[This article originally appeared on FamousAspect]
On the face of it, one would expect The Collectables to make a big splash on the iOS marketplace. A high-end visual treat from proven developers Crytek built in partnership with mobile powerhouse DeNA. A core-gamer targeting, squad based RTS with a collectable card meta-structure. A feature by Apple upon release. These all sound like the ingredients for success. Yet at the time of writing, the game has failed to crack the top 200 grossing for iPhone or iPad in the US. This analysis seeks to identify issues with the design of The Collectables that contribute to its weak monetization and propose solutions to issues identified.
This analysis is based on 4 hours of play of The Collectables on iPad, spread out over two days. As the game uses a structure of rewarding the player for repeat wins on a level with progressive rewards, I played each level 5 times to get the maximum reward before moving on to the next. I spent my gold bar premium currency only at the very end of my 4 hour session, and only to see what the experience was like. As a player, I did not feel compulsion or need to buy additional card packs during my session.
Some quick stats on my gameplay before diving into the analysis:
With its high end graphics and unique, bite sized RTS gameplay well suited for mobile, The Collectables has the bones of something great. Yet a number of issues impede the game’s ability to monetize.
A critical issue impeding Collectables monetization is that the moment-to-moment gameplay is not maximizing its potential. The game is not as fun as it can be given the foundation. Improving this foundation will increase game quality and lift player retention. My primary issue is with the cover system, and secondarily the action card system.
The standard input of the game is to click on the ground to move your squad of 4 soldiers to a location. They behave intelligently in regards to pathfinding and targeting, but will not drop into cover unless specifically instructed. To place a unit into cover, the player must draw a line from that specific unit to a specific cover hotspot and release.
Given the fast paced action of the game, and the finickyness of valid cover locations, I found this system slow and cumbersome to use to the point of uselessness. When I did bother getting into cover, the surprisingly short range of fire led to standoffs like the one pictured above. Two opposing sides, both stuck in cover and unable to fire on each other. I largely ignored the cover system, instead keeping my squad constantly moving to avoid Fragmaster explosives while mowing down enemies. Without using cover and largely ignoring my action cards, I was able to easily progress with minimal losses.
The second issue I had was with the action cards system. My issue was partially one of game communication and partially of my own expectations. My mistake was interpreting that each action card was a one-time use consumable; once used in combat I believed a card was gone forever. As a result, I horded my action cards because I viewed them as precious, and as shown by my record did not require them to win. Only near the tail end of my 4 hours did I realize that an action card was not trashed after use in battle.
A corollary issue is that my squad mates presented themselves as completely undifferentiated. Though each character has a class-type, at the level of zoom and method of control, I experienced no differentiation between the characters. I saw no upside to having each class represented in my deck, and could not point to a character on screen and tell you what his name was after my 4 hours of play.
All three of these issues could be improved by taking inspiration from Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War II (DoW). A similarly close quarters, squad-based RTS, this game enjoys noticeable improvements that make the game more strategic and rewarding to play on a moment-to-moment basis.
Cover could be improved by taking inspiration directly from DoW and does not require any change to the current input system. In DoW, the squad members intelligently move into cover based on your inputs. Similar to Collectables, static cover hotspots populate the map. When the player issues an order to move, individual units intelligently move into cover if it is available near the click. A colored indicator shows where each character will move and the quality of the cover. This system could be directly implemented while still allowing the player to draw a line to move a specific unit along a path.
Similarly, the action and character systems would be more fun if the actions were assigned to specific units based on type, and the player triggered that unit in battle to trigger his ability. Perhaps only a Rifleman can equip and activate actions like Nano Cloak and Flashbang, while a Heavy can equip and activate Explosives, etc. This would have the benefit of making the deck building aspect of the game more gratifying while simultaneously raising the oft missing tension when a unit falls in battle.
All of these proposed changes are aimed at improving moment-to-moment gameplay, resulting in a more fun and retentive game.
The collectable card genre of F2P games are driven by a constant consumption loop. In a typical game session players are spending their currency, both earned and premium, to buy packs of items. Each item holds some form of value because even if it is underpowered or duplicative, it can be fused into a base item to level it up. In games including Brave Frontier or Heroes of Dragon Age, the player is fusing between every few battles even as a free player. The player experiences the systems that allow for monetization on a regular basis.
The consumption loop in The Collectables feels off. Unlike a Heroes of Dragon Age where the player is constantly acquiring new units, bringing some value via fusion even if he does not add them to his deck, I rarely required to change up my deck in The Collectables. I earned very few new heroes over 4 hours of play, a number of them being duplicates of cards I already owned, and only one of them being a rare hero. I earned 8 free card packs through play and all of them were disappointing (partially driven by the previously mentioned way I avoided action card use). The one premium pack I bought (a 199 gold booster – the equivalent of $1.34 when purchasing the $4.99 currency pack) was extremely disappointing, as the hero I earned was a duplicate common from my starting set. This experience alone would deter me from ever buying gold for real money to purchase a booster pack.
Even more frustrating was the relatively small fuel recycle value of the cards I did earn. I felt cheated not only by the small amount of fuel the base heroes recycled for, but even more so that a hero’s recycle cost did not increase based on the amount of fuel I had previously invested in him. If I have spent over 250 fuel to upgrade a common to level 5, and his recycle value remains at the 15 fuel I would get for recycling him at level 1.
The Collectables does not capitalize on the collection and consumption loop that its title and card collecting mechanic suggests. This loop is critical to both the fun factor and monetization of the game.
The solution to this issue is fairly simple. The Collectables would benefit greatly from adopting a fusion and evolution system found in games like Heroes of Dragon Age or Brave Frontier. The player should be earning more cards, both in game (perhaps from the loot chests placed throughout the level) and through purchasing power (by lowering the costs of premium card packs and making premium currency slightly more available). The player should also receive a wider spread of results in the rarity of cards (it feels like an uncommon tier is lacking) to bring more joy of loot through finding better than common results. The player should be constantly fusing junk cards into his equipped heroes and actions to level them up and evolve them using premium currency. Even as a core gamer I find these systems very compelling and fun to play; there is a joy to leveling up your whole squad to max level, only to receive a new, more powerful rare to start the cycle again. This consumption loop will create a more rewarding meta-game experience while also driving monetization.
For the core gamers attracted to The Collectables by Crytec’s pedigree and high end visuals, the energy bar is an instant signal. “This is just another crappy F2P game trying to rip me off.” I do not know what performance looks like on the metrics level; for all I know additional energy is a big money maker for The Collectables. But given the long length of play sessions I experienced without ever spending premium currency on energy, my intuition is that having an energy bar is doing more harm in the players it turns off than the revenue it is generating on energy sales.
Unless the energy system is currently generating significant revenue, I advise removing it. For the linear story progression, I believe it is more deterrent to player retention than additive to revenue. I suggest following in the path of Eternity Warriors 3. In this game there is no energy mechanic for the linear, quest based gameplay. However, there is a highly rewarding survival mode that does use an energy system to gate access. In this context, the gating is desirable because the mode rewards the player with significantly more loot than equivalent playtime in the mainline game. The Collectables would benefit from a similar schema. The current gameplay would play well without the use of an energy bar. Yet the game would also benefit from an elder mechanic, or elder mechanics, that combined a gating mechanic with a more challenging experience and higher rewards. Which leads directly into our final topline issue.
A clear pattern in successful, core, F2P mobile games is that a large portion of the revenue comes from elder mechanics. These are systems aimed at players who have exhausted the linear, story based content faster than you can possibly build it. They are generally social, include some sort of limited time, leaderboard based challenge and exclusive rewards for top performers. These are core drivers of retention and monetization for those players who love your game. Yet despite the current Easter Eggmayhem levels, I feel that The Collectables has no true elder mechanic. Which is especially surprising given the Mobage integration. This game needs a system of play involving other players on the network, exclusive rewards and something to do repetitively even after the player has exhausted the missions.
These are simple suggestions to make but difficult ones to implement. There are a number of elder features that would greatly enhance The Collectable’s ability to retain and monetize users. My first suggestion is for an asynchronous PvP system. Frontline Commando 2 is an excellent example of how a PvP system can be built from challenging another player’s squad when offline. My second suggestion is to build a guild system and a guild-based, weekly event tournament. Eternity Warriors 3 serves as an prime case of how to build an event system on top of existing game mechanics simply by adding a leaderboard to an action to players are already taking (packs opened, heroes upgraded, actions used, cards recycled, etc.) and pairing it with exclusive rewards to drive an event. My third potential suggestion is for a highly rewarding, leaderboard-based survival mode. Unlike the previous section, these are examples of mechanics where a gating system (such as energy) is appropriate to raise the tension of the event. If a player reaches these mechanics it is because he has already overcome any initial aversion to F2P mechanics.