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Product Analysis: Futurama: Game of Drones

by Sheldon Laframboise on 02/29/16 09:25:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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

 

Sweet zombie Jesus! 3 years after the final episode, Futurama comes back yet again.  Not as the series or set of movies but this time as a free to play mobile title.  Wooga, the Berlin based studio, has just launched their latest flagship title, Futurama: Game of Drones world-wide.  At the surface it’s a good looking game full of topical humour and remains as faithful as possible to the beloved franchise.

Now full disclosure here; I am a big Futurama fan.  I’ve seen every episode multiple times over and yes, even cried at the ending of “Jurassic Bark”. 

Man, those feels.

So as a fan, gamer, and designer I felt compelled to do a product analysis of the game.  Where does Game of Drones stand up, where does it fall down, where does it play giant mini-golf for par. Read on to find out.

Futurama Brand

The Futurama brand is lovingly and very thoughtfully integrated into what could be easily described as an exhausted and oversaturated market of insert candy/jelly/cupcake or other snack related gameplay clones.  The game title and theme itself is spot on for what one would expect an actual episode to be if the show was still on the air.  Even the boosters and world map are littered with new and old references consistent with the brand.

Just the Futurama fan page alone has reach to over 28 million people, so it’s safe to say Wooga is working with a pretty big intellectual property.  The fan base is loyal, die hard and ravenous for more Futurama content.  They expect the IP to be respected with the utmost care and Wooga for the most part, manages to achieve just that.   The brand compared to the game genre however struggles and does not exactly line-up with the demographic of the show.

I could not find any exact demographics for Futurama, but the numbers I did find indicate it almost opposite (60% Male vs. 40% Female)

Game Play

Game of Drones could more or less be described as a Hex Based Candy Crush Saga.  The player is required to match four tiles instead of three and as the marketing material mockingly suggests; that is 33% better than a match three game. 

The match four mechanic makes up nicely for the additional matching directions rather than littering the gameplay grid with a mess of extra colours.

Character Abilities

Each set of levels and worlds gives access to characters from the show.  As the player matches tiles, the character power bar increases. Once full, the player can use the power to achieve their level goals.

Again this is not particularly innovative in the genre (see Peggle, Home: Boov Pop! etc.) but is a simple way of integrating the cast into the gameplay space.

Unfortunately outside of the hex tile grid and a few tweaks to power tiles (which are really only minor gameplay variations), very few core innovations truly exist.  Even within the first 20 levels of the game I had already encountered the “Clear the jelly” mechanic from Candy Crush.  The first 45 minutes (some would argue the first 15 or even 5) are the most important to hook the player.  Showcasing a 4 year old mechanic so early gives the player a "Been here, done this" feeling and can lead to early churn.  The game isn’t exactly hiding where it wants to be in the genre space and even comes with a very standard set of Candy Crush systems.

Saga Systems Design

Rather than copy and pasting the bulk of my article on Candy Crush Saga from 2013, I’ll just run through the standard fare of free to play match 3 mechanics in quick bullet point list:

The Life System

  • A life is lost per failed level.
  • Focuses on limiting sessions and daily sessions.
  • Passive appointment timer to increase retention.
  • Social exchanges for lives give a sense of reciprocity and increase retention within social circles.

 

Pre and In-Game Boosts

  • Initially unlocked as progress goals.
  • Bought using the game’s currency.
  • Provide a variable advantage on a level.
    • In-Game Boosts cost more for a single use since the player can control the advantage.
    • Pre-Game Boosts are cheaper since they are a riskier buy.

Nixon “Buckaroos” (Currency)

  • The game’s currency sold in bundles that increase in value per larger amount spent

 

Value Bundles

  • Limited time offers and bundles offer a value proposition to the player and are used to drive conversions upwards.
  • The starter bundle is used to drive early conversion.

Level-Balance and Gameplay

  • Levels are balanced with the pretty standard +/- rule
    • Take the average moves the majority of players use to complete a level and make the level completion requirement more or less than that average to increase/decrease difficulty.
    • Ensure difficult levels are not so difficult it drives up churn.
    • Vary the level difficulty in waves to keep the pacing interesting and to create pinch points for booster consumption

Levels are balanced pretty fairly and are engaging, I just thought this image was hilarious.

Now it may seem like I’m treating the design like it’s not very new, but that’s because it isn’t.  There are however a few additions which are unique and try to serve both the brand integration and retention of the player.

Story Animatics

One of the more refreshing elements of Game of Drones is the story rich animatics. They are paced into chunks of levels and aside from a few (subtle) minor character proportion issues, they appear true to brand. In many cases the animatics could even be confused as snapshots from the show.  The writing is also pretty good and like I mention is full of topical humour. 

Story developments are paced in frequently enough to leave the player wanting to see what happens.  This bread crumbed and chaptered pacing aims to improve longer term retention.

Now I usually play most mobile games with the sound off, but being a fan of the show and seeing these awesome animatics I decided to turn that volume up.  I was disappointed.  Quite often I was watching a series of the animated cells expecting to hear sound effects, maybe even a few grunts of catch phrases at key moments, but quite often was served with dead silence.  This isn’t a major problem, but the stage was set for something awesome and then I felt underwhelmed.

The problem with stories…

The Game of Drones story however has one major problem, it needs to end.

Having battled this struggle on the last title that I was working on (hint: rhymes with Game of Drones), we had to make some design decisions that were needed to maximize long-term narrative scalability.  Futurama on the other hand is, from the top to bottom, built like an episode of the show itself.  Animatics while simple and easier to implement than full video, suffer scalability issues to write and produce.

Each new chapter and expansion of levels released will require a new set of animatics.  The appeal of the drone theme can only last so long.  Wooga will need to look at possibly refinishing the game into a sort of episodic release.  If they do that, I think the fans would rejoice.

tWitCHeR

tWitCHeR is another narrative delivery system and is the game’s satirical Twitter network.  As the player progresses tWitCHeR is unlocked and new characters are added as contacts. Randomly throughout the player’s progress, new updates are added from the cast of the show with a notification at the top of the game window.

It’s almost like putting the player as part of the cast and the result is an amusing timeline of character updates based on the story plot.  It’s similar to the vault dweller timeline from Fallout Shelter but is done in a fun brand and story consistent way. 

tWitCHeR serves to bread crumb the player along until the next new plot development and aims to increase retention through small narrative delivery.  Thankfully words are cheap, so the system is scalable however the animatics and world map are not.

World Map

At first glance, the world map appears to be a highly 3D polished take on the classic Saga style map.  It actually certainly is, but comes at a fairly high return on investment cost. 

With each new set of worlds / levels created, a new 3D environment will need to be designed, modeled, textured and animated.  While the world models are very clearly low poly and less expensive, it’s a scalability issue with a choice of visual variety over gameplay value for the player. 

The world map also has almost no aspirational goals at a glance.  The player can only ever see a few levels ahead in the 3D map.  Friend’s portraits can be seen, but only when the ship has the level in its line of sight.  A secondary side map (hidden by default) is required to be opened to hint at new worlds, see all your friends and to indicate overall progress at a glance.  While the world map is pretty, the time investment could have been something more beneficial to the product holistically.

A small tangent…

When I initially saw the marketing material for Game of Drones, I assumed the Planet Express Ship was going to be some sort of mini game to break the pace of the match four mechanic.  Unfortunately not.  I feel it would have been a better investment rather than the overly complicated 3D map.  It could have been a skill based mini-game to fly to new areas in the universe, a daily reward mini-game, something; anything to drive up the gameplay value to the player with an additional focus on retention or even as a different sort of monetization driver.

What can we expect?

I usually finish these articles with a few notes on what we could expect from the game in the future.  To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure this game will have the longevity the brand deserves.  So here would be my top changes to improve the longevity and scalability of the game (some of them already discussed above).

  • Replace the current 3D Map with something a little more intuitive to use that front faces the story chapters to the player.  If the majority of the retention is through the story then the player should be constantly reminded of what’s to come.
  • Use the Planet Express Ship as a pace breaking mini-game or daily rewards game.
    • Even a Match 4 flying mini-game would be more compelling for the player
  • Make characters collectible, monetizable and maybe even level up
    • This would add social and monetization triggers
    • Levelling a character could unlock new vanity options or even voice overs from the show
    • The goal is just to give the player long term micro goals to improve retention through progress

Summary

When I wrote my last article breaking down Clash Royale, I spoke a lot about the focus on retention, scalability and the power of brand for a game's success.  Game of Drones has the brand but is it enough?  I don’t think so.  It faces a very obvious uphill battle when it comes to the game, systems design and its scalability issues.

It is a narrative rich title that focuses on retaining the player through its story rather than a series of appointment style mechanics.  It’s what a lot of fans would want, but given the slight demographic misalignment and the expectation of the game design vs. the reality, it is very risky to the success of the product.  Without more innovative gameplay and additional systems to aggressively bring the player back, I feel Game of Drones will struggle to find its place in the galaxy and in the top grossing charts.

These are of course just my opinions.  Does Game of Drones hit that bull’s eye or will the dominoes fall like a house of cards?  Let me know and thanks for the read.

All Hail Hypnotoad.

LinkedIn: http://ca.linkedin.com/in/sheldonlaframboise

Twitter: @Slafram

Website: http://freetoplay.ca


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