Clash Royale: Creating a sticky first time user experience

If you’ve looked at mobile app stores lately, you’ve definitely seen or heard of Clash Royale — Supercell’s next billion dollar bet in mobile gaming. Clash Royale has a simple, yet familiar premise. There are two players and each player defends three towers on each side of a small map. Players try to take down more towers than their enemy with different card-based units. First player to destroy their opponent’s primary tower wins.

Each skirmish is complete within three minutes while still feeling strategic and exciting in all the best ways. This is one of the most engaging and addicting mobile games I’ve ever played and there is nothing quite as satisfying as taking down all three of your opponent’s towers.

Clash Royale pulls from the same fun quirky brand created by Clash of Clans

Where Clash Royale truly shines is its first time user experience. The first 15 minutes of this game are a spectacular example of how to create a sticky UX that keeps players coming back to play more and spend money. This first impression is crucial because of how much needs to be accomplished within a short amount of time. A good onboarding has to teach players core game mechanics, build investment to entice players to return, and most importantly, has to be fun throughout.

Supercell tackles all these issues by striking a balance between coaching and exploration, intelligently ramped difficulty, and perfectly timed enticements to keep players on track. They’ve done everything in such a way that players never feel hand held through a tutorial. Instead, they learn through their own self created experience. All this in tandem with the well known brand created by Clash of Clans, and you get an addictively fun, action-packed experience that has players clamoring for more.

Balancing Coaching and Exploration

Clash Royale’s onboarding has two moments that force players into a railroaded coaching session. The first happens almost immediately and teaches players arguably the most important concept in the game, placing units on the map. The second happens a little while later and teaches players arguably the second most important concept, upgrading unit-cards and editing your deck.

One of the only coach marked moments in game

The rest of the time that players spend in “training mode” is largely an exercise in exploration. Why did Supercell decide to do this? Likely because railroaded coaching sessions just aren’t that fun. Coaching sessions that are too long or aren’t fun are a sure fire way to lose players quick. Also most players won’t retain much of the information fed to them in coaching sessions even if they make it through the entire session.

Let’s quickly take a look at a contrasting example that has a very different onboarding process. Game of War is another popular mobile game, but it is miraculous that anyone makes it through the entire onboarding with any semblance of how to play or what the core game mechanics are.

Game of War’s coach markings

I played through the first 10 minutes and it was a constant stream of coach markings. 87 of them to be exact, not including notification and location permission prompts. I had to play through 87 coach markings before I had any sort of autonomy as a player. Try it for yourself and you’ll see how difficult it is to stay engaged, learn anything, or have any fun during that experience.

Clash royale level locks some material to keep players from getting overwhelmed with options

So rather than force players through a controlled environment littered with coach marks, Clash Royale allows their players to explore their options in all the menus and on the game map. To keep some control, Clash Royale keeps the exploration guided by limiting access to some of the menus until level 2 or 3. This keeps players exploring within a defined area so that they aren’t overwhelmed and are easier to keep on task. The game also keeps its players in training for their first seven matches and ramps up the difficulty with each successive match so that players naturally learn as they go until they’re ready to face a real opponent.

Ramping Difficulty

Ramping up the difficulty of each successive training match is pretty common sense and Clash Royale isn’t rewriting the book on this. However, the way the AI changes over each match and how much it manages to teach you before fighting a real opponent are quite impressive.

The difficulty ramp from training match one (left) to training match seven (right)

The ramp starts slow with the first match offering no opposing troops, just the tower objectives. The second match introduces resource management and enemy troops. By the third, the trial and error of troop deaths shows how pairing tanking units and high damage units works. By the final training battle, the enemy is sending varying troops down the opposite lane, teaching players lane prioritization and offensive versus defensive management.

All this happens with almost no text bubbles or coach markings telling players what to do. The hands-off training keeps users engaged and learning while actually playing the game in essentially the same way they would play against a real opponent. Then, after all the training matches are complete, something important happens; you lose.

Crown and free chests keep players interested after their first loss

Clash Royale matches you up with your first real opponent and you likely lose. I played through the onboarding multiple times, and even with added knowledge about different strategies, my first real opponent would always outrank me. Why? Because people learn better in defeat than they do in victory. The loss forces players to reconsider strategies that they were using in training and introduces them to new card units all at once.

The first seven training matches are a great road map of ramped difficulty to teach game mechanics while keeping it fun and interesting. Then, just as players feel invested in the game, they lose. It’s a perfectly placed moment to continue the learning process that the training matches set in motion.

Even for players who are easily discouraged, Supercell mitigates this feeling with one of their rewards systems. Right after the loss, the game shows you a “crown chest” and that you’ve received 1/10 crowns for progress towards it. This is just one of the many systems established to keep players coming back to play more.

Enticing Players to Return

Teaching the game and making it fun are top priorities, but they don’t create a sticky experience alone. Players need good reasons to return and play again to create a habit forming product. Clash Royale achieves this result by time locking almost all of its rewards.

After each win in Clash Royale, players are awarded a chest. This process begins immediately, awarding chests for each training match victory. The chests that come out of this process are each time locked for 15 seconds.

This short timer is crucial because it tells players, “go explore, we’ll have rewards waiting for you when you’re done.” This system works fantastically to keep players engaged while giving them room to wander. Then, after a player’s final training match, they receive a different chest.

Different timers tied to the valuation of different chests

Players receive a more valuable silver chest with a 3 hour unlock time. Every chest you receive from that point on has a 3 hour timer or longer. The wait time of each chest is directly tied to its valuation. Gold chests for example, have an 8 hour wait and magical chests have a 12 hour wait.

The fact that players can choose which type of chest they want to unlock at any given time was a great design choice as well. Giving players that flexibility means that they’ll place their chest timers for when they’re most likely able to play. Going to sleep? Set an 8 hour chest timer. Eating dinner with friends and have time later? Set a 3 hour chest timer.

The short timers in training keep the player engaged through the first 15 minutes, then long hour timers give players a reason to return on their own schedule. Timers like this can be found everywhere in the game and serve two important purposes. First, they give Clash Royale the opportunity to re-engage with players to get them to play more. Second, they serve as a monetization pinch to get users to pay money if they want to progress further faster.

On top of the wait timers attached to chests, Clash Royale pinches even harder on the monetization front by implementing a Gacha system to randomize all the rewards. I’ve talked more at length about another great Gacha system implementation here, but suffice to say it’s a surefire way to keep players paying more for the content they’re craving.

Marvel Contest of Champions’ successful implementation of a Gacha system to randomize rewards

My only suggestion about this rewards system, is that I would give players an even greater sense of control over their rewards. For example, three crown victories could be more likely to give better chests. Or chests opened or purchased on certain days of the week or during certain events give better cards.

You could even gamify the chest opening process itself to give players a greater sense of control (I.E. Marvel Contest of Champions’ slot machine-esque Gacha system). This feeling of control will help players feel more comfortable spending money in hopes of getting a particularly rare or sought after card. In turn, players would buy more chests because they would feel partially responsible for the outcome of the chest game.

Summary

Clash Royale is already snowballing into major success in the mobile gaming industry. Within a week of its US release, it is the number one highest grossing app in the App Store. There is a lot I could say about this game and the many hours I’ve already spent on it, but I would not have spent that long if the first 15 minutes didn’t hook me in initially.

Creating a sticky first time user experience is not easy and Clash Royale knocks it out of the park. Some of the key elements:

  • Stay balanced: Railroaded coaching makes perfect sense for teaching the most important concepts, but make sure you’ve decided what is most important. The more players get to learn and explore through trial and error, the better.
  • You win some, you lose some: Slowly ramp up the difficulty to teach players strategic choices while they win, but don’t be afraid to let them lose to teach them too.
  • Make them come back for more: Use timed rewards liberally to re-engage with players as much as possible once they’ve completed their initial experience.
  • Who’s really in charge: Letting players have control over their own rewards helps foster engagement. Make them feel like they have as much control as possible, even if you fake it.

Clash Royale is surely a game to keep an eye on. If its early success is any indicator, it seems primed to take down its predecessor as the new king of mobile gaming.


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