18 April 2014

Using achievements for analytics, retention, or skill

Achievements can have many purposes in a game.

For analytics

At GDC 2010, Bruce Philips from Microsoft showed how he used Xbox Live achievements to evaluate progression and campaign completion in a dozen FPS. These achievements already existed, and were determined by the game designers, yet provided very useful for analytics.

Traditionally, achievements are binary: you have unlocked it, or you haven't. You can treat achievements as milestones that the player reached. Milestone achievements include: FPS campaign milestones or Forza 4's "import data from Forza 3".

Achievements can also take several levels. For example, Clash of Clans' Release the Beasts achievement takes 4 values: 0 when you start, 1 when you unlock Archer, 2 when you unlock Wall breaker, and 3 when you unlock Dragon. This achievement, by itself, suffices to segment the player base into new, intermediate, advanced, and expert players. It's a double-win: players have more achievements to go for, and you get a better picture than with a binary achievement.

An achievement can keep counting even after it's been unlocked; for example, Clash of Clans' Gold Grab has 3 steps (4 values) but keeps track of the gold you looted. That way, achievements can also be numerical, not just binary or Likert-like.

Achievements can be even more complex and hold metadata such as when you unlocked it, how many days it took you to unlock it, after how many tries, in how much time, and so on. With this metadata, you can label player behavior more precisely. For example, a Clash of Clans player may unlock Gold grab 3 after 3 months where another would only take one month. The later certainly plays much more (number of sessions, session length) than the former.

For retention

Achievements provide long-term goals to the player. Moreover, they can be made so the player always has a near-complete achievement in sight. For example, you reach 490/500 mortars destroyed in Clash of Clans' Mortar Mauler achievement. You play another hour to destroy 10 mortars and get the 10 gems, but by then, another achievement has reached near-completion too, and you could play another hour.

Retention achievements don't always involve grinding. They can encourage the player to explore the design space.

For skill (or luck)

For example, in FTL Repair back to full health with only 1 HP remaining. Skilled players can risk it, for the thrill. But other players can also wait for it to happen by itself.

Other FTL examples include completing a mission in less than X minutes, or not using any weapon until sector 5. Or even taking 5 turns in a row in the card game Ascension.

07 January 2014

The social strategy game genre

Here is a quick list of games that resemble Clash of Clans in some ways. Some wargame mechanics may date back from RPGs of the 90s, such as Age of Empires, or even from tabletop wargames of old. These old games are off-limits.

Released Name Theme Description
Sep. 2004 Travian Antiquity The player can pick one of three tribes: the aggressive Teutons, defensive Gauls, and average Romans. Teuton players usually farm resources from Gaul players. Players can trade resources, message each other, and join alliances. Troops take time to produce, and can be unlocked and upgraded. A hero can equip gear, complete quests, and gain XP in battles. The game ends when a player upgrades a Wonder building to level 100. Premium accounts finance the game and have game advantages over free accounts.
June 2009 Farmville Farm Facebook game by Zynga. The player plants crops that grow with time, but wither if not harvested on time. Players can receive crops or animals from friends. In-game promotional campaigns for real-life brands like McDonalds or 7-Eleven. Reached 80M MAU and 30M DAU in Feb 2010.
March 2010 Backyard Monsters Gory monsters Facebook game by Kixeye. The design goal was to play an RTS game in short sessions. The game targets a hardcore player segment in several ways. First, the art is unusually gory, bloody, and industrial for a Facebook game, yet it was praised as the prettiest game on Facebook when released. Second, the monetization relies on the players who hate losing and are ready to spend money to gain an advantage. As a result, 85% of the revenues come from selling speed ups, retention is 5x longer than other Facebook games, 97% of the player base are males between 25 and 45, and the average user plays 3-4 session per day for 30 minutes per session on average. They peaked at 4.5M MAU and 1M DAU in Summer 2011.
May 2011 Battle Pirates Warships By Kixeye. Peaked at 1.6M MAU and 240k DAU in Q4 2012. The player controls a military island, and can be attacked synchronously, in real-time, by the boats of other players. Watch some gameplay.
Aug. 2011 Edgeworld Aliens Facebook game by Kabam. 610k MAU in Dec 2011. The developers did not expect players to be attacking each other for resources.
Sep. 2011 War Commander Post-apocalyptic Facebook game by Kixeye. Peaked at 5.2M MAU and 660k DAU in Sep 2012.
Aug. 2012 Clash of Clans Medieval Norse One month of soft launch: first released in beta on the Canadian iOS appstore in July 2012, then on all iOS appstores in August 2012. Released on Android in October 2013. Supercell had two goals: adapting the genre for the tablet, and bringing new segments to the genre. The name of the strongest unit in CoC, P.E.K.K.A., reminds of the name of the strongest monster in Backyard Monsters: D.A.V.E.. Some say that CoC is Backyard Monsters with polish. Troops are consumed if they are deployed in battle: even if it stays alive until the battle times out, the player loses the troop for ever. A lot of community management and communication goes on between SuperCell and the players through the forums or Facebook. Depending on where you look, CoC had 8.5M DAU in April 2013, and 4.3M MAU and 2.7M DAU in January 2014.
July 2013 Ninja Kingdom Medieval Japan Also called Dojo Mojo. Facebook game by Zynga. The Jade Mine can only be staffed with captured enemy troops, not with the player's workers. Each captured enemy troop generate 1 jade per 24h. If destroyed by an enemy raid, all the jade in the mine is lost. 4.6M MAU and 600k DAU in January 2014.
July 2013 Battle Beach Modern warfare The troops are a complete ripoff from CoC. 21k MAU and 9k DAU in January 2014.
July 2013 Jungle Heat Modern warfare in a tropical jungle Android game by Mail.ru Games. The troops are a complete ripoff from CoC. 260k MAU and 110k DAU in January 2014.
July 2013 Castle Clash Medieval Fantasy Around 20 heroes with different skills. Twelve troops: 3 tiers of power for each of the 4 attack types: heavy (strong against ranged), ranged (beats magic), magic (beats heavy), and heavy anti-building.
Sep. 2013 Amazing Clan War Medieval Norse Blatant CoC ripoff by a Chinese company. Even the loading screens have the same layout.
Sep. 2013 Kingdom Clash Medieval fantasy Soft launch in Australia in May 2013. 5k MAU and 2k DAU in January 2014.
Sep. 2013 Total Conquest Roman Empire iOS and Android game by Gameloft. Soft launch in Canada and New Zealand app stores a month earlier. The troops are very similar to CoC, except they don't seem to fly. 100k MAU and 30k DAU in January 2014.
Oct. 2013 Lord of the Guardians Forest animals Three solo campaign modes (normal, heroic, legendary), each with 150 mission. 5k MAU and 2k DAU.
Oct. 2013 Samurai Siege Medieval Japan iOS and Android (implemented using Unity). 1.2M installs and 300k DAU when it launched, 100k MAU and 44k DAU in January 2014. Same core units as CoC. Troops and buildings are unlocked through the solo campaign. The campaign has a (mediocre) storyline. Loot items are stolen from other players. When all 6 of them are gathered, they provide an extra army camp (more troops) or a cannon (more defense). Alliance War pits groups of players against each other for 12 hours. This was probably based on the periodic trophy push organized on the CoC forums to break the farming routine.
Nov. 2013 Call to Arms WWII Developed by GREE. Soft launch in October. Lets you simulate an attack on your own base.
Nov. 2013 Galaxy Factions Space A month of soft launch. 10 heroes and 12 units.
Dec. 2013 Boom Beach Pearl Harbor Soft launch in November. Developed by SuperCell. Troops that stay alive at the end of a battle are available in the next battle. The player can direct the units to attack a particular building through flares. Explore the ocean (at a cost) to find islands controlled by NPCs and other players. Attacking a neighbor player also has a cost. Nearby captured islands generate resources for you. The units are inspired from Team Fortress.
Dec. 2013 Dark District Dystopian futuristic city Developed by Kabam. 6 months of soft launch, probably because of all the crashes and bugs. Assign your troops a building to attack.
Dec. 2013 Sensei Wars Medieval China and Japan Soft launch in New Zealand and Australia in October. Developed by 2k Play. 3D graphics. One hero available from the start. Heroes gain levels and learn skills. There is a skill tree, and skills can be reset by paying the hard in-game currency.

Improving the genre

In-game base building: During the first few weeks, shuffling the dozen-or-so buildings around and trying a new base design is quick and easy. Three months later, the village holds around 80 buildings and there is little room to move buildings around. Since players can't design their base in-game anymore, they turn to unofficial websites where they can share their designs and receive feedback. This is bad because 1) it's a feature needed by the players, and it's missing from the game, and 2) the game developers lose touch with their players.

Community: CoC clones do not have a large community. In fact, very few of them have a community at all. The CoC player community is large, and provides valuable feedback and ideas to SC for free! The recipe is simple: the large amount of player suggestions and feedback is filtered by the community managers who then forward the key parts to the developers. For example, a player sketched out a very convenient in-game base builder in the SC forums on September 11. 20 days later SC released a patch with a simpler version of that player's idea. In my opinion, the community is crucial for innovation and polish, and none of the clones have it.

Innovating the core mechanics: The clones must innovate if they want to have people playing their game. A player wrote: if I had invested a ton of money in Clash of Clans, I would find it unlikely that I would do that again in a game that is so similar. I think there is a spectrum of innovation. On one side, Amazing Clan War is a blatant ripoff of CoC (see the CoC vs Amazing Clan War loading screens below). When your power in the game is all about how much time you have been playing for, why would you switch? Most other clones are heavily inspired by CoC, but add, tweak, or twist a couple elements. Yet the core mechanics remain unchanged since Backyard Monsters! For example, all games have the slow meat-shield troops luring defense buildings and the fast and weak troops targeting resources. On the other hand, the hero skill tree in Sensei Wars, the jade mine of Ninja Kingdom, or the 12-hour inter-alliance war in Samurai Siege are very promising PvP concepts, but they're too shy and peripheral to really matter.

Soft launches: CoC clones follow CoC's formula to launch the game in Canada, Australia, or New Zealand one or two months before worldwide release. But since CoC clones are all about time, soft launches give a head start of a couple months to some privileged players. That is probably why SC had no trouble giving new players 500 gems to catch up when they released the game worldwide. Of course the Canadian players who had started playing during the soft launch were not happy - they missed out on 500 gems! How could a game soft-launch and make everyone happy?