A few days ago (however long you imagine it takes me to write these sorts of posts), I happened upon a blog on Gamasutra by Ed Biden about how Hearthstone has managed to buck some of the conventions of f2p mobile games (that tend to be unpopular), yet still remain successful. In particular he noted that Hearthstone was the following:
- lacking an Energy System
- selling only permanent items (no timed boosts)
- highly skill based
- primarily synchronous PvP
He did remark that a big factor in the success of these breaks from convention was the result of having a stable player base, which is much easier to achieve for Blizzard than smaller companies. Regardless, I thought that was pretty cool to highlight a success story counter to the usual (unpopular) conventions, so I decided to write a post doing some more of that.
Final Fantasy: Record Keepers
This Final Fantasy themed collection game has you play as a record keeper who is charged with maintaining and restoring the stories of the different Final Fantasy games. As you play through the levels, which represent different locations or events in their story, you’ll recruit characters from those stories to your party, find relics to equip them with, and craft abilities.
So how does Record Keepers break from convention?
Low Variance in Success Rate
Using only the same strategy and party, it’s not likely that running a level multiple times will change an unsuccessful run into a successful one. While there are some random elements (like which party member the enemies “decide” to focus), the centerpiece of each dungeon–the bosses–have set stats and weaknesses.
The less variable nature of dungeon success makes trying a dungeon again to “see if you get lucky this time” a much less successful metagame strategy and ironically, having an energy system punishes this play pattern, encouraging players to get their energy’s worth by trying to succeed at every run.
No Timed Boosts
In Record Keepers, microtransactions take the form of a hard currency called (unsurprisingly) gems. These gems can be spent on drawing more relics, increasing the size of your relic and ability inventories, refilling your energy, and reviving during battle.
Notably, both exp and gold boosts are missing from that list. Any purchase you make will be permanently added to your collection, and the game encourages having a wide assortment of relics because bringing a relic into a level in the game from which it originated grants it a bonus.
Characters also gain bonus stats when brought to the games they came from. Furthermore, players are encouraged to level up each character because hitting specific thresholds unlocks unique passive abilities that can then be swapped to other characters.
No Character Combining
Once you’ve recruited a character to your party, they’re there. Even if you never touch them again and let the rot in your party select screen, they’ll still be there. None of the characters end up being around just to be food for the other characters, which is a gameplay patter I find to be downright… respectful.
It’s Not a Competition
Not having to navigate a screen prompting you to post to facebook whenever you complete a level is pretty refreshing. Even better, there isn’t some sort of leaderboard hanging around telling you that you’re not progressing fast enough. Player interactions are purely cooperative, and it’s nice to not have to worry about being stabbed in the back while curating your records.
Blades of Brim
Blades of Brim is an infinite runner by SYBO. Dodging between different lanes (AND SOMETIMES THERE’S MORE THAN 3) allows you to collect chains of coins, assault baddies and navigate the terrain. As you complete various objectives, you’ll level up and unlock new content like runners, pets, weapons and armor.
Let’s take a look at their breaks from convention:
No Energy System
Blades lets you play as much as you want. While you do eventually exhaust your regular challenges and rewards, you can keep shooting for that high score. I think this shows a confidence on the part of the designers, they’re not worried so worried that their players will consume all their content or burn themselves out that they force their players to stop.
All Quests are Cumulative
Many games that have profile leveling based on quests may include something like “Do 3 triple backflips in one run.” These can be interesting challenges, but the downside is that if your player isn’t skilled enough to complete it, they’ve hit a dead end. Since the feeling of progress is so important to the engagement in these games, most of the times this’ll be seen as an opportunity to charge players to Skip Quests. Blades shows that using only cumulative quests is another way to circumvent this problem.
As an aside, it’s also nice that there aren’t any “Connect to Facebook” or “Tweet a top score” quests.
Achievement Based Progression
You don’t get exp for making runs. You get exp for completing your leveling quests. The path to leveling up is to play skillfully and consider the quests you’ve been assigned, not spam tons of runs until you eventually get there. If you don’t make any progress on your leveling quests in a run, Blades doesn’t even show you the progress screen.
No Ladder Resets
One time when players are making the most progress, is when they’ve first started and haven’t set a high score yet. Some games try to recreate this experience by resetting the ladder periodically. The other benefit of this is that it’ll allow a player that plays more frequently to snatch at least a little limelight from a player that has the highest score right after the reset.
The downside of this feature, is that it can often feel pretty frustrating to see the progress you’ve made become invalidated when the ladder does reset.
While the overall financial stability of these games is certainly more complex than just these few points that have been outlined, it’s certainly refreshing to see some games successfully breaking convention for the sake of improving their gameplay in a way that does not sacrifice their core loop. I’ve often heard that making one step in innovating per product is making progress, but I was able to find 4 different ways that both of these games break from convention. What that means to me, is that the mobile space is ripe for more innovation, and hopefully we’ll see more developers take the risk of reaching for those innovations as well.