Command & Conquer: Rivals Deconstruct - Rock, Paper, Scissors, Nod / by Abhay Ramakrishnan

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I first heard about Command & Conquer: Rivals when the internet basically erupted upon its EA Play 2018 announcement. Just like Diablo Immortal’s announcement, fans who have played the C&C franchise’s games for years were vocally disillusioned that another iconic brand had been ‘converted’ to a mobile game.

Over the last 2 weeks, I must have spent at least 40 to 50 hours playing C&C: Rivals and as an RTS for mobile, it is extremely compelling and addictive. It borrows from proven CCG meta and monetization practices in F2P games to create a gripping PvP experience where you want to battle just once more.

After being in soft launch for 3 months and in a ‘Pre-register’ campaign on Google Play, the game finally launched globally on Tuesday, 4th December 2018.

Performance Overview

Downloads Ranking (US)

iOS:

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Android:

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While the game had a strong start on both Platforms, it doesn’t seem to be able to consistently sustain the number of unique downloads per day.

Grossing Ranking (US)

iOS:

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Android:

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C&C: Rivals has firmly embedded itself in the top 10 games in the Strategy genre on both app stores. With sustained live ops, it is likely that it will stay there even after 1 year.

Total Downloads, Revenue and ARPU

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As of 18-12-2018, the ARPU is very healthy on both platforms. Just shows how solid the Clash Royale monetization model is at sustaining initial game growth.

Game Overview

At its core, C&C: Rivals is a streamlined RTS game where you as a commander need to use your army units to destroy your opponent’s base. This is primarily done by controlling a majority of the platforms in the centre of the map and launching a nuclear missile at your opponent’s base. Usually, 2 direct nuclear missiles reduce the opponent’s base to 0 HP.

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This is one of the few games which must be designed for the landscape mode of a phone as the level design of a PvP map lends itself naturally to this orientation. And speaking of maps, the level design of the maps changes with each game you play from a pool of maps. Every battle has something surprising in store and I believe this feature will be one of the main reasons players keep playing this game for months at a time.

An average PvP battle lasts between 3 minutes to 4 ½ minutes. This game is following a recent trend in mobile games to remove a player facing timer on the screen and instead control match length based on player activity. Also, there isn’t an artificial energy system in the game to block players from playing as many battles as they want. The only drawback to continuously playing is that you won’t get as many currency items and XP from each successful battle.

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Gameplay:

All battles occur on a map composed of hexagonal tiles. At its widest point, most maps have 11-12 tiles horizontally. Every map is always vertically 7 hexagonal tiles long. The 2 opponents are placed on the left and rightmost side of the maps, exactly opposite each other. Right in the centre of the map is the nuclear missile silo.

If you control more than 2 triangular platforms, then the Nuclear Missile Silo’s progress bar increases. But the key is to be the player who controls 2 or more triangular platforms 4 seconds before the progress bar is completed. This power swing mechanic is one of the most compelling mechanics in the core gameplay as you can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in an instant.

A player can control the platforms by deploying units on them, which have their own strengths and weaknesses. Including Harvesters, you can have maximum 6 units on the field at any given time. Whenever you control a platform, the edges of the platform and the progress bar change colour. When control is contested, the platform colour and missile silo progress bar turn yellow.

Fog of War is another important mechanic in the game. It not only affects what information you have to build your own army, but also effects the hexagons where you can place special commander specific buildings. As a player, you need to carefully scan the screen in order to get as much information about the opponent’s actions as possible in order to create the best strategy.

Synchronous real-time PvP

While it is likely that this game started off as a turn-based prototype, its core selling feature is that you are always playing against a real person. That is the next technical frontier that most top mobile game studios are trying to conquer.

When you input something into the game, it is simultaneously played out on your opponent’s screen. I was often given the ‘Poor Connection’ message even while playing on Wi-Fi, but since the game most probably relies on server-side simulation of every match, any player side lag will have minimal effect on the real-time execution of the game’s simulation.

This must have been an incredibly hard feature to execute to EA’s polish standards and the team has done an amazing job making the player feel like they are playing against another real person.

Tiberium:

This is the primary resource in every match. You use this to build buildings and units in the game. Deciding how much Tiberium to gather and spend is core to the gameplay experience. The power curve of all units is based on their Tiberium cost.

You start each match with 100 Tiberium. Depending on how much Tiberium you are gathering, you can earn chunks of +10 Tiberium every few seconds.

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There are several ways of earning Tiberium:

  1. Your base generates some Tiberium by default

  2. You can buy your 1st Tiberium Harvester for 60 Tiberium. This halves the time you take to gather +10 Tiberium

  3. Your 2nd Tiberium Harvester also cost 60 Tiberium. When it starts gathering, you reduce the time it takes to gather +10 Tiberium by another 50%

  4. You can earn +100 Tiberium bonus for each enemy Tiberium Harvester you destroy

Excellent sound design and scoring

The music and sound design in the game is top notch. From the menu music to the audio cues during a match, everything is designed to serve the C&C brand and the gameplay. If you compare it to previous C&C games, it feels just as epic. The voiceover at the start and end of every match also really adds to the feel of the game being a battle between 2 sworn enemies.

GDI faction vs NOD faction

The game starts off with the GDI faction’s units and commanders being unlocked. The GDI unit design is similar to how pop-sci movies portray a futuristic ‘Earth Armed Forces’ units.

One of the interesting features of this game is that an entire faction of units is only unlocked after you have reached Level 9 in the game.

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This is a good design strategy as players who are familiar with the franchise will want to play the game till they each Level 9 (which takes 5 to 7 days) when they finally unlock the NOD units. For players who are unfamiliar with the franchise, unlocking NOD becomes an aspirational reward to aim for. I feel gating NOD behind days of progress is going to help improve this game’s early D1-D7 retention.

The other interesting system is that there are 2 leagues in the game where players can progress through. So, you can earn GDI medals for winning with your GDI troops and NOD medals for winning with your NOD troops. Your total medal count is a combination of both those medal values.

This might be a personal bias, but the NOD units are just much more badass as unit designs when compared to similar characters from the GDI. When you unlock the NOD faction, you are immediately given a starter pack with at least 6 units of NOD and a NOD commander unlocked.

Units and Production Buildings

Your army can be built for each battle by assembling the right set of 6 unit types for each battle. There are 4 types of buildings where these units can be built –

  1. Infantry building – Costs 30 Tiberium. These create the humanoid soldiers which are also the cheapest units. They unfortunately also are the unit type that lose the most HP from standing in a Tiberium field, breathing in toxic fumes.

  2. Armoury – Costs 40 Tiberium. These create the armoured vehicles which have the same counters as the infantry types above but have much higher hit points.

  3. Aerial Factory – Costs 50 Tiberium. Aerial units travel much faster than most other units, but in the meta are quite vulnerable to the elite units in the game. They also have the same counters as the infantry units.

  4. Elite Units Building – Costs 120 Tiberium. These buildings not only cost the most Tiberium, they are also the ones which decide who wins or loses most matches. The more I played the game, the more my army of 6 units depended on Elite units. The other thing is that the most unique and cool-looking units are invariably Elite units, so they are also a blast to play with.

One of the most important unit characteristics in the meta is about which units can attack while they are in motion. If a unit can do that, it has a massive advantage over any other unit.

Commanders:

Commanders are C&C: Rivals solution to Hero Powers. Each faction has 4 commanders, each with their special powers. These powers usually can be instantly deployed anywhere on the board and often are instrumental to turning the tide of battle.

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Commanders upgrades work exactly like unit upgrades, except that all commanders of the same level have the exact same amount of Base HP and Harvester Health. The difference is how useful the Commander power is to your strategy and playstyle.

Systems Overview:

While the core gameplay might be RTS-like, the meta systems in the game is directly inspired by proven games by Clash Royale. The primary way of dispensing content in the game is the crates system.

Crates

Even though you don’t win crates from battles, the usually contain these 3 items:

a. Unit Card Duplicates of 3 rarities – Common, Rare and Epic

b. Credits – Soft Currency used to train units, buy cards and enter limited time events

c. Diamonds – Hard Currency used to skip timers and buy Crates

You earn crates in 4 ways:

  1. Ordering a Supply Convoy (3 hours to unlock with 2 Fuel)

  2. Completing 5 Bounties (Cooldown of 24 hours)

  3. Free Crate in Store (Cooldown of 12 hours)

  4. Reaching a higher League tier

But there are 2 significant ways C&C: Rivals deviates from the formula. They are:

XP: Instead of only earning XP from card upgrades (like in Clash Royale), players also earn XP from each match they play. In fact, the game’s content unlocking systems are almost exclusively built on a linear XP system. Most of the exciting content in the game can only be unlocked by reaching a specific XP.

Fuel: At the end of a match in addition to Credits and XP, players are also given a currency called Fuel. Fuel is used in 2 primary ways:

1)      Ordering in Supply Convoy – You can trigger a Crate to be sent to you using a truck which takes 8 hours to deliver it. But you can spend another fuel in order to reduce the timer by 4 hours.

2)      Changing Bounties on Daily Bounties list – If you don’t like a Bounty (task), then use one fuel to replace it with another task.

Crate Balancing

This is the first game I have played where the crates you get from the game level up with your own level. So, if you are level 15, you will also start getting crates of different values (Common to Colossal) which are of Level 15.

That means the system designer behind the game has created 60 tiers of different crate types to dispense at each level! This is an interesting approach to scale content to player’s progression as most games only have gacha systems that scale according to the arena/league the player is in, rather than the player’s XP value.

Bounties

A daily challenge list system, Bounties is one of the primary ways to earn some of the best cards in the game.

Every 24 hours (local time), you are given 5 Bounties to complete. If you complete all 5 of them, then you can collect your reward crate which is always tuned to contain high rarity cards. After every match, the player is given feedback about which Bounties they have gotten progress in.

Just like the Daily Challenge systems in other similar games, this system is meant to encourage engagement with different systems in the game and encourage players to try out new strategies. I often played sub-optimally and lose matches just so that I can quickly satisfy the conditions to complete a specific bounty in my list.

If you want to reroll which tasks appear in the Bounties list, you need to spend fuel. Half-finished bounties always carry over to the next day.

Unit Balancing

All units are balanced based on where they belong on the power curve of Tiberium cost. Each faction has 23-24 units with varying mana costs.

Taking a leaf out of Clash Royale, the primary difference between Common, Rare and Epic units are that the base units start off at different levels from the moment they are unlocked.

  • Common Cards start off at Level 1 stats when unlocked

  • Rare cards start off at Level 3 stats when unlocked

  • Epic cards start off at Level 5 stats when unlocked

Let us deep-dive into one of the units in the game, an attack Helicopter called ‘Talon’:

As we can see from the stats above, the Talon is an attack helicopter which is great at taking out Aircrafts and Infantry units. The cost of your first Talon is going to be 80 Tiberium (50 Tiberium for Helipad building and 30 Tiberium cost for the unit).

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Some observations:

1)      A unit needs to be ‘trained’ 3 times before they can be ‘promoted’. This effectively puts 2 gates in the process of upgrading a single unit. One is a coin cost and the other is a card duplicate cost.

2)      Only the units Health and DPS increase by upgrading it either via coins or card duplicates.

3)      Promoting a unit improves its stats significantly as compared to just training a unit 3 times.

4)      The amount of Health, DPS and XP increases drastically when the number of card duplicates required is also increased proportionally

PvP Leagues

There are multiple leagues that players can climb through in order to be matchmade with other players who have similar in-game skills. This tiered league system differs in one important way though. Just like how units have 3 training levels before they can get promoted, a player needs to finish 3 trophy levels before being promoted to the next League.

If you win more than 3 game in a row, you earn double the number of trophies.

Since there is real-time PVP matchmaking, sometimes you are matched with players who are either higher level than you or lower level than you. When this happens, the lower level player gets double the medals for winning and loses no medals for losing. The higher-level player wins and loses the same out of medals for playing the match. So, this system is hidden from the higher-level players’ gameplay experience.

In addition to having mini-league tiers, a player who reaches the Gold League cannot ever get demoted into the silver league. This is done because of the ‘Seasons’ system in the game.

Seasons

Rather than having a limited time league feature only for the top players in the game, C&C: Rivals has a rolling 35-day season system. At the end of every season, your trophies are reset to your current league’s minimum value.

This system means that if you lose continuously, you will not be demoted right back to the very first league of the game.

Level Design

In addition to the unit types and commander types, one of the main reasons why every match in the game is exciting to play is the pool of maps available in each league. Only after the match has started do you get a chance to see which map this battle is based in. The maps heavily influence what sort of strategies you need to employ to gain an upper hand in battle.

Certain maps are also designed with 2 triangular platforms rather than 3. New maps types unlock only once you reach a new league. Here are the different types of maps in each league:

Monetization

The meta of the game is based on upgrading unit cards with card duplicates. Thus, the monetization systems are also built from the best practices of a Clash Royale system.

Once the player has optimized their RTS strategies, then the only difference between army units is about who has the higher-level units. As the players progress through the league system, they will be matchmade against opponents who have higher level units. In order to start winning consistently again, players will need to invest in their units.

Since crates give random cards, players can either hope to get a card duplicate that they need by chance or purchase it directly with soft and hard currency. Since there are many sinks of the soft currency, most players will invariably need to purchase additional credits in store if they wanted to purchase a specific card from the store for credits.

The game relies on many proven monetization triggers like surfacing offers when a player levels up in the leagues and XP system.

But it gets the communication of the offers slightly wrong.

Every offer communicated to the player comes with a ‘X.Xx value’ format. This is a useful format to convince people what the value of that deal is. But the issue is with using decimal values in the format.

Most people are inherently bad at math. The moment you use decimal values, instead of giving me something simple to understand like ‘2x value’ or ‘4x value’, you are now making the player think about what the real value of that deal is.

Good monetization design makes the cognitive load of taking a purchase decision as effortless and frictionless as possible. One of the strategies which I feel the team should take is to simplify all offers so that there is never a decimal value number in any special discounted offer.

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Offer Wall

In addition to player triggered offers, the game also tries to trigger purchases by using systems like the ’12 days of deals’ Christmas monetization system and a Tiered deal monetization system.

The tiered deal monetization system works well with high playing users, as successive purchase makes the next transaction feel better. I feel this is a system that other games with a similar meta should implement more frequently in their games too. 

Social and Retention Features

While the PvP systems in the game are very good and perform as well as the best in the industry, the social systems in the game leave much to be desired. The game isn’t designed to make it easy for me to make friends with other players.

Let us first go through the existing systems that are implemented.

Daily 10 Battle Bonus

Players are encouraged to play at least 10 matches every day. The game incentivizes this by giving the playing +1000 Bonus XP with every match they play. The first 2 tasks of the Bounties system also encourage players to play at least 10 matches per day. Without the Daily Battle Bonus, you only earn XP in +50 increments upon winning. As you can see in the image below, you need 30,000 XP to level up to Level 18.

Player profiles

This is one of the best implementations of a Player Profile I have seen in games which I have played. Not only does it show you interesting stats about your game profile, it also shows you stats like which units and armies perform best.

The game gives you the ability to check most game profile data about any player who have previous played the game with. You can also see more info about your Alliance members. If you see an army composition that you haven’t thought of, you can quickly copy it to your profile too.

Alliances

The social guild system in the game, Alliances let you join a group of 30 players. Right now, the only gameplay advantage of joining a guild is to request for cards from other players. You can request for cards every 8 hours. If you want to make your own Alliance, there is a minimal 15 diamond (hard currency) cost that needs to be paid.

In addition to card requests, players can also share match replays to the alliance and chat with other alliance members. There is also a Friendly Battle option for Alliance members, but I have been stuck in the match-finding screen waiting for an alliance member for so many times that I have never actually had a friendly match. Right now, the Friendly Battle system is redundant.

Notification system

The game’s notification system is quite basic and functional. One of the notifications I didn’t like too much was the 12 days of deals notifications. Ideally, a push notification should be information that will make me want to play the game more, rather than try and sell me something inside the game.

Replay system

You can watch and share your replay after every match. Since the match simulations happen server side, you can watch your own match or any shared replay without the fog of war. This is a great system because you can learn new strategies from other players or simply brag to your Alliance members showing how you decimated another player’s base.

Activity wall

This is another system which gives a platform for high performing players in an Alliance. Even though all the components for a social bragging platform, there isn’t any curation tools given to the player to sort out what Alliance updates are the most interesting. Thus, right now there’s a fair bit of information overlap between the Alliance chat screen and the Activity wall.

Leader board

There are global leader board, friends leader board, alliance member leader board and Alliance leader boards in the game.

Social System Improvements

The biggest issue with the way the social systems have been designed in the game is that none of them facilitate the forming of new friendships. The process is full of friction and there are many game systems that can be implemented to remedy this.

Emote system

A simple emote system gives players the ability to communicate with their opponent at the start, during or after the match is over.

Friend suggestion system

There is a ‘Friends’ system in the game, but the process is so opaque that I didn’t understand it. Players should be able to build and curate a list of players that they would like to be friends with in the game. Ideally, the game should suggest other players you have previously played with to be friends.

Integrating Facebook Connect

Even though the Facebook Connect has a lot of issues, it is also the easiest way find friends who play the same games as you do. The friendly battle system could really benefit from a Facebook Connect system too.

Spectate mode

There should be a way for players to just watch a real-time PvP match between 2 opponents. If the game ever hopes to be part of the e-sports circuit, this is going to be a feature the team should strongly consider.

Donation leader board

Right now, there is no way for players to find out who in the alliance is donating the most number of cards. If you give a platform to show which players are most altruistic, then you can encourage more altruistic behaviour from all players. 

Live Ops

Balancing Updates

Since launch there have been at least 2 balancing updates for the game. According to player match data, they have rebalanced almost every unit so that players don’t min-max with only one strategy.

Recently, a lot of players were using the Flame Tank rush strategy to directly attack an opponent’s base and reduce its health to zero with using the Nuclear Missiles. This led to the Flame Tank being nerfed (Speed decreased to 5.5434 from 6.929 and Health decreased to 3050 from 3500).

 Events

Arguably the weakest part of the game, events are limited time features which have their own challenges, rules and rewards.

The 1st event of the game which I participated was arguably one of the most underwhelming events I have played too. Called ‘Rivals Champions’, players were given 15 tries to win as many games as possible. The more games you won, the better the rewards will be.

The reason why events are so interesting in live ops games is because they offer something new to players outside the core gameplay. The Rivals Champions’ design was so basic that it felt like a chore going through the progression system simply to earn a few coins. Also, since the best rewards were locked behind 12 wins and above, it felt like betting against the house.

I really hope the team puts in more effort into their future events, as many PvP games have suffered badly from having a poor live ops events in place. 

In Conclusion

Command & Conquer: Rivals is a really fun game that gets a lot of things right. The core RTS-lite gameplay feels balanced and has a lot of depth in it. It is already on the Strategy games top grossing charts on both apps stores and will likely stay there if the team works on adding more social features and improving the quality of the live ops events of the game. If they do, I’m sure strategy players will keep playing this game for years to come.