The Hit, The Miss and the Ugly: Spellbinders

I’ve been playing a lot of Spellbinders (iOS version) recently, and wanted to do a post that I hope I will repeat; Hit, Miss and Ugly. I’ll pick one thing I like, one thing I think I could improve, and I thing to remove from a mobile, free to play game, and discuss them in some detail. 

Here we go.

The Hit: The Weekly Leaderboards

Spellbinders isn’t the only game to use Weekly Leaderboards (Miniclip uses them, Game Center uses them, for example). However, I don’t think I’ve seen it done better, and I don’t think it is done enough. Your first win every week triggers the weekly league, whereby you are surrounded with fourteen other players of a similar skill level.

Splbndrs.jpg

Spellbinders implementation of them is really strong, for two reasons:

  • Good thematic implementation.

I love the “League of Titans” theming around the weekly leaderboard. It makes winning the week feel really impressive, you can choose to immerse yourself in the god vs. god world, and when you play 20 games in a row hours before the week closes to run away with the division, you feel like the best player in the world and king of the Gods. Even though you are 134657th in the actual Global Leaderboard.

It’s a corollary of the “No Failure” principle of free to play design; if you win your Weekly Leaderboard, you just don’t care that you are only the best of a bad bunch.   

  • They fit perfectly as a return hook.

I mentioned in a previous post that one good model for designing retention is to create many, overlapping retention loops. If a game has a number of loops running at any given time, a player almost always has something unfinished to complete. The Weekly Leaderboard provides that 7 day return hook, where players will come back everyday to see their position, and return on the seventh day to see what they have earned.   

On top of this, compare the weekly, skill level based leaderboards with those in a game like Hearthstone, where you are always playing in the regional league. In HS, at the end of the month (you have to keep coming back for a month for this retention hook to pay out), if you are not one of the best hundred or so players in Europe, your rank is inconsequential to anyone except you. In fact, if you finish at, say Rank 5 (top 2% – 5% of HS players that month), it is not exceedingly different to finishing at rank 16. In Bartle Types terms, an achiever has not achieved Legend, so gets little benefit from their rank (unless Rank 5 was their target). Leagues mean little to an explorer or a socialiser (unless, again, the socialiser overachieved and decides to share the information with friends). Killers didn’t “win”, so get little from the feature. If Hearthstone had a weekly league feature, Achievers could realistically target winning this league. Killers get to knock you off the top spot. Socialisers can make friends with these players around them. Weekly Leaderboards allow players of all skill levels to interact with leaderboards, which just makes leaderboards better. This is a real strength of Spellbinders.

It’s just a shame that the rest of the retention layer is so spotty …

The Miss: The Retention Loop(s)

The retention and return hooks in Spellbinders are too schizophrenic for me. You earn (lots of) gold and (few) Runes from playing games. You unlock new Gods with Runes. The Gold you earn from matches goes towards boosts, upgrading Ancient creatures, powering up the player stats (health, mana etc), XP boosters and chests. In these chests are the Ancient Tokens that gate the upgrading of Ancient Creatures (unique creatures that players can choose to add to their squad/deck). Then, the player has limited upgrade trees on certain units that are accessed by leveling up.

So, to my count, there are four currencies: XP, Runes, Ancient Tokens, and Gold. All 4 are purchasable (Gold, Runes, XP via boosters and Ancient Tokens in Loot chests).

Let’s compare to Clash. Clash has three currencies; Gems, Gold and cards. Gems are purely a hard currency, used to transfer into gold and open chests immediately (rather than wait for the timer). Cards can be purchased, and gold can be transferred into via gems (so essentially purchased). Cards are upgraded by finding more cards of the same type, and spending gold to complete the upgrade at certain tiers.

The main similarity is that, although one is subtler than the other (Clash has no spending of a purchasable currency to buy in game power-ups, for example), both games allow you to purchase the power you need to succeed.

The difference, in my opinion, is how much more value that Clash gets out of its currencies, particularly the cards. I would like to see Spellbinders simplify its various upgrade mechanics, focussing more heavily on the main soft currency; gold. This would give the player more interesting choices, rather than fewer.

For example:

  • Unlocking Gods via Runes.
    • This can be kept, with Runes dropped infrequently.
    • Rather than Runes sold in bunches in the store, just sell the other Gods, as with characters in a MOBA.
    • This simplifies your store page, and offers clear value when purchasing a God. Currently, the value of buying runes (particularly the expensive bundles) is pretty murky.
  • I would ditch character XP.
    • This is the big one really, and the aim is to reduce the number of currencies.
    • Just have everything on a God (their ancients, unit upgrades etc) purchasable with Gold.
    • If you want to upgrade a unit, there is real opportunity cost to that.
  • Keep the Ancient Tokens, but stop them being a purely purchased upgrade.
    • Maybe make them random drops.
    • Maybe reward an ancient token after a first win of the day as a rare drop, so you earn 1 or 2 per week.
  • I would have the player specific upgrade be God specific upgrades.
    • The current system is that, if the player wants to have more health, they upgrade their profile.
    • This is weird, because the player isn’t a character in the game world, they are represented by the God avatars.
    • I would like to see the individual Gods be upgraded.
    • This gives ore scope for flexibility, depending on the God chosen, unit mix etc.
    • It also gives more reasons to choose different Gods and play as different gods.
  • All units should have an upgrade tree.

If all these upgrade paths needed Gold, then Spellbinders wouldn’t need the ugly, pay-to-win in game powerups to use as a Gold sink. It would simplify the monetisation by building everything around gold and allow the player to play for free, for ever. Every currency would have a single thing it related to (Gold, upgrades; Runes, Gods; Tokens, Ancient Creatures), so the system was simpler and the player could set themselves clear goals. In my mind, this would be a huge improvement to the retention layer, and bring its quality into line with the core loop.   

The Ugly: The Intrusive Monetisation

This is just bugbear, rather than design commentary, I think. Every studio has a right to run its business the way it sees fit. I just don’t like being bombarded with adverts and overtly pay to win mechanics.

  • Rewarded adverts are fine on their own. When there are also non-optional adverts after every match, it just seems a bit greedy and intrusive. When the presentation of the game is otherwise so ceaselessly professional, this is just a little grubby.
  • You can spend in-game gold on a “mana boost” or “health boost” that provides in game (core mechanics) benefits. You can buy gold for cash in the in-game store. These boosts are huge swings which, if you don’t want to pay, just cause you to lose. This is explicitly pay to win, and I don’t think it belongs in this game. The rest of the game is too good to sink to this level.
    • It relates to the point above, about poor retention layer design. If the player could buy gold to sink into a character upgrade tree, then this simultaneously removes the core-loop, pay-to-win nonsense, but retains a reason for players to buy gold. This moves the game in the direction of Clash of Clans, which no one is arguing is pay to win.

Conclusion

I really think that the core loop of Spellbinders is really solid. It is a quick, fun strategy action game with some really good ideas when it comes to leaderboards.

However, it is undermined by some pay-to-win mechanic, disorganised retention layer and some unfortunate monetisation choices (selling gold).

I believe I have presented some ideas here that, regardless of how well the game is doing, could help to improve retention, simplify the purchase decision for players and remove some of the ugly, pay-to-win mechanics that will stop it gaining a truly monumental audience.

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