Great graphics, awesome gameplay, player vs. player mode, proven concept and first-mover advantage. Supercell's newest title Battle Buddies combines all of the characteristics above yet falls short. Critical mistakes in core loop and extremely poor PvP mechanics threaten to prevent Battle Buddies from becoming the benchmark of tactical strategy games making it into a warning example for all those who will take over the new genre.
update: Battle Buddies was killed in soft-launch
Keep in mind that Battle Buddies is still in semi-closed beta (available in Canadian and Finnish App Store). So most of the short-comings might still get fixed before the actual launch.
I usually start off with core loop when breaking down the game but with Battle Buddies I feel that I need to start with the gameplay as it's the best - and sadly the only - excellent part.
The gameplay is basically a team of 5 Buddies fighting bad guys in close quarters. The battle is turn based where player makes moves for all of his Buddies and then hits the "end turn" button. The turn based combat creates that awesome tactical combat we all learned to love from titles such as good old Jagged Alliance and Fallout Tactics. In short; Supercell made an awesome job in simplifying the battle to fit the tactical battle genre into the fast pace gaming on tablets and phones creating a truly fantastic gameplay.
And yeah, there are some minor bugs such as over-limited range of sight, grenades that don't cause collateral damage and Buddies who miss their shot from a point-blank distance (one of the most annoying bug!) but those are easy to tweak as the game is still in semi-closed beta.
The Core Loop
As with Supercell's other recently launched title Clash of Clans, Battle Buddies is divided into two game modes: campaign and multiplayer. This is a very console like approach and in my opinion works really well for games that are targeted to hard/mid-core audience (though unlike on consoles, to actually beating the AI in Supercell's games is insanely hard and extremely unrewarding).
Whether you're playing the campaign mode (Player vs. AI) or the multiplayer mode the core loop is the same. Before you start each battle you need to equip your Buddies with weapons and items (grenades, med-packs etc.). All the weapons (!) and items are consumable and cost Coins (soft currency). When you win a battle you get few random items and weapons plus some Coins and XP. Coins are then used to re-supply on weapons and items before you start off your next battle. XP on the other hand helps you to level up and opens up more slots for you buddies (meaning Buddy can carry more items). You don't get anything (no XP nor Coins) in case you lose a battle.
1. Critical Mistake - Progress
The visual progress of characters was cut likely due to the amount of work this design would have generated. Lack of visual progress hurts retention, in my opinion.
You're playing a game where you have a limited amount of unique looking soldiers who can carry different kind of weapons and items. So you might assume that by doing battle you get XP and level up your Buddies. Make them tougher, better, meaner and more unique. Yeah, keep on dreaming because Supercell simply cut the progress of your Buddies away. No matter how much you play and level up, your Buddies will still look exactly the same and have exactly the same skills.
And talking about skills... The game actually has weapon and item related skills. In order to use a specific weapon or item type player needs to acquire the appropriate skill. Acquiring and upgrading chosen skill requires player to purchase a Skill Book from the shop. And the ONLY way to purchase the Skill Book is to buy it with premium currency. In other words to improve your character you need to spend real money. Great way to kill the retention.
No $ = No skills
When you're copying a specific type of PC game genre to a tablet and phone you need to simplify stuff. For example the battle mode in Battle Buddies is an excellent example on how to simplify yet keep the original appeal. But simplifying isn't the same as cutting and by cutting away the character progress from Battle Buddies they basically cut away the progress and thus the retention of the game.
2. Critical Mistake - Consumable Weapons
All the weapons are consumable in Battle Buddies. What you do in the game is you buy guns in bundles of 10, equip your buddies with the weapons and win or lose the weapons are gone after the battle.
Now this might sound genius in terms of monetization but let me assure you that it isn't. First of all weapons are the life blood of these games. You fill the in-app shop with various weapons and watch players grind to get the best weapons there are (or just skip the grinding and pay $). Secondly if you insist on having weapons serve as the "Energy mechanic" the you need to have a regeneration mechanics for weapons or Coins, which is used to buy the weapons... Which leads us the the next Critical Mistake...
3. Critical Mistake - Soft Currency Economy
Coins run the show in Battle Buddies. Without Coins you can't equip your Buddies with proper weapons (the default weapons don't allow to win battles). Plus in order to win you also need grenades and other items, which also cost a lot of Coins.
Earn Coins for winning battles and use them to re-supply your arsenal
So you have huge sinks for Coins as everything is consumable and you can't succeed without purchasing these consumable weapons and items. But the supply is totally unproportional to the consumption. First of all winning a battle gives you less Coins that you used to equip your Buddies. Secondly you don't get any Coins for losing and the level of competition rises fast causing player to lose at least 50% of the battles.
The unproportional demand and supply leads quickly into a situation where player doesn't have the Coins to re-supply. Inability to re-supply ensures that player will lose battles due to lack of fire power. So when you run out of Coins you'll lose all of your battles and as losing doesn't generate any Coins there are two options left: purchase Coins with $ or delete the game. Arguably 99% will chose the delete-option.
4. Critical Mistake - Player vs. Player
After completing the tutorial phase of the game I was itching to start outsmarting real players. I entered the multiplayer. Started a battle against a random opponent. Made my moves. Pressed "end turn"... And ended up waiting 6 hours till my opponent made his move.
Multiplayer mechanics is straight from SongPop and Draw Something
See the PvP mode is designed to work like in Song Pop and Draw Something. But what works for these two title doesn't work for a game featuring a tactical battle in close quarters, which takes 5 - 10 turn to complete the battle.
Multiplayer is a waiting game... literally
Well ok, if the turns take so long then maybe I should start several battles at the same time. This is what happened:
- Starting several simultaneous battles depleted all of my Coins (3. Critical Mistake).
- When I got my turn back I didn't always remember what was my tactic in this specific battle.
- In the battles where I was winning opponents quit making their turns. Eventually I won those battles as the opponent automatically surrenders if they don't make their move in 48h, but I needed those win rewards to start new battles.
- It just wasn't fun. I wanted to do tactical battle like in the Campaign mode but waiting for hours for your opponent to make their turn is something that could have worked in 1995 but not in 2012.
My turn again. Now what was my tactic in this battle? I did my last turn 8 hours ago so...
So good - but so bad
You often hear it from game teams that if they only had time and the manpower to polish the game they would have made it. Battle Buddies is extremely polished game with a great gameplay. On the first first glance it seems like an amazing tactical battle game you've been waiting for. Yet that's only the surface. Under the hood the critical mistakes in progress, consumable weapons, coin economy and PvP ruin the whole experience.
I really hope that Supercell has the courage to pull the game back and seriously rework the core loop and the PvP mechanics. Battle Buddies has still the potential to become the benchmark it should be instead of a warning example.