Success, Failure & Learning — A Mobile Game Design Breakdown of Battle Nations

This post is from September 7, 2013

Battle Nations peaked at #9 on the iOS top grossing charts, remained in the top 50 for over a year, and deserves to be considered an incredibly successful build from Z2Live’s earlier game, Trade Nations. However, the game lacked the longevity of Modern War and Clash of Clans. In this post I’ll show how Z2Live’s failure to create complementary core loops kept the game from blockbuster status, while not overlooking the brilliant and successful features in content design and delivery.

GAME SYNOPSIS

Battle Nations is a role playing combat strategy game, where the player takes the role of an army captain for the Empire. The storyline begins with the player assuming control of a new outpost where, while pursuing the long-term goal of finding uranium, the player must battle Rebels, Raiders, various wild beasts and other players. Compared to most (if not all) other mobile games, Z2 invested heavily in storyline development and art, and the effort shows through deep characters and truly funny interactions.

The game is built on three core loops (‘loops’ are simple feedback cycles that keep a player engaged)

(1) Missions – the player undertakes tasks that are designed into the game’s storyline to earn gold, experience points, units and unit skill points. This is the primary way that the player interacts with the in-game characters, and a constant stream of diverse missions, both in content and complexity, keeps the player engaged much longer than similar PvE (Player vs. Environment, aka Computer) components do in other games. This loop accomplishes several goals for the game designers:

  • The loop never ends, so the player is continuously looking for new meaning and final completion
  • Missions enable the gradual introduction of new levels of complexity (e.g., from levels 6-11, the game gradually introduces the resources needed to keep the town running)
  • Deliberate design allows for greater complexity and ‘pinches’. The first pinch (‘first pinch’ is defined as the first time that the game designer intentionally tries to convert players to paying customers) occurs via a massive coordinated slow-down of building timers in a few simultaneous missions during level 4

BattleNationsMissionLoop

(2) Harvest – Trade Nations brought a lot of features to work with here, and Battle Nations uses this previous work to deliver a wide variety of building types and task. Early buildings include housing, hospital, barracks, defense buildings, stone quarry, tool shop, resource depot, farm and bakery, and the Mission diversity drives the player to use all of these buildings. In this loop, players can spend premium currency (currency that you can only get by purchasing with real money) to buy buildings, buy units and for speed-ups (a feature that shortens the completion time for a specific task).

BattleNationsHarvestLoop

(3) Battle – there are two types of battle, PvP combat (Player vs. Player) and occupation. In the first, two online players meet on a specialized combat game board and engage in turn-based combat, with a goal of accumulating victory points that result in rewards at the end of the day. In the second type, a player occupies part of another player’s base to harvest resources from that player. Here’s the PvP combat loop:

BattleNationsBattleLoop

THE BATTLE LOOP DOESN’T COMPLEMENT THE HARVEST AND MISSION LOOPS

Alright – with that overview out of the way, here’s the meat of my argument – the Battle Loop doesn’t force users to spend considerably more time in the other loops. Here’s why:

Players don’t need to spend time designing their outpost for optimal defense. Instead of spending hours reorganizing the outpost after losing too much during a few too many attacks, players make occupation easy and then ignore that part of the game. Because you can only occupy friends’ outposts, players collude to make parts of their base easy to occupy by their friends – the exact opposite outcome desired by the game designers. If that’s not bad enough – the PvP combat component actually affects city design even less – that part of the game uses a completely different gameboard.

PvP combat gameboard:

IMG_0023

Outpost (city building) gameboard:

IMG_0075

The battle loop doesn’t encourage players to log in frequently. Other games structure gameplay to incentivize login by allowing you to be attacked when logged out, but Battle Nations does the opposite – you can only engage in PvP combat when logged in! Also you have a flag that you can lower, so your outpost is not raided while away. This means that you can take long breaks from the game without worry of being attacked or losing resources, taking away one of the primary psychological drivers that pulls people back in.

Both aspects of the Battle loop (PvP combat and occupation) are often hacked. I mentioned already how collusion often occurs in the Occupation component, but also this affects PvP combat. Players will engage in reciprocal PvP combats where they alternately place formations that will maximize the points earned if the other player wins – allowing for totally rigged battles.

OTHER DESIGN PROBLEMS

Non-complementary loops is Battle Nations biggest problem, but it’s not the game’s only problem. This next section covers other design problems within the Battle and Harvest Loops.

The battle loop doesn’t complete fast enough (too long of a feedback loop to be meaningful). It takes hours to get rewards from actions in the Battle Loop. In PvP combat players win Victory Points, which then accumulate and earn gold at the end of the day. In the occupation loop, the maximum payout comes from occupying another player’s outpost for four days, meaning that the total payout is spread out over four days. Both of these cycles are just too long for today’s early and mid-level users on mobile devices.

A player’s army takes two hours to return after PvP combat. While this is a decent monetization feature (some players will pay for a speed-up), it limits the frequency with which a player can engage in one of the game’s core loops. Other games use much shorter down time between battles to drive this same monetization (in Clash of Clans, you can train an entire new army in ~20 minutes)

Battles have too much downtime. The PvP combat feature is turn based, leaving players waiting for the player at the other end to make a decision, and this glacial pace of combat causes boredom.

The win rate in PvP combat is too low to be satisfying. Because PvP combat is two online players facing each other, the win rate has to be 50%. Other games, where an online attacker faces an offline defender (e.g., Modern War), have designed win rates that are north of 60%, which is more suited to creating a rewarding experience and psychological response to keeping the player engaged.

Unit persistence causes a lot of problems with game balance and unit progressions. Military units are in fact only semi-persistent (look at Modern War for truly persistent units) in that if a unit dies in certain circumstances, you have to pay resources to heal the unit in the hospital, but you never have to buy a whole new unit. This still is enough to cause problems with unit progressions and balance (just scroll down the Battle Nations Facebook page).

The economy has too many currencies. In a recent interview, the project lead for Clash of Clans mentions how more than two currencies did not meaningfully improve the experience. Also, a quick look at the Facebook page for Battle Nations shows that even high level users have trouble understanding what each of the more than a dozen resources and currencies do in the game.

BEAUTIFUL DESIGN ASPECTS OF BATTLE NATIONS

I would be remiss to overlook the outstanding features that I have learned from – after all, Battle Nations did quite well!

Premium content gifting is a terrific way to introduce players to premium units. Very early in gameplay, a player enters battle to find that he/she has additional premium units (e.g., a mortar team) to control, and after battle learns that these units are ‘reinforcements’ now part of the player’s army. At the time when they are received, these units are still locked in the barracks, so are a scarce resource. This wonderful feature has several positive effects on gameplay:

  • Early gameplay is more exciting with a wide array of troop types with different behavior in battle
  • The downside of battle is diminished – instead of units dying, the player actually gains units in initial battles
  • Because there is no other way to get these units until much later in the game, the player values these units more highly than they are actually worth

Except for the icon (even the new icon), the art style of this game is wonderful. While keeping a consistent color scheme and character dimensions, the artists focused on differentiating 2-3 key features for each military unit, such that players can easily decipher between different units. Also the game initiates the user early with the color palate and cartoon scaling, and keeps this consistent.

The storyline and dialogue is amazing (and engaging!). I mentioned the storyline investment earlier, but it really is one of the few inspiring and creative storylines in mobile gaming. There is consistently diverse humor, a strong female protagonist that has even appeal across genders and meaning deep into gameplay.

The entire Mission Loop is expertly tuned. PvE in most games feels repetitive very early in gameplay, however Battle Nations presents the player with such a wide range of activities (credit to Trade Nations) that every mission is new. Because of this diversity, Battle Nations is able to keep missions and PvE content relevant to players for much longer than competitors’ games are able to.

Thank you for reading! Again, if you enjoyed this post – I’m new to the Twitter game, so please follow me @coffeeDweeb

Note: Though I believe 100% my non-complementary loop argument, I was hesitant to take such a strong stance because (1) I understand that Z2 was constrained by needing to leverage existing technology (Trade Nations platform), and (2) I don’t want to diminish the creativity, passion or intelligence of the folks over at Z2 – I am in awe of what they have been able to build. Trade Nations, Battle Nations and the Metalstorm games all significantly raised the bar for competitors and pushed the industry forward. Though with Metalstorm (from a player’s perspective), I think they pinch users too early, way before the average player becomes invested.

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