(This is a repost of an article I made for the Unity blog, which can be found here)
Global Game Jam 2017 recently ended. It was a mad weekend where 36,000 game makers gathered in more than 700 venues around the world, and made 7000 games based on a common theme: “Waves”.
Instead of organising in Rome, this year I flew to Prague and made a game with a graphic artist named Jana Kilianová. Our game is called Splash Clash, and it’s a 2-player brawler on a tiny island, where two pixel characters jump to produce waves and bump each other out. This final concept is just one of the many we got during brainstorming: for instance, we toyed for a while with the idea of having players produce waves by making a sound in the microphone, but after some experiments we settled for this one – the one that seemed achievable in 48 hours.
As those who know me will already know, I’m not a proponent of the F2P model. Though when Clash Royale (Supercell‘s latest effort) was released worldwide last week, I decided to give it a spin. The surprising result: I really like the game! So I decided to make a small analysis of what I think makes Clash Royale a great game, and positions it above similar titles.
How does it work?
(If you already know how the game works, skip this section)
In short, Clash Royale is a simplified real-time strategy game, with its game economy based on top of a deck-building game layer. The cards represent the units that the players can use in battle, and are not consumable. The only purpose of hoarding more cards of the same kind is to level up a certain unit.
In-game, players have to defeat their opponent by destroying his King’s Tower (sitting in the middle), or the most towers at the end of the match. They do so by placing units (represented by 4 cards taken at random from the player’s deck) on their side of the playing field. Once placed, units start moving and attack any enemy they meet. It looks very similar to Ronimo’s Swords & Soldiers, only top-down. Units cost mana (the famous Elixir), which replenishes all the time.
The game is free, and as is typical with the F2P model nowadays, there’s no area of the game that players can’t reach in time without paying a single cent. Players are asked to pay if they want to purchase Gems (the hard currency) or Coins (the soft one). Coins allow the purchase of new cards and leveling up of units, while Gems allow the speed up of waiting times, which usually happen when you want to open a treasure chest. Chests are won after each battle, and they are full of coins, gems, and cards in various amounts.
A perceived fairness
As many RTS, units’ strength and weaknesses are dictated by a sort of rock-paper-scissor correlation, meaning that no unit is invincible but always has one or more units that if used correctly, will counter it with ease and move on to attack. For instance, the nearly-indestructible Giant is easily taken down by 3-4 hits from a Mini P.E.K.K.A., but said unit is very vulnerable against any flying unit, and so on. Archers are good against flying units but being a group (of 2), they suffer against units that do splash damage, such as the Bomber.
This relationship makes it so that even if units are of different level, you don’t feel like the opponent won just because he had a level 3 Giant while yours was level 2. It’s harder, but it can be done. Play the right card, and you’re in for an advantage… a second too late, and you’re in for trouble.
The game’s matchmaking is divided into tiers, represented by different arenas (which also unlock different cards). So if you have been playing a couple of matches in a certain arena, you already know many of the cards you’re going against, and your opponent level is roughly the same as yours, which helps the sense of this perceived fairness.
The fairness is a much needed component of the game trying to become some sort of e-sport, something reinforced by the incorporation of the TV Royale, a dedicated screen to watch recordings of other people’s matches. Unfortunately, even if matches are entertaining to watch, I feel they I was never compelled to watch more because they show very high-level tier players, thus making the tips I could learn meaningless for my current level. I think Supercell should adjust the matches’ level based on the current player level, or just a little above (to tease him into playing more? uhm…).
Additionally, even though the game incorporates chance (in the way cards are dealt to the player, they’re random), the fact that you always have 4 cards to choose from mitigates this effect, as it is quite possible that one of them is the right one to counter your opponent’s move.
A waiting game
And if you don’t have the right counter-card, there’s always a fifth slot showing the incoming card. If you’re not low on Elixir you can choose to play another offensive card and quickly bring into play the incoming card, and use it to defend. This is why managing Elixir is key, and it’s never too wise to play cards as soon as you have the needed Elixir. Most of the time, this will leave you defenceless against an attack on the other side, so if your card is one that develops slowly (as is any structure that produces units such as the Tombstone (with Skeletons) or the Barbarian Hut, you might have already lost a Tower to a strong unit such as the hateful Balloon (which rapidly deals HUGE damage to Towers if left unattended).
It is very common to see moments of wait when no-one plays a card for around 15 seconds, waiting to see which one will be the opponent’s “opening move”. In this respect, the way units interact with each other and the battlefield is so sophisticated that it allows the possibility of playing bait cards, by using them on the side of the field you’re not interested in. While your opponent plays a costly card to counter your move, you can play a second-class card on the other side to direct a small attack on his lonely Tower, wearing down some of its HP.
For instance, playing a Skeleton Army in the middle of the arena splits it in two, so that the other player has to choose one side to defend. If you have a couple of cheap Archers, you can play them on the side he is not covering to complement the Skeletons that make it past the Tower defences, and deal a small blow.
You’ll be hooked
Part of the reason I love (and hate) Clash Royale, is its amazing feedback and its fast game loop.
First, the game is obviously built on top of juicy feedback all around: whatever action you take is satisfactory and full of juiciness, effects, particles, and amazing sound effects (especially the character voices, they’re really fun). This is all good, and a rule in modern game design, especially mobile/F2P.
Second, the game’s 3-minute match formula is a cool one, because of a couple of reasons. When matches are so short, victories are sweet but losses are not that hard to take. Every time you lose, you feel like you need a revenge, and since matches are so short, you feel like you always time for one more.
Also, apart from their name and clan, you don’t really know much about your opponents. And since you cannot chat but only use a system of emoticons, your interactions with the other players are standardized, and lose uniqueness. As such, any opponent could be that guy that has just beaten you to the last second, and thus, I was personally feeling the need to play “just one more match” to set things straight, even if I was actually playing against another person.
The game also makes good use of all of its gifts as hooks to lure the player back into play. They are spaced very near to each other, so while you’re waiting for your 3-hours Silver Chest to open, it’s almost time for the Free Chest (spaced every 4 hours in time), and you’re just 6 hours away from the Crown Chest (which is available once every 24 hours. Plus, you only need 20 trophies (won in each battle) to get to a new map… and the list goes on. Basically, every 2 hours you’ll have an offline notification from the game, and every moment is good for just playing a couple of matches waiting for that Chest which is just about to open.
And yes, there’s no way to turn off the offline notifications.
If you detach yourself from the game just a bit, you’ll feel the tiredness of such a sensory overload and relentless rhythm. It happened to me once that after playing “just a few matches” (I probably played 15), I was 12 minutes away from a Free Chest. In the end, I sunk more than an hour into the game without even realizing.
It is at that point that I decided to uninstall the app from my phone. I still think the game is a very good game and a good example of how to do RTS on a touch screen properly, but I feel the game is begging for my time using too many nasty tricks. Apart from 2 days of intense play, I don’t want to invest an enormous amount of time just too see a few more higher level units. I’m too old for this : )