Game Design analysis

Design Analysis- POW!

Recently, I was digging through some of my old stuff and found a notebook of designs I created years ago when I had just started designing games. I thought it’d be fun to look at them now and critique them. Occasionally, I’ll post one of my very old designs and will explore what went well.. and what didn’t.

The Old Design:

Disclaimer: this used to be on paper with faded pencil. I’ve made a nicer, actually legible version to post here.

DB_POW - Grid.png

Intention:

Looking at this design, I think my intention was to capitalize on the excitement players feel in match 3s when they make a bunch of matches at once. A flow would look like this:

DB_POW - Flow.png

Done Well:

This does give the player that rush of excitement. The tension of the timer ticking down encourages the player to create as many matches as they can as fast as they can, and to even plan before hitting the POW! button as to max out their point multiplier. They feel that they have some control, and the game makes them feel smart as they almost clear the board with their prepared matches. It almost feels like completing a jigsaw puzzle within a time limit.

Not So Well:

Back then I failed to understand the importance of combos and chains, only focusing on one aspect of match-threes. Chains were entirely missing from this design, referring to the chance that randomly generated shapes that would 'fall' onto the board and create more matches. In the case of combos, the number that could be created at one time were limited. In Candy Crush, the player can chain together insane amounts of matches to make for quite a tasty experience.

Power ups are also harder to implement, especially those normally associated with match-threes such as stopping time or removing a chunk of tiles due to the importance of the POW! button.

For example: Stop time whenever they feel like it would allow the player more time to make matches but the game should focus on making matches and POW!ing quickly. We don’t want to slow down the cycle of rewards. We want to keep the pressure on the player so giving them this level of control is a bit counter to what we want. Maybe something with less control like the fever timer in Tsum Tsum might work. In Tsum Tsum a fever activates once a point threshold has been reached. It stops the timer for a few seconds and all matches made during that time are worth additional points.

Assumptions And Missing Info:

It looks like (referring to the old design mock up, due to the side note next to the bar) that the player will get a huge bonus if they POW! A second time. This is implying that it will be difficult to get it a second time. If they do, it will be exciting, but I think there is too much focus on a calmer play of swapping things around rather than quick repeated rewards.

Movement isn’t explicitly listed out either. Do the tiles swap like Candy Crush? Or do they move around freely like Puzzles and Dragons? This question needs to be answered if the game is going to be enjoyable. They each serve a different kind of challenge.

How to fix it:

So how do we fix this without dramatically changing the layout of the game? We need to make sure a few things are covered so the game will be enjoyable for more than ten seconds.

·       Chains

·       Continual play

·       Power Ups

·       Movement

Chains and Continual Play:

We need to encourage the player to make multiple POW!s within a short amount of time to create chains. Since we don’t have the ability to have chains in the traditional match-3 style, we’ll have to go with a Tsum Tsum approach. Additional tiles fall and if they happen to line up well the player can activate the POW! a second time quickly to continue the chain. Of course, a short chain timer will be necessary, thus encouraging the player to POW! Frequently without creating the perfect board layout.

For those unfamiliar with Tsum-Tsum: Tsum-Tsum is like a match-3 where players are matching groups of similar characters together quickly. Although if they are in groups of more than three they do not pop and give the player points until the player selects them. Thus, traditional match-3 chains are not present in Tsum-Tsum either.

Power Ups:

The traditional power ups for match-3s could work. But I think locking them into the game would be more useful. For example: If the player matches twelve tiles together the tiles could combine into a larger tile which takes up four spaces but is worth considerably more points when matched with other tiles. This will keep the focus on the gameplay and the player will only have to stop or slow down at all to hit the POW! button and get rewarded.

I know some people may argue that a traditional bomb style power up might be a good choice here instead of the growing tile. I’d argue against this because assuming the bomb explodes when the POW! is activated, it could ruin some of their planned chains or combos.

Movement:

It should move like Puzzle and Dragons. Having the free roaming movement of P&D will allow the player to create more matches (much like P&D does) at once, resulting in more rewards.

If I Designed This Now (Top Three Tweaks):

·       I’d probably do away with the POW! Button entirely and instead allow a double tap anywhere on the screen to let the player activate the POW! action.

·       Move the timer bar to the top of the screen. Allowing the play field to be near the bottom and closer to a player’s hand. When this game was designed phones were MUCH smaller.

·       I'd dedicate a spot on the screen to display combos so players could see how well they are doing without covering up the gameplay.

A potentially unique way to accent the combos might be to have the tiles become swollen. Increasing in size within their space along with the rising combos.

DB_POW - Swollen.png

Starting with these tweaks, this game might shape up to something fun. What tweaks would you make to improve the design?

Until Next time,

Scott

Finding the Fun: Archero Part 3 - Monetization

Welcome to part three of my look into Archero! This time we’ll focus on the monetization aspect of the game and how it doesn’t intrude on the fun. If this is your first foray into this series, I recommend starting at part one which focuses on the gameplay, which you can check out HERE. Let’s dive in!

Where money comes from

In Archero there is soft currency called gold and hard (premium) currency referred to as gems.

 
IMG_Currencies.JPG
 

Gems are received via:

  • Purchasing them with real life currency directly

  • Through purchasing bundles

  • Through stage rewards (completing five or ten new stages)

  • The wheel of fortune minigame, which sometimes gives them a chance to receive gems for watching an ad

  • Increasing the player’s adventure level (this seems only good for receiving gems thus I didn’t include it in progression)

Gold is received via:

  • Purchasing them using gems

  • Clearing rooms of enemies

  • The wheel of fortune minigame at the beginning of a run and after bosses

  • Through purchasing bundles

Gold is primarily used for standard progression and upgrades. Gems are used to speed up progression. As we’ve already covered everything gold can buy in the previous post, we’ll be focusing on gems this time around.

Energy

Players have standard max of twenty energy. Attempting a run costs five energy. It takes twelve minutes to recharge one energy. When a player completes five new stages, they are given an additional five energy. They can also buy twenty energy for one hundred gems ($1.25) or watch an ad to recharge five energy up to four times a day.

 
IMG_EnergyRecharge.JPG
 

You can imagine how this plays out in the beginning of the game. Players have over twenty energy easily and can play nonstop for quite a while. By the time the player will have to wait for energy to recharge, they’re well into the game and have begun investing themselves in it. They’re familiar with all the aspects of the game and are enjoying themselves so they don’t want to stop. This motivates them to watch the ads, after which if they’re still enjoying themselves it becomes easy to justify spending one hundred gems on another twenty energy.

Death

The first time a player dies in a run they are offered a chance to revive. This costs 30 gems and the player only has five seconds to decide.

 
IMG_Death.JPG
 

This mechanic adds to the fun because it allows the players one more shot if they have an excellent set of abilities. Additionally, because they only have five seconds to decide, it keeps the game moving and keeps them in a heightened state. They don’t fall out of the flow of the game. In fact, wanting to stay in the game could lead to them impulsively spending money when they normally would not.

This mechanic works in this instance because of the amount of time and work it takes for the player to get through the chapter in one run. Players are more likely to want to throw money at this if they’re near the completion of a run.

Mysterious Vendor

The mysterious vendor appears from time to time after the completion of a stage. His inventory is always different scrolls. The player can purchase these scrolls for gems.

 
 

Anyone else getting a RE4 vibe? “What’re ya buyin?”

This falls under the convenience category of monetization. He’s targeted at late game players because he sells scrolls in bulk for a lot of gems. Late game players need a ton of scrolls for improving high level equipment. He’s there so if the player is tired of grinding for a scroll, which he happens to have in stock, they can speed up the progression and the grind by paying him. He’s particularly well thought out because players don’t “need” to purchase his wares but getting what the player wants that quickly is awfully tempting. And if they don’t buy it at that moment, they have no idea when he’ll return and what his stock will be.

Gacha Boxes

There are two kinds of gacha boxes: a golden chest (60 gems or about $0.75) and an obsidian chest (300 gems or about $3.75). Golden chests can drop any piece of equipment at common or great rarity. The Obsidian chest can drop any piece of equipment at great, rare, or epic rarity.

 
Gif_GachaBox.gif
 

These are the best ways to get equipment. Because the player is given gems for defeating every five new stages and the chance at receiving gems for watching adds during normal playthroughs, it fits nicely into the loop of the game. Fight > get some gems (rewards)> save up enough and buy a box (improve)> repeat. A player only must purchase boxes with real world money when they want to speed up their progression. They monetize impatience.

Something I don’t want to discount is the low number of items within the boxes and that the boxes go up to maybe halfway to max rarity. Because the fusing system requires multiples of higher-level items at equal rarity, players will have to get even more items from the boxes, resulting in more boxes needed to be purchased to progress. If there were a huge number of items, I think the fusing system wouldn’t work and it’d be too tedious. But there are only four weapons, four armors, four rings, and four spirits, that’s it. Sixteen items are a tiny amount for a gacha game and yet it works so well because it fits with the progression systems requiring multiples.

Bundles

Every chapter has an accompanying bundle. They usually come with some gems and a mix of something useful to the player in that part of the game. For example, the beginner pack comes with three hundred gems, ten thousand gold, and five free revives. The players can’t buy higher chapter packs until they purchase the previous chapter ones.

 
IMG_Bundle.JPG
 

The Chapter 2’s Pack is the available bundle for me since I bought the first one.

That last part is what’s most important because it helps condition the player to spending money on the game in progressively larger values. By holding the more expensive bundles in hiding from the player until they purchase the previous ones, they don’t scare off potential sales with the expensive prices. Then when they do appear, they feel more special. The hardest thing for a free to play game is to get that first purchase. If they can convince the player to purchase the first bundle at $1.99, it makes it so much easier to convince them to buy the second at $6.99 and the rest at $10 each. And if the player buys them with each chapter it becomes a habit, at which point they can kiss their wallet goodbye.

Conclusion

By looking at all the ways Archero monetizes, it’s evident it really excels by tempting the player to spend their real money while never demanding it. It’s like they’re a devil on the player’s shoulder, “Don’t you just want to play a little bit longer?”, “Don’t you want to improve just a little bit faster?”, or even “Just watch this ad and you’ll get something cool!” They are constantly tempting the player, but never forcing them to spend money or watch an ad. It’s always the player’s choice. Archero is able to focus on gameplay because of this, ultimately resulting in increased user engagement, retention, and a happier community. 

If you’ve come along with me on this journey through the pieces that make up Archero, I thank you. It has taken me a bit of time to put this together and even longer to research it. I hope I got you thinking about how the different pieces of this game are put together and why they make this full package an enjoyable experience.

Until next time,

Scott

Finding the Fun: Archero Part 2 – Progression

Welcome to part two of my look into Archero. This time we’ll focus on the long-term progression and how that contributes to the fun. If this is your first foray into this series, I recommend starting at part one, which you can check out HERE. Let’s dive in!

Chapters

Chapters are sets of stages. The player must complete every stage in one run in order to complete the chapter and progress to the next one. Each chapter introduces new more difficult enemies with slight variations to the movement and attack patterns, and additional abilities which can be selected.

This infusion of content helps to keep the game feeling fresh. The developers drip feed the players new content to reinforce new challenges in each chapter. Once the player has mastered those challenges, items, and abilities, they move on to the next chapter.

 
Img_ChAbilityUnlock.JPG
 

Gaining Gold

Players gain gold by killing enemies and doing spins in the wheel of fortune style minigame at the beginning of each run. As previously mentioned, the wheel of fortune style spinner increases in rewards based on which chapter the player is in. This is a useful catch up mechanic if the player is behind in leveling up their talents or wants to grind their level. Even if the first encounter is too difficult for them, they are guaranteed some progression just for trying.

 
Gif_Intro.gif
 

The gold dropped from enemies is only received once the room is clear. This increases the risk in tougher chapters. If a player is barely surviving and there is gold everywhere but still plenty of enemies left it increases the tension making for a more stressful situation and enjoyable victory.

 
Img_GoldEverywhere.JPG
 

So why does gold matter? Let’s get into it in the next section.

Talents Vs Abilities

Last time we discussed abilities, which are short term power ups that last until the player dies or completes a chapter. Talents are permanent stat upgrades. The player spends gold and receives a random talent upgrade. These are things like increasing max HP, general damage, attack speed, or so on.

This works great in the sense that every player’s character is different. Every player’s experience is a little bit different as well. But, as with all things completely random, it falls into the same pothole. What is the most frustrating thing about RNG? Getting the same useless item repeatedly. And while I would argue that none of these are particularly useless, some are clearly better than others. I think this would be fine in a casual game like a clicker or business management game. In tougher chapters though the difficulty skews away from casual at which point having some control over the character’s talent build would go a long way. When I make a mistake because I built my character wrong, that’s on me, and that’s not too frustrating because I can try to do something different. When it relies on RNG and there’s nothing I can do outside restarting my progress or grinding out of necessity rather than desire, it gets frustrating and pushes players away.

 
Gif_TalentUpgrade.gif
 

Equipment + Scrolls

Equipment is like a permanent upgrade, but one the player has more control over. They receive equipment sometimes in game, more often from gacha boxes (a.k.a. loot crates). The player gets one gacha box for free,or when watching an ad, once a day and a better one once a week. These can also be purchased for gems, the premium virtual currency that can be bought with real money, at any time.

There are four types of equipment: weapons, armor, rings, and spirits. The higher the rarity, the higher the max level it can be upgraded to and the higher stats it will have. The player can equip one weapon, one armor, two rings, and two spirits at a time for a total of six pieces of equipment.

All equipment increases in level by the player leveling them up using their designated scrolls and gold. For example, a weapon will require X weapon scrolls and X gold. Scrolls are received commonly through playing the game.

As I mentioned before, there are various rarities for each of the weapons (common, great, rare, epic, perfect epic, and legendary). Though rarities in this sense would be closer to ascending an item to a higher form. All common items could one day become legendary items. This is achieved through fusing; the player can fuse three of the same items with the same rarity to create a higher rarity version of the original item.

Okay, that was a lot, but here’s what’s so brilliant about it. All that information is displayed in an easy to understand format across maybe two or three screens.

The equipment screen displays all the players equipped and owned equipment in an easy to read format.

The equipment screen displays all the players equipped and owned equipment in an easy to read format.

The fusion screen is clean and easy to understand.

The fusion screen is clean and easy to understand.

The locking out of unusable equipment makes this very easy to understand and use.

The locking out of unusable equipment makes this very easy to understand and use.

The player can discern all this information (except for gacha boxes and where scrolls come from) from spending maybe thirty seconds inside this menu. The scroll locations players will learn from seeing them drop while playing the game. The gacha box information they learn from the gacha screen when they receive a notification for a free box. No hand holding tutorial needed, just playing on their curiosity. This is some excellent UI and UX design. It’s easy to understand, it’s quick, and it doesn’t get in the way of players getting back to the game.

How does this further increase the fun?

How does all this fit together? It fits well into the games loop of fight > get rewards > improve.

 
The overall loop of Archero along with actions that fit into each section.

The overall loop of Archero along with actions that fit into each section.

 

This loop resets itself every new chapter. When the player comes into a new chapter, they’re usually too weak to easily progress. They need to increase their talents and equipment levels to be able to better face the challenges of the chapter. While they are playing the game and getting the gold, items, and scrolls to improve themselves, they are practicing against enemies and learning the new attack patterns. Thus they are not only improving their stats but their skills at the same time. Upon completing the final boss and defeating the chapter, the whole cycle starts all over again in a new chapter. It’s fun in the long run just because of that simple loop executed so well.

The enjoyable moment to moment gameplay and a strong repeatable loop make for a very enjoyable experience for a long period of time. But how does this app make money? We’ve talked a bit about it in these last two posts and we’ll finish the series out answering that question next time.

See you then,

Scott 

Part three is up! Check it out HERE

Finding the Fun: Archero Part 1 – Gameplay

Introduction

Welcome back everyone! For the next few weeks, we’ll be starting a three-part series on Archero, a mobile roguelite I’ve been enjoying recently. This week we’ll focus on the moment to moment gameplay, and how this contributes to a fun experience in the short term. Next time we’ll look at progression and how it contributes to the long term fun. And the final piece will be on monetization.

For those familiar with the game, or short on time, feel free to jump to the end to read the summary of how the short-term fun works. Until then, I’ll be breaking down each aspect of the short-term gameplay and discuss how it contributes to the short-term fun of the game.

As I mentioned before, Archero is a mobile roguelite. The player enters chapters consisting of stage after stage of enemies, becoming stronger along the way. But why is it fun? Let’s start by breaking down the pieces of the game and see how they contribute to its success.

Move vs Attack

The player must choose between moving and attacking. When the player is standing still, their archer automatically fires at the closest enemy to them. When they are moving, they don’t fire.

 
Gif_small_meleeenemy.gif
 

The crux of the moment to moment gameplay is based on the player moving to avoid enemies/projectiles and holding still to return fire. There is an additional layer due to obstacles. Most enemy projectiles pass over obstacles, but the player’s arrows do not. The player must be careful to move to an advantageous spot to return fire.

This core mechanic being easy to understand and easy to control is what creates the initial enjoyment of the game. While on its own it's decent, let’s continue and look at how the developers supported this feeling and created different challenges for the player built around this mechanic.

Enemies

There are a variety of enemies in the game, but they can be broken down into a few different categories based on their actions.

Melee enemies – these are enemies that simply charge the player. Some of them lunge at the player, some split into smaller faster versions upon death, but they are all consistent in charging the player.

 
Gif_small_meleeenemy.gif
 

Spread ranged enemies – These are enemies which shoot slow moving projectiles in various directions around them. Some have projectiles which shoot out in four directions, others in six, or so on. A sub-category has slow moving AOE attacks.

 
Gif_small_spreadranged.gif
 

Ranged enemies – these are enemies which attack the player at, you guessed it, range. They typically have a red line that appears for a few seconds before the attack triggers to let the player know an attack is coming. Their projectiles move quickly and in one direction.

 
Gif_small_ranged.gif
 

Hidden enemies – These are enemies which either jump in the air or go underground so the player cannot attack them for some time. They will attack in a spread ranged enemy pattern upon reappearing.

 
Gif_small_hiddenenemy.gif
 

Tank enemies – These are slow-moving, large enemies which are typically strategically placed to maximize the amount of space in the room they can attack the player in. The ones I’ve seen in game attack with a spread enemy pattern.

 
Gif_small_tank.gif
 

Combinations of these various enemy types further reinforce the player moving around to avoid them. Dealing with each type effectively builds further on the initial fun to create a puzzle-like feel in each encounter.

Stage Layout

Most chapters are broken down into multiple stage groups. Each stage group contains an intro stage, four enemy stages, an angel stage, four additional enemy stages, and a boss stage. Some chapters are a special case where the player is challenged instead with enemies coming in timed waves during a single stage instead of four stages of enemies.

Intro stages typically have a wheel of fortune kind of minigame. When the player spins the wheel, they are given a guaranteed amount of gold. The amount the wheel pays out increases with more difficult chapters. This helps the player to progress faster if they are under-leveled (more on that in part two and three). 

 
Gif_small_intro.gif
 

Enemy stages are stages where a wave of enemies spawn. The player spawns at the south end of the stage, and at the north end there is a locked door which opens when the stage is cleared. There are usually additional pillars or bodies of water to hinder the player’s arrows and/or movement. The layout and enemies that spawn change every time the player replays a stage. This leads me to believe that they are procedurally generated from a few sets. This helps to keep each run feeling unique and not quite as repetitive. 

Angel stages are stages with only an angel in the middle. The players get an option from the angel, either an additional ability or heal some of the player’s HP. This is a nice break from the chaos of combat and further rewards skilled players or helps ones which aren’t doing so well. Alternatively, if a player has not been playing as well and has low HP, they can take the risk and accept the power up over the healing in hopes that they will do better with it. I particularly like this mechanic because players must weigh the risk vs reward in most cases.

 
Gif_Small_Angel.gif
 

Note: Building off the risk vs reward concept in the game, if a player clears a room without taking damage there is a chance of a devil appearing in front of the open door. The devil gives the player a choice, do they want an additional ability for lowering their max HP? I like this little risk vs reward option because it has the potential to make the game easier for players who are doing well, or causing their hubris to get the better of them and doom their run.

 
Gif_small_Devil.gif
 

Boss stages are an open stage with a boss in it. The player challenges the boss typically in what feels like a traditional bullet hell manner. In later chapters they can be accompanied by minions or additional bosses.

 
Gif_Small_Boss.gif
 

This repeating cycle of enemy stages > Angel > enemy stages > boss allows the player to know what to expect and is perfect for mobile as each encounter is bite-sized. Each encounter is probably under a minute long and the player can rest for a bit before challenging the next room.

In chapter three, when it briefly switches to a wave system, it can get frustrating. It has five timed waves on one stage replacing the original four enemy stages. It’s frustrating because the pressure is on for so much longer and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. In normal stages there’s tension upon entering then release after everything is killed. The player can progress to the next stage once they’ve taken a breath. Because of the wave system players don’t enter the room and assess how to best clear the room in a puzzle sense. Instead it devolves into simply dodging projectiles and not paying attention to the rest of the room due to the vast number of projectiles flying at the player. This is compounded by the stage being larger which makes it impossible to see a good chunk of the stage at any given time. I imagine this is meant to be a challenge to see if the player has mastered all the enemy types in the previous chapters, but it isn’t as fun or rewarding because there is so little down time and information compared to the previous chapters. I see what they tried to achieve here, and I applaud them for trying it, but I could see a lot of players quitting due to the flow of the game being so heavily disrupted.

Abilities

Each time a player challenges a chapter they can gain abilities. These abilities are gained when the player kills enough enemies, chooses to receive them from the angel, bought them from the devil, or the abilities are gifted at the very beginning of the intro stage, if they’ve unlocked the glory talent. Abilities reset upon death.

When a player receives an ability from killing enemies or starting a new run, they are given the choice of three abilities at random. I like giving the player an option of a few abilities to choose from because it allows them to have some semblance of control over builds each run. Unfortunately, this also means there is a chance all three abilities will be worthless. But then again, they can’t all be good, or the player wouldn’t have that rewarding feeling when they get an ability they like.

 
Gif_small_slotAbilities.gif
 

The Fun – Short Term

At the end of each section we talked a little bit about how each of these contribute to the short-term fun of the game. Let’s do a quick review:

Move vs Attack

-Tight controls and restricting the player to only do one action at a time makes the game easy to understand and keeps it simple enough so it doesn’t overwhelm players.

Enemies

-With clear enemy types and consistent attacks, the player can understand and figure out how to deal with the enemies in each encounter. This reinforces the move vs attack mechanic and builds upon it to create a puzzle feel within each stage.

Stage Layout

-By having a consistent flow of quick encounter > break > quick encounter, the game is perfect for mobile. The maps typically fit within a phone screen (except for chapter three) which allows the players to see all the enemies at once and reinforces a puzzle feel. Procedurally generated stages help make each run continue to be interesting. The Angel and Devil spice gameplay up further by helping less skilled players and increasing the challenge for more skilled players.

Abilities

-Giving the players some control over short term progression, while making sure their options are random each time, contributes to making every run feel unique while allowing them some control. This helps to keep things interesting on repeated playthroughs.

These pieces combine to make the game interesting and enjoyable in short term repeated playthroughs. But what about the long-term gameplay? That’s for next time.

See you then,

Scott

Part two is up! Check it out HERE