Since the launch in early 2016 Clash Royale has been downloaded close to 200 million times and the game has generated around $1 billion in in-app purchases alone.
What's also unique about Clash Royale is that it will likely bring more revenue than Clash of Clans over time. Just compare this to all of King's franchise games, which tend perform dramatically worse than their predecessors.
As I've said before, in my opinion, Clash Royale is the best game ever made for touchscreen devices. Sure, I've quit and uninstalled it more times than I can count. But I've also installed it more times than I've deleted it.
This post is derived out of my addiction to the game and it analyses in detail the elements that keep us hooked to this masterpiece.
Just when you think you had enough of this pocket-sized emotional rollercoaster also known as Clash Royale, they come up with a new update that introduces new cards.
Cards that for sure will take you over the current trophy hump. At least that's what you make yourself believe.
Barring the infamous Tournaments update back in July 2016, which saw Clash Royale plummet to its all-time low revenue, the bi-monthly updates of the game have ranged from good to extraordinary (read more: Clash Royale Tournaments Update Disappoints).
The goal of an update from the product perspective is quite simple: spend as little as possible time to increase engagement and monetisation.
To achieve this goal the game team analyses both qualitative and quantitative data in addition to employing good old gut feeling. All this information is then used to create a sprint(s) that delivers additional content, new features, fixes, tweaks, and polishes to the game.
On a high-level, running cadence is simple. Just analyse data and complete sprint. In reality, this is naturally much more complicated in large because of two reasons.
Firstly, it's almost never easy to agree what should be done next. In my experience, data often sets up a question but rarely gives an answer.
For example, the data may show that players' spending steadily drops after level six yet the retention stays solid.
There are numerous ways to attack this issue ranging from tuning to full-blown features and in an experienced team, where most of the people have their say about design, you'll end up having passionate arguments on which action should be taken.
Secondly, there's never enough resources, time or both. Sometimes the favourite idea is just too costly in terms of resources and time.
Failing to add meaningful content on regular intervals leads to a decline of engagement. This means that investing in building a new feature is a risk that can backfire, just like the infamous Tournaments in Clash Royale.
Clash Royale updates tend to deliver on every front. The beef of every update is the new content, which in Clash Royale equals to new cards. The way these cards are introduced is borderline perfect.
Firstly, each new card arrives into the game via custom Event, which allows players to play with the new card and gives most advanced players the opportunity to earn it in advance. Playing events costs premium currency, which allows the developer to not only increase engagement via a timed event but also increase monetisation via entry fee.
Secondly, there's always hype around these new cards. Players can watch introduction videos on YouTube and learn how to play with and against these cards.
This creates a strong pull to beat the event. Most importantly, it empowers the community to discuss and stream the new card and the strategies you can use.
Thirdly, all the new cards are slowly dripped to the players. Every update holds usually around three new cards.
But instead of introducing all three cards at once, like they used to during first months post launch, Clash Royale unlocks these cards methodically throughout two to three month periods.
Fourthly, and most importantly, with every new card, the metagame of Clash Royale evolves. This keeps the game fresh by forcing players to learn to play with, or at least against, the new card.
What's most remarkable is that Supercell runs the content cadence for the biggest mobile game in the world with a team of a less than 20 developers and little to none art outsourcing.
In contrast, its rivals King, EA and Machine Zone, need a team of at least 100 developers and artists to run a top 10 grossing game.
Even though most of my sessions end up in frustration they always start in the most positive way - with me opening up treasure Chests.
Each Chest is filled with cards that I need and want as well as cards which I don't need and will give to my clan mates. In other words, when I see that Chest unlock notification pop on my lock screen, I'm conditioned to return to the game despite the beating I got three hours ago.
The treasure Chests mechanic is, in my opinion, the most influential game mechanic in Clash Royale due to three reasons:
Firstly, it acts as an appointment mechanic. Most of the Chests take either three or eight-hour to unlock. This allows the player to set, or choose, an appointment when they will play again.
Secondly, the Chests limit the speed of progress players make through the content. Every game has a finite amount of content. In theory, once player progresses through all of the content, their engagement will drop.
Most importantly, once players pass through the content, there's no reason for them to monetise.
Typically games limit the session length to slow players' progress through the content (energy mechanic). The problem is, these artificial stallers of progress feel, well, artificial at best.
Clash Royale solves the content problem by allowing players to play as much as they want - but after just a few wins that will fill up all four of the chest slots and they won't be making any progress through the content.
Thirdly, the Chests ensure that players feel great at the start of every session. Now, this is very important because Clash Royale is probably the most punishing game on touchscreen devices.
When most of the sessions end with a losing streak and a promise to stop playing the game, that chest-unlock notification three hours later is vital to lure the player back to the game.
There are several ways player earns treasure Chests in Clash Royale. The Arena Chests are earned by playing ranked matches. Every win grants a Chest till all four slots are full and a player is left to decide whether they will be unlocking the three or eight-hour Chest.
There are other types of rare chests, but let us be honest, when the luck gives you the Giant Chest or the Magic Chest, you're spending gems to instantly unlock it.
In addition to the Chests, which players earn by playing the ranked mode, there's the Crown Chest, which unlocks as soon as a player has destroyed 10 towers. This Chest is sneaky. It gets you to play the game even though your Chest slots are full.
And then there are the Free Chests, which ensure that you will always have one or two Chests waiting for you when you return back to the game.
Finally, there's the Clan Battle Chest, which you unlock by battling together with your clan mates against other clan mates. Not only does this Chest offer a fun 2-vs-2 game mode, but it also promotes retention by discouraging clan-hopping because new clan members can't enjoy the spoils of a Clan Chest.
Retention inside a clan means that player is accountable to other players. This leads to overall increase in retention. Nobody wants to get dumped.
Overall, the treasure Chest mechanic is included in every aspect of the game. And why not. It's a phenomenal way to slow player's progress, drive social gameplay, increase monetisation and most importantly, create a positive feeling at the beginning of every session.
The sessions length
Whether I'm waiting for my wife at yet another clothing store, sitting in an Uber or just taking a little break, I'm instinctively tempted to start a match. After all, that's the best time to make that three to five minutes disappear.
Amazingly enough, you can have a meaningful session in Clash Royale whether you have five seconds, five minutes or five hours to spend.
The ability to cater to all the possible session lengths, paired with Supercell's super fast loading time, means that there's no excuse not to fire up the game when a player wants to or when that Chest unlock timers notification appears.
The ultra-short sessions are driven purely by the gacha Chests. It takes about five seconds for Clash Royale to load, after which player can open up his unlocked Arena Chest and one or two of the Free Chests.
In addition, a player can also gift cards to her clan mates before ending the ultra short, yet meaningful session.
The average sessions are, I believe, between five to twenty-five minutes long. Then the length of these sessions depends on how many battles player has time, or patience, to play.
During these sessions, players actually engage with the core game of battling other players. The goal of an average session is to get the Chest slots filled and/or earn enough Crowns to unlock the Crown Chest.
Sometimes it takes one or two three-minute battles to achieve this goal and sometimes many more battles that that...
The long sessions can last hours. These sessions are driven by a varying set of player motivations. One of the reasons for long sessions is player engaging with an event or a chasing down the Crown Chest.
As said, sometimes you need up to ten battles to finally unlock the Crown Chest. And once you do, a new Crown Chest is immediately available for the player to pursue. Other times the events are just so damn engaging that a player wants to enter it over and over again.
In addition to the game side drivers for a long session, a player is also driven to play longer sessions as they try out new cards. Clash Royale follows the pay-to-progress model to at while doing its best to avoid the pay-to-win model.
In other words, in addition to having high-level cards, a player also needs to master them. Mastery requires repetition, hence the long sessions.
Clash Royale's ability to provide a player with all kind of sessions lengths is truly amazing and an improvement to arguably outdated build-and-battle genre.
Just compare Clash Royale to Clash of Clans, where after collecting resources, starting a construction and battling a single battle, a player had absolutely nothing to do in the game - unless they were willing to spend money to rebuild their army just to battle one more time.
Yet despite taking the player-first approach in session length design, Clash Royale still keeps its monetisation potential untouched.
You see, no matter how long your session is, you will make progress only by leveling up your cards. And for that, you need the Chests. And the Chests are locked by a single timer.
In other words, a player who plays for six hours a day may have better skills than a player who plays 30 minutes a day, but they will both have pretty much same level card decks. That, ladies and gentlemen, is called unrivaled system design.
The tournaments & events
One of my original reasons to quit playing Clash Royale (I've quit and started again more times than I wish to remember) was the fact that the game became repetitive.
What I mean is, when a player reached higher tiers, they were required to master their decks in order to actually win. The combination of demand for master and the fact that all the battles were ranked, the game essentially discouraged players from trying new cards.
At least every time I tried to change my deck, I'd go on a losing streak that caused me to drop an Arena level (league level), which then led to worse Chest rewards.
The Tournaments finally allowed players to try out new cards against other players.
In all simplicity here's how it works: player pays a small entry fee to access a Challenge. The Challenge is to win 12 battles and the rewards get bigger with every battle player wins. If a player loses three times, their Challenge is ended and they can collect the size of the reward is based on how many battles they won.
Essentially the Tournaments are like sparring matches where players hone their skills on their new decks before playing in the ranked mode.
The Events, which run occasionally and coincide often with new card launches, offer always something new.
For example, the Draft Challenge offers a game mode, where players build each other's decks. In a Draft Challenge, each battle starts with a choice between two cards - you draft one and the other is given to your opponent. Both of the players draft four times until the decks are complete.
In other words, you know four of your opponent's cards and they know four of your cards. Any card in the game can come up as an option, so you might get to play with something new.
Events are extremely popular because the change up the gameplay by either giving a player a randomised set of cards or by overall changing the rules of the game - like the double Elixir challenge, where the matches were in overtime mode from start to finish.
Given the popularity of these events as well as the strong engagement and monetisation implications, entering an event costs Gems, it would seem like a no-brainer to run these events all the time. Right?
Well, because these events are rare, their impact on engagement is so strong. If the Clash Royale team would run events all the time, they would burn out both the players and the team on them.
In my experience, Supercell is one of the very rare companies that is able to think long-term instead of doubling down on a feature with extremely good performance indicators. And even Supercell has failed on this, as with the Hay Day Derby feature that turned the game from peaceful farming into a competitive grind.
Much like in Clash of Clans, the meta-game of Clash Royale is extremely well balanced, constantly growing and never deteriorating, meaning that a new card never replaces an old one.
This close to perfect balance of cards is evident when watching the top matches in Royale TV or going through the leaderboards as every high-level deck is different than the other ones.
There's more than enough documentation online about the balancing of Clash Royale. Heck, you can even watch this very insightful presentation on how the cards are balanced in Clash Royale by Stefan Engblom, a designer on the Clash Royale team.
So instead of boring you with yet another system design rant about Attack, Defense, and Siege strategies, let me rather describe how metagame makes a player feel.
When someone demolishes you in Clash Royale with a deck build around the latest legendary card, which you don't happen to have, you feel angry at the game and at the 'clearly' overpowered card.
As you close the game and promise to never play it again, the feeling of defeat lingers in your mind. You start thinking about strategies on how to defeat this new card.
And suddenly, you're back in the game, modifying your deck to tackle this new challenge or spending money on Super Magical Chest in the hopes of getting this missing legendary card yourself.
But sometimes you get outclassed with a deck that you yourself could build at any time. When this happens, you're drawn to experiment with that deck and that playstyle yourself. Maybe that opponent had discovered the nearly perfect deck, you think to yourself...
In other words, because every card in Clash Royale has at least one counter card, going on a losing streak puts the player back in front of the drawing board.
They start to experiment with different strategies, engage with the community and/or spend money to unlock the missing cards. As the metagame evolves with patches and new cards, the previously invincible decks become vulnerable or cease to work altogether.
To summarise it all: Because of the close to perfect balancing, Clash Royale forces players to constantly re-figure how to keep winning. Your strategy is never done, and that's why you can't quit playing the game.
A good Clan is an amazing source of cards. Whatever card you ask for, they will provide it. Musketeer? We got you. Hog Rider? Sure! Baby Dragon? Of course! But here's the catch. It's not only hard to get into a good Clan but it's also tough to stay in one.
If you've been a member of a competitive Clan, you know what I'm talking about. While your card request is filled quickly without questions asked, you're also required to fill up requests as rapidly.
And it's not enough to just keep the donations high. As a member of a good Clan, you're also required to constantly raise your trophy level and keep up with the rest of the members.
Failure to meet weekly donation limits and trophies leads quickly to you looking for another Clan to call home. Not to mention those good Clans are also great communities. And no one wants to be kicked out of a community.
And in my opinion, the Clans in Clash Royale are far more accessible than their counterparts in Clash of Clans even though they arguably drive less monetisation.
While in Clash Royale the key is the volume of cards donated, in Clash Royale volume is not enough. In addition to giving enough units to your clan mates, in Clash of Clans you're also expected to give units that are upgraded to the highest level.
In other words, when Archer level 7 is introduced, everyone in the Clan is expected to pay through research and upgrade timers in order and start gifting the level 7 Archer.
Being too slow in getting level 7 Archers will quickly lead to complaints from clan mates and eventual kick from the Clan.
Finally, you can't quit playing Clash Royale because of you friends. What happens to me is I delete the game and stay away from it for a week or two.
But every day I'm reminded of it as I see my friends playing a match or two. At first, I may say something snarky about the game and refuse to even watch. But slowly I see myself watching what they do and starting to give them advice or asking for advice myself.
Next thing I know, I've re-installed the game, joined a clan and am grinding for Trophies. There are just too many reasons why you, and I, just can't quit playing Clash Royale...
+ Probably the best game on your device
It goes without saying that my devices are filled with games. I make sure to download a new batch of games every Thursday and give them all a good college try.
The problem is, apart from indie games, most of the new games don't feel that new at all. Instead they tend to be either straight follow-ups of existing top hits or minor iterations, such as same game but with an IP, of the top hits.
There are the march-battle games, which are basically re-skins of Game of War. Then there are there are the puzzle games, which have had you matching sweets or animals since 2011.
What I'm trying to say is that the only reason for a player to switch from one game to another is that it offers a new type of experience. Clash Royale, just like Pokemon GO and Fire Emblem, was drastically different than other games in the market.
In my opinion, Clash Royale clone with IP/more control/more lanes/RPG mechanic/Shooter mechanic or any other combo has a very slim chance of creating anything sustainable. Due to all the reasons above, taking Clash Royale head on is just not smart from a product or entertainment perspective.
It's good to remember that Clash Royale is not perfect. It is still extremely grinding experience on the long haul and the small team driving this marvel piece is struggling to keep up with the extremely intense demand for new content. A new card once in two months just isn't enough.
Overall, as a game maker, I'm extremely happy that Clash Royale has become such a phenomena. The game, in my opinion, has evolved the build-and-battle category and created demand accessible and tactical player versus player games on touchscreen devices.
We should all understand what makes Clash Royale so addictive, fun, frustrating and amazing and apply these fundamentals into the games we make.