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Clash Royale - Deconstructing Supercell's Next Billion Dollar Game
by Michail Katkoff on 02/24/16 06:45:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutraís community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Supercell’s Clash of Clans launched almost four years ago in June 2012. Since then, together with Supercell’s other hit title, Boom Beach, Clash has pretty much defined, evolved and dominated what we know today as the mid-core games category on touchscreen devices. 

Despite light incremental innovation to actual gameplay over the last four years, the game loops of mid-core games have stayed essentially the same: build a base, raise an army and battle other players to climb the leaderboards. We’ve taken this loop as a given for years, and in the process exhausted players on build and troop-training timers. With Clash Royale, Supercell shatters the mid-core benchmarks it has created and in the process sets a new set of rules that all the future mid-core games are forced to follow.

Royale follows Supercell’s simple winning formula: 

First step is creating a game that is familiar yet new. In the case of Royale, it is a mix between Clash of Clans and Hearthstone. The lanes in my mind have nothing to do with MOBAs but function as simplification of battle AI.

Second step is to keep the feature set simple. A lot of companies go for “feature parity” when launching their games. I believe this is a mistake since you can build good end-game features only once you have player behavior data. 

Third and final step is the focus on polish. Well-balanced economy, beautiful graphics and lack of bugs create a feeling of quality. 

When Royale entered soft launch in Canada, developers around the world downloaded it and felt immense joy playing the game. This joy was quickly followed by depression because we understood that Supercell has just flipped the rules of the game. Royale is the fourth Supercell game in a row that will capture the market and make the rest of us game-makers look like rookies. 
 

The Core Loop

Royale’s game loop has two pieces: battle and meta-game of building and updating card deck. The game’s core loop, which drives the game loop, consists of four key elements. The first one is the synchronous player versus player battle. Winning a battle rewards a player with Trophies, while losing a battle deducts them. Players crave Trophies as they unlock new Arenas, which unlock better rewards for wins. In short, an Arena is essentially a league tier. 

On a high-level, the game loop of Clash Royale is divided into two elements: battle and meta-game. The game loop is the same as in Hearthstone except for one key element, which is waiting. Because of waiting, Royale monetizes both through the meta-game of gacha driven card upgrades and through traditional speed-ups of waiting timers.

In the image above, it is important to note that Battle doesn’t consume resources. This change was made during the soft launch phase as in the beginning a player had to spend Gold for each battle. Because the cost to Battle is free, players can play for hours on end. This is a major change compared to any other mid-core build & battle game, which limits the fun of battling through troop-training cost and timers.

Each Arena has a threshold of Trophies. The Arena player is playing in determines the rewards player receives for winning battles.

In addition for climbing through leagues, Trophies are also used for matchmaking. What’s important to notice is that unlike in typical build-and-battle games, winning matches in Royale doesn’t reward a player with any currency. Instead, winning unlocks the possibility to receive new Cards. This leads to the desired scenario where players push for more Trophies (wins) and at the same time end up matching themselves against ever-tougher opponents. Not rewarding players with currencies for winning is a massive improvement to Clash of Clans, where players often deliberately lost Trophies so that they got matched with weaker opponents that they could easily raid for resources. 

Unlike in any other build & battle game there’s no incentive for a player to drop down in rankings to be matched with weaker opponents

After every victorious battle a player also receives a Treasure Chest in addition to the Trophies. The content of a given Chest is a loot drop dependent on the Chest type and the player’s Arena level at the time of receiving the chest. Players can have only one Chest unlock going on at a time and they can hold a maximum of four Chests. Because of the very limited amount of Chests a player can hold, players don’t actually keep most of the Chests they win from battles. This leads to the waiting/monetization part of the core loop, which can be skipped with a use of premium currency, Gems. So if you use Gems you can unlock more Chests. 

Treasure Chests control the speed of a player’s progress through game content. 
Winning battles does not directly contribute to player’s progress.
   

Once the chest unlock timer has passed, a player is prompted with a notification to come back to the game. Returning to unlock a Treasure Chest ensures a very positive return session, which rewards a player for the battle they won hours ago. Treasure Chests are essential for progress as they reward a player with a loot of Cards, Gold and occasional small amounts of Gems.

Unlocking Treasure Chests is essential to progress in Clash Royale as they provide Cards and Gold. Chests take between 3 to 8 hours to unlock. The reward is dependent on a player’s Arena level at the time of receiving the chest.

Players are ranked through the amount of Trophies they hold, but that is not a measurement of progress. Instead it’s the Player Level that gates the progress. Leveling up the Player Level requires XP and the only way to earn XP is by upgrading Cards. 

Upgrading Cards costs ever-increasing amounts of cards and Gold. The benefit of the upgrade mechanic in Royale it that it make a player want hundreds of instances of the same card.

Upgrading Cards in Royale is a simple power-up mechanic familiar from card collecting games. First, a player has to find a new card from a Chest. This will grant the player the first level of that card. As a player receives more of the same card, he can power up the card by consuming all of the required ones into one card. The higher the level of the card, the more Cards and Gold it requires to level up. And a player has no choice but to level his/her Cards as it not only improves the stats of the card but also gives XP, which is needed to Level Up. The Player Level is important as it increases hit-points of the player’s Towers making them more powerful in battles. 

 

The Battle 

The short and fast paced synchronous player versus player battle in Clash Royale is unbelievably addictive. Firstly, it takes only a handful of seconds to open the app, go to matchmaking and start a battle. Secondly, the battles are fun to play and fun to watch due to the sense of anticipation created by asymmetrical knowledge between the players. 

In the battle, both players have a strategy that they’re looking to execute with their chosen deck of cards. Spectators see the board as well as the opposing players’ hands - but they have no idea what goes on in the other players’ mind. Asymmetrical knowledge combined with with spectators seeing the cards each player has is what makes spectating e-sports and poker so popular.

Arena & Rules

The Battle Arena in Clash Royale consists of two lanes, two towers and a central base tower. The winning conditions are simple: the first and the easiest way to win is by having more Crowns at the end of the match. Each match has a timer of three minutes with a chance of a one minute overtime if the match is tie by the time three minutes are up. Collect as many crowns as you can before time is up. A player earns one Crown for each Tower they take down. The second way to win is via “knockout”, which in Royale means the destruction of the Central Tower. Destroying the Central Tower immediately rewards the player with three Crowns… and a high-five from everyone watching the battle. 

The battle momentum in Royale’s compact two-lane arena swings from tactical, almost turn-based attacks to intense all-out clashes.

During the first two minutes of the battle a player gains one Elixir point every two seconds, up to maximum of 10 points. After the first two minutes the momentum of the battle mode switches from a tactical turn-based attack-and-defend into an all-out clash as the Elixir generation speed doubles for the remaining match time. Elixir is consumed on Cards, which the player puts down on the arena. The exact location where the player lays the card often leads to either victory of defeat. A player can only hold four cards at a time. Playing a card brings the next card into player’s hand. Units and buildings have to be placed on the limited playable area, while spells can be casted anywhere on the arena. 
 

Strategy & Mastery

Winning battles in Royale requires both strategy of the meta-game and mastery of the gameplay. Strategy is needed to build card decks. A player has to make sure that the average cost of the deck stays in control and that there is a right distribution of different cards. Mastery on the other hand is needed during the battle in order to use the right cards at the right time in the perfect location. 

Every card has its strengths and weaknesses. A good strategy is all about finding the balance and synergy between ever-increasing amounts of cards.

Units in Clash Royale function much like units in Clash of Clans: a player drops a unit card on the arena, which initiates the deployment timer (Clash of Clans doesn’t have deployment timers). Once the deployment timer runs out, the placed unit will start moving along the lane towards the opponent’s tower. Depending on the unit, it will target either buildings or the closest ground target. Some units can also target airborne units. The simple two-lane battlefield eliminates all path-making issues that tend to plague build & battle genre. You know, the ones where your units are attacking something meaningless, like a piece of wall, while getting destroyed by a defensive tower next to them. 

Timing and the precise placing of cards are the keys to victory in a battle.

Attacking in Royale has to be measured and calculated. For example: the first player drops a tanking unit with a lot of health to absorb the damage from a defensive tower. As soon as the tank unit gets close to the enemy tower, the opponent will likely drop units to defend it. At this point you can attack defenders with splash damage spells such as Arrows or Fireballs. Another option is to drop ranged units behind the tank and take defenders out as they concentrate their attack on the tanking unit in front. But as an attacker you don’t want to drop all units down too quickly as they face the risk of being countered with a splash damage-dealing spell from the opponent.

A defending player has an advantage in Royale. Firstly, the defending player has the Tower, which shoots at all attacking units. But most importantly, the defender has the advantage because the attacker has to reveal his cards first -allowing the defender to counter those cards. If the defender consumes less Elixir on defending units, he will have the advantage in a counter attack. Also, if the defender is able to destroy the attacking force without losing his defenders, he will automatically counter attacks the attacker with the survived defenders. 

An attacking player is often at an advantage in Clash Royale.

Despite being extremely addictive, fun and well balanced, the battle in Royale is still not perfect. One clear issue in my mind is the fact that defenders have such a strong advantage. For example, as the battle starts neither of the players is incentivized to place a card. It’s simply too risky to spend Elixir in the beginning without knowing anything about the opponent’s hand while the Elixir generation is at a regular speed. 

I hope Supercell addresses this in future updates. A possible solution is adding more cheap Elixir units, which the player that’s first to attack can place to cause a reaction from the defender without ending up at disadvantage for spending too much Elixir on an attack. Another option is to follow the Hearthstone/Advanced Wars model, where players choose a hero character for their deck/army. For example, choosing the Barbarian King as the Hero character would give a small boost to ground melee units. Seeing the opponent’s hero would narrow down the possible cards the opponent may be holding in his hand and allows more measured attacks from the start of the match.
 

Meta-Game

Royale’s meta-game is all about building a balanced deck of 8 cards. Instead of focusing on specific powerful cards, a player needs to build his/her deck based on synergy. The goal is to make every card work with all the other ones as it allows that perfect flow of attacks, defenses and counter attacks. What makes the deck building so interesting is the fact that the cards are so well balanced, which ensures that pretty much every opponent you face will have a different hand. The meta-game of building decks is also never static. As players rack up Trophies and move through arenas they unlock new cards along with opponents who are using these cards in their decks. 

Building a battle deck is a never-ending quest to find balance and synergy between 8 cards. Each card has its purpose but it’s sometimes luck that determines whether you’ll have that card available in the battle when you need it the most.

 

A player has to destroy the opponent’s tower(s) to win the battle. In order to reach this goal a player has two types of damage cards. The first ones are the direct damage cards that deal damage to only one unit or a building at a time. These cards have the highest damage per second and they’re vital against towers and tanking units with large amount of hit-points. The second type of damage cards is the splash damage card, which deals damage to multiple targets at once. These cards inflict less damage per second but because they hit multiple units at a time, they’re crucial against hordes of low hit-point units.

The key to success is to find the synergy between different cards in your deck.

In addition to having a balance between direct and splash damage cards, a player also has to balance between melee and ranged units. Ranged units, which can take down both ground and air targets, are typically what you would call “glass cannons” in the sense that they have high damage per second but low hit points. Because ranged units have low hit points, a player needs to shield them with high-hit-point melee units. On the other hand, having too many melee units makes them vulnerable to a splash damage card and flying units.

Defense is as important as offense in Royale. This means that, in addition to keeping in mind direct and splash damage, air and ground units, melee and ranged units; a player also has to make sure he/she has at least one defensive building. There are two types of defensive buildings. The first one being different defensive towers like “Tesla” and “Cannon”. The second types of defensive buildings are troop-generating buildings such as the “Goblin Hut”, which spawns “Spear Goblins” at short intervals. Defensive units either help fill the lane with smaller units and thus slow down the attacking force, or they cause direct damage to the attackers.

In addition to all the unit and building cards, a player also needs at least one spell card in their deck. Spells like Fireball cause healthy amount of damage to a Tower or an attacking group of units. Spells like “Freeze” on the other hand freeze all opponents units and buildings in an area allowing player’s own units cause damage without taking any. 

Finally, a good deck has to also have a moderate average Elixir cost. Stronger cards tend to have high higher Elixir cost. If most of player’s cards have a high cost, it will not allow them to cast new cards fast enough to react to opponents cards.

There are nine main types of cards in Clash Royale. Each type has its strength and weaknesses. There's a wide variety of card types and player can pick only 8 cards into their deck. This leads to constant fine-tuning of decks, as there are always opponents who use cards you don’t have a strong counter for.

Much like in Clash of Clans, the meta-game of Royale is extremely well balanced and there is no card that would make another card obsolete. Royale offers numerous combinations of winning decks as different cards are balanced so that they fill the categories described above. This close to perfect balance of cards is evident when watching the top matches in Royale TV as every high-level deck is different than the other ones. The lack of a perfect hand also pushes players to modify their decks daily.

A quick look at the top players’ decks in TV Royale shows the variety of winning hands. There are numerous and constantly changing winning strategies as the meta-game keeps evolving with every update.

 

The Social

As a synchronous player versus player battler with no single player mode, Clash Royale is by nature a social game. In addition to the social player versus player gameplay, Clash Royale has a few robust and incredibly engaging social features. These social features form a strong base for future competitive and added social features. 
 

Clans

Clash Royale wouldn’t be a sequel to Clash of Clans without the clans. In Clash of Clans the main reason for a player to join a clan is troop donation, which allows clan members to give each other small amounts of units. This same donation model is also valid in Royale as players can donate small amounts of cards to each other.

Players can ask for Cards from their clan members every eight hours. Clan members can donate up to two Cards per Card request. Donating Cards rewards donator with Gold and XP depending on the rarity of the donated Cards.

Each clan member can request cards every 8 hours. Once the request has been posted on the clan chat, clan members can donate up to two cards each. The more rare card you donate, the more Gold the donating clan member will receive. In addition to receiving Gold, donators are also rewarded with XP for every card they give. XP is a phenomenal incentive for donations because acquiring XP becomes very slow as soon as the player has upgraded his/her first set of cards. Players can only request cards that they’ve unlocked through Treasure Chests. Player also can’t request Epic Rare cards.
 

Friendly Battles

Donating cards to clan members is definitely rewarding. Donations create a nice loop of social obligations and it promotes overall retention to the clan as a player invests more and more cards into it over time. But in the end, the meat is in the battle and there’s nothing as fun as battling your own clan members.

Our clan’s (T-Nation) chat is full of friendly matches. It’s just amazing how fun it is to clash real-time against your friends.

The most fun element of clans in Royale is that clan members can battle each other. There’s no reward or cost for battling. A clan member simple throws out a challenge into the chat and waits for another clan member to accept it. It’s very simple but extremely powerful especially when clan members are in the same physical space. For example, most of my clan members are my colleagues and we constantly battle each other in the same office space, sometimes even hooking up our iPhones into a screen so that more people can spectate it. I’ve personally never experienced a more enjoyable player versus player battle that is not only fun for the players, but also fun for others to spectate. 
 

Clash TV 

As described previously, I believe Royale is fun to spectate due to the asymmetrical knowledge between the two players and the spectator, and the fact that the battles are only a few minutes long. Though powerful, fun isn’t the only motivation to watch matches in Royale. You see, the deep, ever evolving meta-game of deck-building, together with the mastering of card placement, incentivize players to learn how the best players are playing.

Clash Royale has an excellent spectator mode, which makes watching matches very easy. 

 

 

Touchscreen esport games such as Hearthstone and Vainglory are streamed outside the game on Twitch, Mobcrush and other game streaming platforms. But Royale doesn’t push players out of the game to spectate a match. Instead it offers Royale TV, which showcases the best battles in the game in a robust spectator mode. 

Royale TV is not a replacement for streaming platforms, as it doesn’t offer a way to connect or even follow the players. The role of Royale TV is to help players overcome losing streaks, which are inevitable. When you’re getting beat up and your deck is not performing as it used to, you’ll turn to Royale TV and learn how the best of them are playing. Royale TV is a faster and more efficient way to get help compared to watching a teenager from Sweden play matches on Mobcrush. It might be somewhat less entertaining though. Depending on your preferences.

 

The Monetization

The key to monetization is retention, but more specifically it’s the player’s demand to progress faster than they are currently progressing. Players are primed to spend money when their progress flattens out and they feel a social obligation and/or competitive drive to keep up with other players. Good monetization design offers players with the ability to save time and progress faster in exchange for money. Good monetization is driven by the players’ desire to catch up or make headway to other players.

 

Tapering off the players’ progress

Clash Royale, just like the other Supercell games, excels in monetization by following the basics. First you need to get players hooked to the fast progress. In Royale this happens in the first couple of arenas, as 24 of the current 42 cards are unlocked when the player reaches the second arena. Initial fast progress is also supported by the extremely low card upgrade costs for the first set of cards the player unlocks.

As players continue to play they quickly plateau. Firstly, they start losing battles to players with higher-level towers and/or units. Secondly, they will get pinched on Gold as every card upgrade becomes quickly very expensive.  

Gold pinch is further boosted by in-clan card donations. You see, my clan members give me cards, I still need the Gold to upgrade them. In other words, an active clan helps clan members to reach the point where they can upgrade a card but don’t have the resources to do it. Without the donations, the pinch would be weaker because it would take me longer to reach the point where I can upgrade a specific card and by that point I likely will have more Gold, which would disincentivize me from purchasing more. 

Card donations within a clan help drive monetization through Gold pinch. The more of the same Card a player receives, the sooner they will be at the point where they can upgrade that Card. Upgrading a card requires a significant amount of Gold, which be bought with in-app purchases, or earned over time. 

I believe that in order to achieve a high level of monetization, games are better off with a less-is-more-approach. There should only be one or max. two points in the game where a player would want to spend money. I also believe that you shouldn’t run regular sales, as they simply create more work for the team, and instead of increasing overall revenue sales, they simply change purchase patterns. 

Clash Royale, just like the other Supercell top grossing games, follow the less-is-more monetization strategy. In Royale, a player spends Gems, the hard currency, on two things: Treasure Chest Unlocks and Gold purchases. 

The Treasure Chest mechanic feels really punishing when you first start playing Clash Royale. Every win grants you one of the three Treasure Chests. Depending on the rarity of the chest, it takes three, eight or twelve hours to unlock a chest. A player can only have one chest at a time in the unlocking process, and they can hold a maximum of four chests. In other words, if your chest slots are full and you win a battle, you will simply not receive a chest. 

Because of the pinch in time it takes to unlock a chest and the limited amount of chests a player can hold, there’s a strong incentive to speed up chest unlocks. From a player’s perspective, there’s an opportunity cost with not speeding up chest unlocks. In the player’s mind they lose a potential chest if they battle while chest slots are full. There’s a strong urge to speed up chest unlock and make the potential win count.

There are four chest slots and a player can have only one chest unlocking at a time. Speeding up the unlocking timer is highly incentivized, because winning a battle while the chest slots are full will not a reward player with a Treasure Chest.

In addition to earning chests by winning battles, the player can also purchase them directly from the in-game shop. But this is not incentivized as the Gem price to purchase a chest is over twice as expensive than earning the chest through a battle and speeding up the unlock timer (if you compare the price of Gems to Gold). 

 

Gold is needed to upgrade cards. By far the best way to get Gold is by unlocking Treasure Chests, since donation rewards are so small. The amount of Gold a player receives per day is dependent on the chests they unlock. Chests with longer timers reward more Gold per hour. But on average, an engaged player unlocks four Silver Chests and a Gold Chest every day, which accounts to anywhere between 340 to 450 Gold, depending on the player’s current arena level. 

Monetizing in Royale is very attractive due to clear time saving benefits. Upgrading a card in the later stage of the game (Arena 5) usually takes 1000 Gold. This will take some 5 days of active gameplay or less than one dollar worth of hard currency. The value proposition is thus 5 days or 80 cents?

Now, since the first upgrades cost only few tens of Gold there’s no pinch in the beginning. But as soon as the player starts unlocking rare and epic cards and progresses a bit further in the game, the upgrade prices will be in thousands. This means that a player has to play for a week just to earn enough Gold to upgrade one card. In fact, the waiting period is even longer as before that upgrade is even possible, a player has to collect all the needed Cards, which accounts easily into an additional week of gameplay.  

Clash Royale does a phenomenal job in monetization by following the basic set of rules that get players to progress fast in the beginning and then taper off the speed of progress while simultaneously increasing the competitiveness of gameplay. 

Royale doesn’t fall to the pitfall of “old school” esport monetization mechanics such as customization, as these methods deliver low average revenue per player while simultaneously increasing the demand for additional memory-heavy content. Because of the strong base-monetization through speed-ups and currency purchases, Royale doesn’t rely on content heavy updates, unlike Hearthstone, to spike up revenues. It can be argued that Royale balances on the edge of pay-to-win, but I feel this is a better problem to have than chasing the dollar with the ever-increasing amount of game content. 

 

The Beginning of the Royale Era

Clash Royale delivers on what players want from mid-core games: more action and less base building. The synchronous battles, extremely well balanced cards, short sessions and straightforward progress mechanics combined under the immensely popular Clash of Clans brand create a game that is destined to hold top grossing charts for years to come.

But Clash Royale is not for everyone. E-sport purists will complain about the progression mechanics, which essentially allows more progressed (or more paid) players to have a clear non-skill based advantage over other players. But purists have their League of Legends and Vainglories. Games they wouldn’t drop for more casual Royale anyways. 

I believe that Clash Royale will redefine mid-core games by monetizing through the meta-game, instead of building and training timers. At the same time, I’m certain that Royale will fair better than its inspiration title Hearthstone because it was designed for mobile first and because Supercell is not afraid to use traditional free-to-play monetization mechanics to drive ungodly revenues.

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