Clumsy Ninja Deconstruction
I’m a huge fan of Natural Motion games, who have established themselves as one of the first mobile / tablet companies to really push triple-A console production values and polish onto the portable screen. They are best known for CSR Racing, developed by subsidiary studio Boss Alien. That studio has very recently released a spin-off to CSR called CSR Classics, which seems destined for success, but it’s another title that has grabbed my attention recently.
First shown off at an Apple keynote last year, Clumsy Ninja is best described as a Triple-A version of a Tamagotchi curio available on iPad and iPhone. It’s currently only available in Singapore (or so says App Annie) so I imagine it’s in Soft Launch. However, it’s genuinely a unique app and here is my analysis of it.
In Clumsy Ninja, players are given control of a Ninja to take care of and look after. This game uses Natural Motion’s incredible Euphoria engine that allows for incredibly realistic ragdoll physics / animations that made triple-A games like the Grand Theft Auto series so visually incredible. The player can drag the Ninja around, throw him about like a toy and push / prod / play with him. The game is best described as playing with a real life doll in terms of the ability to manipulate the star of the show, the Clumsy Ninja.
In an effort to monetise the app, Natural Motion have added a Quest book system to the game. The Quest book gives directions and acts as an “on-boarding” experience to teach the player some of the things that are possible in the game and is used to focus the player down the route to progress in the game.
Completing actions in the quest book earns rewards (XP and Soft Currency), although other actions in the game also generate XP and Soft Currency. Interestingly these actions are never clearly signposted, so a player can find actions and interactions that offer currency by accident and it encourages the player to experiment and play a lot more instead of just having to use the Quest book. Players can pay to skip quests using Hard Currency and this is one of the main monetisation sinks in the game used to generate revenue.
Earning enough XP over time allows a player to level-up, which provides new “expansions” to play with. This usually means new toys and new quests to play with which give the player more goals to work towards. In an effort to pad this experience out more, the game then introduces “The Path of the Ninja” to the player via the form of a scrolling map, and moving along this path by completing quests unlocks new Ninja Moves. Whenever taking on quests that allow the player to learn new moves, they are awarded a star rating which encourages players to re-try and perfect the training sequence until they perfect it.
Triple-A Production Values
Natural Motion are without doubt the studio that can claim to have the highest production value pedigree on the iTunes store. Some of their technology is light years ahead of it’s competitors and it shows here. The playfulness and way the ninja reacts is astonishing and this game like many of their other games is likely to gain lots of word-of-mouth traction with players showing it to other people and encouraging them to download it. A great example is when the Ninja levels-up, rather than just having a pop-up, the player has to high-five the Ninja to congratulate him on achieving a new rank. It’s very simple but ingenious and gives you real delight as a player when performed.
Although this app is incredibly well crafted, it misses out on so many opportunities that I believe will harm it’s monetisation potential and ability to go viral (it’s K-Factor). As the title is still in Soft Launch, it’s possible that these may be fixed, but for now I’m going to break down the game’s problems and make some suggestions on better practices.
Not clear what to do. This might sound almost absurdly obvious, but in a F2P game / app, it’s important to direct the player to the overriding goal or objective in the game as fast as possible. In this title, the player is taken down the path of the ninja and asked to progress. However, it’s never really explained why you need to do this or how you can move down this path faster. There is a brilliant cut-scene involving the love of the Clumsy Ninja’s life, but again its just not abundantly obvious what to do at any one time. The best F2P games break down objectives and actions into quantifiable goals that a player can either consciously or sub-consciously understand. For example, here is a breakdown of achievable actions in Rage of Bahamut:
In this title, you can see there are many things that can be done, and they are all spaced out over long periods of time. In Clumsy Ninja there are things to do, indicated via the Quest Book, but it’s still not intuitively clear what mid-term and long-term goals are and how to achieve them via meaningful actions. The Quest Book system is something that is used across many games, but there are good ways to implement it and bad ways. Clumsy Ninja misses a fairly obvious trick – offering multiple Quests spaced out for different player motivations.
This Quest List is taken from Crime City by GREE, Inc. Here there are 3 quests on offer, but the clever thing here is the length of time and motivation for players. The first quest is one that can be achieved pretty easily – within 5 minutes. The second quest is a slower-burn. It might take a solid day of multiple play sessions to achieve as expanding your hood can’t be done quickly. The final quest in this example isn’t the greatest, but the best theory is to have a really long-term burn quest. One that takes about a week’s worth of solid work to complete. Rewards for each quest should sync-up with the time it takes to complete a quest. So one that can be done in 5 minutes should not offer a big reward, but one that takes a week’s worth of play should offer a really great reward. This screen could be improved further by showing the rewards available which adds more player motivation and enticement to complete tough quests.
Lack of Social. Something that I notice as a flaw across all Natural Motion games is a lack of social integration within the core loop, hindering the ability to go viral and improve an app’s K-Factor. The game does encourage the player to connect to Facebook and post / share pictures. However, this is one of the bare minimum things that can be done and offers very little social value or virality to the game. There are many ways this could be improved. For example, on the Path of the Ninja, I should be able to see the progress of my friends and see how many stars they achieved at each level of the game. This is used in King’s Saga framework and all of their most popular games and it adds passive competitiveness to games as players are motivated to play to beat their friends without directly interfering in their games.
Additionally, there is no social mechanic built into the core loop of the game. If the player runs out of soft currency, perhaps they could ask friends for more? Perhaps if the player is waiting for an item to finish being acquired, they could ask for help to finish the action quickly? There are many ways hurrying could be built into the core loop by adding social features, but there are none in Clumsy Ninja. Finally there is no direct competitiveness for example PvP play. Not every game needs to have PvP, but in a game about Ninjas, this is very mystifying, bringing me to my next point.
Motif and Game Mechanics mis-alignment. When making any game, it’s important to marry the game mechanics with the motif to create harmony. For example a farming game unsurprisingly works well when characters and items look like Farmyard animals. It’s also possible to have more visually interesting takes in this space, for example games like DragonVale use farming mechanics with a different motif, but still keep the friendly / safe atmosphere that Farming in real life suggests. By contrast, Crime City has PvP and GvG game modes and makes sense because the game is about Crime and trying to become a Criminal Kingpin. It’s art style is also gritty and serious to match.
This game is called Clumsy Ninja, and personally, I think a ninja immediately screams for a combat / PvP experience. After all Ninjas fight right??!?! A game which made me check-in and level up my Ninja so I could fight other players would work *extremely* well! Instead this title is a half-way house; it’s not cute enough motif-wise to be a mass-market viral hit (in my opinion) and there are not enough mid-core mechanics to make it resonate with audiences that would traditionally like Ninjas (male audiences).
My suspicion is that a Ninja has been used for technical reasons. There is no need to animate many facial elements and wearing an all black garb means that clothes do not have to be expensively animated or calculated via the Euphoria engine. Mobile devices are getting more and more powerful by the day, but they are not yet on the same level as gaming consoles.
Lack of sub-cycles. In Clumsy Ninja, there is only one core loop and way to progress – complete quests. This is fine for the average user, but this means the game is missing out on potentially lucrative sub-cycles. For example, the game Dragon City by Social Point is a great example of a game that uses one core loop (village building) and adds very lucrative sub-cycles (PvP, Breeding). Players initially play the village building loop to be accustomed to the game but once they learn this, they find competitive (PvP) or aspirational (breeding) mechanics. This lack of extra cycles means there are fewer currency-sinks in the game, meaning there are fewer reasons to spend. A golden rule for F2P games is that if there aren’t enough reasons to spend, people won’t pay!
Lack of Session Stops / Waiting Mechanics.
It’s hard to exactly describe this title without playing or seeing a video for yourself, but the Ninja is very akin to a Tamagotchi in that the player has to look after and tend to the needs of him. However, these needs aren’t used in a very Tamagotchi way! A Tamagotchi would ask you to put it to sleep or feed it and come back later to check up on it. The player was rewarded for diligently looking after their Tamagotchi to see it prosper and grow. These mechanics are incredibly powerful in F2P as if a player misses a time interval, they can spend Hard Currency to make up the time shortfall, for example in Farmville players can resurrect crops.
These mechanics are also used for another purpose – session stops. Mobile devices have many functions that compete for your time, for example Email, Messaging, Facebook, Twitter. As a result it’s rare to find an app that can captivate a player for periods of time longer than 30 minutes. Instead it’s better to make players come back and play for multiple smaller sessions over the course of a day. To do this, session stops are needed which deliberately make a player have to come back or pay. In Clash of Clans for example, players lose troops if they win or lose and the reason for this is so that the player’s sessions is stopped and they have to wait until more troops have finished training to progress. Clumsy Ninja does not have enough of these mechanics that can be used to re-engage players and open up more monetisation opportunities.
The technical quality of this app is phenomenal! I tried many times to see if I could the animation system to break and get a leg poking through another (glitching, a very common problem in 3D games), but no matter how much I tried, I could not do it! The level of polish is very high and is something that is very admirable.
The game is also very interesting and as a tech-demo, enormous fun just to play around in and experiment with. There are lots of small attentions to detail that make for a very “magical” and pleasant experience. Honestly the technical team behind this game deserve a medal!
However, in terms of becoming a top grossing hit, I don’t think this title has anywhere near the potential that CSR Racing achieved and which CSR Classics is likely to achieve. I am sure though that in the future, the technology used here is likely to be used in future titles that do use higher monetising mechanics and loops.