When it comes to being successful in the free-to-play games market, a title has to have more than just addictive gameplay: it needs to feature elements that encourage the player to spend money and to return to the game on a daily basis. A few games have done well in achieving this, though most fail in some regard. To understand the difference between a hit game and one that misses the mark, it can be instructive to look at a game such as Super Battle Tactics, an interesting game with some evident flaws which currently hinder its potential.
Super Battle Tactics is a casual, turn-based strategy game for mobile devices developed by DeNA Vancouver. The premise of the game is that the player is competing on “Tank TV”, a game show where a winner-takes-all battle ensues between two teams of tanks. Much like real-world game shows, everything is designed to be over-the-top, from the music to the vehicles to the hosts themselves. The core gameplay is fairly simple in that it consists of building, upgrading and battling your team of tanks against an online opponent’s. It is within each of these gameplay modes that one can see DeNA Vancouver’s attempt at addictive gameplay mechanics, opportunity for monetization and hook to bring the player back to the game.
It is in the Building mode that the player is first exposed to the elements that will encourage future replay and monetization. The player is able to create a variety of different tanks that are unlocked as the one progresses through the game. In order to build a new tank, it will cost the user in-game currency, which can only be selected from the units available at the player’s rank level. When choosing which tank to build, the player must consider how many hit points (HP) each has, the number values in the five slots of its damage bar, and its assigned category. In the Battle mode, the damage bar will randomly select one of the five slots to use as the damage to be inflicted on the opponent, which makes this the most important aspect of any tank. In addition to just the value of each slot, there are three types of slot: Red, a standard attack, Blue, a standard attack whose value is applied towards First Attack, and Purple, a shield to protect the units in lieu of an attack. It is the category of tank, Attack, Defence or Speed, that determines the type of slots it has. Attack tanks have all Red slots, higher values of damage and average HP. Defence tanks have at least one Blue or Purple slot, lower values of damage and high HP. Speed tanks have at least two Blue slots, average damage and low HP. As a teaser, the player can see the entire roster of tanks they can unlock within the game, but the values for HP and damage are obfuscated. It is this little peek at the future that drives the player to want to see what those values are and in turn, continue to play the game.
Battle mode is the where the addictive gameplay is the strongest. Each combat session consists of rounds that can be broken down into four stages: Random Roll, Use Abilities, First Attack and Fight. At the start of each round, every tank randomly selects a slot in its damage bar to be used. The player can then select to use a variety of abilities, such as re-spinning the damage bar, unit targeting, and bonus attacks. The player has up to three ability points (AP) to use each round, and each ability has a different amount of AP required to use it. The strategy of the game is knowing when to use each ability, as it can have a major influence on the outcome of a battle. The respin is probably the most useful of all the abilities as it gives the player an opportunity to improve their damage values. Once a player has used their AP, they can announce they are ready to fight and the opponent will only have twenty seconds to finish their preparations. After both players are ready, the First Attacker is chosen. All the tanks that have a Blue slot selected will be tallied together and the player with the highest total value will get to attack first. If neither player has any tanks with Blue slots selected, a coin flip will occur to decide. Having the opportunity to attack first can give a player a significant advantage, especially if they are able to destroy an opponent’s tank which will reduce the amount of damage in return. Since players don’t know what configuration of slots and values they’ll be squaring off against until they’re drawn into battle, there is an element of strategy involved in deciding how to spec your tanks beforehand. The mechanics are fairly simple, thus it’s easy once engaged in battle to quickly scan enemy tanks and mentally list the most advantageous order of operations to conclude a battle. It is the combination of these elements with the quick pacing of each round that elicits a sense of challenge-mastery-reward in a quick reward loop, driving the player to want to continue on without feeling bored or overwhelmed.
The most exciting part of the game besides actual combat is Contracts, a mini-game where the player is given six crates with prizes inside from which they can select three. The player is guaranteed to win a prize in every crate, though the prizes will range from scrap parts to super rare, exclusive tanks. What makes this very addictive is that two of the contracts do not cost any in-game currency, but instead are timer-based. This mechanic requires repeat play sessions from players in order to maximize their harvesting of resources. The most basic contract only offers parts to the player, but can be replayed every four hours. The second most basic contract offers parts and tanks, though with a fairly low percentage of winning tanks, and can be played every twelve hours. Since other contracts can only be purchased using in-game diamonds, which are awarded very rarely during gameplay, the player is required to purchase packages of diamonds if they want the more advanced contracts. This is very tempting as some contracts guarantee tanks, including super-rare ones.
Overall, the gameplay mechanics in Super Battle Tanks are well executed, have good hooks, and are monetizable, yet it is not quite a great game. A few problems persist in preventing it from truly being successful. The biggest issue is serious: streamlining the player’s interaction with the paid currency in the game. The user flow in getting the player to the store to purchase diamonds is not clear unless you have played other DeNA titles. The only way to purchase diamonds is by clicking on the diamond icon at the top of the screen- if you click on a contract and you don’t have enough diamonds, nothing takes you directly to the store, only a popup appears to warn that your currency is insufficient. The game’s designers have also devalued the importance of diamonds because the player can win rare tanks just using the free time-based contract. This design issue is further compounded by the fact that the amount of diamonds initially granted to new players is not enough to allow you to purchase any of the paid contracts, thus players aren’t exposed to the purchasing mechanic unless they actively seek to do so. The current scheme merely encourages the player to stick with the free option rather than crossing the threshold to becoming a paying user. The solution is simple enough: improve the tutorial with enough diamonds to get that first paid contract, then expressly point out how to purchase more premium currency. By emphasizing the mechanics’ importance, and clearly pointing to the rewards that can only be accessed through premium currency, players are further enticed to cross the paying threshold. If DeNA could tighten up these issues, it would truly make this game a huge success.