In case you haven’t heard, Clash Royale is a mobile game that focuses on real time strategy; combining collection, tower defence, and player vs player arenas. Whoever formed the best combination (deck) of units to destroy the opponent’s tower first won. Simple, sounds fun, doesn’t it? Everyone thought so too starting out. During the golden period of 2016-2017, Clash popularity was at its all-time high, dominating YouTube front pages and smartphone screentimes. People were entranced in the frenzy of battling their way through the different arenas and discovering new card combinations. It seemed the game delivered an endless plethora of entertainment.
Until it didnt.
For the past 4 years, Royale has never hit above 30% of its peak popularity. What happened? It turned out, a bottom existed in this seemingly endless well of content. Supercell was adding new cards too quickly and exhausted their ideas. The pace of major updates went from one every couple of weeks to a couple of months, and at one point, over one whole year!
Enough of the history lesson, if you decided to check this article out, chances are you probably already knew all of that. But what truly makes Clash Royale what it is today? Enter the frustration business model.
While most games would alienate the majority of their player base if it caused undesired, constant frustration, Clash’s entire business model was built around this. It achieved this through implementing 4 key subtle sources of frustration masked behind seemingly altruist intentions, which I will dub gameplay frustration, social frustration, progression frustration, and reset frustration.
The first and most infamous source of frustration stems from the nature of Clash Royale’s progression. After unlocking a new card, players have the ability to collect duplicates and gold (in-game currency) in order to level up those cards. Unlike other games where levelling up unlocks new quirks and features, upgrading in Clash Royale only increased the raw stats of the characters. While this gives a sense of progression, it was also a double-edged sword; with progression came the phenomenon known as “overlevelling”. At some point in everyone’s CR career, we’ve all experienced this. A mohawked pig rider walks past an army of undead warriors without a scratch, a balloon defies all logic and survives infinite arrow shots; it was getting nonsensical. Players with higher levelled cards had a fundamental advantage over less fortunate ones. Remember the interactions I mentioned earlier? Some cards were meant to be effective against certain enemies, and less effective against others. This made sense.
However, this strategic aspect of the game rested delicately on an intricate web of precise proportions between cards, proportions that would be shattered by a 50% disparity in cards’ stats. It was nearly impossible to win against a higher levelled opponent if you were not twice as good as them. Chances are, 99% of you are not professional players and are somewhere below the ranges of 5000-6500 trophies (where 90% of the player base is). This is the base of CR’s (for a lack of a better word) genius model.
To demonstrate, let me put you in the shoes of an aspiring mobile gamer, Billy. He decides to pick up the game after being recommended by friends, and discover the captivating strategy game we all fell in love with in 2016. Then, after discovering the interactions and strategies each new card brings, he reaches the 90% threshold of players above 5000 trophies. He now has access to all the cards in the game, and are pitted against much higher-leveled opponents. The joy of strategizing combinations is overtaken by the frustration of overlevel. Naturally, Billy comes to the conclusion that he must level up himself. Oh, innocent Billy. Suddenly, he is faced with the realization that he would either need to spend money on the game, or to spend months collecting free rewards.
Many players opt for the easy way out, but for players who stay like Billy, it is a painful, long grind with the only motivation being the distant possibility of being liberated from unfair matches/interactions. Finally, Billy reaches the upper echelons of overlevel and inevitably become the very unfairness that started his journey, closing the loop. Yet, no experienced player will tell you this is the end of the road. If the rest of this article may show, it is only the start.
Before that, let’s circle back to another stem of Supercell’s frustration-rooted business tree. How do they ensure that players will continue feeding money into the game? Let me introduce the BS PP™ (Bald Snail’s Progression Pace). Though Supercell is great at giving players rewards that seem juiced out, those rewards are spread out over 100+ cards. To put into perspective, players only need 8 cards to form a deck! Now you can see the problem; after waiting 12 hours to open a “Giant” Chest, you’re rewarded with 500 copies of Goblins and nothing else. Happy Clashing! For many like Billy who initially decided to F2P (Free to play), they are once again pigeonholed into the conclusion that spending money is the only way to see meaningful progression.
Through this grueling experience, Supercell already makes hundreds of millions every year from microtransactions. But why are players so invested in this system? The truth is, this model would be nowhere near as successful in a single-player game. Nobody would play a game meant to entertain if it kept frustrating them. The motivation behind perseverance in such a game largely depends on its encouragement of social pressure. It just so happens that there are hundreds of emotes in the game, expressing a range of emotions but conveniently mostly celebratory and laughing ones. In CR culture, by sending one of these, you are essentially spitting in your opponent’s face and boasting your victory. No longer are players just punished with losing elo points, but they are tormented by condescending spite from their opponents (god forbid the heeheeheehaw). This provides the social motivation to continue playing the game; where players try to compensate for the experienced frustration. More so, players are incentivized to initiate social competition, where the message that “I have more trophies L + bozo I’m just better” is always insinuated.
Finally, going back to our Billy example, what happens once Billy finally completes his progression? Where do players like him go from there? The best of them climb up the rungs to 6000, 7000, even 8000 trophies. But what happens to those who don’t? As I mentioned earlier, 90% of CR players are between 5000 and 6500 trophies, including a large portion of already maxed out players. Of course, there are some natural reasons why this may be the case; people simply play the game “casually” and aren’t very good, or people simply chose bad cards to upgrade and are stuck with them. But even then, over time, people should gradually all reach high trophy counts, but yet still 90% of players are stuck under 6500. This is where Supercell’s final prong in the trident of frustration, reset frustration, comes in. After every month, half of players’ trophies above 5000 are cut in half (i.e. 5400 → 5200).
This tactic acts as a gate, because people don’t have the time to play enough games every month to counteract the reset. You’d think that you can bypass this by simply getting better and maintaining a higher win rate, but you’d find another slithery surprise Supercell has in store. If the game algorithm notices you’re on a particularly good winstreak or close to a sought-after threshold (i.e. 6000), it will purposely match you against players that counter you. That is to say, the game will look at your deck, ask the question “what type of deck would I use to destroy this player’s whole career?” (every deck has a weakness), and pair you against players using those exact decks. The algorithm will continue doing this until you lose more games than you’ve won, until you’re back to square 1. This is obviously incredibly frustrating, but it motivates players to keep playing after they’ve had a glimpse of accomplishing all their hopes and dreams (only to get thoroughly annihilated, heeheeheehaw).
Of course, to maintain what little level of objectivity in this long tirade, I’ll acknowledge Supercell’s attempts to “fix” these “problems”. I use quotation marks because they intentionally designed these problems, and only introduce lackadaisical “fixes” to keep angry fans at bay. Firstly, to fix progression frustration, magic items were added to allow players to upgrade specific cards. The issue is they aren’t rewarded in significant amounts and don’t help gold-wise at all. Next, Supercell was initially adamant against the heavily requested feature to mute emotes, but have since implemented the feature with the caveat that you cannot send emotes yourself. However, this goes against consumer psychology (why would you bar yourself from showing off the cool expressions you saved up so hard for?). As for the final elephant in the room, overleveling, nothing has been done despite easy solutions like implementing a maximum level cap in certain trophy ranges (everyone would have the same level of cards). If you’ve read this far, I’m sorry that you had to endure my incessant rant, but that in of itself is a demonstration to Clash Royale’s frustration based business model—it gets people emotionally invested, enough to earn them hundreds of millions each year. I and everyone else will continue being allured by this fast-paced strategic tower-defence game. In fact, I would recommend yo— no, I take that back. Run away from this game, and never look back. You’re not missing anything.
Photo: Cookie the Pom on Unsplash.com