Sent on March 4th, 2022.

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What’s the one thing that makes players satisfied about returning to a game? Games are learning machines. The fun comes from mastering the game. Why are Poker and Chess so popular? It’s because they are impossible to solve, and you can learn more as you play more. You do ten matches, a hundred matches, ten thousand matches, and you are still picking up knowledge and learning. That’s where the fun surfaces.

I want to spend time here and talk about some examples in mobile games that illustrate the meaning of learning the game through its core gameplay, which consists of the moment-to-moment gameplay. I’ll start with my favorite mobile game of all time.

Marvel: Contest of Champions

In Marvel, the game gives you a basic character who can punch, block and have their power moves. It’s quite an intense moment-to-moment gameplay.

But there’s so much more to the game. Once you’ve learned the basics, you start getting specialized characters, which you can’t master quickly. They require timing, learning character animations to time your actions, what the opponent is doing, and all the combos and skills.

You got skills to learn: Parry, which is about finding the right frame in the animation, just before the opponent’s attack lands, to stun the opponent. Other skills include bating out special attacks, dexterity to evading special attacks, chaining attacks with special attacks, baiting, etc.

All the variance that happens in the matches creates a tonne of learning experiences. Which character is good against what character, etc. And because Marvel has these character specials, they can add more Marvel characters and generate new learning experiences with lots of nuances.

Now let’s talk about another game that does things well in its moment-to-moment gameplay.

Golf Clash

In Golf Clash, you first learn how to hit the ball by hitting the “bullseye.” But the novelty dies up soon. The feeling of mastering the bullseye isn’t deep. The fun of learning comes from reading how the arrow moves over the area, how it swirls and turns.

Then you start understanding that the harder you want to hit the ball, the faster the arrow swirls.

The Golf Clash team has many meaningful variables to play around with: the wind, the terrain, the Golf equipment. Players are challenged to learn, and they love it.

Comparing games in the same genre with the same audience

Now I want to compare a few games with the same audience and why the other one is doing much better than their competitor.

Let’s start with two games where the moment-to-moment again matters the most.

Brawl Stars versus Zooba

The word on the street is that Brawl Stars from Supercell is making a million dollars a day, and Zooba from Wildlife Studios is making 50k to 75k a day. Why is Brawl Stars so much more successful than Zooba? I believe it’s all in the limited moment-to-moment gameplay Zooba offers, compared to its rival Brawl Stars. These battle royale MOBA games thrive from competitive gameplay, and what could be better for competitive gameplay than intense moment-to-moment gameplay?

In Brawl Stars, each character has unique stats, attacks, specials, amount of bullets, etc. It works like Marvel—you need to play the characters, study them, learn when to use them and when not to use them.

Zooba is a great game, but it suffers from an unfocused moment-to-moment mastery experience compared to Brawl Stars. The characters have uniqueness and have special abilities. But, the weapons in Zooba can be shared by several characters.

When you are in the moment-to-moment, you are looking for the weapons that the characters are armed with. At the same time, you’re looking at the characters. Observing multiple things simultaneously means that the focus spreads out, making the learning experience less approachable than Brawl Stars’ experience. In mobile games, optimal focus through approachability wins.

Let’s take another example. This time we’ll look at two games from the same developer.

Clash of Clans versus Boom Beach

In Clash of Clans from Supercell, you start a match by picking an opponent’s base to attack. You’re given information on what the defense looks like: you’ll choose an enemy based on comparing your units and the opponents defending ones. After observing the defenses and finding the week points, you deploy your units in key locations around the base.

In Clash, the bases are small at first, but as you progress, more elaborate bases become available. You are constantly learning how to attack. The learning experience becomes more challenging as the content broadens. You get flying units, you get spells, and the bases also get more challenging defenses that will be harder to penetrate.

In 2014, Supercell released a similar game called Boom Beach, which always felt like an attempt at casualizing the Clash of Clans experience. But, the shallow depth of moment-to-moment gameplay is evident in Boom Beach, and that’s why Clash of Clans is still a top-grossing game, and Boom Beach is not.

Here’s how Boom Beach shallowness comes up:

  • You can only attack from one side of the base, limiting the week points that the attacker can exploit.
  • Once you attack, Boom Beach allows for controlling the attack with a flare feature, which focuses your attacking units on one area of the base. Ultimately, you have a ball of units attacking the base. There’s not much depth to a ball, attacking a single tower at a time.

What happens when the moment-to-moment is shallow?

The outcome feels like it’s not in the player’s hands. Player believes they aren’t doing the right things even though they are doing what the game told them to do.

If there’s no clear path to mastery, the game will become boring. Sure, you might still win after you upgrade your characters, but that isn’t very interesting.

Ability to learn

In 2019, there was this craze for arcade games as Habby published their hit game Archero. Many developers scrambled to work on arcade games in the wake of Archero. I believe that arcade games like Archero are about becoming better at dexterity and performing tasks, especially with your hands.

The player should be learning to:

  • To be more reactive to certain events on the battlefield.
  • The different tactics of offensive and defensive gameplay
  • The strategies of beating certain kinds of levels
  • The fun of learning comes from beating challenging levels.

I often hear misconceptions about Archero’s way of simplifying the moment-to-moment gameplay. As a matter of fact, removing the shooting button from Archero wasn’t about simplification. It was about focusing the player agency on movement to have nothing else to worry about mentally besides movement.

For arcade developers: Don’t oversimplify your game’s moment-to-moment for the sake of believing that dumbed down is always better. Oversimplification removes gameplay variability and eliminates lots of the things that players could learn.

Skill mastery canvas

Thank you Javier for creating this.

My friend Javier Barnes shared this on social media a while ago. It’s a brilliant tool for developers to think about how the player is progressing in their learning journey. This example is from Rocket League, where the player spends time learning specific skills before moving to the next learning phase.

You don’t want to force the player to learn all the challenging moment-to-moment skills early on, but your game should allow them to spend the first week on the basics and then move on to more difficult skills.

“Sometimes devs struggle on estimating the mastery depth of games. I use a technique to score the game mechanics based on how many days they take to master. This allows comparison, and also helps to make sure there’s deep mechanics for the game lifetime.” — Javier Barnes.

Test you game

I’m going to end this article with a test you can do. Have the world’s best video game player play your game, and have your mom play your game. At later levels, does their gameplay and approach to the game look at all different?

  1. No (retention suffers)
  2. Somewhat (no end game, end-game retention suffers)
  3. Very much (success)

(Photo by Snapwire from Pexels)


Get my book, “Long Term Game: How to build a video games company” from Amazon. Available on Kindle, audiobook, and paperback. Check it out!


Eitan Reisel — Future of games investing

This week on the podcast, I’m chatting with Eitan Reisel, Managing Partner of VGames, an early-stage gaming VC from Israel. Eitan and his team have been operating for a few years now with two funds raised. They’ve already have been investing in dozens of gaming companies worldwide.

In this discussion, we talk about Eitan’s approach to helping founders, how he makes investment decisions, and what the future looks like for both mobile and crypto gaming.

Listen to the full episode by going here.

If you missed out on these

Articles worth reading

I was wrong, we need crypto — “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you. It’s starting to smell like that. Just because Bitcoin’s most virtuous argument was presented – in if not bad-faith then in fig-leaf-faith – by get-rich-quick boosters, doesn’t mean it isn’t true!”

Why Scaling Games is Hard — “If the goal is to create a sustainable game business, then shipping a fun game isn’t enough. You also need a way to grow your customer base. Sometimes this scalability is found through word of mouth, memes and social media. More often, by targeted advertising. At other times, through branding, endorsements from key influencers, and franchise-building — or by gaining leverage through the creation of strong communities.”

Visibility isn’t success — “Social capital is the sum of resources that accrue to an individual/group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition. In less academic terms; social capital is who you know. You can either create these relationships yourself or you can inherit them.”

Quote that I’ve been thinking about

“We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”

— Roy Amara


Sponsored by Audiomob


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I hope you have a great weekend!

Joakim

PS. Come see me in Istanbul at the end of March! https://www.deconstructoroffun.com/istanbul