Brawl Stars has had rocky beginnings. In soft launch for 522 days, the game received multiple complete progression and gameplay overhauls. Analysts doubted Supercell would release a new major hit, pointing out among other things the game monetization scheme, weak controls, or overall battle mechanics. Yet one year after its global launch, sensor tower recorded a revenue of 422 million dollars, making it Supercell 3rd biggest game in its portfolio in terms of revenues, and the game was among the top 10 most watched video games on Youtube in 2019. Thanks to relentless tweaks and improvements to the user experience and a strong core fanship, the game can now be called a success. I believe one of the key aspects that made such a strong retention possible is the game’s ability to feel continually fresh. So here I want to revisit some of Brawl Stars key design choices regarding its event system (1), character design and progression (2) to see what we can learn from them.
- Rotating event system
The most common formula for action free to play games are a main game mode, always accessible to players, and regular events that supplement it in various ways (extra game mode, special item sales, ingame special competition, item collection for reward etc.). Brawl Stars subverts this by making every playable game mode an event of its own.
At present there are a total of seven team and solo events and three “ticket events”. These include a 10 player battle royal event called showdown, that can be played alone or with one other player. Other modes are 3v3: there is “gem grab”, where a team has to keep 10 gems spawning on the map for 10 seconds; Brawl Ball a 2 point deadly football game; Bounty a deathmatch mode etc. Playing these events gives player tokens that are used to open loot boxes.
Ticket events pit players against robot AI in Robo Rumble and Boss Fight or five players against one overpowered player in Big Game. The token rewards in ticket events are significantly higher but players must use tickets to be able to participate, that they need to buy or get in loot boxes, thus introducing a soft paywall. Each of these events can be played on different maps that rotate with time. In all, from the 10 game events there is a total of 60 active maps cycling through this system.
All these events rotate at a different time. Ticket events are only available during the weekend. But players can at any time play up to four different team and solo events, plus a special game mode for the duration of a season. These events rotate every 24 hours but start with a 6 hours difference, so that players can discover up to 4 new events throughout the day. Finally there are power play events which can only be played by players who have maxed out their character ( we’ll come back to that).
This system keeps the game feeling fresh by letting you play different game modes on different maps throughout the day. But players who have a higher winning rate or just prefer a specific game mode could just focus on it and give up on the rest. To avoid this situation, the game nudges players to play other modes with its reward system. Everyday there are 200 tokens that players can earn by playing the game events. Earning 100 tokens opens 1 small lootbox. In addition, players winning a new event earn a single star token, 10 star tokens opens 1 medium size lootbox. This way, players have the incentive of playing all events, even the ones they are less comfortable with, thus keeping the game feeling fresh.
Brawl Stars managed to avoid the common feeling of monotony from playing casual shooters by offering different game types, making them cycle, and nudging the player to experience them all. And with its progression system, it also pushes the player to master all the characters.
- Character design and game progression
Another way of keeping the game fresh is to get the player involved with all the different available characters. Brawl Stars does this in two ways: with its character progression system, and with its event design.
Players progress through the game rankings by earning trophies. Winning or losing trophies depends on the outcome of playing solo and team events. But the amount of trophies awarded decreases with the amount a character has already won.
The more you play and rank up a character, the lesser the reward, inciting the player to avoid sticking to a few characters and play through their whole roster. Also every two weeks, trophies are reset, and brawlers that hold more than 550 cups will lose some of their cups above 550. In exchange for the lost cups the player receives star points that can be spent in the shop. But this system creates a problem: players who have ranked and leveled up their favorite character may feel like it's too risky to play them again. This is why Supercell introduced the aforementioned Power Play mode. The mode is reserved for characters that have reached level 10. Instead of losing or earning cups, players earn points that are converted into star power every two weeks. But this mode can only be played three times per day.
It is worth noting that the characters in Brawl Stars are not designed to be equally balanced for every event. A big part of the challenge when playing an event is to pick the right combination of brawlers. The challenge for the developers is to balance the characters to be stronger or weaker for the right amount of events. A character like Piper, that does long range high damage attack is a must have in Bounty mode (the deathmatch mode). But she is a weak character for Brawl Ball where characters with shorter range and higher health are more appropriate. Even looking closer at each event, some brawlers deemed overpowered in a certain mode may be weak on a certain map. This is the case for the Bounty map Snake Prairie, a map mostly covered by bush where brawlers can hide. In this map, Piper has no vision to kill characters from afar, thus being only the 12th brawler in winning rate.
Top10 Brawler winning rate for the map Snake Prairie. Source: Starlist.pro
With its event system Brawl Stars pushes the player to try different brawlers, whether it's to get a bigger reward or getting the right brawler for the right map.
A few days ago, Supercell’s CEO Ilkka Paananen released a blog post on the future of his company as it enters its second decade. He mentioned his wish to keep the company small and slowing down its growth. Brawl Stars was made by a small, dedicated team. In terms of content, since its release in soft launch, the game has only 33 brawlers (Arena of Valor released in the west in a similar time frame, has 85 heroes). Yet the game maintained a strong retention over time, thanks to a holistic game design that binds progression, character and event design together, in a way that fosters high replayability. It's a good lesson on how to do more with less.