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Clone warts: a samurai siege breakdown

By on February 13, 2014
samurai siege
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This is a guest post from Mark Sorrell

So I’ve been playing a whole bunch of Samurai Siege. Given that the game is designed to be experienced over a period of months, rather than the weeks I’ve been playing for, this review, such as it is, should be seen as a review of the on-boarding process and nothing more. Here is my review of the on-boarding process:

It starts really well and then immediately goes to shit.

Ok, see you next week!

Not really! Well, really, but let me elucidate a little further. To begin with the game looks pretty and seems familiar enough without being too blatantly copied. But that impression doesn’t survive long. Here are the key things that I reckon, me.

Art style

It’s beautiful, is Samurai Siege. Unfortunately it’s also wildly impractical. It’s a game, not a drawing package. It seems far more concerned with looking pretty than it does with having a graphical style that aids gameplay.

The game works on a grid, but it’s a grid that is invisible unless the player is moving a building. Clash of Clans is happy to surface its grid and have it sat there, proudly on the field you place your buildings on. The size of buildings and the way they integrate with the grid is extremely simple to understand. Not so in Samurai Siege, where the grid is hidden, building edges are thus harder to comprehend and base building is less fun.

Compared to Clash of Clans, the specific design of many of the buildings, particularly the resource collectors, is nowhere near as concerned with information transfer and far more with aesthetic. It looks prettier, sure, but it *means* less, and that has serious knock on effects on gameplay, particularly at the early stages of the game.

Base reading is a vital skill in the Base Raid genre and one that is made more difficult than it needs to be in Samurai Siege by the art direction. It’s hard to read your own base, it’s much harder to read opponent’s bases and so much harder to work out of a base is worth attacking or not.

Put simply, the art style prioritises form over function and that’s never a good idea.

What to do: Add a grid. Change the colour palette and design of buildings and ranks to express function and power more clearly.

Resources

Hnnnngh, no. There are so many levels of resource collector to burn through. I have three builders and they are all constantly busy building resource collectors/storages. It is EXCEPTIONALLY tedious. I basically feel like I’m somewhere between waiting for a connecting flight and playing a game about upgrading resource collectors.

Now Clash of Clans also dragged this out pretty much endlessly, but I bought five builders in Clash of Clans pretty damn quickly. They were well worth buying also and clearly would be in Samurai Siege, but the game is so much less endearing that I don’t feel the ‘I’m going to be here for a while’ that I did with Clash of Clans. They also feel more expensive, as the Gem currency in Samurai Siege is valued approximately half that of Clash of Clans, so all the numbers are twice as large.

There is little but pain at this stage in the game. There are several resource collector/storage levels to build through at the early Town Hall Levels, but far fewer levels of the exciting attack and defence stuff. This is acting as a sort of pinch point – I certainly contemplate buying the extra builders quite regularly – but then I remember that the design feels sloppy and flaccid rather than taut and full of direction, so I don’t. I don’t really want to hurry my journey towards more of something I’m not enjoying now.

Also, the numbers are way uglier than they need to be. 543,000 resources? OCD kicked in, yo.

What to do: Rationalise the resource collector game through the first few levels. Reduce the number of levels relative to (exciting!) attack/defence buildings, round the numbers and redesign the graphics to make their relative levels much, much clearer.

Explain that one again?

So Samurai Siege is Clash of Clans – except not quite. I don’t think anyone would object to that as a description. The combat is similar, but also a bit different. The way that units choose what to attack is certainly different, and it’s different towards ‘more complex’. It’s not necessarily towards ‘more agency’ just ‘more complex.’

That’s bad for two reasons. The first is obvious. The Commander system in Samurai Siege, where specific units command other units what sort of defence to attack, is weird to start with and more complex than Clash of Clans forever. As Flappy Bird has amply demonstrated, the mass-market (or as I like to think of it, normal human) is fine with hard, but they don’t like complex. Anything you can take away from complexity is good. Commanders are more complex.

The second reason is roughly the same as the concept I was taught by my French teacher at school – false friends. French words that sound like English words but don’t mean the same thing. The tactics so far seem to be partially but not wholly transferable from Clash of Clans. So I’m constantly frustrated that if I choose to explore, and try new tactics, I’m rewarded by basically nothing because the game is basically the same. But if I try the same tactics, they don’t work as well because the game is also quite different in some respects.

So the closeness to CoC is a benefit in some respects (getting investment, finding whales) and a disadvantage in others (being actually fun to casual ex-CoC players).

What to do: Add new Unit types that mirror CoCs more closely OR less closely. Simplify current system.

Sisyphus player mode

The single player mode was my FAVOURITE THING about the game for almost three days and now it is MY LEAST FAVOURITE THING about the game. It starts off so awesome, teaches you stuff, but then also you get rewards! Rewards that actually mean something! Clash of Clans single player mode has never been very good at all, one of two areas where the game could do with some work (the other being the ‘My League’ bit) but it does at least serve a neat purpose in getting out of the way early and meaning basically nothing. It’s the very definition of optional.

The Samurai Siege single player mode is not optional. You have to do it because it’s the way you unlock loads of stuff in the game. And it quickly gets pretty dull.

Worse still, it’s not hard gated, so it’s never really clear what Town Hall level you’re supposed to be at when you take on any of the levels. So you never know if you’re pointlessly throwing yourself at an impossible challenge, or just being shit. This is compounded by the over-complex battle mechanics, and the oblique art style, making objective decisions about the game mechanics far, far harder to make than they need to be.

And even worse, the map unlocks slowly, so you never know how much further you have to go. So you keep pushing the boulder, hating the boulder, stupid boulder.

What to do: Hard gate the single-player levels. Show the whole map.

In conclusion

Sure it’s a fine game. The familiar-from-Clash-of-Clans names at the top of the leaderboard and Jorge Yao’s involvement speak of some *seriously* smart user acquisition strategies. But the game’s early stages, single player campaign, over complication of strategy and – particularly – art design are all worse than Clash of Clans.

It sits in an awkward place between Base Raid genre and Clash of Clans clone. If it had the courage of its convictions in either direction, it would be a better game. And then the successes it *is* having with user acquisition would be multiplied significantly. The game that takes more money than Clash of Clans won’t be a Clash of Clans clone. It’s unlikely to be a Base Raid game at all.

It feels like the game that Space Ape have HAD to make, rather than the one they WANT to make. I can understand the strategy and it is completely logical, particularly from an investor’s point of view. But I want the UK to show considerably more ambition and invention than we are doing. Space Ape are right up there when it comes to UK F2P studios and I am basically desperate to see them release a game that tests new waters, and steps out of the shadow of Clash of Clans, and punches it in its stupid face.

But I do feel the need to point out the irony in the failings of Samurai Siege being due to building a great game business being prioritised over building a great game. Think about that for a moment…

What to do: Everybody stop being scared and make great games.

About Mark Sorrell

Mark Sorrell is a consultant and advisor on freemium game design, behavioural change, value perception and strategy. With over a decade of experience in making games do new things, in new places, for new audiences, for companies across gaming, broadcasting, advertising and finance, if you want to know how games can help your business, start by asking Mark.