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Fast Following Clash Royale - the Case of Star Wars: Force Arena

Netmarble launched their Clash Royale inspired Star Wars game just under a month ago. On paper, this game sounded like a sure shot but since launch, the game has all but disappeared from the top charts. This post answers to why the game failed.

Michail Katkoff, Blogger

February 13, 2017

21 Min Read

Four Reasons Why Star Wars: Force Arena Fell Short from Clash Royale

Netmarble’s much anticipated and Clash Royale inspired Star Wars: Force Arena (SWFA) launched on 11th of January worldwide after spending just little over 2 months in soft launch. As expected, the game quickly shot on top of the download charts and cracked into top 50 grossing ranks as well. But after the first promising week, SWFA went into a free fall as the featuring fueled installs dropped to a tenth and the revenue dropped by two-thirds.

On paper, SWFA looks like a bulletproof concept. You take the ever-growing Star Wars IP, combine it with Clash Royale gameplay and hero-centered control elements. But in the wild the game falls flat despite the IP, the proven and further innovated gameplay, the beautiful graphics, and the extensive amount of content.

Two weeks post launch Star Wars: Force Arena was on its way out from top 100 downloads and grossing list on the key market (iPhone, USA). This drop is driven by dwindling user base as it seems that Netmarble is doing hardly any player acquisition post launch. The reason not to invest in marketing is likely low lifetime values due to low monetization and retention. (data by Reflection)

This post highlights the key differences between Star Wars: Force Arena and Clash Royale and hopes to answer why the latter one is a smash success and the former is 'just' a good game.


#1 The Heroes

The most obvious and impactful difference between Clash Royale and SWFA is the player-controlled hero. The heroes in SWFA are a combination of champions in hero brawlers and heroes in Hearthstone. Each hero is individually controlled and has either a melee or ranged auto-attack in addition to one special ability and a unique passive skill. Once players cast the hero ability, usually a powerful area attack, the ability will go on a cooldown.

Yet the heroes in SWFA are much more than just powerful units capable of dealing significant damage with their direct attack and unique abilities. You see, unlike in hero brawlers, the heroes in SWFA are responsible for spawning units onto the lanes. Players can spawn a unit next to them by simply tapping on the card in their hand or they more often need to drag the card from their hand and strategically place it. If the player’s hero is taken down, the player can’t spawn new units from their deck until their hero has respawned.

Heroes are at the center of gameplay. Each individually controlled hero has a uniquely active and passive skill. If player's hero falls, the player can't place cards until their hero has re-spawned.

Heroes in SWFA also play a crucial role in the metagame. The player can have up to four different active decks at a time. Two for the Rebels and two for the Empire. Each of the four decks is built around a specific hero and the hero’s unique skills play a significant role in what kind of cards player will pick into their hero specific deck. For example, I like having cards that stun attackers in my Skywalker deck because Skywalker is a melee hero with a special ability of a powerful close-range Light Sabre attack. By stunning a wave of attackers I’m able to hold them in one place for long enough time to get Skywalker in the middle and cause massive unanswered damage. In addition to this indirect metagame effect, there’s also a very direct way the heroes affect deck buildings. Much like in Hearthstone, some cards can only be used with specific heroes. This design helps differentiate heroes further from each other. Unfortunately, there’s a very limited amount of these limited cards to make a difference.

There’s a lot of merit in having a player-controlled the hero in a lane-battler. Firstly, it adds a level of control. When playing the game, the positioning of the hero on the lane is crucial as is the takedown of opponent’s hero. Secondly, the metagame of building decks around a hero is in my mind much more intuitive than building decks in Clash Royale. With each hero as a cornerstone, the entry barrier to building and modify a deck is lower. And thirdly, I personally like battling against decks built around heroes. It’s a visual communication that helps me to form a strategy in my mind before a first unit is spawned on the map. By knowing the heroes, I can anticipate what type of strategies my opponent is likely to employ. 

But the game design elements that speak for the heroes acts also against them. The individual control of heroes turns quickly into micromanagement shifting the gameplay from strategy to action. The overwhelming role that heroes have in SWFA leads also to very tricky balancing problems. For example, Luke Skywalker deflects all shots back at attackers if you don’t move him while the Grand Inquisitor can’t deflect shots despite having a double-edged light saber. This makes Luke simply over-powered compared to most melee heroes.

Personally, I’m not a fan of how the heroes have been implemented in SWFA. But that is because I’m a fan of strategy games and enjoy more turn-based strategy where making right moves is more important than making fast moves (or taps). I feel like the added intensity of gameplay takes away from the strategic lane battling instead of adding to it.

To summarize it, I think that the added level of control is detrimental to the game design in SWFA. If you add the control to one element, you need to think about reducing elsewhere. In the case of SWFA, they could have simplified the card summoning by having the units always emerge next to hero instead of insisting that player drags and drops units like in Clash Royale.


#2 Moment-to-Moment Gameplay

As explained previously, heroes are at the core of gameplay. To win a match, the player has to keep their hero alive. Keeping hero alive requires player’s uninterrupted attention and tap accuracy. Firstly, the player has to manage their hero’s movement by tapping on the map and indicating where they want their hero to walk. Secondly, the player needs to tap on enemies they want to attack. Thirdly, a player must keep an eye on the hero ability cooldown timer as it can turn the tide of a battle in an instance. And finally, to make it a bit more complicated, heroes can also run, which requires a player to double tap at the target destination. Running consumes stamina, which is shown adjacent to the hero’s health bar. Stamina recover when hero stops running. Now, this micromanagement of a hero wouldn’t be a big deal if the player didn’t have to at the same time keep an eye on the lanes and the mini map, watch the energy bar and spawn units sometimes on to the other side of the map.

Essentially playing SWFA is like playing an action RPG and a card battler at the same time. This leads to a gameplay filled with quick taps as the player moves their hero in and out the range of attack and hastily spawns whatever units are available. In a way, the gameplay reminds me of Vainglory, except that in SWFA there’s a lot of dragging and camera movement as the player tries to spawn units on different lanes. This gameplay is a far cry from the almost turn-based gameplay of Clash Royale where players have just enough time to think and enjoy their moves or fall in despair, as the tide of the battle changes.

Playing Star Wars: Force Arena is like playing an action RPG and a lane-battler at the same time. Player's attention is focused on seven elements simultaneously: 1) current cards, energy bar, and the next available card 2) cool down for hero ability 3,4) attack lanes 5) enemy hero 6) mini-map 7) player's hero that requires constant direction

Star Wars Force Arena a strategy game at its core. Just like Clash Royale, the game is a combination of a card battler and a tower defender. But unlike Clash Royale, SWFA has added a dominant action gameplay mechanic. The problem is that the action part of the game is so overwhelming that it interferes with the strategic gameplay. I believe that card games, as well as strategy games, demand idle time to work. It’s important that players weigh their options and strategize their moves before actually committing to them. In SWFA there’s little time to think and sometimes the game feels like it’s designed to be played with a mouse and a set of keyboard hotkeys.


#3 Art Style & Visual Communication 

Star Wars Force Arena is full of beautiful 3D and 2D art, which features all the imaginable characters, units and vehicles from the vast Star Wars universe. The artwork is very detail rich, thoroughly animated and shaded - especially when you stop and marvel each of the heroes in the main UI. In all of its beauty, the art style of SWFA is the opposite of Clash Royal’s vinyl, cartoony and colorful world.

The realistic proportions, elaborate animations and rich details of SWFA art look great up close in the menu but after getting into the battle, this art style proves to be wrong for the five-and-some inch touch-screens. The heroes turn into stick figures and the lack of bright colors in combination with dark environment, apart from the all-white Hoth, tends to smash everything into a dark-brown clutter sprinkled with few white spots that are the various Stormtroopers.

The biggest issue is nevertheless the fact that it’s hard to separate units from each other whether on the game board or from the cards in player’s hand. As explained before, there’s a lot going on in every match. Players have to micromanage their hero, watch the mini-map, keep an eye on the energy bar and look at what units their opponent sends down the lane. With so many elements demanding player’s attention, it’s close to impossible to separate between nearly identical cards in their hand. Inability to see the difference between cards at glance results in the player constantly dropping wrong cards at the wrong time into a wrong spot. This leads easily to less strategic gameplay where players just drop cards as they become available.

While the art style is beautiful and details rich, it simply doesn't work on a mobile platform. Lack of distinctive silhouettes in combination with the very limited use of colors makes the units indistinguishable from each other. Above is a deck with Director Orson Krennic. All six Stormtroopers in the deck look the same both as cards and as units on the map despite having different abilities and use cases.

In addition to underwhelming visual communication during the battle, SWFA also lacks notifications to a point where it’s hurting players’ experience. For example, the game regularly fails to prompt the player to start unlocking a card pack. Since card packs are moved off the main screen, unlike in Clash Royale, players often forget to initiate the unlock timer. When there’s no unlock timer initiated, players won’t receive local notification when the unlock is ready and when/if they come back to the game, they’ll notice that they’ve missed on a pack. 

The two images above are the UIs for leagues in Clash Royale and SWFA. They both aim to convey the same information: increase your rank to unlock new cards and rewards. I think it's pretty self-evident that SWFA fails to communicate this simple information.

Finally, there’s the issue of hierarchy in the user interface. Missions, which reward player for achieving gameplay goals and thus encourage to play more, are hidden under a tiny button. Leagues and seasons suffer a similar but even worse fate. Just like in Clash Royale, the player moves up in league tiers as they win battles and earns Rating Points. But unlike in Clash Royale, league tiers feel far less meaningful despite being functionally the same. This is partly because leagues are, just like Missions, hidden under a small button. Another key reason is that unlike in Clash Royale the arenas doesn’t change visually based on player’s current league. Instead player battles randomly on different arenas that have the same layout. Since SWFE took so much from Clash Royale, I just wonder why they went against tying arenas to league tiers.

In my opinion, SWFA is yet another example of an AAA production values on a mobile touchscreen device. The game looks stunning on a large screen and I bet giving a presentation of this game playing on the background screen was a treat. But all this beauty is actually harmful on mobile, where colorful bold silhouettes and chunky visual effects trump over realistic proportions and detailed animations. 


#4 Balancing

When it comes to balancing, synchronous player versus player arena-games offers perhaps the most difficult challenge of them all. The reason is that the developer has the take two important elements into account. Firstly, the game must be fair, meaning that there can’t be any heroes, units or cards that are overwhelmingly better than others nor worse than others. Secondly, the player needs to experience progress over time. Which means that player must get better the longer they play, or the more they pay – without taking skill into account. This fairness and improvement over time are contradicting elements, which makes the balancing of these games very hard.

Clash Royale has close to perfect balancing. Every single card is useful and there are no (long-lasting) winning decks. In fact, top players tend to have very different decks. The way Supercell (and Riot, Blizzard etc.) manage the balance of their games is straightforward - not simple. Firstly, they start with a limited set of variables. In the case of Clash Royale, the game launched with half of the cards they have a year later and with only one type of arena layout. Secondly, new cards are designed with a purpose. Each card must have its place in the meta instead of being just the better versions of another card. Thirdly, new cards are simulated and heavily play-tested, both internally and through closed playtests with top players before they get released. Fourthly, the team tweaks the game based on analytics and player feedback. The goal is to keep the win ratio at 50/50 and make sure that all the cards are used throughout the game. If one card is getting too popular, it will get nerfed. Unpopular cards with low win ratio, on the other hand, get buffed up. In short, the key to a beautifully balanced game is to keep the variables at a minimum in the beginning. Only once the game is balanced developer can start slowly adding more content. Every new card should grow the metagame instead of harming it by making other cards obsolete.

I think it is fair to say that Star Wars: Force Arena is not balanced nearly as well as Clash Royale. Instead of focusing on balancing a limited set of cards first, SWFA launched with a large set of cards and heroes divided between two factions. When playing the game you'll immediately notice that Rebels are stronger than the Empire. An imbalance that escalates into matchmaking as players playing with Rebels experiences four to five times longer waiting times.

The decision makers behind the design of Star Wars Force Arena we very bullish and confident to say the least. Instead of keeping the variables at a minimum they went into the opposite direction. SWFA launched with 60 different cards, which is almost twice as much as Clash Royale had at launch. In addition to this impressive set of cards, SFWA made balancing more difficult by introducing 20 different heroes divided between two of the factions. With this amount of content combined with the variable of factions and heroes, the game would have needed at least four to six months in soft launch, but instead, it only got 2 and a half months to work on polish and tuning. This expedited schedule was likely due to the latest Rogue One movie (launching the free-to-play game with an IP and conjunction with a movie release is in my experience a recipe for a flop).

So how well balanced is Star Wars Force Arena? Well, given the fact that the odds were stacked against the developer, they have done a fair job. But if we take the valid excuse away, the balance in SWFA subpar. The first thing that player will notice is that the Rebels are far stronger, especially in the beginning than the Empire. Rebels simply have a better tank and better heroes (that damn Skywalker is a league above others). The second thing that you’ll notice is that there’s very little variety in the 30 cards player has. You have your area-of-effect attacks, defense towers, ranged units and melee units. There are no interesting units like Clash Royal’s Prince, Balloon, Skeleton Army or Hog Rider.

Matchmaking can sometimes prove to be difficult because the battles have to be Rebels against the Empire and because of the mismatch in the balance. I also think that because the cards are either Empire or Rebels, there really isn't much deck variety for the first set of levels. Even though you have around 20 cards in the beginning, it's more like having 10 cards for each side out of which 8 go into a deck. What happens is that the player is limited in what they can use, compared to Clash Royale where you start seeing deck variation almost immediately. Especially since Clash Royale gives everyone one of the three epic cards (Which / Baby Dragon / Knight) off the bat that drastically change how player plays the game. 

To summarize it, SWFA has way more variable than Clash Royale and twice as much content at launch. Yet the game spent barely enough time is soft-launch for a technical and scalability tests let alone a balancing iteration. I expect that going forward the developer must play a game of catch up. They must keep on adding more cards and heroes to keep the metagame evolving while at the same time work on balancing the existing set of cards and heroes. Personally, I wish that they would use more imagination regarding the gameplay and strategy for each card. Or at least learn better card design from Clash Royale.


Devil is in the Detail 

Clash Royale is an amazing game. In my opinion, it’s the best game ever made for mobile. But it’s not a perfect game by any means. Clash Royale is extremely grinding experience to a point where you can play it daily for a month without making any meaningful progress. The game punishes players with a losing streak for trying new cards and overall, players lose half of their battles no matter what they do. Clash Royale is also very repetitive due to lack of challenges or quests. And the game is also very stressful to a point where playing it causes you behave like an asshole.

Star Wars: Force Arena has made some nice innovations and improvements, like the two-versus-two mode and the "Trade" gacha mechanic. Yet these features are not the ones that fill the holes left by Clash Royale or compensate for the lack of balance, poor visual communication and stumbling user experience. 

If you want to compete with Clash Royale, you need more than just a strong IP. I believe it’s essential to first understand the elements that make the game so great as well as the holes in the game design. Star Wars: Force Arena clearly took a lot of the features from Clash Royale in addition to the core loop, metagame, and overall gameplay. And it’s not like Netmarble didn’t innovate either. The two-versus-two player game is a lot of fun with a friend in the same room, even though it is currently hampered by poor balancing. And the Trading feature is a solid soft currency sink. But what I feel Netmarble forgot are the intangible elements, which are often neglected as a secondary polishing task. This lack of polish in form of user experience and balancing combined with very ambitious design and absence of a strong social loop are in my opinion the reasons why Star Wars: Force Arena is a good game instead of being great.

I believe that games are first and foremost entertainment, which means that there’s no formula for “fun”. One should always learn from other games in the market but repeating what another highly successful game never seems to convert into success. The best results tend to emerge from teams that are inspired, not confined, by a chosen game. Teams that can keep the scope in check and dedicate an extensive amount of time on polishing the game long before soft launch.


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