Clash Royale, Pay-to-Win Mechanics and Your Wallet

clash-royale-bannerI’m not sure a day goes by that I don’t see justified complaints about Clash Royale over on Reddit. The game doesn’t attempt to match make on skill but is often determined by who has the better cards. Emotes should be mutable. The tournament system has died without Supercell propping it up.

There’s a perfectly good reason why Supercell isn’t addressing any of this: Money. Addressing these issues would likely take money out of Supercell’s pocket not just through the costs of making the changes but the loss of revenue from making them.

Let’s start with the emotes because making the requested changes is both the easiest thing to do and the one change that Supercell has directly addressed.

In a blog post, Supercell stated that they wouldn’t allow players to mute emotes in the game because they wanted the game to “[evoke] strong emotions” and to let you know that you’re playing a person rather than a bot. The irony is that their bot trainer will use emotes during matches with them which counteracts their own argument. While more than half of my games go without emotes, I would suggest that the vast majority of people who do use emotes do so to BM (bad manner) people. As you move up in the ranks, the worse that BM’ing opponents gets.

clash-royale-emotesIt’s the opposite of Pokemon Go. That game is bringing people together and forming a sense of community, even if it does somewhat break people apart into different teams. You don’t hear stories about people having a go at each other. Sure, there is some banter between teams but people sound happy and helpful when playing Pokemon Go. Even with the clan system that Clash Royale has, there’s no sense of community or help that Supercell is even attempting to create to rival Pokemon Go.

The benefit of “evoking strong emotions” is to provoke you into making dumb decisions. That doesn’t mean uninstalling the game because that might be the best strategy for winning considering the structure of the game. Anyway, the best medicine is revenge. How do you do that? By beating down everyone in your path. The easiest way to accomplish that? With stronger cards.

That brings us to the second complaint that many have about Clash Royale. Far too often, you run into players with higher level cards and higher level towers.

In my Clash Royale review, I mentioned that matchmaking in Clash Royale was so simple that it very nearly ruins the laddering experience. Using (effectively) your win-loss record to determine which competitor also queued for battle is the best match for you is a nice, simple matchmaking approach if all things are equal. I’m not even talking about having the same or similar deck as you since Hearthstone and countless MOBAs don’t aim for mirror matches. They try to match you on skill since all things are fairly equal.

The problem is that Clash Royale isn’t built around equality. Both cards and towers have levels. The higher level a card or tower, the more damage it deals and the more hit points it has. Usually, one level is worth an average of a 10% boost of key statistics like damage and hit points. Therefore, someone with higher level cards or towers walks into a match with an advantage over their adversary.

clash-royale-trollMost players, including those who are in the game’s top tier, find that the disparity in card levels are too great for superior skill to overcome as early as Arena Four (of nine). It took me about two weeks playing casually to get there and then over a month to get through it safely though I have dropped back down from time to time. The middle arenas (Four and Five) are now filled with less-skilled players with relatively high-level cards and skilled players with low-level cards locked in a never-ending battle where few can gain enough of an advantage to move past the middle arena slog.

Once again, since there is such an advantage to having those stronger cards, the game’s mechanics are trying to encourage you into throwing money at the screen in order to get a much-needed power boost. Spending money for gems to buy or unlock crates or gold (via gems) to buy cards directly from the store or to upgrade your cards allows you to fight fire with fire. If you keep running into higher power cards, the best return isn’t from improving at the game, though that will help to a point and helped me to a point, but from powering up your cards to be level or better than your opposition.

Mentioning the tournament system seems a little opportunistic considering it has only been for a couple of months and was created in response to requests from players. Prior to the launch of this feature, if people wanted to play in tournaments, they had to create a new in-game clan, get people to join and do it through friendly battles. The new tournament mode allows you to compete with other players in a mini-ladder-style tournament without leaving your clan. And SuperCell even recently mentioned that they want to retool it but I’m sure that they won’t cripple the profitability of the feature.

Supercell is getting players’s money two ways with the tournaments. The big tournaments have big prize chests with thousands of cards. Those chests take multiple days to unlock. You can get those cards for free but one 2nd place chest opening video that I watched showed that it would take over ten days to open. You can wait that out (and be prevented from entering a new tournament while unlocking that chest) or you can skip it by paying a rate of 1 gem for every ten minutes you’re skipping. For a whole ten days, that’s just over $18. Want to start your own tournament? That’s at least a $7 buy in for 500 gems to create the tournament (assuming you don’t use the couple of gems you earn from every other free chest).

clash-royale-chest-unlockThe idea behind tournaments is great but they went about it in a way that punishes people who participate in big tournaments. That 15,000-ish card 2nd place chest was part of a tournament that cost 25,000 gems ($280) to setup. Explain to me why someone who did well enough to get the big prize has to drop nearly $20 to instantly get their prize. I don’t mind if they even used the 24-hour Super Magical Chest unlock timer on those chests but days and days and days of waiting for your chest and ability to play in another tournament to unlock is needless unless Supercell wants to be paid for those chests.

And this doesn’t even cover the fact that tournaments open to players from account/tower level eight but you likely won’t have cards at the tournament level cap. In tournament mode, your cards and towers have a maximum level they will be set to but they won’t be bumped up to that. When you play a tournament, the majority of players and nearly all of the players in the money positions will have cards at the tournament level cap which makes tournaments pointless endeavor for newer players. To compete in those tournaments, the easiest way is to pay to bump up your cards levels as fits the recurring theme of this column and game.

I understand that Supercell is a business and the goal of any business is to make money. There is a difference between making money through providing a product that people love and want to support and creating a product that people have to pay for reasons other than the goodness of their hearts.

If Clash Royale was a $5 buy-in or free with cosmetic options to support the game (like Valve’s free-to-play heavyweight Dota 2 which used mostly cosmetic add-ons to fund The International’s $20 million prize pool) with no card or tower levels, you have a really good mobile game. There is room for skill to separate the field in this game and to make the ladder an actual competition of skill. The problem is that the system is weighted to encourage spending because skill disparities can’t always beat card level disparities. Even a 10% more skilled player can struggle against 10% more powerful enemy units.

It’s all a shame because while Clash Royale is a simplified RTS, it’s still one of the rare mobile games that appeals to those looking for a “core” video game to play rather than a mindless tapping or waiting game designed to bait you into paying to progress. Unfortunately, Clash Royale has reached a point where you can go a couple of weeks before you’re being baited to pay to progress. That’s still better than most mobile games which introduce their premium currency in the first hour of the game. That shouldn’t save Clash Royale from a rating of $/5 stars, though.

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About Steve Murray

Steve is the founder and editor of The Lowdown Blog and et geekera. On The Lowdown Blog, he often writes about motorsports, hockey, politics and pop culture. Over on et geekera, Steve writes about geek interests and lifestyle. Steve is on Twitter at @TheSteveMurray.

Posted on August 12, 2016, in Games, Long Read and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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