As a somewhat avid player of free-to-play mobile games, I frequently come across games with less than optimal player experiences. These experiences may manifest through monetization tactics, UI design, metagame, or actual gameplay components. While I’m usually forgiving of mobile games, every once in awhile I come across a game that seems determined to prevent me from enjoying their game; this has been my experience with Dynasty Warrior: Unleashed.
Note: While this article focuses on one game, in particular, I recognize that many games use the same tactics I’m going to gripe about. I’m using DW: Unleashed as an example because there are so many things that bothered me.
Let me start by saying I have never played the Dynasty Warrior games on any platform, so I was actually looking forward to playing the mobile version. My expectation of Dynasty Warriors going in is that I would get a hack-n-slash game where you fight against waves of minions while accruing massive combos. From a pure gameplay perspective, my expectations were met. At the surface level, Dynasty Warriors: Unleashed is an isometric hack-n-slash game. However, at its core, DW: Unleashed is an endless progression gacha game. From my perspective, DW: Unleashed has been a bad experience and has probably killed any likelihood that I’ll engage with the IP in the foreseeable future.
I should also state that as of this writing I’ve reached level 25 and believe I’ve unlocked all gameplay modes with the exception of Ladder of Glory. I’ve broken this post into the following sections, which cover the ‘5 things I hate about DW: Unleashed.’
- Logging In & Promo Screens
- Game Modes
- Gameplay & Auto Play
- Economy: Currencies and Resources
- Metagame Progression
1. Logging In & Promo Screens
Let’s start with what a player is greeted with after launching the game. Upon logging in you’re greeted with the following screens:
- First, you get a screen on a bunch of events taking place. After reaching level 25, this all still seemed largely irrelevant to me, and I usually clicked the ‘X’ without reading it. It definitely doesn’t help that there are 3 different messages that I have to process.
2. Next, you’re presented with the Dynasty Warriors ‘Start’ screen. Okay, let’s get in a game!
3. But wait, now we need to claim our 7-day login! Okay, but I can play now, right?
4. Nope! We need to collect our 28-day login. Okay, so at least I’m getting some free stuff. Now can I play?
5 to 8. HAHA! Silly gamer…now you need to click through a bunch of ‘Limited Time Offer’ monetization screens to get you spend money. In this case, not 1, but 4 screens! Each with multiple offers per screen.
In all seriousness, there are three really bad things happening here.
- All these screens are just getting in the way of me getting into the game. Yes, I can choose not to show some of the screens by clicking on a little checkbox after they’re shown the first time, but they’re still an obstacle between me and playing the game. It is completely unnecessary to force a player to click through 6 screens just to play a game. While it’s important to make players aware of events and promotional options, don’t do it in a way that acts as a barrier to playing the game.
- In regards to the monetization screens, they’ve bombarded us with 4 screens instead of just focusing on one monetization screen. Information should be limited and draw our attention to the most important information. It should also be catered to players so it’s relevant. If a promotional item is timely and relevant then I’m much more likely to buy something than if I’m just pushed a bunch of offers.
- Worst of all, I have very little understanding of what I get for these various packs or why I would want to pick one over another. They literally just presented me with 13 bundles that seemingly have no relevance to me and that I have no incentive to purchase.
2. Game Modes
We’re finally at the home screen, so let’s play the Campaign mode, the primary game mode that’s wrapped in a story.
It starts off simple enough.
- You select a Campaign mission.
2. You select the team for your mission in the lower-right corner.
3. Once you start a mission you might be presented with a dialogue or cutscene intended to give you some context around the story.
4. You play the game.
My primary issue with the Campaign Mode is the lack of a coherent story. If you’re going to include a story component, at a minimum you have to make it something players can follow. There is a seemingly endless cast of characters that made it extremely difficult to follow the story, much less get invested in it. I’m not sure whether playing prior Dynasty Warrior games would have helped, but that should never have been a prerequisite.
Another challenge I saw was that I had no idea what my role was in this sprawling soap opera. If there was at least a single protagonist I could have empathized or associated myself with, that might have helped ground the story for me. Other gacha games do a better job at this by providing the player with some kind of role that you can get invested in. In DW: Unleashed, I feel like I’m just an observer that has no real stakes in the outcome.
Other Game Modes: In addition, there are multiple other PVE and PVP game modes that you can engage with to farm resources. At a high-level, these are Challenges, Battlefield, and Conquest. I’m not going to spend time on all these additional game modes other than to say that I think it should be clearer what each of them is and why I should engage with them. I have no idea what ‘Ladder of Glory’ is, or why I should grind to level 35 to play it.
3. Gameplay & Auto Play
Moving onto the actual gameplay, this is an area where I feel like there was a lot of promise, but it was undone by a single mechanic — Auto Play.
Before I get into the Auto Play feature, I’ll provide an overview of a typical level. Within each level, you have a team of 3 Officers you can play as; these are selected prior to starting a level. In a level, you can also swap in-between the Officers at will. Each character has a normal attack, a dodge button, and 4 special attacks that go on cool-down after they’re used. Each Officer is aligned with one of three elements (Wood, Fire, and Water), with strengths and weaknesses to each element.
A typical level usually consists of you fighting against several waves of weak soldiers and a powerful ‘boss’ at the end. There is some variety in the levels, but each level is basically, fight until there are no baddies left.
Where this game lost me, was it’s addition of the ‘Auto-Play’ as part of the core gameplay. There are two ‘Auto-Play’ modes.
- AUTO controls the characters and attacks for you, but lets you trigger the special attacks and swap characters in and out.
- AUTO+ controls everything. Just start the level, sit back, and let it play for you.
Adding an ‘Auto-Play’ feature sends a signal to me that the core game of DW: Unleashed is really the metagame progression. The Auto-Play feature effectively tells me that the only thing I’m good for is leveling up the characters and their equipment. If I don’t need to actively engage with the actual ‘game’ to progress, then what’s the point?
I think there are a few things the developers should have done to have engaged me a little more on the gameplay side while still keeping elements of the Auto-Play intact for the purposes of grinding XP and crafting resources.
- Require players to play through levels manually before enabling Auto-Play.
- Reward players for playing through manually or completing the level with various criteria met. Alternatively, make it difficult to achieve all three starts with Auto-Play on. Basically, it’s an option, but players are heavily penalized for using it.
- Incorporate skill-based elements in the Campaign levels that require players to actively pay attention to what’s happening.
- Allow players to ‘simulate’ a run through of a level without actually requiring them to play through the level. Dynasty Warriors actually has something akin to this in one of their other game modes.
Auto-play is something that really triggers me as a player. It makes me feel obsolete and usually motivates me to delete a game immediately.
4. Economy: Currencies & Resources
The number of currencies and resources is somewhat overwhelming, but let’s take a stab at it.
Baozi is effectively the in-game ‘energy.’ It is consumed as you engage with in-game activities such as the campaign mode. Unfortunately, the description in the in-game store doesn’t tell you that anywhere.
Silver Coins are the most common soft currency and used predominately to upgrade Officers and Equipment.
Jade is another soft currency that can be used to buy in-game items such as Bronze Edicts and Silver Chests. It can also be used to re-roll of those items. As far as I can tell, Jade cannot be directly purchased, which makes it somewhat valuable.
Gold Ingots are the premium currency and are used for buying in-game items such as Silver Coins, Chests, Edicts, etc.
Flags are supposed to be something that you can use to ‘inspire courage on the battlefield.’ I have yet to discover how or when they’re used, even after googling them.
Valor serves as a currency for the guild market. It is earned by donating resources to your guild and is used to purchase items from the guild market.
Other Resources There are also 5 ‘other’ resources including Nectar, Legendary Fragments, Gold Bars, Scroll Fragments, and War Medals (earned through Guild Dungeons). These resources are used to buy other in-game items.
There are two types of resources at the crux of the gacha system: Edicts and Chests.
Edicts are used to roll for Officers and come in a variety of tiers. These tiers determine the quality of Officer you’ll get.
Chests are used to roll for Equipment, and also come in a variety of tiers. Just like Edicts, these tiers determine the quality of Equipment you get.
Finally, there are XP resources. XP resources include XP Cauldron, XP Gourd, and XP Flask. They are used to train, or level up, your officers.
Adding up all the different currencies and crafting resources, I get 14 different types resources. I think the biggest problem here is that you immediately start collecting these resources and have very little understanding what these resources are and how to use them. This ultimately leads to an eCommerce and monetization problem. If players don’t know what the resources are for, then they won’t understand what they’re worth or why they would even want to buy them.
5. Metagame Progression
Moving onto the metagame progression, DW: Unleashed leverages a multi-layered gacha system as part of its metagame progression. For those unfamiliar, a gacha system is basically a randomized loot system. In gacha-based mobile games, this typically involves collecting or crafting higher-level ‘characters’ that are used in the main gameplay. Let’s break it down for DW: Unleashed.
While there is an ‘account-level’ progression mechanic, that’s predominately used to gate access to different game modes.
At the highest level, you have Officers, which are the main characters you play in the game. Officers can range from one to six stars. The number of stars reflects the tier of Officers. The more stars, the more powerful they are. You need a more powerful team to complete higher level missions.
Officers gain experience and can be leveled-up through playing, by ‘consuming’ other officers, and with in-game materials.
In addition, each officer can be equipped with 4 different items; a weapon, armor, an artifact, and a legendary item.
Each of these items can be upgraded to improve their stats or combined with other equipment to craft equipment of higher levels.
Finally, weapons, armors, and artifacts can be equipped with gems, which can ALSO be upgraded by combining multiple gems together.
While I think the gacha-based metagame progression system could work, I found it extremely cumbersome. As a result, I felt like I spent just as much time in the equipment menus as I did in the game.
The two things that I think make the metagame progression system cumbersome are:
- Number of Officers and Equipment: In contrast to a game like Diablo where you only have to manage the progression of one character at a time, in DH:Unleashed you actively have to manage the progression of many characters. This means that you also have to manage the progression of the gear for all of those characters. A gacha system can be cumbersome enough to manage without having to manage equipment for characters on top of that. I think this is one reason why Star Wars: The Old Republic eliminated the need to equip gear on companions.
- Menu UI: Managing the progression of your Officers, their equipment, and gems is an extremely cumbersome process, especially because of the number of menu screens that you have to navigate through to upgrade your officers. Assuming I have 3 characters, each of who have 4 items, I’m probably clicking through dozens of screens just to upgrade all of the items. There is no ‘mass-upgrade,’ ‘mass de-equip,’ or ‘equip best items’ functionality, which might make managing the progression of characters and items more manageable.
The combination of lots of things to manage and a poor UI make the metagame progression of DW: Unleashed made it unbearable for me to play.
In conclusion, I actually think DW: Unleashed has some great production value and has the potential to be a game I would enjoy. Unfortunately, I was ultimately turned off by multiple components and features that ruined the player experience for me. The sad thing is that it’s also turned me off of the Dynasty Warriors IP as a whole.
My Takeaways & Opinions
- Logging In & Promo Screens: Mandatory modal windows, in general, should be used extremely sparingly. If you have information about an event or sale taking place, design a UI that draws players attention to it; don’t create artificial barriers to play.
- Game Modes: Story-driven story elements are great, but should be simple and easy for players to get into without previous experience with an IP. The player should also have a clear role throughout the game so they can be invested in the story. In addition, additional game modes outside of the core game should provide players with a clear explanation of what they are and why we should engage with them. In addition, if you’re going to gate access to them, provide players with motivation to stick around and unlock them.
- Gameplay & Auto Play: While this may be an unpopular opinion, I don’t think auto-play features should ever be used. I think it cheapens a game and makes the player feel obsolete. Instead, ‘simulation runs’ should be used for the purpose of ‘farming’ materials if that is a core part of the game progression.
- Economy: Currencies and Resources: In-game currencies and crafting materials should be used sparingly, especially in mobile games. The more ‘things’ there are for players to earn and manage, the harder it is to distinguish them from each other and appreciate their value. This ultimately becomes an eCommerce and monetization problem.
- Metagame Progression: If your game has a multi-layered crafting-based progression system, every effort should be taken to simplify it so it’s easy for players to interact with it. Forcing players to wade through tons of menu screens is a terrible waste of time that could otherwise be spent in-game.
On a final note, one thing I thought was worthwhile to add is a little color on DW: Unleashed’s performance. Overall, it actually appears to be doing fairly well, depending on how you look at it. A cursory look on App Annie shows that DW: Unleashed is in the Top 100 of Action and Role Playing Games on the iPhone and Google Play. However, if you expand the scope to games, it drops below 200. It’s a respectable rank, but unclear to me what that actually translates to from a revenue generation perspective.
Did I miss something? Let me know in the comments.