Boom Beach – Beta Deconstruction
Chances are that if your are reading this blog, you’ve played Clash of Clans and / or Hay Day by Supercell. The Finnish tablet games specialists recently sold a 51% stake to Japanese giant Softbank in an eye-watering deal worth $1.5 Billion dollars.
Supercell have successfully managed to take these two games to high ranking top-grossing positions around the world and in my opinion, are the best Tablet F2P games developers by a large margin with the rest of us playing catch-up!
As such, the world has waited for some time now for the 3rd coming from Supercell. Although they have released other games before the two aforementioned giants, those games have been cut and never seen the light of day since. Thus when earlier this month a new title appeared in the Canadian app store, the F2P game development community collectively held it’s breath. Can Supercell make it 3-in-a-row with Boom Beach? In my opinion, the answer is yes and I will explain why in this deconstruction.
Please note: This game is currently only available in Canada. Supercell are clearly “soft launching” the game, meaning that they will be hard at work tweaking and adjusting the game before releasing it globally. As such, many of the details in this blog are subject to change. I’ve also only begun to go through the game. Many F2P games have entire loops and sub-cycles that are reserved for the end-game, and I’ve not got there yet!
Additional note: This is *my* interpretation of the game loop and the game as a while. You may interpret it differently!
My biggest curiosity when playing this game for the first time was to see what type of game it would be. To Supercell’s credit, they have been successful with two totally different games, a tactical RTS-lite game and a more traditional casual farming game. They’ve also tried their hand with a third model in the now defunct Team Fortress style Battle Buddies. Honestly, I expected to see either a Match-3 game, a variant on a Card RPG battle game or something completely different to anything seen before. However, Supercell have instead played it fairly safe by making another tactical RTS-lite style game that is very similar to Clash of Clans. I find this particularly interesting because of late, the Clash of Clans clones are out in force, with Samurai Siege by Space Ape Games and Call to Arms by GREE being two games of particular note.
The game pits the player as a commander of a naval colony / battle fleet who have just landed on an island in an archipelago of islands somewhere in the ocean. The player looks after, maintains and defends this colony from other attackers / raids whilst at the same time trying to capture other islands in the area and save natives that have been enslaved by the Blackguard, the badguys of the game.
The general game loop of Boom Beach is very similar to Clash of Clans, though not identical. The player is effectively pushed through two loops, a build cycle and an attack cycle. In the build cycle, just like Clash of Clans, the player builds structures that produce gold, wood and later stones (Soft Currencies) and can collect from them at any time. They also need to build defensive structures such as sniper towers and machine gun stations to help defend the base from enemy raids.
As the player ramps up their resources and produces more wood and gold, they can upgrade their Headquarters and other buildings to activate expansions such as other buildings, new upgrades and new troop types.
However, just like Clash of Clans, this is just one of the game cycles. At the same time, the player is also pushed through the attack cycle. The player can build the Radar structure which allows them to visit other islands (and as a result other players) that are in the nearby area. Just like in Clash of Clans, the attack cycle is the one that is most fun to play and the one that drives motivational retention. At high levels, it provides the compelling PvP competitiveness that super-engaged players really enjoy.
The player can only attack areas that are within the reach of their radar and by paying coins, meaning that they have to upgrade their radar and earn enough coins over time. This means that the radar is used as a session-stop mechanic, which I will cover a little later.
Once a player has selected a location to attack, they place troops (ala CoC) at landing stations on the island beach and then see their troops attack the enemy locations automatically. Just like Clash of Clans, the position that troops are places as well as the timing of when they are placed can influence the battle.
However, where Boom Beach innovates compared to it’s predecessor, is in the use of the command ship that follows troops into battle.
The player can select from a variety of actions initiated by their command ship that can vary the outcome of battle and which offer tactical and strategical choices to the player. Players can fire artillery shells that damage / destroy enemy buildings, meaning that problem sniper towers can be taken away before the player’s troops reach them.
The player can also take other actions that influence battle. One of the most innovative is the ability to direct troops using Flares. A flare can be fired onto the battlefield which once landed, attracts all the player’s troops to that point. This means that the player really feels like a commander, directing his or her troops as they wish during battle. This means that you can choose to maneuver around a barricade of mines and take out a Sniper Tower first if you like. Supercell have brilliantly married the tactical and strategical choice with a very easy to use gameplay mechanic, and I believe this one innovation will prove to be really popular with players around the world. Players can also fire a healing field that regenerates the health of nearby troops for a short time period, akin to healers in Clash of Clans. As you rank up, further powers and abilities are also available adding to the meta-game.
Battle actions are balanced by each action costing Battle Points, a currency which can only be used during battles. The amount of points the player starts with depends on the level of their Command ship, which can be upgraded over time. The cost for each action has a base price, which goes up each time an action is used. Thus a player is motivated to use a range of attacks rather than just using the artillery shells repeatedly, as they won’t have enough to keep shelling the enemy. Again this creates an awesome strategic choice. Spend all your battle currency on taking out dangerous defence structures, or save currency so you can react to battle with flares and health packs?
Every time a player destroys an enemy structure with their troops, they receive additional battle points to use on additional actions. This means if you are clever, you can isolate some structures and attack them to gain more points instead of swarming a base and suffering lots of casualties.
Defeating the enemy base means you gain rewards, coins, wood and later a new currency called life shards.
Unlike in Clash of Clans, there is no star system for PvE battles, the scale of your success is not measured. There is also one other HUGE difference to Clash of Clans – troops are not used up / die when winning a battle. In Clash of Clans, one of the most unusual features of the game when you first start is that even if you win a battle, your troops are no longer available for use. This always felt like it was “cheating” the player as it thematically doesn’t make sense (why do victorious troops leave you!?). However, Supercell used this mechanic to act as a session stop. Even if you won a battle, you *had* to go back and train more troops to keep going. This meant that players either had to gamble on using just enough troops to win a battle with the fewest troops possible (adding to strategy), or had to come back often to keep training troops (retention driver). As the raiding loop in CoC was so much fun, players would often spend Hard Currency to hurry troop training time and keep going, meaning that the game had both a pinch-point and an addictive retention point.
The best F2P mobile / tablet games have very short, fulfilling game sessions. Players login many times a day to complete a few actions over days, weeks, months and even years. In Clash of Clans, players can come in to collect gold, elixir and dark elixir to get closer to building new structures for their base. They can train troops. They can upgrade buildings and troops. They can also use their available troops to battle. There are many reasons to come into play over and over, which makes it a lot of fun.
With Boom Beach’s approach, players can battle many times in a row in comparison to Clash of Clans. This makes for a more fun and fulfilling game-session, but can also create a problem. If players play for too long, they don’t need to keep coming back and they don’t need to spend money because game sessions are so fun that players are content to play for longer sessions just a couple of times a day.
Supercell address this point by using the radar mechanic. In Clash of Clans, players could always find a PvP match to fight by using the “find a match” button or because there were almost always quests to take on in PvE mode. In Boom Beach, after a while there are no more locations to attack on the game map because they have all been captured. This means that the player has to upgrade their radar to find more matches to fight. By the time the player has upgraded their radar, there are either more matches (PvE) to fight or more likely, they will have lost captured islands to other players.
This means that the player has to go and re-take these islands (which get harder to reclaim over time as their defences increase in strength to match the player’s army stength), or will be tempted to attack enemy players that have destroyed their base thanks to some good old-fashioned revenge!
Whilst analysing the radar mechanic and game world, there are a few things that stand-out as ingenious additions that make the game feel fun and seamless. The first is that PvP and PvE modes are effectively blended together. In Clash of Clans, attacking the Goblins felt like a totally different world to PvP attacks. In Boom Beach, everything seems like one ever-changing world because PvE islands can be taken off you, even if they don’t result in losing gold and wood from your main base.
I also like that whenever you login and explore using the radar, there are treasure chests to be found that contain diamonds, the Hard Currency used in the game. This means that it feels fun to keep exploring and rewarding for playing the game. It also feels fair and that the game is not aggressively asking for money. Finally, I really like that when your base is successfully defend, you receive a Hard Currency reward. This subconsciously makes you want to improve your base regularly as you have been taught that defending the base is a good thing to do! It also means that the player is continually drip-fed Hard Currency, meaning they feel comfortable earning and spending it. Players will happily spend hard currency because they won’t feel that paying is the only way to earn it. Paying simply means they earn more, but nothing ever feels like it is completely out of grasp even if you don’t pay.
EDIT: It also seems like you receive Hard Currency even if your base is destroyed, a nice touch. This means that although you may lose resources such as coins / wood / stone, you get something to help you keep going.
The system is not completely perfect though. If a nearby player is online, you can’t attack them, which feels frustrating. To uncover new parts of the map requires coins, even if your radar has been upgraded. This means that sometimes you pay coins to uncover an enemy that can’t be attacked straight away, which feels unfair and like a waste of time. My suggestion to Supercell would be to program the game such that anytime an enemy is uncovered in this way, it’s an offline enemy to avoid this from happening. Either that, or allow them to attack them synchronously whilst they are online! Alas I know this would not work with their current game design.
EDIT: Actually at later levels, you are given the opportunity to find a new opponent, so it seems like this point is no longer valid. This means that the radar is not the only way to session stop. Instead through careful balancing, players naturally find themselves at a point where they lose enough troops to force them to train more troops and either hurry or wait till they have finished training.
Currently Supercell use just two monetistation techniques in Boom Beach. Convenience Currency and Hurry.
A Convenience Currency is a currency that can be used to make up a shortfall in any other currency. For example, if the player does not have enough Wood to upgrade their Headquarters, they can spend Diamonds to make up the shortfall so that instead of spending 12000 wood, they can spend 8000 wood and 20 Diamonds instead. This is a really clever system used throughout all their games for many reasons. The first is that games can become confusing if they have many currencies as it can be hard to keep track of everything. Having multiple currencies is not a bad thing – as long as a game is fun and a player is gradually introduced to each system / sub-system. However, if a player has to manually earn each currency and has to buy packs of specific currencies, it can seem unfair and as aggressively asking for money from the player. The convenience currency means that there is always a way to make up for a shortfall of any currency.
The second reason why convenience currencies work so well is because they reinforce the need to acquire them. They can be used for pretty much everything, including hurries so to the player they are super valuable. When you are given them for free, they are a welcome addition and when you are getting impatient or want to progress quickly, they are your first point of call. They are so useful that there worth to the player is very high, making it very tempting to purchase them.
The final reason why convenience currencies work well is because the ratio / conversion between other currencies and the convenience currency can change. Early in the game, the currency can be exchanged for a plentiful amount of coins / wood, but as the game progresses, the exchange rate gets worse. The idea here is that once a player has played for a long time, they are likely to stick with it and play / pay often. Thus by slightly worsening the exchange rate, the player has to spend more money. By never telegraphing the exchange rate between currencies to the player, they will never notice this is happening so will think little of it. This can sound slightly devious, but really it’s just the principle of inflation being used in virtual form. Just as prices in real life can go up over time (making a real currency such as the dollar worth less), so do virtual currencies.
The Hurry mechanic is as old as F2P gaming itself. It’s the idea of spending currency to speed up an action that takes time to complete. Impatience is the best form of monetisation in any game because simply put we humans are impatient people and don’t like to wait! As F2P games are free to download and can be played without spending any money, many people download them and many people play regularly. Impatience acts as a compelling reason to pay because it puts a blocker in your way and provides a very solution to clearing that blocker (using hard currency). Unlike chapters / episodic content, impatience blockers put a very clear price on what is needed to progress and work well with mainstream audiences. As previously mentioned they also add even more value to Convenience Currencies, making buying a pack even more of a good thing to do.
Boom Beach is currently missing some other monetisation methods that worked well in Clash of Clans, although I expect them to follow shortly. One is the builder mechanic from CoC, which allowed you to work on multiple tasks / upgrades at once by buying a builder. This is an example of a perma-buff or permanent buff to your game. Builders sold well because players realised that there use was permanent and not a temporary block clearer. Currently Boom Beach has Villagers but you can’t buy additional Villagers to help out just yet. I expect this to change, especially as fans of the game are already asking for it!
Boom Beach actually does currently use a perma-buff in the game, but it’s not possible to purchase them with real money yet. The player can use their life shards to create and deploy statues that provide permanent buffs such as increased wood production to the player. This is a cool mechanic and is useful for providing the player with long-term aspirational goals (to build the best statues). I expect Supercell to allow players to purchase life shards in the future, but if they don’t, then it will be because it’s a system they want to use to drive long-term retention.
CoC also let players buy soft currency (Gold / Elixir) as well as Hard Currency (gems). This was actually not a feature that was available as the game was first launched, but was released over time to improve product KPI’s. Although Hard Currency in these games is more useful than coins, many players intuitively want Soft Currency more than they want Hard Currency. This may sound strange as on the face of it, players are getting a worse deal, but it comes down to player needs. In the early part of most games, players need soft currency to progress as the game teaches them how to play. For some players, this means there is a need to have coins at this point in time and they don’t yet realise the power of Hard Currency. Having operated live products myself, I have found that packs of coins have sold as well as, if not sold better than Hard Currency packs at early player levels. I always find this surprising, but in one of the games I worked on, players literally asked for this option, so we gave it to them!
Boom Beach currently does not offer coin or wood packs, nor does it offer storage refills, a monetistaion mechanic found in CoC. Again, I expect this to follow shortly, but I believe that currently Supercell are testing other parts of the game. When a game is in Soft Launch a developer usually wants to test many things. Can the backend infrastructure handle many real players playing against each other? Do people want to play the game? How long are people playing the game for? How many people spend money? When going through these tests, it’s a good policy initially to keep things simple. The most important thing with any F2P game is retention. If players come back and play your game for months then they will usually spend money because they like your game. And even if they don’t spend, for them to play it for a long time means they will probably tell their friends (acquire more customers) or count towards your DAU total which is useful for in-game adverts. As Boom Beach has only just come out, I expect Supercell are working on retention and trying to make their CPI cost as low as possible.
Other Notable Game Features
A new feature in Boom Beach in comparison to CoC are Resource Bases. The player can acquire additional islands that provide extra wood / coins. The player can’t build other structures on these islands, but they are emotionally invested in these islands because losing them means more than losing trophy points – it puts a bottleneck in resource production. I have a feeling that over time Supercell will expand on this mechanic slightly and make it possible for you to build onto these islands, giving you a tactical dilemma of which base to protect with your hard-earned resources!
Currently the biggest thing that seems missing to me in Boom Beach is the social component. CoC was a huge game because players could form Clans (Guilds) with each other and had a clan scoreboard as well as individual scoreboards. I think it’s safe to say that this feature is on the way, but as the game is in Soft Launch, I am sure Supercell are planning on optimising other elements of the game first. Once this is done, I expect the rollout of a clan feature, and no doubt the global chat messaging system will also make an appearance.
One thing that may not make it into the game is Facebook integration. At the moment CoC does not have Facebook integration, which I always found very unusual given that Supercell’s other game, Hay Day does use it quite heavily. I believe this is because CoC appeals to a more midcore audience and Supercell employs community managers on a per-territory basis to look after their super-fans directly. However, I think this is a surprising missing element that would be easy to integrate and that would add value to both Boom Beach and CoC.
EDIT: Whoops, looks like the game does allow for Facebook integration, although it’s quite well hidden. There’s also currently no motivator to want to do so. Some games offer you Hard Currency for connecting to Facebook, and some even offer you a perma-buff, for example an additional builder or increased life capacity. This would be a recommendation I would make to increase the number of connected players and to help the game go viral. Share stories and notifications via Facebook when a Friend has attacked you would also be cool!
I also think that this title is missing a social currency. In CoC, players could send troops to each other to help them out. This meant that players would re-engage with each other often as instead of paying / waiting for troops to be trained, they could request them from friends. If you received troops from friends, you would then feel obligated to send them back, and if you didn’t… well then most clans would give you the boot! I expect this feature to appear in the game very soon (when Guilds / Clans inevitably arrive), but it is missing at the moment.
Another surprising miss is the lack of a shield mechanic. In CoC, you could buy shields to protect you from attacks for a certain duration. This was ideal when you wanted to save up enough Soft Currency to upgrade your Town Hall. I think this mechanic will be added to the game as shields usually monetise very well in competitive PvP games, but it’s not there at the moment.
Supercell are *definitely* fans of Team Fortress by Valve. The canned Battle Buddies was clearly an attempt to make a similar game for iPad, and both CoC and now Boom Beach use obvious cues from the game. This is nothing to be ashamed of, as Team Fortress is both an excellent game and has a cool, mainstream appeal art style. It really emphasises the characters in the game, and helps build an affinity and emotional attachment to them.
One other thing to note with the art in this game is that this game is 3D. CoC and Hay Day may look 3D but are actually 2D games. Supercell uses an art pipeline where 3D models are rendered out and then 2D sprites are made of then from a texture sheet. This is a clever technique as it allows you to make a high quality look but keeps performance and download size down.
Now that tablets are getting more powerful, more and more games will use full 3D, especially as download sizes for 3G have gone up to 100MB from Apple. As the Google Play store also begins to become as lucrative as the iTunes Connect store, it also places an emphasis on cross-platform game engines and Unity is a very popular development kit that allows a developer to support iOS and Android and use 3D very easily. I am not certain that Boom Beach uses Unity, but it might well do.
As for the 3D though… it’s inconsistent. The water looks nice, although it’s clearly just a giant mesh with some oscillation effects. Other elements such as the trees and rocks though in my opinion don’t look brilliant. I wouldn’t call Boom Beach an ugly game by any stretch of the imagination, but at the same time I am personally a little disappointed. Supercell are *the* company we are all trying to beat (massive respect for King, but Supercell’s games are much cooler!) and as such I expect nothing but the best from them. This is their first new release of the year so I honestly did expect production values similar to the Infinity Blade series from Chair.
Overall I would say that Supercell decided to play it safe with this release. However, that’s a smart business decision and I think this game will be a huge success. It’s a lot of fun, and while it doesn’t re-invent the wheel, it offers enough new gameplay and features to make it interesting to even the most dedicated CoC player. I’m sure when you try it for yourself, you’ll play it quite a lot to begin with. With a proven game model and a company who have been in the top 2 grossing positions for nearly a year, Supercell clearly have what it takes to make this game a hit.
It is possible that this game may cannabalise IAP sales from CoC as many people will move over to this game. However, I think Supercell will be just fine. GREE, Inc have proved with Modern War and Crime City (and other games such as Kingdom Age) that very similar games can co-exist with each other, and these are games that are both regularly in the top ten grossing rankings in many countries. Depending on Supercell’s tech pipeline it’s possible that successful features in either CoC or Boom Beach can be rolled out to the other, meaning that they can get an extra “bang for their buck” without having to create an entirely new engine. I also think that many players who dropped out of CoC because they could not compete with the big spending players will jump at the chance to play this game and to be able to compete with top level players on an even footing, well at least for the first couple of months!
At the moment GvG games are the best performing Tablet games. King has the most players worldwide with Candy Crush and Pet Rescue, but these games work on Facebook AND Mobile / Tablet and the cross-pollination of users between devices is responsible for the massive DAU numbers their games see. GvG games result in engaged fans that will play and spend consistently and these players stick around for the long-haul. To me, it’s a smart business decision from a very smart company.
I do secretly hope that Supercell are working on the next title that will make Tablet gamers around the world say “HOLY SHIT!” and that will create a ton of copy-cat imposters, but in the mean-time, I have a feeling this title will make the $1.5 billion Softbank invested in Supercell seem like a shrewd investment.
^ Footage of Boom Beach captured and edited by Simon Tay, explaining the power of flanking the enemy. Shows you how fun and cool this game is!