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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.

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.