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Ranking Rush - How Free2Play Almost Got Me

This blog post describes rookie ranking systems in Rage of Bahamut free to play game published by DeNa, from the perspective of rather conservative core gamer, and how it hooks up new players focused competitively.

The 'free to play' mobile market is a thing that I actually pretty much missed. For many years I was a core PC gamer, switching to consoles in the last two years. I hardly played any mobile games, with the exception of Bejeweled, which wasn't exactly the experience that I would seek, and some of the browser games (like Travian or O-Game) were not satisfying and did not match my usual gaming pattern of long, exhausting gaming sessions.

But recently I found out that my PC is old, my TV set is malfunctioning and I am getting out of touch with fresh releases and the scene overall. That was the turning point to start researching mobile space. I started with free-to-play titles from the Top Grossing charts in the Android market (Google Play nowadays) and played most of them, ditching only the few which were so blatantly exploitative that I couldn't stand them. Inspired by this article, I focused mainly on Rage of Bahamut (RoB), published by DeNa and featuring extremely simple mechanics.

Rage of Bahamut is collectible-oriented free-to-play, with microtransactions prevalent and highly pushed to the player. It utilizes energy (stamina) system, used for completing quests, and battle energy system, allowing the player to fight other players. It also uses a Rookie login bonus (daily login bonus rewarding new players for coming back, with a grand prize on the 7th day of playing). But the thing that I found most engaging and compelling, was the Rookie Battle Ranking system.

In Rage of Bahamut, the overall ranking standing is determined by daily Honor Points aquired by the player. These can be generated only by fighting the other players through confronting your deck with theirs. The battle itself is extremely simplified - each 5 card "deck" has ATK and DEF stats, which are compared when the battle begins. There are some skills boosting up ATK/DEF of other cards or the whole "deck", but that is all. Also, each card has an ATK PWR cost. When you create a deck, you have limited ATK PWR points (raised and regenerated after LVL UP) and you have to take into consideration the cost of each card. ATK to ATK PWR ratio gets significantly better when using cards of higher rarity (obtained mainly by IAPs).

The game itself suggests the deck with the highest available ATK when attacking another player, with an option to pick a player-created deck instead. The suggested deck always consumes the highest possible amount of ATK PWR, forcing the player to wait for regeneration or to proceed to the Quest section in order to level up and thus regenerate ATK PWR. After this, the player can attack again and gain more Honor. Fighting strong decks rewards the player with more Honor points.

That approach creates two different paths to improve one's ranking - the player can either battle a lot of weak opponents with "cheap" (low ATK PWR) decks or try to beat strong opponents with high-cost decks. My calculations showed that usually it is better to "farm" weak decks for Honor, but this is slow and IMO not very pleasant - picking the weakest to bully is not my thing at all.

After this rather lenghty explanation of the battle system, let's get to the point. RoB has two separate ranking systems, and one of them is aimed for new players. It's called Rookie Battle Ranking and you're ranked in it for 3 days after your first login. As RoB is based around fighting other players (the Quest system is made solely for the purpose of building weak decks and leveling up), this immediately hooks new players into the game and its competitive side. But the satisfaction is brought not only by beating other players and moving higher on the leaderboards, but also by very real (in the game's world) rewards, depending on a ranking position after the Rookie period is over. This includes powerful cards and items regenerating stamina/ATK PWR, giving those who rank high a real advantage in later games. This drive for power actually got me hooked intensely - I enjoy breaking things and exploiting different systems, and when there is more power on the horizon included - you got me.

To sum things up - I played RoB INTENSELY for the first 3 days. I calculated ATK PWR/ATK ratios, counted exact time to stamina/ATK PWR regeneration to level up and be able to fight, used free items granted by quests and did all the things that I could do to break the rank, with one exception - I did not use IAPs. After the ranking period, I was around #50, with about ten players above me looking like they do purchase items for stamina/ATK PWR regen (estimation based on the player level), and the rest with unreasonably high levels, probably achieved by regenerating Stamina through IAPs. To be fair - that was satisfying, but also a bit terrifying for me - this was the first time I got so much into a game, that I would literally wake up earlier to use my stamina before breakfast, level up, battle, have breakfast and morning routine, have stamina regenerated, level up, battle and go out to work. That was intense and that was addictive, albeit I felt a bit of disgust that I got so deep into it.

Then the Rookie Period was over and the magic was gone. I collected my rewards (powerful cards, exclusive card packs), which would make me go wild the day before - I could smash other Rookies with that stuff! And then I entered the regular Battle Ranking System and checked on my position. It was something around #50,000 instead of my #50. Suddenly, I was overwhelmed by the fact that there are so many people in front of me. Furthermore, all of these fantastic rewards were switched to a rather elusive promise of obtaining Gems (one of three in-game currencies) in small quantities. To get anything "real", I would have to play at least a few weeks, to farm up Gems from many Ranking periods (awards are given out each week, based on your standing).

Next day I spent a few stamina points, battled someone and uninstalled the game. Now I wonder what actually happened - how I got so deep into the game in the first place, and how come I rejected it immediately after the first rush was gone. And, moreover, how this could be improved. As for now, one main idea comes to mind - parting up Battle Rankings into leagues (similar to Stacraft's solution), dependent on the level or previous Battle Ranking standings.

Feel free to comment and share your opinions and ideas, as this is my first Gamasutra post and any feedback would be extremely welcome.

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