Difference and repetition in Archero

Archero was released May 17th 2019. Within a matter of days, it reached the top 100 grossing ranks on iOS, and it has been hovering around the top 50-60 mark for over a month.

In this post I’m not going into the UA and growth strategy that accompanies this successful worldwide launch. Rather, I’m going to focus on the game’s internal functioning. Specifically, 3 things I find the game does really well. First, from a design point of view, I feel like the game does a great job at providing (random) twists and variations on a simple gameplay. That means even though the basic moment to moment gameplay is repetitive, the random skills players get along the way make every game unique and different. Second, the Talent and Equipment systems provide a light layer of meta that impacts gameplay (although very slowly and gradually). But that meta system is crucial because it impacts long term progression and advancement through the different dungeons. Finally, the game only allows players to continue once. Since the game consists in beating all levels in a chapter/dungeon, that means players can’t simply spend to ensure progression. More importantly from a monetization point of view, that might make the purchase moment less threatening. And that also normalizes the continue purchase.

 

Variations in the moment to moment gameplay

The gameplay in Archero is very straightforward. Players move through different rooms in a dungeon and fight enemies. Players move their avatar, and when the avatar is stopped, he automatically shoots at the nearest enemy. Once players have completed all rooms in a dungeon, they complete it and move on to the next one.

Gameplay is extremely simple. Players move the avatar up/down/left/right – or don’t move him and have him auto-shoot. What’s particularly interesting here is that this very simple, predictable (and repetitive) gameplay always takes place in rooms where the layout is different – and so are the enemies. This randomness adds variety and helps make each play through feel different.

More importantly, the biggest thing that adds variety in gameplay are the abilities. As players progress through the dungeon, they gain new abilities (they need to choose one from a random choice of three). These abilities fundamentally change the way the game is played. By default, players shoot straight ahead. Abilities can add extra arrows, special effects when attacking, extra health, and more.

 

The really interesting thing here is that as players progress, they stack up more and more abilities. And the mix of different abilities can make for crazy combos that fundamentally change the way the game is played (and make it a lot more fun).

 

Getting the ultimate loadout becomes a game within the game. Abilities that shoot multiple arrows and in different directions, that make arrows ricochet off multiple enemies or that make arrows shoot faster and do more damage are particularly desirable (to me at least).

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The accumulation of skills creates a strong incentive for players to spend gems to continue those games. This randomness in gameplay creates variety – that is important for a game with such basic and repetitive gameplay. And from a monetization point of view it also creates a strong knowledge of situations where players will have a greater propensity to spend (so that means better leverage to optimize monetization). Some loadouts are more valuable than others for players. And that increases the incentive to continue with that loadout.

If you were to look at the room players are when they purchase a continue, you’d probably see the further in the dungeon the higher the continue rate. But you would probably also see specific patterns depending on the skills players have accumulated. If a player has progressed far in the dungeon with a highly valuable loadout – which you know doesn’t occur often – then s/he will have a much greater incentive (and emotional investment into that play-through) to keep it alive as long as possible.

So, you could look side by side at a) the impact of skills on completion rate (for example, what % of players who win have Multishot or Front Arrow) and b) the impact of skills on continue rate (for example, what % of players who spend to continue have Multishot or Front Arrow). You can get closer to the optimal balance between making the game easier to complete and more conducive to having players continue. That could provide a high-level guide to tweak the drop rate of each respective skill. It might be more efficient from a monetization point of view to have the good skills drop more frequently because while the win rate might go up a bit, the continue rate could go up significantly more. Or maybe you could change the drop rate of those skills when players are low on gems and don’t have enough to purchase the next continue (so they need to do an IAP to continue). The variety and randomness of skills makes it more fun for players, and it also creates a more controlled situation to optimize player spending.

 

Progression and long-term improvements

One of the biggest reasons for the game’s appeal lies in its simple and intuitive moment-to-moment gameplay. The randomness – both in level layout and player loadout – helps alleviate the repetitiveness of this simple gameplay. Archero also introduces 2 classic (but effective) ways to add depth and a sense of progression on top of the gameplay. Those are the Talent and Equipment system. By adding a meta layer of progression Archero effectively controls and paces progression by gradually increasing the difficulty of the game (and the time it will take players to progress through different dungeons).

Talents are passive perks that permanently improve players’ stats. Players purchase perks with coins (the game’s soft currency) and they randomly get one of 9 potential talents. Each talent has a level, and players can get the same talent multiple times.

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Players are also paced in their purchase of perks – every time they level up, players can purchase one more talent. While early on a player can get by without purchasing perks, it becomes much more valuable as dungeons get harder. Also, early on players are mostly limited by the cost of the talent purchase. As players progress and difficulty increases (and their coin balance increase), the main blocker becomes their level (and available talents for purchase). That means players need to play (and accumulate XP) for a given amount of time before they can purchase enough perks to help them beat a level. I intentionally write “help” because more than most other top grossing games in the store, skill is key in progressing in Archero.

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Alongside the Talent system, the game features Equipment. Equipment improves stats, and some pieces of equipment also provide additional perks (increase dodge, heal more, etc.). 2 of the 6 equipment slots are for “spirits” which are sidekicks that follow you in-game and attack enemies.

Equipment can be upgraded. Players spend coins and scrolls (which are dropped in game) to upgrade a given piece of equipment. There is also a fusion system. Players need to fuse 3 items of a same quality to increase its rarity.

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Equipment can (very rarely) be found in random drops in levels. The most common way to acquire equipment is through the gacha boxes. That provides another source of hard currency spending – one of the biggest one being the continue. There are 2 different rarities (and prices) for chests.

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Both chests can be purchased. But players can also get free chests at regular intervals. Every 24 hours for the basic chest, and every week for the higher-quality chest. That provides a classic retention and appointment mechanism. One thing that’s worth noting is that players must watch a video to collect their free daily chest.

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That feels like a really clever way to monetize via ads while at the same time rewarding players. In a sense, the free chest is a bonus reward for players. If they’ve waited the 24 hours, they’ve earned that reward. Putting a video ad as a condition to complete is making things very simple and straightforward for players. In other words, players earn something relatively valuable every day (the chest is worth 60 gems – which is $0.74 at the default gem price), but need to complete a video ad to claim it. This makes watching an ad on a daily basis a non-brainer. That’s because the hard part is waiting. Watching a video ad is just for the claiming part.

 

Only continue once per game

In Archero, players can spend to get more equipment via gacha boxes, spend to get the missing coins to upgrade their equipment or buy more talents, or buy missing energy. Players can also periodically spend in game when the “Mysterious Vendor” appears and has scrolls or equipment for sale.

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One important source of spending in Archero (if not the most important) are continues. When players lose in a dungeon, they have the option to stop playing – and restart the dungeon from the first level – or continue playing.

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Continues are pretty cheap – when comparing with the cost of continues in other games. Players can continue for 30 gems (that’s between $0.37 and $0.21 depending on the IAP bundle you look at). So clearly for this feature to make a meaningful contribution to the game’s revenue, it has to be a volume play. That means you need a) a high percent of players using it and b) players to use it frequently.

One thing that’s very interesting in the way Archero implements (and limits) the number of continues in a game. Players can only continue each game once. After players have spent once to continue, they can no longer pay to continue: they’ve lost and must attempt to pass the dungeon again from the beginning.

Most games don’t put a limit on the amount of continues a player can make. Some games scale up the price as players keep on purchasing a continue. For example, the first time players continue a match it costs 10 gems, the second time 20, the third 40, etc. Some games don’t allow you to continue at all. But few games allow players to pay to continue while limiting the number of times they can pay to do so.

This feels like a very interesting (and effective) design choice. Because the continue is both cheap and tremendously desirable it already achieves a high reach (it’s desirable because it’s a) useful and b) players are emotionally invested in their progression). Limiting the number of continues seems to also help ensure players are going to frequently use it because it normalizes using a continue. By that I mean that it becomes natural for players to spend gems to continue. In contrast, spending on a gacha is much more eventful and meaningful. Spending gems on gacha (in Archero or any other game that features gacha) is something out of the ordinary.

It feels like having a limit on how many continues players can use would actually have a positive impact on spending. Because players can only purchase it once, purchasing the continue becomes a non-threatening purchase (you can’t spend more than 30 gems in total on the continue). Players know no matter what they can only continue once. Limiting the number of available purchases is like a guardrail on player spending. And it becomes natural because it’s a finite way to extend your game. Players naturally play the game until they reach 0 HP. The longer you play Archero, the more you incorporate using a continue as part of your new normal. You naturally play until you die a first time. Then you naturally spend on the continue until you die a second time for good.

Spending to continue is not a big commitment or a noteworthy event. It’s non-threatening. In its ideal situation, normalizing the continue (making it routine and a natural part of playing a game) means every game played has an associated 30 gem spend associated to it. I was discussing above how getting the perfect loadout creates a very compelling incentive to continue those games. Having a non-threatening (because finite and limited) continue means the threshold to continue is even lower. Players will definitely want to continue when they have their favorite loadout. But it’s such a low commitment to continue that players are likely to continue even when they have moderate or sub-par loadouts.

Allowing players to use continue only once per game puts a cap on spending on continue for each game. So at that level it’s not conducive to making a volume play out of the continue feature. But having only one chance to continue per game ultimately makes spending on continues something mundane and ordinary. And that’s why Archero is successful at making a volume play out of the continue feature. Not only will a high percentage of player use the feature. A high percentage of players will continue frequently. More precisely, that means a high percentage of matches played have an associated continue purchase. In its ideal form, the fact that spending to continue becomes part of the new normal per player means the average gems/game played ratio goes up the longer someone plays – and ideally that will tend towards 30.

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