This post was first published on my blog where I regularly discuss game design and monetization topics.
In the first part of this series, I investigated the finer details of how Supercell tweaked the hook phase in Boom Beach – their latest strategy title, in light of the know-how the company acquired from managing Clash of Clans – its first strategy hit. In the second part of the series, I continue the deep-dive, juxtaposing analysis by looking at the second key phase in a freemium game – the habit. The dissection begins with the three most obvious and impactful differences that shape the games’ habit phases and mid-game user experiences. Then adhering to the key components for creating a great habit phase, I examine additional important design differences and their impact. To spread the content equally between the three parts, I decided to discuss the last and most important ingredient of a great habit phase – the game’s sustainable economy, in the third part of the series where I will conclude the analysis by also looking deeper into the differences in design employed by the hobby phases of the two titles.
One of the most prominent differences between Boom Beach and Clash of Clans is the fact that in Boom Beach there are no clans and there is no global chat or any other player-to-player communication mean. While the lack of clans has had some negative impact on the hook phase of Boom Beach (Clash of Clans’ approach of placing a damaged clan building in the middle of the player’s base can strongly arouse the curiosity of some), there is no doubt that the main negative influence on KPIs is experienced by Boom Beach in its habit and hobby phases. As I have already emphasized this heavily in Freemium Mobile Games: Design & Monetization, the truly social players – those who are regularly engaged in global chat or actively attempting to climb the ladder in a clan’s leaderboard, exhibit tremendously better KPIs. Time spent in the game, ARPU/ARPPU and number of IAPs of social players are commonly reported by developers as being 5 to 20 times higher than the same KPIs across non-social players. Adding to that the fact that almost all whales are social and given the opportunity they would gladly spend on forwarding not only their own, but their teammates’ progress as well, it becomes quite clear that Boom Beach’s refusal to introduce meaningful social interaction has been dragging the game’s performance down since launch. Having in mind that even a newbie designer can come up with a reasonably well functioning clan system inside the Boom Beach framework, the rationale behind those missed opportunities could only be Supercell’s decision to differentiate the two titles. As Boom Beach is a lot more mid-core and a lot more whale oriented game, there is no doubt that this is a costly mistake. On top of that, Supercell increased the negative impact of this mistake by putting PvP, PvE and event opponents on the same map. While at first having a single map that gets populated with different types of opponents based on Supercell’s LTV optimizing algorithm, might seem like a cool and innovative idea for both players and developer, in fact this emphasizes the lack of player-to-player communication as it binds real players’ bases and AI bases together. The difference between a player and an AI quickly boils down to the amount of resource that can be looted and this seemingly neat system of optimized streak of opponents turns into a sterile and repetitive environment that sounds, feels and plays like a single player game with a top 50 leaderboard.
The second prominent difference between the two titles is that the outcome of a fight in Boom Beach is binary. That is: either a player destroys an enemy headquarters and wins 100% of the offered loot or he/she fails to destroy the headquarters and gets nothing of the available loot. In Clash of Clans, disregarding whether players win or lose, they can get anywhere from 0% to 100% of the loot, as attacking only the resource storage and production buildings allows players to collect the loot they need. This is another fundamental differentiation point between the two titles and the revamped mechanic in Boom Beach can be seen as a direct consequence of the game’s core design. As mentioned in the first part of this series, at its core Boom Beach is designed to have complete monopoly over the enemies that players can battle and by making the outcome of a fight binary, Supercell can exercise better control over the frustration levels of its players. To put this in simple terms: winning a battle equals gaining resources and therefore the player is happy enough for Supercell to show him/her tougher opponents with better loot to incentivize him/her to progress further in the game, but losing a battle means the player has not gained resources and to counter his/her increasing frustration he/she will either pay to progress or at some point will automatically get an easier opponent, courtesy of Supercell, when it is in the company’s best interest to do so (usually some churn probability and LTV prediction systems would determine the exact timing). As winning and gaining resources are independent from each other in the Clash of Clans framework, the control Supercell can exercise over the player frustration levels is a lot less accurate.
This new binary approach to the action phase has definitely improved Boom Beach’s retention by streamlining player behavior towards the core fun element in a tower defense game – protecting the main building, rather than leaving that main building defenseless in order to protect your resources (a well known loophole in the design of Clash of Clans). However, this drastically different approach also has many downsides. Firstly, it takes away part of the offensive fun – the strategic attacks against stronger bases that have not protected well the resource a player needs. Secondly, in combination with the core design, the action phase with a binary outcome has led to undesirable side effects such as:
- Having large discrepancies between the resources won by an attacker and the resources lost by the defender, which can easily lead to inflation and uncontrolled progress across the board;
- Substituting the superb retention mechanic of player shielding after each attack with a vault that protects a percentage of resources in any attack, but does not limit the number of attacks;
- Boring trial and error procedure for succeeding against a difficult base rather than the skillful single attempt experience that would make sense in the less casual framework of Boom Beach.
The downsides and the benefits balance each other out and in the end the newly implemented alternative action phase winning condition does not constitute significant improvement in user experience or KPIs, but it definitely differentiates the two titles quite well.
The third obvious difference between the two titles lies in the action phase dynamics. In the first part of this series I already mentioned the significant difference in average battle length between the two titles, but what’s even more important is that in Boom Beach the cost of casting spells during fights has been brought down to zero. From a user standpoint this is the biggest improvement of the action phase while from a game design perspective this is a curious decision by Supercell that hints at two conclusions. Firstly, the spells in Clash of Clans account for less than 5% of the total revenues, because otherwise Supercell simply wouldn’t risk it. This is not really surprising as there are objective reasons for the low turnout: spells are priced very low, but their use is discouraged by hours of production waiting times; spells require too much skill for the game’s casual audience; the game fails to create a need for spells; etc. Secondly, players who use spells exhibit better KPIs. Not quite surprising as well, as those who can afford skipping the spells’ waiting times and resort to this extra step in order to win a fight must be a lot more engaged and much deeper into the habit phase. Validating and cross-referencing those two facts with the terabytes of Clash of Clans data, Supercell has decided to turn things upside-down by completely removing both waiting times and resource costs in Boom Beach. They have designed heavy spell usage as a necessity for winning practically every battle in the game in an attempt to improve the action phase user experience and that has successfully lifted player engagement and retention more than enough to compensate for the lost revenue from gifting and not selling spells.
Now that we understand the three core designs that shape the habit phase of Boom Beach into something quite distinct from the habit phase of Clash of Clans, I move on to analyze further design differences between the two titles in the context of the key components for a superb habit phase: goals and sessions, retention mechanics and game economy.
When it comes to implicit goals, Boom Beach follows the success of its older brother closely and bets on the same loop of players attacking each other in order to understand and reevaluate their offensive and defensive strategies throughout the habit phase. To the familiar Clash of Clans process of reordering towers, switching the position of traps and changing army composition, Boom Beach has made a great addition that reinforces the loop – a random drop system (the statues) which allows players to specialize into offense, defense or resource generation. This new game mechanic is flawlessly introduced in the early habit phase and players are hinted at the implicit goal of acquiring the best statues as means to abuse or break the game’s economy and action phase. This naturally leads players to a lot of strategizing and long-term goal setting targeted at exploiting certain design loopholes that have been purposefully implemented by Supercell to serve as a beacon for non-paying and paying players alike and the impossibility to purchase statues for diamonds only strengthens the exclusivity feel and the motivation to progress.
In terms of explicit goals, both games use analogous systems: they teach players the core loop and how to progress during the tutorial and then provide them with major milestones to strive for in the form of achievement systems which reward hard currency. Where the two games differ tremendously is the goal setting of AI opponents. While Clash of Clans places AI opponents on a typical campaign map with a standard step-by-step gating in which every defeated enemy unlocks a harder and more profitable AI base, in Boom Beach the PvE opponents are thrown on the world map in no specific order and defeating them is usually a very frustrating experience. Having in mind Boom Beach’s AI bases usually take the same time to beat, it is a big let down to find that they require little to no strategy and provide less than a quarter of the average player or special event loot. On top of that, the AI base rewards are not dynamic with respect to the army composition and therefore it is a common occurrence for players to lose half of their army while fighting an AI base for less loot than they can get with zero casualties from a player or a different AI base. Why would they attack those bases then? Well, unlike player bases, the only way an AI base can be switched is by defeating it. Which brings us to the last nail in the Boom Beach PvE coffin – the AI bases continue to spawn ad-infinitum, without a break. Quite often, half an hour after a player has completely cleared the whole world map of adversaries, there will be 5-10 new bases waiting to be defeated again. This is a rational way to build the system on top of the core game design, but at the same time it is extremely psychologically abusive to the players who are bluntly asked to roll Sisyphus’ boulder. To put this in context, as the player has no control over the matchmaking process, the opponents chosen by Supercell and placed on the world map are the only source of loot, so regenerating those bases is a necessity, but at the same time returning to a world map which was cleared of all enemies a few hours ago and is now swarming with enemies again is by far the worst user experience a Supercell game has to offer. This is such a fundamental flaw of the game design that my rough guess is a rework of the world map and the AI opponents framework that includes a clearly conveyed goal structure and better PvE experience could potentially improve the game’s 7 day and 30 day retention by 20-40%.
A big part of Boom Beach’s failure to monetize on par with Clash of Clans is its worse retention. I have already underlined a number of problems that exacerbate the issue, but in fact the major underlying cause for those troubles, apart from Boom Beach coming out to the market second and it being less casual, is the way in which Boom Beach disincentivizes both short and long sessions.
Let us start with the short sessions. The most crucial difference here is something we already mentioned – Clash of Clans’ shield system was removed in favor of the vault system. To understand how this seemingly minor design change drastically affects players without going into too much detail, let’s consider the case of players in the early habit phase of both games. Every attack in Clash of Clans while the players are at Town Hall levels 1-5 results in the player losing at most 20% of their resources collected into the storage. Every such attack would automatically activate 16 hours of shield during which the player is guaranteed to not lose any more resources. In Boom Beach for the analogous early habit phase of Headquarters levels 1-8 we have an average vault protection of ~41%, which translates into every attack robbing players of ~59% of their collected into storage resources. Note also, that a successful attack against you in Boom Beach does not in any way stop other players from attacking you immediately afterwards. What this means for the regular Boom Beach users is that if they can make 1,000 resource in a 5 minutes session, but they need 3,000 resource for their next upgrade, investing those 5 minutes is completely useless as the next time they join they will have lost ~59% of all their resources in the case of one successful attack against them, ~83% in the case of 2 successful attacks against them and ~93% in the case of three successful attacks against them. I must note here that getting attacked more than 40 times a week (5-6 times a day), is a common occurrence in Boom Beach. When we add to those grim stats, the rough player experience estimates:
- the average Boom Beach fight is two times as long as the average Clash of Clans fight;
- usually looking for the best opponent in Boom Beach takes longer than the actual fight;
- the random elements in the action phase force players to restart a fight about once on average;
we get a clear picture of how short sessions are not just severely punished by Boom Beach, but also extended to at least 10 minutes and representing a rather masochistic way of “playing” the game. Since battles don’t provide experience or any other permanent, tangible user progress with certainty (wink at the randomly dropped statue components), all a short session can give a player is resources, 90% of which are practically guaranteed to be lost before the player’s next login. As I have elaborately explained in Freemium Mobile Games: Design & Monetization, not having a core loop and something relevant to do in a game, which can be finished in under three minutes is a recipe for disaster. Short sessions matter a lot more for habitualizing players than any other straight retention mechanics and rather than introducing another submarine to the game, Supercell would do themselves a favor if they rethink their short session incentives and counteract the currently existing short session disincentives.
The main disincentives Boom Beach provides against long sessions are three. Number one – in Boom Beach playing more than four hours in a day will automatically put your base into interruptible mode. Once you enter interruptible mode, the fact that you are online no longer protects your base from enemy raids and neither does it protect you from losing your current resources. Number two – waiting times as early as Headquarters level 5, go up to 5 hours. While this number is definitely dwarfed by the weeks of waiting time encountered in Clash of Clans, it is still large enough to disincentivize longer sessions. The single worker policy of Boom Beach strongly incentivizes rational players to stop playing after they have started a construction, because in the alternative scenarios they would have to either play for 5 more hours or speed up the construction with diamonds or keep fighting for resources, 90% of which will be gone by the next time they login. Number three – the players’ bases are part of the matchmaking system only while they are online. This means that any time you are online and players around the world press the “find new opponent” button or automatically get a new enemy placed on their world map, there is a positive chance that the new enemy on their map is your base. Therefore, every time a player makes a long session in Boom Beach, he/she is increasing the probability of getting multiple raids shortly after.
In conclusion to this second part of the Clash of Clans vs. Boom Beach analysis, we note the interesting choice Supercell made to shift the type of core retention mechanics employed. While in Clash of Clans the retention mechanics were predominantly using negative incentivization – joining the game as often as possible in order to transfer resources towards the storages and to avoid losing too much of what is still in the mines/collectors, in Boom Beach the positive incentivization is emphasized – diamonds randomly dropped on the world map, coming back for a daily reward based on your victory points, coming back to collect transport ships from the islands and resource bases (the resources they bring can never be lost during raids), coming back to get what the submarine has dived for, etc. While Clash of Clans still had some minor retention mechanics that tried to positively incentivize players to login – the alliance system and the clearing of obstacles for a chance to gain gems, Boom Beach has no negative retention incentivization whatsoever. This is a very irrational decision, having in mind the piling up psychological research that convincingly shows negative incentives – those that demand actions from individuals in order to avoid a loss, outperform positive incentives – those that motivate individuals through additional gains. The lower retention numbers of Boom Beach definitely go in line with that research and it is really hard to believe there is no one at Supercell taking notes.