關於5款免費塔防遊戲的深度分析

作者:Ramin Shokrizade

我並不喜歡公開分享任何現有產品的細節分析,因爲我害怕會因此損害了一些人的利益。儘管有這樣的顧慮,我還是在過去發佈了一些分析內容,因爲我會覺得公衆的需求更重要。讀者們都希望能夠看到這樣的報告內容以幫助自己更好地瞭解當前的免費遊戲環境以及在這種環境下產品的發展。

而本文的分析將只專注於免費手機塔防遊戲,如此也能讓這一分析內容更加簡單明朗。我在此討論的所有問題也適用於其它類型的遊戲和產品中,即使它們之間的聯繫可能並不是特別明顯。

以下是我將提到的一些產品名稱(以及開發者名字,我所到達的遊戲等級,以及在遊戲中消費的美元):

《部落戰爭》(Supercell:第66級,0美元)

《海島奇兵》(Supercell,第42級,0美元)

《DomiNations》(Nexon,第109級,10美元)

《星球大戰:指揮官》(Lucas,第6層,10美元)

《競逐之國》(Space Ape,第13層,花了120美元但只使用了其中的40美元)

對於每一款遊戲我都測試了一年多時間,或者是從遊戲發行的第一天起便開始進行測試(如一些較新的遊戲)。我認爲自己既是一名專家用戶,同時也是一名鯨魚用戶,因爲每一年我都會在我喜歡的遊戲上花費超過1000美元的費用。

注:Nexon是上述列出的公司中唯一一家我曾工作過的公司,但那已經是2001年的事了,所以我認爲我與所有的這些團隊都不存在工作關係。我還測試了第六款遊戲,之所以未將其列出來是因爲存在潛在的利益衝突。而我在本文中提到的其它遊戲可能是我曾參與創造過的遊戲。

Boom Beach(from 72g)

Boom Beach(from 72g)

什麼是遊戲?

爲了更好地理解這些遊戲的運行,我們必須回頭去理解遊戲是什麼,如此才能更好地判斷這些遊戲是否能夠滿足消費者的需求。以下便是我所使用的定義:

遊戲:兩個或以上參與者之間的技能與運氣間的較量。

我們必須清楚這點是因爲參與者是否享受遊戲的一個主要條件便是他們是否感受到了挑戰以及遊戲結果是否存在不確定性。如今,AI能夠在遊戲中扮演一個或多個參與者的角色。儘管對於所有參與者來說,“公平”是遊戲樂趣的重要元素,但是我卻並未將其置於最基本的定義中。從整體看來,手機領域中的99%免費產品都不是遊戲。而保證消費的能力將會不利於技能和運氣條件。這並不是一種默認的免費業務模式,但卻是因爲設計師未能有效理解遊戲中的獎勵系統角色所導致,所以我們必須對這些獎勵系統做出讓步。

儘管這些產品不一定是真正的遊戲,它們也可以通過添加各種遊戲元素而“變成”遊戲。在沒有人類對手的產品中,開發者總是通過在挑戰中添加一些隨機的幻覺去創造這種感覺—-儘管這些挑戰通常都是經過精心設計的,而非隨機的。本文將專注於多人競爭遊戲,所以我將投入分析競爭遊戲系統。

PvV,PvP和遊戲社交規模(GSS)

儘管我之前曾提到“PvV”,但是這並不是一個常用詞,所以我必須再次定義它:

PvV(玩家對抗受害者):這是兩個對手間非自願的比賽。對於發起者而言對抗是可選擇的,發起者通常都會想辦法找到對自己有利的比賽。在這裏發起者便是我們所謂的“griefer”。就griefer目標來看他們很難避免不公平的比賽,並且他們不允許對方拒絕比賽,所以這便造就了這種非自願的比賽。

PvP(玩家對抗玩家):這是兩個對手間的資源比賽,結果通常是不確定的。不過也存在例外,如兩個帶有不平等技能的友好對手爲了提高較弱一方的技能而展開的訓練型比賽。在這種情況下結果通常是確定的,但這也仍屬於PvP模式。

PvV是一種強大的反社交型機制。而合作性的PvP則屬於強大的社交機制。獨立的PvP(即1對1)是較弱的社交機制。我所測試的這5件產品主要都使用了PvV遊戲機制。

遊戲中的社交和同伴間的互動都是該產品能否取得商業成功的主要標誌。我相信這是一種催產素,即比多巴胺更強大的一種獎勵機制。儘管我與許多對該題材具有興趣的神經系統科學家交談過,但我們還是很難找到有關該領域的研究,所以我們只能將有關催產素的陳述當成是一種觀點,而非事實。

爲了推動遊戲社交機制的討論,我創造了遊戲社交規模(GSS),如下:

遊戲社交規模

類別1:依賴於永久PvV的遊戲玩法元素。

類別2:依賴於匿名PvV的遊戲玩法元素。

類別3:允許匿名個體PvP的遊戲玩法元素。

類別4:允許匿名合作型PvP的遊戲玩法元素。

類別5:允許永久合作型PvP的遊戲玩法元素。

當你朝着類別5發展時,所有商業參數都會隨之完善。

類別1的遊戲社交規模評級可以縮寫爲“GSS1”。一款GSS1遊戲將允許一個griefer反覆攻擊同一個受害者。儘管我看到不少手機遊戲使用了GSS1,但我還是很難說這些遊戲取得了商業上的成功。

就像之前提到的,我所列出的5個產品都使用了GSS2機制,實際上,這類型遊戲都是圍繞着GSS類別進行創造。塔防遊戲便意味着你需要防禦某些東西。

像《爐石傳說》這樣的遊戲便屬於GSS3,因爲這裏不會出現任何戰鬥,除非你同意這些戰鬥的出現。如果比賽制造者教糟糕的話戰鬥的質量便會很低,我也將在本文的下個部分中討論到這點。

像《英雄聯盟》和《坦克世界》這種一鳴驚人型遊戲主要屬於GSS4類別,即帶有與朋友一起遊戲的能力並且有可能成爲GSS5類別。如果你不認識你的隊友,它便是GSS4類別。如果你認識對手並有規律地與他們一起遊戲,這便是GSS5。我在Wargaming的大部分工作便是推動我們現在以及未來的產品從GSS4發展到GSS5。《魔獸世界》便是一款直接來到GSS5類別的遊戲。

有些遊戲帶有不同遊戲元素所以也身處不同類別。就像《星戰前夜》便同時擁有GSS5和GSS1元素。GSS1元素能夠讓遊戲呈獻給全新玩家挑戰性,我也認爲正是因爲這些元素導致《星戰前夜》一直未能取得更大的成功。

《競逐之國》是另一款基於多個類別且帶有多種遊戲元素的遊戲。就像之前提到的,它最側重的還是GSS2。這裏存在一個強大的“王國之戰”模式能讓40名以內的玩家加入“王國”中。在遊戲中,各式各樣的對手(總共是10個)也需要在戰鬥中守護自己的領導者。你的團隊表現得越好,每個團隊成員獲得的獎勵也就越好。

因此這種額外的遊戲層面從機制上看來便屬於GSS3遊戲類型(遊戲邦注:因爲你是獨自對抗敵人基地),但在元遊戲中,你的隊友能夠緊跟你的步伐併爲你歡呼鼓舞。這有點像GSS5的互動。《競逐之國》也因此成爲這5款遊戲中最具社交性的遊戲,所以從商業上來看它也最具競爭力。

比賽創造引擎

遊戲中的互動類型不一定要和遊戲的互動質量相匹配。當玩家覺得自己的技能受到有價值的挑戰的測試時,他們便會來到用戶粘性的“有效點”,而在這裏用戶粘性的結果是不確定的。GSS評級之所以很重要是因爲這裏不存在觀衆,並且這一活動對於個體和社區來說並沒有太大的價值。肯定沒人願意觀看一場不公平的比賽。

所以這裏便引出了比賽創造引擎。一個有效的比賽創造引擎能夠始終維持比賽的公平,從而確保所有參與者都能感受到挑戰性並且他們的技能在不同較量中也會有所不同。

《部落戰爭》,《海島騎兵》,《DomiNations》和《星球大戰:指揮官》都允許攻擊者能夠選擇他們的攻擊對象。這並不是一種比賽創造引擎。此外,它們還允許攻擊者能夠看到任何潛在受害者的防衛,甚至能夠了解這些防衛是否被其他攻擊者所破解了。因爲允許一羣griefer能在離線狀態下繼續攻擊防衛者而導致這些遊戲更傾向於GSS1類別。

如果防衛者受到了一定程度的傷害,這些遊戲便會爲防衛者豎起一道“盾牌”。而玩家可以無需越過任何門檻便從防衛者那偷走大量資源,從而導致防衛者將在150分鐘內遭受多次重創。《海島奇兵》甚至未給予防衛者任何盾牌,從而導致防衛者不斷遭受威脅。

所有的這些遊戲都會給予找到並攻擊更弱的對手的玩家獎勵。它們同時也讓玩家可以故意輸掉一些戰鬥去降低等級,從而完善自己的對手選擇。這不僅對於受害者來說很殘酷,同時也會因爲缺少挑戰性而將griefer帶離最理想的快感區。這裏只有極少部分玩家(1%左右)屬於反社交型,因爲他們根本不在乎挑戰。這些玩家願意爲了樂趣而花錢。所以他們便成爲了反社交型遊戲中的鯨魚用戶,並因此引出這樣的錯誤結論,即在所有這些遊戲中鯨魚用戶都是反社交型的,因爲具有社交性的大型消費者拒絕消費,所以他們並未出現在統計中。

《競逐之國》的做法不同。它擁有真正的比賽創造引擎,能夠爲每個玩家分配對手。它並未努力想要確保每次比賽足夠公平。相反地,它是從較簡單的對手開始,並讓他們不斷變得更加難對付,直至玩家輸掉比賽。比賽運行的時間越長,玩家能獲得的獎勵便越厲害。這便是我所謂的非對稱型比賽創造引擎的典例,如果設置合理的話它將會比對稱型比賽創造引擎更強大。《坦克世界》便是一款帶有對稱型比賽創造引擎的遊戲,在這裏比賽創造引擎將想辦法確保比賽中雙方的平等。

非對稱型比賽創造引擎之所以優於對稱型比賽創造引擎是因爲它能對每個玩家的技能水平做出反應,並給予戰勝更高級別玩家的玩家獎勵。正是這樣的設定讓《競逐之國》前40或80個小時的遊戲具有較高的質量。Space Ape想盡辦法讓玩家能夠在這段時間內儘可能多地花錢。在這期間每個玩家的“榮譽”分會隨着他們的獲勝而增加。在40至80個小時內,玩家的榮譽分上限爲5000,這也將導致比賽創造引擎的無效。

如果這裏不存在上限的話,玩家將繼續累計分數直至到達自己的穩定狀態。即有可能是6000,10000,甚至是20000。當玩家的榮譽分所得能夠匹配榮譽分損失時,他們便會到達穩定狀態。而通過設置榮譽分上限,比賽創造引擎便會失去功效並讓獲得5000榮譽分的玩家能夠對抗獲得20000榮譽分的玩家。而如果沒有這一上限,擁有最高分數的玩家便只能彼此對抗。這便具有極高的挑戰性。也許會讓玩家更加受挫。我猜Space Ape之所以會取消比賽創造引擎的功效便是受到這一統計資料的影響,即在《Whales Do Not Swim in the Desert》中,“鯨魚”並不是那些想要公平遊戲的人。

這裏存在的問題在於將偏見映射在較大的消費羣體中,如此他們將只能迎合小部分表現出自己的期待感的用戶,並因此疏遠大部分大型消費者。結果便是導致巨大的收益損失,並且這種情況最早會出現在玩家獲得5000榮譽分後相繼離開遊戲。Space Ape在玩家離開後繼續堅持着“防衛者”的角色,所以在遊戲中永遠不會缺少可攻擊的對象。

我之所以如此詳細分析《競逐之國》並非因爲我認爲這是一個糟糕的設計。而是因爲我認爲雖然它在很多方面都具有創造性,但似乎設計師卻未能真正瞭解消費者行爲而破壞了這一出色的系統。

當然了,如果沒有了這一設計選擇,那麼50多名到達第16級據點的玩家可能會因爲反覆的彼此抗衡而感到無聊。但是任何花錢去購買16級據點的玩家也會因爲缺少挑戰性而無聊。榮譽分上限並不能避免玩家消費與流失。

《星戰前夜》是一款沒有比賽創造引擎的早前遊戲。這一設計選擇的結果便是遊戲戰鬥總是以grief的形式呈現出來(即GSS1類別),同時非戰鬥行動又具有強大的互動性。玩家不能追求“公平的”戰鬥,即使這是最有趣的內容,因爲這會導致較高的經濟損失風險。所以這款遊戲經常被稱爲擁有最出色的虛擬經濟的遊戲,但是這一經濟卻大大壓制了遊戲體驗。

當然了,《星戰前夜》與那些擁有比賽創造引擎的遊戲不同,但這同樣也告訴了我們存在足夠空間去創造更棒的《星戰前夜》。前提是我們必須清楚什麼內容在《星戰前夜》中是可行的,什麼又是不可行的。如果你不能真正理解爲什麼這些遊戲擁有好的表現而只是盲目地複製《星戰前夜》或《魔獸世界》的話,你註定只會賠錢。

龜縮戰術

我在本文中提到的所有這五款遊戲其實都在某種程度上重塑了早前的Facebook遊戲《後院怪獸》。而這種重塑會大大抑制創造性的表現。如果你未發揮創造性,你便不能因爲犯錯而遭受指責。就像你會說:“我是按照你說的做的!”與短暫但卻轟動的Facebook遊戲時代的許多遊戲一樣,《後院怪獸》也將中心建築作爲一扇付費/時間大門。

創建這座中心大廈總是需要消耗大量時間,但遊戲也允許那些沒有耐心的人可以通過花錢而無需等待。而鯨魚用戶便是這些沒有耐心的人。我想通過《Whales Do Not Swim in the Desert》去揭穿這一神話。但是這一神話卻是所有這些遊戲的基礎。

關於這一機制的一個問題便是,隨着玩家的升級,其對手也會變得更難,即開發者想要通過代理去維持帶給玩家的威脅。如果玩家能夠通過不斷花錢而避開代理的威脅,遊戲便沒辦法繼續向這些玩家要錢了。所以任何通過消費減少威脅的方法都只是臨時的。

當玩家在第6層時他們會因爲所有建築也處於第6級而覺得艱難,但當他們將自己的中心大廈建到第7層時,他們便會發現自己是第7層中最弱的玩家。這將會成爲推動玩家繼續前進的強大阻因。

因此玩家總是會“龜縮”在一個層面上並停止前進。特別是當他們知道“全新”內容只是對於之前內容的改頭換面時。如此前進的意義又是什麼?它並不能緩解任何grief。一旦玩家意識到這點,他們便會停止前進與花錢。

龜縮是源自早前Facebook遊戲使用的懲罰免費遊戲“有趣的痛苦”方法的一種系統設計缺陷。這種早前的時間/付費大門是非常糟糕的執行方法。不幸的是在重塑過程中,許多設計師未經過更多思考便將許多這樣的設計元素帶到了現代遊戲中。如果沒有了中心建築時間/付費大門,遊戲便沒有了鼓勵玩家“龜縮”的邏輯點。時間大門的理念其實是基於有關大型消費玩家行爲模式的錯誤數據。

你會注意到像《魔獸世界》,《星戰前夜》,《英雄聯盟》和《坦克世界》等引領着整個產業的遊戲都未使用時間大門。當你越深入遊戲,遊戲進程可能會逐漸放緩,但這裏始終存在激勵玩家前進的內容。雖然我們會在《坦克世界》中看到一些龜縮內容,但這是因爲這款遊戲在第7層以前是基於免費遊戲經濟進行設計,但之後玩家便需要花費一些維修成本。在第9層之前,不想花錢的玩家可能會出現“龜縮”,否則他們便需要使用付費坦克去創造修補非付費坦克的資金。而之後的《坦克世界閃電戰》和《戰艦世界》都更好地完善了這一模式。因爲Wargaming創始人始終都想爲非付費玩家維持一種高質量的遊戲體驗,所以在他們的遊戲中這種龜縮並非一種消極特徵,而比賽創造引擎能夠避免玩家濫用這些內容。

結論

我並未在本文中真正提到《星球大戰》這款遊戲,因爲對於我來說它與《部落戰爭》非常相似,只是擁有更高質量的圖像和音效。它也並未使用卡通字體去吸引年輕用戶,這點是我非常欣賞的。當然了,我們也可以認爲是《星球大戰》的授權(遊戲邦注:現在由迪士尼所有)並不需要卡通字體的幫助。我是《星球大戰》的忠實粉絲,所以我很喜歡這款遊戲,即使它的遊戲玩法並不具有太多創造性。

我認爲Supercell是因爲真正理解性別的重要性才獲得了現在在產業中的地位。在他們的玩家中,女性的比例是52%,並且在一些小家庭中女性往往把控着“消費大權”。也就是說,我認爲《卡通農場》更多地面向不那麼好鬥的用戶(遊戲中沒有直接的戰鬥),《海島奇兵》則更多地面向那些好勝心較強的用戶(基於軍事主題且沒有防護功能)。而基於卡通風格和簡單遊戲玩法的《部落戰爭》則主要面向更年輕的用戶。

我非常相信“浮生瞬息”的品牌理念,即你應該儘早讓用戶對你的產品感興趣。就像我雖然懷疑免費業務模式對於孩子們的可行性,但是我還是很高興看到平臺保護措施(和態度)的完善。

在這五款遊戲中有兩款遊戲創造出了非常不公平的情況。而在其它三款遊戲中我感覺自己至少影響到了其他玩家。在《海島奇兵》中,一旦玩家獲得擲彈兵單位(如果不花錢的話是很難做到的),他們便可以無需防護基地的幫助去攻擊其他玩家,因爲這時候他們的範圍遠大於塔防的範圍。

在《DomiNations》中,缺少有效的比賽創造引擎讓工業時代玩家(帶有飛行器)能夠攻擊前工業時代玩家(他們不能創建任何會影響飛行器的防護物)。這對於防衛者來說就等同於自動投降,因爲他們只能無奈地看着自己的基地被摧毀而什麼都做不了。

我在《部落戰爭》中便從未有過這種感受,因爲這裏有箭塔,即玩家在遊戲一開始便能夠得到的工具,並且它能夠影響飛行單位。

我發現在免費手機遊戲領域中存在着巨大的發展和賺錢機遇。在我看來手機便是未來(與現在)的大勢平臺。但是缺少創造性和遊戲設計卻會阻礙它的發展。現在的我很難將免費手機遊戲領域中的產品稱爲“遊戲”了。

它們不再是關於兩名或以上的參與者之間的技能與運氣間的較量。這並不是一個很難觸及的難度標準,在我們選擇免費業務模式以前我們並不會遇到什麼困難。我希望我們產業中的決策制定者能夠再次專注於遊戲創造本身,並努力爲消費者創造他們應得的價值。

本文爲遊戲邦/gamerboom.com編譯,拒絕任何不保留版權的轉發,如需轉載請聯繫:遊戲邦

F2P Tower Defense Games: A Detailed Analysis

by Ramin Shokrizade

I am generally reluctant to put into the public space any detailed analysis of existing products, for fear that someone’s interests might be harmed. Despite this concern I have published some such reports in the past (Zynga Analysis, Diablo 3 real money auction house analysis, and a Guild Wars 2 economy analysis) when I felt the public need was great enough. There has been a lot of demand from readership for just such a report that would be helpful in understanding the current F2P environment and how products perform inside that environment.

This analysis only focuses on F2P mobile tower defense games, in order to make the analysis simpler. All of the issues I discuss here can be applied to other genres and products, even if the connection may not be immediately obvious.

Here I detail the product names along with (developer name, level reached in game, dollars spent in game):

Clash of Clans (Supercell, L66, $0)
Boom Beach (Supercell, L42, $0)
DomiNations (Nexon, L109, $10)
Star Wars Commander (Lucas, Tier 6, $10)
Rival Kingdoms (Space Ape, Tier 13, $120 but only used about $40 of that)

I have been testing each game for about a year or since essentially the first day they were released (in the case of newer products). I would describe myself as both an expert user, and also a “whale” since I have no problem spending over $1000 per year on a game I enjoy.

The contents of this paper are presented with the assumption that the reader has read the previous two papers in the series, Whales Do Not Swim in the Desert and Secrets of F2P: Threat Generation. Both were published immediately prior to this paper.

Disclosure: Nexon is the only company of the four listed above that I have worked for, but that was back in 2001 and I do not believe I have a professional relationship with any of the teams involved. A sixth title was tested and not included because of a potential conflict of interest. Any other product I mention in this report is probably a product I had some involvement with at some point, since I get around.

What is a Game?

To properly understand how these products work (or don’t work), it is important to go all the way back to an understanding of what a game is in order to determine if these products are meeting the needs of consumers. This is the definition I use:

Game: A contest of skill or chance between two or more participants.

This is important to note because a major condition of whether a participant is enjoying a game or not is whether they are feeling challenged, and whether there is uncertainty as to the outcome of the game. AI can take the role of one or more participants in modern times. While “fairness” is generally an important component of how enjoyable a game is for all participants, I don’t put it into the most basic definition. Viewed as a whole, 99+% of F2P products in the mobile space are not games. The ability to assure a win by spending removes both the skill and chance conditions. This is not a fault of the F2P business model, but is caused by a failure to understand the role of reward systems in games and thus a casual willingness to compromise these reward systems.

While these products may not be true games, they can attempt to “pass” as games by including various game elements. In products without human opponents, this is often done by creating the illusion of randomness in the challenges even though these challenges are typically carefully engineered and not random. The focus of this paper is on multiplayer competitive games, so a careful analysis of competitive game systems is going to be attempted.

PvV, PvP, and the Gaming Social Scale (GSS)

While I have been using the term “PvV” in my writings since at least 2002, the term is not in common use so I must start by defining this term:

PvV (Player vs. Victim): Non-consensual contests between two opponents. Since the conflict is elective on the part of the initiator, the initiator will generally attempt to find a favorable contest that they will almost surely win. The initiator is generally referred to as a “griefer”. The target of the griefer generally has no way to avoid the unfair contest (without spending real money) and is not allowed to decline the contest, thus making the contest non-consensual.

PvP (Player vs. Player): Consensual contests between two opponents where the outcome is typically uncertain. Exceptions include training exercises between two friendly opponents with unequal skill/power for the purpose of training the weaker opponent. In this latter case the outcome is generally certain but it is still considered PvP.

PvV is a strong anti-social mechanic. Cooperative PvP (where two teams square off against each other) is a strong social mechanic. Individual (1 on 1) PvP is a weak social mechanic.
All five products I tested utilized PvV as their primary gameplay mechanic.

The quality of social and peer interactions in a gaming product is the primary indicator of commercial success of the product. I am of the belief that a big part of this is the hormone oxytocin, which I believe is an even more powerful reward chemical than dopamine. While I am talking with various neuroscientists interested in this subject, the research in this area still has not been done so it is reasonable to treat this statement about oxytocin as opinion, not fact.

To facilitate discussion of gaming social mechanics, I have created the Gaming Social Scale (GSS), which follows:

Gaming Social Scale

Class 1: Gameplay elements that rely on persistent PvV engagements.
Class 2: Gameplay elements that rely on anonymous PvV engagements.
Class 3: Gameplay elements that permit anonymous individual PvP engagements.
Class 4: Gameplay elements that permit anonymous cooperative PvP engagements.
Class 5: Gameplay elements that permit persistent cooperative PvP engagements.

All commercial metrics improve as you move towards Class 5.

Gaming social scale ratings of “class 1” can be abbreviated as “GSS1”. A GSS1 game would permit a griefer to repeatedly attack the same victim. While I have seen some mobile games use GSS1, I can’t describe any of them as commercially successful.

As mentioned previously, all 5 TD products used GSS2 mechanics, and in truth the genre is built around this GSS class. Tower defense implies that you have to defend against something.

A game like Hearthstone would be in GSS3 because no combats occur unless you consent to them. The combats may still be of low quality if the matchmaker is poor, but that will be discussed in the next section of this paper.

Blockbuster games like League of Legends and World of Tanks are mostly in the GSS4 category, with some ability to play with friends and make it GSS5. If you don’t know your teammates, it is GSS4. If you do know them, and play with them regularly, it is GSS5. Much of my work at Wargaming was to push our current and future products over the line from GSS4 to GSS5. World of Warcraft would be a game that is squarely in the GSS5 category.

Some games have a mix of play that puts them in more than one category. EVE Online has both GSS5 and GSS1 elements. The GSS1 elements are what make the game so challenging for new players, and I would credit those elements as being the primary reason that EVE has not been an even bigger success.

Rival Kingdoms is another game with multiple gameplay elements in more than one category. The primary play is GSS2 as mentioned prior. There is also a fairly robust “kingdom battles” mode available to groups of players that join “kingdoms” of up to 40 players. An assortment of your opponents (10 of their total) must be battled through to defeat their leader. The better your team does as a whole, the greater the rewards to each team member.

Thus this additional gameplay layer is mechanically a GSS3 gameplay type (since you battle enemy bases alone) but in the metagame your teammates can follow your progress and cheer you on. This smacks of GSS5 interaction. This makes RK by far the most social of the 5 games in this group, and thus the most competitive commercially. Kudos to Space Ape!

Matchmaking

The type of interactions in a game are not necessarily the same as the quality of interactions in a game. Players are in the “sweet spot” of engagement when they feel their skills are tested by a worthy challenge, and that the results of the engagement are uncertain. GSS ratings are very important because if there is no audience for an event, that event has much less value to the individual and the community. But, no one wants to watch an unfair match, that is just sad.

Here is where a matchmaking engine comes in. An effective matchmaking engine does a good job of maintaining fairness so that all participants feel like they are being challenged and that their skills make a difference in the bout.

Clash of Clans, Boom Beach, DomiNations, and Star Wars: Commander all allow the attacker to choose who they will attack. This is not a matchmaker. Further, they allow the attacker to view the defenses of any potential victim, even seeing if some of the defenses (“traps”) have been neutralized by other attackers. This feature pushes these games into GSS1 territory by allowing a parade of griefers (“Airplane” style) to line up and beat on a defender while they are offline and not even playing.

These games do put up a “shield” on the defender if the defender takes a certain amount of damage. A substantial amount of resources can be stolen from the defender without tripping this threshold, allowing the defender to be hit hard several times in 15 minutes. Boom Beach does not even give a shield to a defender just hit, maintaining constant threat.

All of these games reward players for finding and attacking weaker opponents. They also allow you to intentionally lose battles with just a few units to lower your ranking, and thus improving your selection of victims. This is not only cruel to the victims, but it also pulls the griefers out of the ideal pleasure zone for them by removing challenge. There is a very small percent (~1%) of players that are anti-social enough that they don’t care about challenge and actually prefer to grief. These players will pay for this pleasure. This can make them show up as “whales” in anti-social games, and lead to the false conclusion that all whales are anti-social in these sorts of games because social big spenders decline to spend and thus don’t show up in the statistics.

Rival Kingdoms does things differently. It has an actual matchmaker that assigns opponents to each player. It does not try to make each match fair. Instead it starts a “run” with easy opponents and makes them progressively harder until the player loses and ends the run. The longer a run lasts, the greater the rewards. This is an example of what I call an asymmetrical matchmaker which, if done properly, is even more powerful than a symmetrical matchmaker. World of Tanks is a good example of a game with a symmetrical matchmaker, where the matchmaker tries very hard to make both sides equal in a battle.

The reason asymmetrical matchmakers outperform symmetrical matchmakers is that the matchmaker essentially can react to the skill level of each player, and reward them for defeating higher ranked players. This makes the first 40 or 80 hours of play in RK really high quality. Space Ape works hard to get players to spend heavily during this period. During this time each player’s “honor” score goes up as they get wins. Within that 40 to 80 hour period the player hits an honor cap of 5000 and this disables the matchmaker.

If there was no cap, players would continue to float in the ratings until they hit their steady state. That might be at 6000, 10000, or even 20000. The steady state is attained when honor gains match honor losses. By putting an honor cap in, this disables the matchmaker and forces 5000 honor players to fight 20,000 honor players. Without this honor cap, the highest rated (and presumably the highest spending) players would be forced to fight each other. Which would be really challenging. Perhaps even frustrating. My best guess as to why Space Ape would voluntarily disable their own very well designed matchmaker is that they were led by the tainted statistics I mention here and in Whales Do Not Swim in the Desert into thinking that “whales” are not the sort of people that want fair play.

The problem here is that by projecting their stereotype bias onto the big spending population, they cater to the small fraction that exhibit the behavior they are anticipating, and alienate the vast majority of big spenders. The result is a huge loss in revenue, which will show up first as a large amount of churn right after players hit 5000 honor. Space Ape continues to run accounts as “defenders” long after they quit, so there is never a shortage of bases to attack.

I go into this level of detail on Rival Kingdoms not because I think it is a bad design. I focus on it because I think it is innovative for many of the right reasons, but it would seem that someone who did not understand consumer behavior intentionally broke a well designed system.

Sure, without this design choice the 50 or so players with L16 strongholds would probably get really bored fighting each other over and over. But anyone that has spent that much money to buy a L16 stronghold is going to get bored anyways with the lack of challenge. The honor cap is not going to save these players from spending and churning.

EVE Online is an older game that has no matchmaker. The result of this design choice is that combat usually takes the form of griefing (GSS1) even while the non-combat action is highly cooperative. Players are discouraged from seeking “fair” combats, even if they would be the most entertaining, because they would also result in a high risk of economic loss. So this game that is often cited as having the best virtual economy ever designed, has a game design that causes the economy to suppress the gameplay experience.

Sure EVE Online would not be the same game with a matchmaker, but this also indicates that there is room to make a “better EVE”. It can only be done with a knowledge of what worked and what did not work in EVE. Trying to copy highly social games like EVE Online or World of Warcraft without understanding why those games perform well year after year is a sure fire way to lose money.

Turtling

All of the five games I reviewed for this paper are in many ways reskins of the older Facebook game Backyard Monsters. Reskinning has a suppressive effect on innovation. If you don’t innovate, you can’t be blamed for making a mistake. “I copied it just as you told me!” Backyard Monsters, like many games during the brief but sensational Facebook games era, used a central building as a pay/time gate.

Raising this central building was generally extremely time consuming but allowed those “without patience” to spend to bypass the wait. Supposedly whales were these impatient people. Whales Do Not Swim in the Desert is my attempt to debunk this myth. But the myth is what all these games are based on.

One of the problems with this mechanic is that opponents typically get harder as you “tier up”, in an effort on the part of developers to maintain threat by proxy. If a player could avoid threat by proxy permanently by spending, there would be no way to keep charging this player. So any reduction in threat through spending is temporary, and ultimately illusory.

So while a player may have been feeling tough at Tier 6 when all of their buildings were also L6, the moment they raise their central building to L7 (Tier 7) they will find themselves the weakest player at Tier 7. This becomes a strong disincentive to advance through the game content.

Thus players will tend to “turtle” at a tier and stop advancing. Especially since they know the “new” content will just be a reskinned version of the older content. What is the point in advancing? It will not bring relief from griefing. Once a player realizes this they will stop advancing, and stop spending.

Turtling is a symptom of a systemic design flaw carried over from the punishing F2P “fun pain” methods using in earlier Facebook games. These sorts of primitive time/pay gates are very poor performers. It is unfortunate that in the process of reskinning, many design elements like these were carried over to modern games without much thought. In the absence of a central building time/pay gate, there is no logical point where a player will be encouraged to turtle. The whole idea of a time gate is based on false data about the behavior patterns of big spending players.

You will note that industry leading games such as World of Warcraft, EVE Online, League of Legends, and World of Tanks do not use time gates. Progress may slow as you get further into the game, but there is always incentive to advance. Some turtling is seen in World of Tanks, but this is because the game is designed to be economically F2P up to about Tier 7, and then to start to cost some maintenance for repairs beyond that. Players that do not want to spend will tend to turtle some time prior to Tier 9 or will be required to play a premium tank to generate funds for repairs of non-premium tanks. This model was improved in both World of Tanks Blitz and World of Warships, but I am not at liberty to say how. It has always been the intent of Wargaming founders to maintain a top quality play experience even for non-payers, so this sort of turtling was not seen as a negative characteristic, and the matchmaker protected these players from abuse.

Final Thoughts

I don’t really mention the Star Wars game in this article because to me the game is very similar to Clash of Clans, but with much higher graphics and sound quality. It also does not use Comic Sans to pull in very young users, which I appreciate. Of course it could be argued that the Star Wars franchise (now owned by Disney) does not need Comic Sans for this purpose. I am a big Star Wars fan, so I kind of enjoy the game because it feels like Star Wars even if the gameplay is not innovative.

It is my opinion that Supercell has really earned their position in the industry by understanding the importance of gender neutrality. Women make up 52% of gamers and generally have the “power of the purse” in nuclear families. That said, I think Hay Day is aimed more at a less aggressive audience (with no direct combat), and Boom Beach is aimed at a more aggressive audience (with a military theme and no shielding feature). Clash of Clans, with it’s intense Comic Sans art style (I have pink and gold walls in my base) and simplistic gameplay, is aimed at a younger demographic.

I am a firm believer in “cradle to grave” branding, where you get your audience interested in your products as early as possible. I have my doubts as to the suitability of the F2P business model for children, but I am glad that platform protections (and attitudes) have improved a lot since I wrote Children’s Monetization in 2013.

Two of the five games here produced situations that were grossly unfair. In the other three games I always felt like I could at least affect another player. In Boom Beach, once a player gets the grenadier unit (difficult to reach without spending), they can attack other player’s bases without the defending base getting off a single shot due to their range being greater than tower range.

In DomiNations, the lack of effective matchmaking allows Industrial Era players (with aircraft) to attack pre-Industrial Era players that are not allowed to build any sort of defenses that affect aircraft. This is an auto-loss for the defender, who can only watch helplessly as their base is razed.

I never had this feeling in Clash of Clans since the arrow towers, which you get in the very beginning of the game, can at least affect flying units.

I see a tremendous amount of opportunity for growth and profit in the mobile F2P space. From what I can tell, mobile is the platform of the future (and present). What is holding it back is a general lack of innovation and game design. I have a difficult time even describing the products currently in the mobile F2P space as “games”.

They are not contests of skill or chance between two or more participants. This is not a complicated or difficult standard to match, we had no difficulties with it before we went to a F2P business model. I would encourage decision makers in our industry to refocus on the making of games, with the intent of bringing value to the consumers they serve.(source:gamasutra)