Mobile Game Double Feature

I spend a lot of time on this blog tearing into things that are probably a work of passion and love. As such, it seems only fair that occasionally go the other direction, and spend some time tearing into things that were a work of “How much fucking money can we make selling lottery tickets to children?”

Maybe this approach won’t be great for optics. But if I can analyze indie games that have interesting mechanics buried under crude art or lackluster technical implementations, it seems only fair to look mobile games that have mechanics locked in Skinner boxes.

Mobile games are kinda like indie games, but there’s an entry fee of how much your kidneys would currently go for on the black market.

Starting with…

Knight’s Edge

There’s a GDC talk somewhere in Knight’s Edge. It might be about how they managed to add in a cash shop, battlepass, and a billion other pieces of bullshit. Maybe it’s art direction-related. They could make a “How To” guide on ripping off that Clash of Clans smooth minimalistic art style that somehow has less personality than a furry OC that’s just a Sonic recolor.

Or maybe they could do one about how their cool little 3v3 battle brawler ended up tied to all the bullshit above. Actually, I can do it for them.

Anyway, now that I’ve done their presentation for them, they can spend some time talking about their actual mechanics. Knight’s Edge is effectively a combo of micro-brawler and roguelike. Your team of 3 is pitted against another player’s team, and you’re thrown into a tiny little dungeon. Whichever team makes it to the end of the dungeon and kills the final boss first wins!

It’s a simple little idea, and there’s really only two other things to mention about it. First up is that at certain points, you can invade the enemy, and attempt to kill them or mess with them to slow them down. But at the same time, it’s risky because your team won’t have your DPS during the invasion. The second one is that whenever you destroy enemies, you get EXP. Get enough, and you’ll level up, which gives generic stats. More importantly, leveling up also lets you pick between various buffs, which are determined by the weapon you’re using. This gives the whole thing a sort of micro-roguelike vibe.

Before you say “That’s kind of a lousy screenshot,” know that I took it from their app store page. This isn’t on me.

That’s pretty much all I have to say about Knight’s Edge. Is there a cool idea here? Yes. But it can’t make it out from under the monetization. Also the controls sort of suck. Your actual agency to influence a given round often feels like playing a slot machine with the upgrade system.

But anyway, enough about Knight’s Edge. Let’s talk about…

Cross Duel

I’ve written about Yu-Gi-Oh mobile games before on this site. There are a surprising number of them. Their monetization ranges from “Something resembling reasonable” with Duel Links to “Its own category in a list of shitty business models” for Master Duel.

Anyway, Cross Duel manages to sit somewhere in the middle of trashy pricing, which is to say “Typical Gacha.” But we’re not here to talk about that. We’re here to talk about Cross Duel itself.

If you’re going “Wow, seems dynamic!” that’s because I stole this one from their app page, and Konami is better at marketing then whoever makes Knight’s Edge.

I think one of the most interesting things about Cross Duel is that it shares very little with Yu-Gi-Oh mechanically. While ideas like like Monster Cards and Trap Cards are present, it’s easy to see how Cross Duel could stand as a separate game, or even potentially as a legacy board game. The deckbuilding only allows 20 cards, and only 1 copy of any single card.

Cross Duel is a four player lane based game. Everyone draws a hand of cards, and simultaneously places them. At the end of the starting “Main Phase,” monsters move down their rows if they were in attack position, or stay put if they were in defense position.

While many of the terms sound similar to Yu-Gi-Oh, there are a lot of mechanical differences. For starters, while the game can end if one player manages to knock out 3 others, it also just ends after 8 rounds are played or if even a single player ends a round with zero life points remaining. In addition, everyone starts with a single “Special” card in their hand serves the role of a panic button or can be used to apply heavy pressure.

Those aren’t the only differences. Players gain life points when their monsters inflict damage to enemy players. Unlike normal Yu-Gi-Oh, this only happens when a monster hits an opponent directly, not when they just attack another attack position monster and win. Damage is also maintained between rounds, meaning that a powerful bomb card can quickly be chipped down by multiple weaker cards.

Anyway, the result of all these mechanical changes is that you can actually do decently in some games of Cross Duel without selling your kidneys. Often, the players with more powerful cards are forced to fight each other, instead of wasting resources to knock you out.

The game also has what seems like a fairly interesting system for playing around with card skills and abilities. Unfortunately, it’s locked behind the usual grind and bullshit, so I don’t have much to say about it other than it seems neat.

In Conclusion

I was going to close with “There’s no moral to today’s writeup.” But that’s wrong. There is a pretty clear moral: interesting game mechanics can be found everywhere. In every terrible prototype, or miserable whalebait app store installation, it’s possible to find something interesting or clever. Is worth going to try to find those mechanics? I mean, for most people? Probably not.

People who play games casually would rather just play good games. People who work on games would probably rather be making games than playing other designers’ terrible ones.

But I guess for me, someone I view as sitting in the middle, it can be interesting. Hell, at least it’s something to write about.

Super Auto Pets

Super Auto Pets is pretty neat. Overall I like it, and I recommend it. It’s available on mobile and PC, but unlike most mobile games doesn’t have the sort of monetization that makes you feel like you’ve given your phone an STI by downloading it, and just offers expansion packs instead.

No really, this is the extent of all microtransactions in the game.

So now that I’ve said that I like it, what type of game is it? There’s a whole discussion you could have about its genre, but most people would call it an Auto-Battler. Because I’m a contrarian, I’d call it an Auto-Chess. Regardless of your preferred genre name, the goal is to construct a team out of units, each with their own stats and synergies, and last long enough to beat out each opposing team you play against.

Most other Auto-Something games I’ve played have had a fairly high learning curve. This is because they tended to be mods, or based off mods for games like Dota.

Enter Super Auto Pets.

Super Auto Pets keeps the general structure of the Auto-Chess genre, but replaces the complicated units with much more understandable versions. You still spend gold to buy units, you still combine units to power them up, and you can still re-roll the buy row, but instead of dozens of potential stats, Super Auto Pets units have just attack, health, and an ability.

So let’s talk about the flow of a game of Super Auto Pets, and then the two different game modes that are available.

At the start of a game, you’ll be given 10 gold, and a market of three pets from which you can buy. Each pet in the market costs three gold, and you can spend one gold to reroll the available pets. There are also food items, which give a variety of buffs. They can range from temporary stats for the next round, permanent stats, or an equipable item.

You have five slots for pets, and you can rearrange them however you wish for free. You won’t have a full five pets until after the first round or so, but after a little bit, your screen will look something like this.

When you finish, and hit the end round button, you’ll go to combat. And this is where the “Auto” part comes into play. Going from right to left, your pets will fight against another player’s team of pets. Making simultaneous attacks, combat is pretty simple. Each pet loses health equal to the attacker’s attack stat, and when they run out of health, they faint, and the next rightmost pet moves up to take their place. Whoever runs out of pets first loses, and if you both run out at the same time, the game ends in a draw.

Losing a single round won’t lose you the game. Instead, after each loss you lose a number of lives that increases as rounds pass. This is one of the interesting differences between Super Auto Pets and other Auto-Chess games I’ve seen. Most other entries instead have you lose a scaling number of lives or HP based on how many opposing units remain when you get knocked out.

I am very used to seeing this screen at this point.

The amount of lives you lose isn’t the only thing that changes as rounds pass. The pool of available units and food for purchase changes as well. Higher tier units tend to have stronger stat lines, and in many cases, stronger abilities.

So why wouldn’t you just always purchase them instead? There’s two reasons. First off is that while their base stat lines might be higher, they may not fit well into your overall strategy. The second is that base stats doesn’t always translate into actual stats.

Like with other Auto-Battlers, Super Auto-Pets allows you to level up your units by fusing additional copies into them. This increases their base stats, but vitally also often buffs their abilities.

Abilities are one of the biggest parts of the game I haven’t really talked about yet. Almost all pets have an ability, and they do a lot of different things, for different triggers. Some like the grasshopper create extra units in combat when the pet unit faints. Others might give a stat buff to another unit, such as the ant. Others function outside of battle, like the giraffe, which buffs other units permanently at the end of each round. As a side note, another interesting thing is that many of these abilities work in both battles, and the buy menu.

As an example: The horse’s “Friend Summoned” ability triggers both when you buy units between rounds, and when units are brought into play during a battle.

There are a few more things I want to talk about with Super Auto Pets before I wrap this up. The first is how the game avoids becoming stale. When you first install the game, it may take a little while to learn the default pool of pets and food, but past a certain point there becomes a fairly clear path to victory, and winning becomes more of a matter of “Can I complete my engines/strategies before my opponents complete theirs?” To deal with this, the game has the aforementioned expansion packs, and also a weekly pack that changes out the units and food items available, effectively creating a new meta to be solved each week.

The closest parallel is probably how something like Dominion works. You have a larger pool of total cards, but in a given game, only a subset of that pool is in play. As a result, the skill shifts from memorizing meta strategies to being able to read a pool and spot synergies.

The second is the game modes. Super Auto Pets has a standard Auto-Something mode, where you play against live players with 60 second buy rounds, but it also has a mode called Arena. In Arena, there’s no timer, and no hard pool of players. Instead of being the last player standing, your goal is to get 10 wins. You have as much time as you want to think and buy. When you choose to end a round, you’ll be matched against another player’s team from same level and round as you’re currently in, and play against them.

Arena mode is probably the biggest thing that sets Super Auto Pets apart from other Auto-Somethings, because it lets you play the game at your own pace, while skipping having to wait for matchmaking.

I don’t have anything else to say about the game. Truth be told, I like Super Auto Pets, but I don’t “like” like Super Auto Pets. I think it’s an accessible and friendly entry to the genre. The only in-app purchases are expansion packs, and they total about $15.

If this sounds interesting, you can grab it for free off the relevant app store for your phone, or for PC on Steam. Or just play it through a browser over on itch.io.

Yu-Gi-Oh: Master Duel

So, for folks who’ve played Yu-Gi-Oh before, and are wondering if they should play Master Duel, here’s my opinion in brief: Yu-Gi-Oh Master Duel can be fun, but only to the extent that you play against other people with decks that function at a similar power level. I can’t speak to higher level decks, because I never made one. I spent a non-zero amount of time being thrashed by players who did make high level decks.

A big critical note: Master Duel is ALMOST ENTIRELY PvP. There are some small PvE sections of the game, but they effectively function as tutorials.

As far as being a digital implementation of the physical game, it seems to do a solid job. I have some problems with how it handles certain mechanics, and there’s also very little flare compared to something like Hearthstone, or Legends of Runeterra. When an opponent searches for a card from their deck and adds it to their hand, the game only shows you the card for a brief moment, instead of keeping it revealed. I hate this, as the game has something like 5000+ cards, and I have no idea what a large number of them do.

Finally, its in-game monetization is fucking awful. I don’t give a shit about some “f2p btw top ranked” motherfucker. The only difference between this game and a crackhead with a knife coming at you in an alley is that the second one is being more transparent in their desire to obtain everything in your wallet.

I’d write more about this, but I already did. Master Duel is #4 on my Least Favorite Game Business Models list.

I’m going to be honest. I don’t have much more to say on Yu-Gi-Oh that provides value in the form of a review. Modern Yu-Gi-Oh is an incredibly alien beast to me. Opening turns can go through what feels like half a player’s deck, only to have any advantage gained be destroyed by one or two cards. First turn kills from the second player are common. The game’s balance seems to rely on handtraps, cards that you discard from your hand to negate your opponent’s effects, and quickly recognizing your opponent’s deck archetype. Knowing their combos and how to interrupt them is just a critical skill as knowing how to play your own deck.

I played 40 hours of Master Duel, and this review is the best I can offer. I know that I enjoyed playing against my friends who also installed it. I know I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone as a “single player” game, which it effectively is in many ways. I don’t like it as much as Duel Links, which had a lot of PvE content. I enjoy some forms of competition in card games, but I don’t enjoy grinding ladder, and that’s primarily what Master Duel seemed to offer.

But hey, it was free*. If you still want to play it, you can grab it here.

*Free to get your ass repeatedly handed to you by Eldlich the Golden Lord, seriously, fuck that card, and that deck.

Lost Ark – Part 1

The mechanical gameplay of an ARPG, and the…. well, everything else of a F2P MMO.

Author’s Note: It turns out writing a review of an entire fucking MMO is hard. As such, this article is an overview of my feelings on Lost Ark. There will be a few more follow-up articles that dig into specific elements of the game over the next few weeks.

Lost Ark is a MMO-ARPG that was first released in Korea in 2018, and got published worldwide by Amazon about 2 weeks ago. I’ve had a lot of fun playing it so far, but I don’t like how it handles its in game cash store. Ignoring its grindy mechanics, there’s what amounts maybe 20 hour opening campaign that was quite fun to play through, and if you like ARPGs, but not MMOs, it may be worth downloading just to play through that.

Okay, that covers all the big points I’d like to make about the game, as per the Gametrodon editorial policy of not making you read 15 paragraphs to figure out if you’d like the game. Now it’s time for those 15 paragraphs, starting with a bit of context on the sorts of games I like. It’s relevant, I promise.

I dislike MMOs about the same amount that I do enjoy ARPGs. I have tried WoW multiple times and bounced off. I did the free trial of MMO Final Fantasy, and had pretty much the same results.

For ARPGs, though, Path of Exile is my second most played game EVER after Dota 2, and I’ve been playing Dota 2 for over 11 years at this point. Steam says I have 1600-ish hours in PoE, and all of that time was before I switched over to using the game’s standalone launcher.

Anyway, the point is:

  • 1. Oh god I’m old, and I’m going to die
  • 2. Lost Ark is theoretically a MMO-ARPG. This means it’s a combo of two genres, one of which I love, and the other I… well. Hate is the wrong word. Hate implies some sort of emotion. And I simply don’t care about MMOs.

Anyway, if you’re wondering how I feel about Lost Ark, all you really need to know is that instead of writing this article, I’ve just been playing the game non-stop. I sat down yesterday to write this, told myself I’d log in to get some screenshots, and then played for something like 5 hours.

The only reason I’m not playing right now is that I know that if I so much as boot the game up, the probability of this article being finished today drops to zero.

This is not to say that Lost Ark is perfect. I’ve logged 113 146 hours in it so far, and I have some issues with the game. But I’m also not planning on stopping playing anytime soon. In addition, there are so many systems involved in Lost Ark that I can’t cover them all. So instead I’m going to try to give an overview of the game’s portions, and enough info to let you decide if you think you’d have fun with it.

A lot of other folks I’ve seen playing the game have divided the game into early game and post game sections. I don’t hate this categorization, but I’m going to break the content down a little differently.

There is a solid early game campaign that is fairly linear, and has zero freemium bullshit. It’s not too different than playing through the story portion of Path of Exile, or the Diablo campaign. At the same time, it’s also sort of a tutorial for later content.

Generally speaking, I liked these portions of the game. The story is a solid B, the design of many of the actual areas is impressive, the dungeons are fun spectacles, and it’s just a solid ARPG. I want to make a quick special shout out to one specific feature here though, and that’s questing. See, Lost Ark looked at every other game that has you go out, collect eyeballs, and then return to Fred the Eyeball Eater and went “What if we just made it so that after you finish the quest, the person you turn into was in the direction you needed to go next as part of the main story instead of forcing you to trudge back into town with the eyeball sack” and it makes things flow a lot smoother. There’s almost no back tracking required for quests as part of the story progression.

I also really like how Lost Ark’s skill system works. You start with a large set of your abilities unlocked, and you can respec your combat abilities for free. This makes quickly switching things up feel fairly painless, and not the slog that it can be in something like PoE. I will also say that while playing through this first portion of the game, while I took a few deaths, there was nothing challenging enough to make me want to switch up my build. My main was an artillerist, a rocket launcher-toting DPS class, and it wasn’t until end game and raids that I actually read though what my abilities did.

The other part of Lost Ark though is the “end game” content, and this is where the Freemium and MMO genres rear their (ugly) heads. At certain points in the story, you’ll be blocked from progressing to the next part of story content until you reach a high enough item level. The way this works is incredibly simple: you stick your item into a gear upgrader, feed it magic shards until it’s full, and then spend more resources to try to upgrade it.

You can also just move your upgrade level to another piece of gear via gear transfer, though this does destroy the gear used as an input.

You’ll note that I said “Try,” because in Lost Ark, you only have a chance to upgrade your gear. If it fails, you’ll need to gather materials to try to perform the upgrade again.

Author’s Note: Apparently this a common mechanic in some Korean live service games. At least in Lost Ark, you only lose the materials invested in the failed attempt, instead of apparently destroying or downgrading your item?

So how will you get these materials? Well, by engaging in either the end game content, or exploring the world. Let’s start by talking about end game content. There’s a bunch of it, and it includes the following:

Chaos Dungeons – AKA “murder massive packs of enemies with your friends.”

Guardian Raids – ARPG Monster Hunter where your teammates are new to the idea of “not dying.”

Abyssal Dungeons – MMO-style raids, where you’ll learn that no one knows the raid mechanics, including you.

There are also several other modes, including PVP, Platinum Field, and Cube Dungeons.

While you can run end game content almost as many times as you want, you can only really get rewards from a given number of runs per a day. If you want more gear and equipment, you’ll have to find somewhere else to earn rewards (most likely something in the game’s islands and other content systems). You could also buy gear off the game’s in-game market, or from one of the gold farming sites you’ll see advertised by the bots spamming many of the chat channels day and night. But, most likely you’ll get them from islands.

Prepare to spend a non-zero portion of your time waiting around for Islands to pop, and not even be made about it, because TOOKI TIME.

Islands are one of the biggest portions of Lost Ark’s content. After a given point in the story, you get a boat, and can sail around, stopping on various islands. Islands tend to have their own stories and mechanics which can range from being mostly self-contained, to sending you on sprawling quests across the rest of the entire world, to just being permanent PVP murder holes.

Okay, so now that we’ve talked about everything I like about the game, let’s talk about the monetization.

Lost Ark is not the greediest or unfairest game I’ve ever seen in terms of monetization. With that said, it is 100% a “Pay for Convenience” sort of game. The game has a membership system at $10 a month that provides a variety of conveniences, and makes it so you don’t have to pay a fee to use the game’s intercontinental teleports. In addition to that, the game’s premium currency Crystals can be used to purchase gold somewhat like how WoW’s membership tokens work. Crystals can also be used to accelerate research cooldowns at your base, instantly finish daily quests, and reset the timer on stored warp points called “Bifrosts.” In simplest terms, there is no cash shop selling godly weapons, but you absolutely can spend real money to purchase materials to upgrade your gear.

Overall though, I’ve found Lost Ark fun. There are a variety of systems and collectibles I haven’t really touched on in this article, including the world bosses and timer events, the Stronghold mechanics, and skills and how the passive abilities called engravings work. But the end result is fun game, even if it has some weirdness, like the gender locked classes, and Pay 2 Progress Faster mechanics.

Orna

Orna is an interesting augmented reality game, with an focus on the “Game” bit.

Orna is an augmented reality game in the general vein of Pokemon Go. Where Pokemon Go is heavy on the augmented reality and sometimes forgets to be a game, Orna remembers that AR games are supposed to actually be… well, games. In general, it functions as a semi-procedural RPG. There are monsters to fight, dungeons to explore, quest givers, inns, and shops.

You can filter what shows up on your map by what you’re looking for, including only showing enemies, or only showing larger bosses.

Like Pokemon Go, you have a sphere around you that dictates what you can interact with, and if you want your character to move, you need to move around in real life. The game world is overlaid on top of a world map, and you tap nearby things to interact with them.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Orna and most other augmented reality games I’ve seen is that Orna is focused on being a game. While combat starts out as a fairly simple affair, leveling up gives you the ability to unlock and switch between additional classes. The higher tier classes give access to additional skills, abilities, and skill slots, letting you bring more moves into battle.

For example, earlier in the game I had a thief who turned into a magic wielding wizard. I would buff myself up to be able to dodge attacks, then just stab people a bunch. After a while, I found that not having access to elemental abilities was making it harder to defeat certain enemies. So I switched over being more of caster.

Before I stopped playing, I’d rebuilt again into using physical damage, but casting low-mana cost spells to apply elemental damage of various types to my attacks, while trying to lock the enemy down with sleep and other status effects. This only worked because I’d unlocked a high enough tier class to bring in about 8 spells to battle, and ran a pet that had a chance to heal me each round, so I could just focus on damage and status effects. So there was quite a lot of build variety available to me.

You start out with just two skill slots, but you get more as you unlock higher tier classes.

The end result of all of this is a reasonably in depth system that, oddly enough, illustrates something to me that I hadn’t thought about too much before. Why do so many Augmented Reality games lack in-depth mechanics? The answer, I realized, is because outside of all this combat, you are at least in theory supposed to be playing this game while wandering around outside. In games with in-depth combat mechanics, combat actually requires attention and planning. Trying to play Orna and not walk into people/traffic/road signs is actually pretty tricky.

Instead, I often found myself pausing my walk in order to finish combat encounters or larger boss fights. Orna includes an auto-attack system to get through fights while not paying attention, but using it tended to result in me getting my ass handed to me. A level of attention and focus was necessary to actually win.

Most of the game’s secondary systems also run into a similar problem. There are dungeons, which are a longer gauntlet of battles, and you can’t pause or anything between. There’s the arena, where you face off against other players’ builds controlled by the AI. Both of these can be a bit tricky, and require you to actually be careful with your moves.

On the flip side, there are some systems that encourage moving around, at least a little bit. You get quests through daily random quests, from quest givers, or from other sources. Some quests just ask you to “explore” and walk a certain distance. In addition, there’s a territory capturing system that gives you bonuses for a time period for beating the mini-boss controlling an area.

No, the blue currency isn’t premium, it’s Orns, used to create various buildings and unlock new classes. But you can’t buy it with real money.

You can also construct various different types of shops and buildings to provide additional passive income, and other boosts and benefits. Some of these buildings can be seen and used by other players, while some can’t. But if you want you can choose to make the public ones private. In theory, this would let you wander around and discover other players’ structures, but in practice, I mostly just built everything in one place, and never left that area.

There are a bunch of other systems, including upgrading items, socketing gems into items, fishing, and various multiplayer raids, but I haven’t played around with them enough to really know what to say.

Look, this photo of my gear is just here to pad out the article.

And that’s a general overview of Orna. An interesting augmented reality game without excessive microtransaction bullshit, but which is sometimes a bit hard to play because of how many mechanics and systems work. Or at least, difficult to play while not getting hit by a truck.

If Orna sounds cool, or you want to play something that requires you to walk around a bit and isn’t Pok√©mon Go, you can find Orna on the Apple App Store and Google Play store if you just search the name. If you’re not sure, there’s more info on the game’s webpage here.