25 here and there might make sense in the context of whatever game you are currently playing long-term, but those same dollars could buy anything else.

It is important, IMO, to consider the full picture of what your gaming dollars may or may not be purchasing. A server transfer in an MMO that will save your waning interest may seem a bargain. Hell, it might actually be a bargain in the final analysis. Just be cognizant that the decision should not be “do I spend money or not,” but rather “do I give up X or not.” I decided that two unit upgrades in Clash Royal isn’t worth half a Mass Effect. Framing it this way helps me resist all the fallacies (Sunk Cost, Gambler’s, etc) working on the decision to make it seem reasonable (when it is not), and gives me an answer I can live with.

Maybe your gaming budget is such that you don’t mind dropping hundreds of dollars a month into whatever. In which case, feel free to Paypal some my way, chief. Otherwise, we all have to look out for each other a bit, because the game designers and the in-house psychoanalysts on their payroll certainly are not.

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.