Kill ‘Em With Charm – Luring Players with Gratification
If you are familiar with my previous post (which was over a lifetime ago) when I shared a few insights on what makes the hyper-casuals click, you’d remember how I fantasized about something called Gratification in almost every paragraph. It’s not a bad thing to fantasize about if you are a Game Designer or someone who loves crafting engaging experiences.
You’d wonder what took me so long? Good question. But you know, I have a life (just kidding, I don’t). On a serious note, I’ve wanted to pen down my thoughts but preparing Possessions for Apple Arcade kept me occupied.
But here it is, a post dedicated entirely to Gratification and why I feel it’s one of the most essential ingredients for a recipe we call “fun”. As a matter of fact, the game in conversation is the first mobile game which made me spend close to $500 on in-app purchases, I do declare, all thanks to the pleasant experience crafted with care and polish.
Ready? Let’s go!
Now, because I haven’t been able to spend enough time on my consoles or PC since last few months, I’ve been playing a lot of mobile games. Some good, some very good. The idea about exploring gratification and how to tackle it came to me when I got hooked to a game called Nonstop Knight 2, a sequel to the hit, you guessed it, Nonstop Knight, by Flaregames. It’s a top-down dungeon crawler in which the character runs and attacks automatically, while the player controls his special abilities. As you explore and raid dungeons, you gain access to new and improved equipment which improves your power in the game. A simple loop, right?
Don’t get fooled by its simple core loop, this game has layers of depth built into it in terms of gameplay and meta. For those who haven’t played the game, allow me to explain a few key aspects of it.
It all starts elegantly without any lengthy onboarding or tutorials. As soon as you boot the game, you see a good-looking Knight with the option to customize his look and nickname. Hit the “OK” button, and you see the Knight running around in a dungeon on a pre-defined path. The auto-running Knight is soon welcomed by two enemies. You see the Knight killing those weaklings in a couple of hits. Once you are done digging their graves, a big blue button pops at the bottom, and the game pauses for your input. You tap the button and see the Knight deliver a terrifying blow. That’s how you learn about your only interaction in the game. Don’t get me started on how satisfying it feels when you hit the enemies, watch them explode in a chunk of shards with a minimal screen-shake to go with it. We will, of course, come back to all of this later.
Once you are done with a dungeon, you win a chest which rewards you with new and powerful gear, and the game teaches you how to equip them. That’s one good example of getting your player in the game with the least amount of tutorial and get them playing asap!
As you learn about the gameplay and equipping items, the ‘tutorial’ ends with inviting you to explore more dungeons and get powerful. Who’d possibly refuse this offer?
Tell me more!
Alright, before we dive deep into the elements which contribute towards the gratification, you need to understand the core gameplay and meta. I, for one, adore the design decisions taken to make sure NK2 attracts a much wider audience, being a soft-core dungeon-crawler it is.
As mentioned earlier, NK2 is a top-down dungeon crawler with a few twists to make it work efficiently on a mobile device. The character attacks automatically, and the player’s only interactive responsibility is his special abilities. Abilities include dealing a severe blow, setting things on fire, dashing away/towards the enemy, to name a few. Of course, using these abilities at the right time is what keeps you going, especially while raiding a hard dungeon where you can’t rely on your auto-attacks to do all the work for you. And not to forget, you can’t spam your way through the dungeon with your abilities since it costs mana and you don’t have an unlimited supply.
This is what I believe is one of the most crucial and well-thought design decisions the developers made. Considering the platform’s shortcomings, the game offers a sweet relationship between an idle game and an RPG. By cutting down the interaction, it enables the game to be enjoyed anywhere, holding the phone with a hand or two. Part of the credit goes to the portrait orientation, which makes it easier for the player to handle the game. And to make sure the player is well-invested in each session, the use of special abilities subtly promotes player’s participation while empowering him to feel like a vital piece in the machinery.
You don’t run and kill without a substantial purpose in the game, of course. The game has a robust progression system which complements the core mechanic very well.
At the time of writing, there are a total of (9) Worlds in the game, with each world having multiple dungeons, and dungeons further divided into floors (sub-dungeons). Moreover, dungeons frequently come equipped with modifiers to stir things up. For example, one of the dungeons in World 8 has a modifier “Paranormal” which allows the enemies to have accelerated mana regeneration, making them use abilities more often. And you’d be happy to know that each world can be completed in three difficulties in the search for better rewards, promoting replayability.
To complete a World, you have to fight through different enemies in each dungeon. Completing a dungeon rewards you with Chests and XP. To open a Chest, you need to have enough ‘Keys’, which is the game’s way of using the energy system for pacing the progression. You can still play the dungeons if you run out of Keys (which auto-generate in regular intervals). Again, you won’t get any Chests after completing it, just some coins, gear-upgrade ingredients and XP.
As you find and equip gear, you enhance your ‘Power Rating‘ which tells you how ‘powerful’ your character is, and tells you if a dungeon is easy or hard depending upon the difficulty of the dungeon which is also conveyed via the Power Rating. So to play a dungeon with 100 difficulty, it’s best to have your Knight’s Power Rating to be 100 or above.
How do you increase your Power Rating? You see, each gear you find comes with a Power Rating as well, and the gear you currently have equipped to your character contributes towards your total Power Rating. This makes you spend most of your time in search of powerful gear. However, you can be even more “powerful” by equipping passive (Talents) and active abilities (Skills). Remember the only interaction you have in the game? That’s what Skills are.
To summarize, the game will have you raid dungeons to find powerful gear which makes you unstoppable against the enemies, until you encounter someone more powerful, forcing you to repeat the loop to relive your profound memories.
(something about) The Meta
This is where things get interesting. You’d think that NK2 is too simple to grab your attention for a long time, but you’d be surprised to know how wrong you are. Although the game flaunts a simple core loop, you’d notice that it’s neatly supported by a strong meta. Let me try and cast some light on it before we move on to the major attraction of this post.
So far, we’ve learned two salient facts about this game:
- You raid dungeons as a Knight who is capable of moving and attacking automatically.
- Raiding dungeons allow you to obtain loot, which makes you more powerful.
At this point, I’d like to mention that these two facts alone are enough to drive engagement for most of the users, but for those who are fond of licking the game inside-out, NK2 offers a little something to satisfy your desires.
Each weapon comes equipped with one of the Elements (or modifiers) namely:
- FIRE: deals fire damage.
- VOID: deals void (magic) damage.
- FROST: deals frost damage.
- PHYSICAL: the standard element which does physical damage.
Deciding your loadout becomes important because you can magnify the effects of your gear by selecting the right set of Talents (passive abilities) in the game. For example, a Talent called ‘Delayed Bolt’ allows the Knight to deal an additional 25% VOID damage, so it only makes sense to hold a weapon which has the VOID element attached to it. Similarly, you unlock other useful Talents which reward you with passive and active support when coupled with the right kind of Element on your weapon.
Of course, you can upgrade your Talents to improve their effectiveness. Upgrades come in the form of duplicates which are dropped as part of your loot, and you can enhance your Talent when you have enough copies using Coins.
Last but not least, each gear you find is part of a Tier (Legendary, Epic, and so on…) and a Collection. Having a loadout where multiple items share the same Collection also reward you with additional perks, further enhancing your Power in the game.
Phew! I feel like I still have so many things I haven’t talked about, but then I remember that the reason I wanted to talk about this game is totally different. You guessed it right, it’s time for the secret ingredient!
The Star of the Show
If you came here for gratification but landed here after reading a whole lot about everything but gratification, my apologies. But I felt that it was important to highlight the critical gameplay aspects before sharing about how each feature is a beautiful wedding of functional yet appealing eye candy and game mechanics.
With games flooding app stores daily, unfortunately, you have to rely on the visuals to let your potential customer even click on your store listing. Think about the last time you clicked on a game which didn’t have a good store icon and you’ll know what I mean. Visuals play a significant role in attracting users towards your game, and NK2 exceeds in this domain.
The minute you boot up the game for the first time, you’ll be fascinated to see a cartoony 3D art style with quirky animations and vibrant colours. Everything from characters to UI conveys that the designers spent a good amount of time presenting a high level of polish. The multi-tab UI is easy to navigate, with only a handful of buttons. After trying out a bunch of other idle RPGs like AFK Arena where I got puzzled by a variety of modes & mechanics, NK2 felt surprisingly simple to get into. I don’t mean AFK Arena is a bad game in any way, but NK2 cater to a different target audience, preferably players who are not used to hardcore RPGs. So it only makes sense to keep things straight with a minimal learning curve.
AFK Arena often made me miss the sense of ‘control‘ I have over the game. I’d openly confess there are still specific modes/mechanics that I even don’t understand. I participated just to get some extra XP and rewards. Coming back to NK2, it all comes together harmoniously, and I feel like I have good ‘control‘ over each and every aspect of the game. From daily missions to the campaign, it all just makes sense. But things might be different for other users. After talking to a few mobile idle RPG fanatics, I found out that NK2 didn’t offer enough depth, mainly due to lack of extra engagement features. But that’s subjective. For someone like me, who’s just starting my journey into the magical world of mobile RPGs, I felt that NK2 scratched my itch perfectly.
Again, this is not a comparison of good vs. bad, I wanted to share these images to give you an idea of how two games with similar playstyle can look entirely different and appeal to a different audience. I find NK2‘s UI clean and easy to navigate, something I found missing in AFK Arena.
The Eye Candy
This is where the game truly shines. I’ve begun to realize that there’s another force in action behind games like NK2. A force so strong that it compels you to engage every day and for what? For the pleasure received by performing an action, even with something as simple as hitting an enemy.
Notice how each hit on the enemy is validated via a subtle white flash and how charming it is to see an enemy explode into shards, which then fly towards the progress bar. A subtle screen-shake with fluid visual effects, all running effortlessly on 60 FPS makes even a repetitive action a joy to watch. The progress bar gives you a sense of completion and reaffirms your presence in the dungeon. You know you are blazing through a dungeon when you see a gazillion shards fill up the progress bar at light speed, informing you about the duration of your current session visually.
And when that’s not enough, you are also greeted by fancy appreciative texts such as “Spectacular” when you kill a lot of enemies together, verifying the fact that you are the most potent Knight to ever cross this dungeon.
I can’t talk about gratification without mentioning Skills. If you followed along, you’d remember how you have specific active abilities in your arsenal which makes the enemy resent you even more. Not only each ability has different use cases, but all of them also look beautiful to execute, making it harder to pick your favourite. To give you an example, here’s the “Flashfire” skill in action.
Look how beautiful it is to dash with a trail of fire on the ground, while your enemies burn in fear, gifting you a bunch of coins. And it’s not just fire, you can use other forces of nature to deliver nightmare to settlers who are just doing their job. But don’t worry, the game does not give you enough time to stop and think about the poor fellows. Here’s an example where I summon multiple shadow clones & a big tentacle to help me deliver my rampage.
Thanks to the big and bold UI, using a skill is as easy as tapping a button. Since the game is intended to be enjoyed with one hand, the right placement of buttons (close to the thumb) adds to the convenience. Here’s another example of multiple Skills in action and my Knight handling the chaos effortlessly.
Another area which deserves praise is the equipment design. It doesn’t just look great, it plays a vital role in conveying your progress and its effect in the game. I can’t stress enough on how crucial it is to feel the ‘progression’ in a game, especially when the game falls under the RPG genre. Since the gear you find in the game is categorized by their level of rarity, it was important for the developers to distinguish between all these fancy pieces of equipment visually. And boy, they did well.
Take the images below as an example. On the left, you have the default Knight in its standard attire. On the right, you’ll see my Knight wearing a rich set of ‘Legendary’ gear. Just a glimpse of my outfit tells you that my Knight means business and is fully committed to my cause.
Not to forget, each item provide extra benefits when coupled with the right Talent. By looking at my loadout, you can tell that my Knight is biased towards the VOID skill, thanks to the colour palette. This is an excellent form of gratification where the game rewards you with not just fancy-looking but meaningful loot in exchange for your precious time (and sometimes money). You feel content with your time when you see your Knight with a Legendary set of armour, directing the wrath towards puny enemies.
Because each item looks distinctive, they are accompanied by sleek effects to enhance their appeal and justify their rarity.
What’s the point of looking good when you can’t show it off? If you are someone like me who spent quite a bit on in-app purchases, then you’ll like to show off even more. And the game delivers. In certain dungeons, you have the option to bring along a companion either from your Clan or from a pre-selected set of users actively playing the game. Other players can use an AI version of your Knight too, and that’s when you get to boast about your shiny loot in return of social validation and Coins.
The game’s Clan feature works very well indeed. You have the option to showcase any item from your loadout for instant praise or jealousy. I’d also like to mention that it’s probably the only mobile game clan I’ve been serious about. It urges you to contribute towards the clan’s success by raiding dungeons and win Guild Chest – a special weekly reward for top positions on the leaderboard.
No matter where I look, every aspect of the game seems highly polished and well-detailed. Just look at all the confetti when you complete a tournament dungeon, how gratifying!
Even something as simple as opening a chest feels pleasing, which is mainly due to the game’s approach to art and animations.
The environment reacting to your deadly powers make a worthy mention as well.
At this point, I feel that I can go on and on, highlighting all the minor/major gratifying moments, but I think you get the idea.
NK2 is a perfect example of surprising the player with variable reward while leaving them craving for more with the help of delightful eye candy and meaningful progression. Because you are expected to engage for quite a while, it only makes sense to make your journey full of ribbons and unicorns. I confess that after about a month of daily play, the only reason I was still playing is to check out all the fancy gear & their effects, probably that’s why I couldn’t stop myself buying those expensive chests.
I don’t know how well the game performed compared to Nonstop Knight but I can get behind the idea of influencing the user to spend money in the game by entertaining her with lavish visuals and effects. It works, and I can totally see a lot of players converting just to see one of the Legendary items in action. You’d be amazed to know that the game doesn’t have any forced monetization, just the occasional rewarded ad which pops up in a dungeon allowing you to win extra rewards but only if you want to.
After a loving relationship with the game for about 4 months, I started looking for similar experiences and found some. For example, Epic Seven‘s animations and visual effects are at a class of their own, and also boasts a strong narrative. This game is such a joy to watch, and I can’t recommend it enough! Plarium’s RAID also supports neat visuals with an easy-to-grasp progression, enabling it to be a part of my daily habit in a quest for good-looking and casual-RPGs.
“Kill ’em with charm” – a motto I’ve picked up while exploring these games and will be focusing on it more often in future. If you’ve played NK2 or any other game in a similar genre, I’d love to chat more about it and see if you were charmed by their dark patterns too.
I am happy to share that the post has been featured by Gamasutra, yet again!