Marvel Contest of Champions: Product Design Teardown

On the surface, Marvel Contest of Champions looks like a simple fighting game built using an internationally loved brand, that leverages its fast and easy gameplay to get you hooked into its monetization model.

If you look past the simplicity, however, you’ll find a deeply engaging game with an addictively fun mix of multiplayer, meta gameplay, and content releases that convince consumers to buy in-game currency early and often.

1 vs. 1 combat in Marvel CoC

Kabam’s game draws inspiration from Injustice: Gods Among Us, a Warner Bros. and DC Comics produced game, but makes some smart design choices to increase playability in short time constraints, and long term engagement. First of all, the matches are shorter, limiting every fight to a 1 vs. 1 battle as opposed to the 3 vs. 3 system that Injustice has. Second, the combat is much simpler, limiting actions to simple taps and swipes on the left or right side of the screen as opposed to the on-screen controls used in Injustice: GAU.

3 vs. 3 combat and on screen controls overcomplicate Injustice: Gods Among Us

These simple mechanic changes alone already make a significant difference because the game becomes more accessible to more players and is easier to play in shorter stints of time (while sitting on the toilet at work, while lying down before sleeping, etc.).

Okay so shorter playing times and an easier combat system are a good start, but it’s not all Kabam has done here to make Marvel CoC such a high grossing game. The product choices that have a large impact are the design of their rewards system, choosing to focus on the meta gameplay over their combat system, and their stellar use of IP.

Gacha System

One of Marvel CoC’s core design decisions is the removal of direct purchases of any playable characters. Instead, players are forced into playing a Gacha System. Gacha is a reference to toy vending machines in Japan that crank out popular capsule toys. Each toy is often part of a larger set and some are more rare than others.

A row of Gacha machines; each has a different theme or IP

Marvel CoC’s champion crystals are a perfect example of this system. Once a player obtains a champion crystal, they get the opportunity to roll for a random champion, each with varying rarity. Want Spiderman, but keep getting the Hulk? Roll again and hope for better luck next time.

A rotating carousel of champions gives the player a sense of control when rolling for new champions

What really makes this particular Gacha system so addicting is its presentation to the player. While rolling for a new champion, Marvel CoC presents you with a rotating carousel of the dozens of champions you can win and tells the player to choose when to stop the rotation. The carousel then slows to a stop leaving you with a randomly selected champion.

Regardless of the player controlling the carousel, the varying rarity is randomized

This presentation shows off the depth of the champion pool and what you could have, but don’t. By also giving the player a sense of control it makes this Gacha system a game in itself, almost like playing a casino slot machine. No matter how rigged a machine is, slots players believe they have control, and so they continue to play. The same can be said of Marvel CoC. Showing the player a controlling option does not mean that there is any way to improve their odds of winning better content, but it will definitely make them believe that there is.

On top of the compelling presentation, the employment of this system serves two main purposes:

  1. The randomization of the system limits the amount of end-game content players can access without significant investment of time or money
  2. The frustration players feel over not getting the champions they want increases the likelihood that they will “pay to win”
Injustice: GAU’s roster of directly purchasable champions

Leveraging this system alongside regular content releases keeps players coming back to spend more until they win the champions they want. Furthermore, slowing down the rate that players can win content at helps Marvel CoC become a habit-forming product and building that type of behavior leads to better long term retention numbers.

META GAMEPLAY AND LEVERAGING IP

After playing Marvel CoC for a few hours, you quickly realize that the game is much less concerned with combat then you would expect from a fighting game.

The true hook and appeal of the game is collecting and upgrading your Marvel champions. In many ways, the fighting is simply a means to that end.

An example of an enemy champion with a class bonus

Champions in Marvel CoC are broken down into separate classes with different strengths and weaknesses against each other. This rock, paper, scissors equivalent encourages the collection of champions so that you can strategize against opponents to keep the advantage. It also encourages players to upgrade a large pool of champions instead of just their best few.

“Catalysts” as monetization hooks are effective because of their in-game rarity

Upgrading champions is usually a simple endeavor and most of the materials are given to the player regularly. However, in order to get the most out of champions, players need special items called “catalysts”. These items are much more rare than typical upgrade materials so Kabam sprinkles in limited time offers to buy the material. This time constraint and item rarity combined make for a great monetization hook.

Collection is the key component

On top of the upgrade mechanic, a large portion of the marketing material that Marvel CoC displays is also used to reinforce this idea of collection. For example, the image above shows Ant Man, Daredevil, and Rocket Raccoon which have all had recently released films or television shows. Kabam is continually timing their content around major Marvel releases so that they can entice users to play the game and try to collect content that relates to their favorite Marvel films or tv shows.

This timing helps increase initial interest for new players and continued playability for long time users. Not to mention the movies and tv shows are free marketing as long as Kabam continues to time their character releases well.

Talk about easy leverage of IP!

Alongside major character releases, Kabam also heavily integrates rolling content events to keep players constantly coming back to play more. Events range from a daily rolling basis all the way up to events with more in depth story lines that happen every few months.

Integrating these events with unique in-game rewards not only helps keep the game fresh and interesting, but also likely has a positive impact on return user numbers and behavior.

Each champion has three types of special attacks

In addition to the gotta have ’em all meta game, Kabam also takes advantage of the individuality of each Marvel champion. While the basic attacks for many champions are built off of similar models, special abilities are where each champion truly shines.

The champion abilities look great. They are visually appealing, thematically interesting, and best of all, are probably cheap to develop. Creating content releases for dozens of popular Marvel heroes who have extremely well documented abilities is surely easier than content releases for other games who have to create champions and abilities from scratch.

A more recent content event includes Kabam’s only original character, Guillotine

Versus “Multiplayer”

In any fighting game, mobile or otherwise, the ability to play against other players is typically a key component to the overall experience.

A typical Versus multiplayer match up

Interestingly, Marvel CoC makes a side step around true live multiplayer. While there is a game mode called “Versus Multiplayer” players never actually fight against another live user.

Every time you enter into a Versus match, you get matched up against real players’ profiles, but the fights are against computer controlled champions. The more fights you win, the more difficult your opponents become based on rank.

Single player combat and multiplayer combat look identical

At first players outmatch their opponents with ease and can easily go on very long win streaks. This feels good as a player because your easy wins make you feel like the super powered champions you’re playing as and your rewards grow geometrically for consecutive wins. Then as you continue to win and the difficulty increases, you are swiftly destroyed by an opponent you are no match for. Quickly the game mode becomes less about the combat itself, but rather how long you can keep your streak alive.

Using AI in this mode also keeps the amount of time required to play short. No real players means no wait times, no set-up times, and no dropped connections. This fits within the grander theme of Marvel CoC. The combat is meant to be short, simple, and easy, and this implementation of multiplayer fits the bill.

Clash of Clans doesn’t have true live multiplayer, but designed great interplay regardless

While this system of multiplayer makes sense, in my opinion, Marvel CoC is missing out on an opportunity to attain even higher retention and monetization numbers. Take Supercell’s Clash of Clans for example. Multiplayer is at the core of their design, they are consistently in the top three highest grossing apps on the App Store, and they did it all without true live multiplayer also!

Let’s take a look at Clash of Clans’ core loop briefly:

  • Harvest: gather resources in order to…
  • Build and train: using resources, build up your base and army so that you can…
  • Battle: Take your army out to battle other players’ bases and hope your defense stands up to other players’ attacks

The strength of Clash of Clans’ system lies within their battle mechanics. Take an army out into battle and loot the rewards for a successful raid. Then the offline player gets the opportunity to retaliate with a revenge raid and win back the loot they lost!

Multiplayer is the focal point of Clash of Clans

This interplay between players is great because it also gives Supercell the opportunity to litter the interactions with monetization hooks. Worried about the safety of your base while you’re developing important structures? Pay to increase your defenses. Want revenge on another player, but your army isn’t quite ready? Pay to finish the development immediately.

So how can we apply this to Marvel CoC? My suggestion is to build off of the strengths the game already has. Adding interplay between real players in the combat system itself doesn’t really make sense, so why not build it into the meta gameplay that is so successful everywhere else? Let’s call them “Versus Quests”.

Versus Quests

My idea for Versus Quests can be broken down into three parts:

  1. Gather: Through playing single player components, collect a roster of Marvel champions
  2. Build and train: Design a quest map and train your champions in preparation for…
  3. Battle: Select a few champions to challenge other players’ quest maps and hope your defending champions stand up against other players’ attacks

Sound familiar? Versus Quests takes the core loop from Clash of Clans and presents it in a way that is entirely Marvel CoC.

Versus Quests would have a map builder based off of the current single player maps

This game mode opens up the opportunity for greater retention and monetization in several ways. Increase retention by offering rewards unique to the mode that bolster a player’s map and watch as high level players share their accomplishments via social media. Open up the opportunity for more hook triggers by notifying players every time their Versus Map is attacked. Upsell players on ways to protect their quest maps or aid them while challenging others. You can even design them to fit the Marvel theme (i.e. Jarvis defense system v1, the Tesseract). I could go on.

Versus Quests would surely be a bold undertaking and there are definitely kinks to work out, but it would likely increase retention and monetization numbers to new heights that the current implementation of multiplayer just can’t reach.

User Research

After playing the game for a lot of hours, the necessity to “pay to play” becomes more and more clear. While getting players to play is good for monetization, many user reviews of Marvel CoC seem to reiterate that the Gacha system needs some rebalancing.

100 units is worth one champion crystal
  • “The first couple of hours are fine; after that, assume that you will either need to have infinite patience or a very large wallet to continue.”
  • “The so called ‘random’ crystal system makes it nearly impossible for someone to get even a decent prize.”
  • “Finally with the kinda prices you’re asking for to buy for example say a 4 star crystal is absurd Kabam, and you know it.”

While the actual star review that players gave alongside these comments varied, I found dozens of similar sentiments in just an hour of looking on the App Store.

Players had two main trending complaints that can be used to balance each other out.

  1. Hero crystals seem to drop higher rarity champions at such a low rate, that players become frustrated with the system.
  2. Arena crystals (crystals won from playing Versus Multiplayer) seem to drop gold at such a high rate, that they end up with an overabundance of the currency and nothing to use it on.
Only The Punisher can be won from Arena crystals and the chances are low

A possible solution here would be to balance out the overall crystal system using Arena crystals as a secondary way to win rare champions. Right now, only one champion can be won from Arena crystals and the drop rate is minuscule. Adding more champions to that prize pool will likely help alleviate player frustration and increase retention.

Summary

Marvel Contest of Champions is clearly doing a lot of things right to be as successful as it has been. Many of the design choices and systems that they implement keep big time players coming back to play more hours and paying more for big prizes.

For mobile gaming, Marvel CoC is definitely a game that other developers should pay a lot of attention to for the things that they’ve done well. Some of the key takeaways:

  • Keep it simple: When it comes to mobile, simple works best. People want a game they can pick up and play for minutes, but can also make progress in a longer meta game that is fun and addictive.
  • Limit access to end game content: Using a Gacha system to limit end game content for all players, paying ones included, helps keep your monetization funnel full for longer.
  • If you’ve got it, flaunt it: If you have the ability to leverage IP even half as strong as Marvel’s, figure out ways to constantly incorporate it across different game mechanics including characters, story lines, and content events.
  • Multiplayer is king: Even without true live multiplayer, develop interplay that will open up the opportunity for greater retention, discussion, and monetization.

Marvel Contest of Champions has seen success for a reason. With a few tweaks and the content updates that Kabam is already regularly releasing, it will likely continue to enjoy a high position in the grossing lists.


Check out another teardown I wrote on Supercell’s new mobile game, Clash Royale. Currently, I am available for hire and if you would like to contact me, you can reach me via email at matthewsle@me.com.