When thinking about video games creation, one often comes up with the cooking metaphor: making a great game is like cooking a great dish. You need a great recipe of course, but not only that: you need to execute it in a great way, with masterful technique, genuine inspiration and a big heart.
In this post today, we’ll focus on one part of Clash Royale’s recipe: the game design ingredients that we can identify as already appearing in other extremely successful competitive games, from Chess to League of Legends.é
But before we get there, let me tell you a bit more about why I find Clash Royale to be such an interesting game to focus on.
Studying the Secret Sauce of Esports Success
I’ve had an interest in the creation and life of top esports games for a long time, a very long time by esports standards. I’d say my passion ignited when DotA started to become really big in the mid-2000’s.
How could a game designed by the community and without a marketing budget be way more successful than Blizzard’s own Starcraft and Warcraft 3? (if you’re curious, here’s a video by Jinzo telling the complicated story behind DotA’s genesis)
And if you came to think about it: the same question could be asked about Counter-Strike, which also had come out of nowhere and without a marketing budget a few years before. (here’s an interview I conducted with its creator if you’d like to hear more on that one)
Asking myself these questions for a long time, very often and with passion led me to, among other things, consulting for the gaming industry and doing Gamoloco.
My interest also got me invited to talk at a couple events, including the Game Connection in Paris 2 years ago. In this talk, I said at the end that the next barrier for esports was the one at the entrance. As it stands, it is still way too high for MOBA’s or Counter-Strike to become as big as the most popular sports out there such as football and basketball.
One of the biggest upsides of football is that no human being needs to learn how kicking a ball works, and almost every human being will consider it is fun to do it, even my grandma to a certain extent. If esports are to beat regular sports in mainstream popularity, and my guess is they will, it will happen with games that have that kind of instant, universal fun at their core.
Practically speaking, I said back then for esports to grow beyond the success that League of Legends has been enjoying we’d need a game that would be really easy to get into, while still offering a very deep experience for those willing to play it on a daily basis over the years.
Enters Clash Royale
I wasn’t expecting anything from Clash Royale, I didn’t even know it was coming out. But when I first tried it I was struck as I thought it had the potential to be that game I was thinking of back at Game Connection. Both super easy to get into, way easier than any currently available esports game, and still extremely deep and replayable.
And somehow I didn’t see the fact that is was a mobile game as something that would prevent it from making it as an esports platform. It was almost the contrary actually.
Tapping on a screen is one of the almost-universally accepted easy and fun moves of our time, maybe not as fun as kicking a ball but still not bad and very accessible. And it’s the only physical mechanic at stakes in CR. What an amazing basis that is; not as good as football maybe, but a lot like it still.
On the other side of the spectrum, I felt CR was very very deep, and after 6 months of playing daily and watching tons of videos and the community grow I can now say it definitely is. I’m not entirely sure yet it has the depth required to become the #1 esports game out there, but it definitely has enough to become a successful esports platform.
And if Supercell can keep up with the quality and pace of its updates, which have both been stellar lately, who knows how high the game could go?
Competitive Ingredients of Clash Royale
So how does Clash Royale do it? How can Clash Royale be both instant fun and ultra deep? How can it appeal to both Candy Crush players and hardcore RTS/MOBA esports fans?
Mostly because it has genius game design!… would be kind of a cheesy answer. But in a way It‘d still be mostly right: quality game design is what triggers the emotions that will have gamers willing to play a game daily, for years.
But how can we characterize genius game design? There would be many ways and at the same time it could be impossible to do it thoroughly. Video games are such complex pieces.
So for for here and now, we’ll focus on one analysis lead among many other potential ones. We’re going to explore what key game design elements, or interaction mechanics, from other successful competitive games we can identify in Supercell’s most recent title.
Here’s my list of 24 below. I guess it’s not exhaustive so feel free to share the matches you found that I might have missed.
With all the respect and love I have for Starcraft, Clash Royale just stole the “video game version of Chess” title from it.
Clash Royale and Chess are 1v1 games in which…
- both players own a King and the first player to kill the opponent’s is declared the winner
- both players have to use a little army to achieve their goal
- both players get the exact same amount of resources dealt to them all along the game
- the Kings can defend themselves, only very poorly
- the Kings start at opposite ends of the board, at the center in Clash Royale and almost at the center in Chess (also worth noting: in Clash Royale, the King can’t move at all)
- the battle is played on a board made of square tiles
- each unit has its own unique “move & attack” pattern
— Hearthstone (and Trading Card Games in general)
In Clash Royale and Hearthstone…
- you have to collect cards which are randomly found in packs or chests, depending on the game
- packs and chests can be earned by winning in the game or bought through micropayments
- cards are tagged with various rarity levels that determine how often you can get them in above mentionned packs or chests
- the collected cards are used to build decks used in battle
- using a card in battle requires players to spend mana or elixir
- both players get the exact same amount of resources dealt to them all along the game
- the goal is to kill the opponent’s main character, whether the King or Hero
- the respective “Challenge Mode” and “Arena Mode” share the almost exact same design mechanics
— Warcraft 1, 2 & 3/ Starcraft (and Real-Time Strategy Games in general)
In Warcraft 1, 2 & 3/Starcraft and in Clash Royale…
- battles are played in real-time
- the basic unit combo is a “tank” unit in the front protecting a “damage-dealing” unit in the back
- attacks and spells work in the same way and follow the same categories: they deal direct damage (dd) or damage over time (dot) and can get associated with slow, stun, splash and displace effects
— DotA / League of Legends (and MOBA’s in general)
Since MOBA’s are an evolution of RTS games in general and Warcraft 3 in particular, they also share the 3 design features listed right above with Clash Royale.
On top of that, in DotA / League of Legends and Clash Royale…
- players need to destroy a building that’s located at the opposite side of the map
- players need to choose from several lanes on their way to the ultimate goal
- there’s a river in the middle of the playing field, forcing players to meet at a few locations where it can be crossed
In Clash Royale and Counter-Strike…
- players have to choose between 2 paths when attacking
- a round or battle ends every 1.5 to 6 minutes, roughly
- players know when the round or battle is going to end as the information is provided by a timer displayed during matches
So now we have a better of idea of the richness of competitive game design references that can be found in Clash Royale. Considering how many and how strong they are it would have been very easy to mix them in a bad way only to cook a dish that doesn’t taste very good in the end.
Beyond game design theory, it is almost unbelievable how Supercell could combine all of these features so that they work together as well as they do and provide such a high quality gaming experience.
Despite the hints above, I can’t really say how the Finnish studio managed to get their game there but one thing is for sure: they put a lot of effort in getting proven esports design mechanics to work while making them much more accessible than the original versions.
ie: Clash Royale has decks just like Hearthstone, but there’s only 8 cards/deck instead of 32… yet decks are still a major feature of CR.
Also beyond game design there are many other things that Supercell has been doing really well for Clash Royale to perform like it has including art direction, technical excellence, marketing, PR, advertising and more.
In any case, if you’re curious about how a new game grows into a major esports platform, I’d suggest you keep an eye on Clash Royale.