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Improving Freemium Design: Combat Monsters

By on December 11, 2013

Guest post from Ben Sipe, crossposted on his blog

I game more on mobile than any other platform, but I’ve had a hard time finding a turn-based strategy game that’s good. Final Fantasy Tactics doesn’t count, because I played that on PlayStation and Nintendo DS. I’m not exactly excited to play it again on mobile. I wanted a new experience. Then I found Combat Monsters. Let’s take a look at a F2P turn based strategy game.

For the record, Rubicon’s other strategy games are great, but I never played them because they were premium and I rarely pay for premium games.

What they did right

Solid Foundation
Rubicon has built a pretty good framework for a fun and engaging game. There’s a core loop, several different types/classes of characters to fit your play style, hundreds of unique cards, single player campaign and multiplayer. I can’t tell you how many games I see that are missing a crucial aspect(s). This helps increase their odds of becoming successful through optimizing.

I really like the 3D graphics and effects they implemented. Definitely not necessary, but having a game that looks great certainly doesn’t hurt the cause.
Single Player Missions
I love that there’s a single player campaign as well as multiplayer matches. This helps make the game appeal to players of several types. If you’re using the Bartle test, I’m more of an explorer myself and I’m more interested in playing the single player missions than PvPing.
Fun Gameplay
Rubicon really knows what they’re doing when it comes to fun, challenging and engaging turn-based strategy games. Beyond Combat Monsters, I highly recommend the purchase of Great Big War Game.

What could be improved

8 tutorial missions!?! I understand that fans of this genre might fall more into the hardcore category, but you also need to take the platform into consideration. On average you might have 30 seconds to get a mobile players attention, and fans of this genre might be more like 1-2 minutes. However, 8 tutorial missions took me over 5 minutes to complete. This should be condensed into 3 tutorial missions and cut some of the text out.
I should also note that the tutorial isn’t required which is a good thing, but some players might miss the option to skip and those are the probably the types of players who would quit after seeing the tutorial is much too long for them.
No Leveling System
If you wanted to show a friend your progress in the game how would you describe it? If you’re playing a multiplayer match how do you know the experience level of the person you’re playing against? If there was a leveling system these questions would be a whole lot easier to answer. Sure, a leveling system doesn’t tell you exactly where you are in the single player missions or prove that you’re a pro if you reach a certain level. It won’t be 100% accurate, but having a numeric value to compare is the simplest and quickest way to make these comparisons. Implementing a leveling system also helps drive a players sense of accomplishment and can be great moments to share via social media.
Unlocking Content
Incorporating a leveling system enables another crucial virtual store tactic which is unlocking content versus making it all readily accessible. This is often overlooked by developers that are newer to the F2P space. Typically speaking, you don’t want to immediately allow players to purchase anything in the game for several reasons that we’ll tack one by one.
  1. No sense of accomplishment. Think about Zelda as a F2P title. How would you feel if you could just open an IAP menu and buy all of the gadgets or even the master sword? Players should need to play and journey through a portion of you game before being able to purchase some of the end game content.
    • NOTE: there’s nothing wrong with allowing players to pay to progress more quickly through the game to reach those end game items. Almost everything should be obtainable for the “right price.”
  2. Too many options is overwhelming. In the commerce world it’s a fact that if you display too many options to consumers they will get discouraged and walk away. Read one of my previous articles on this topic and some other tips regarding your virtual store.
  3. This makes your game appear pay-to-win to non-payers. F2P is constantly criticized as pay-to-win, but it should actually be “pay for competitive advantage.” See my 5 Ways to Fail Freemium post to see the difference. Putting a leveling system in place makes players “earn” later game content, and makes the game feel fairer between paying and non-paying players.
    • NOTE: Combat Monsters isn’t a pay-to-win game. I need to understand the game’s strategy, various strengths and weaknesses and find the right IAP/monster that complements the way that I play. However, the typical player won’t likely analyze games like you or me.


Combat Monsters has a few really interesting options built in the game, but the game doesn’t call enough attention to them. The first one is the Coin Tripler. This is a permanent enhancement that triples the amount of currency earned in battles. If you’re a fan of the game this should be your first purchase as it holds the most value (assuming you’ll be playing the game for a longer period of time). At the battle results screen they just list the tripler in the lower left corner. A cost effective way if gaining attention is adding a shimmer or animation to the coin tripler button.
The other feature that isn’t getting the attention it deserves is the Daily Deal. Rubicon built a feature where they run a sale on one card per day. This is an awesome idea, but it’s buried in the marketplace menu.
I would make this an interstitial screen that appears at every launch. I’d also link popular IAP options on the side, communicate the discount and further emphasize the card that is on sale in the middle. Excuse my awesome MS paint skills, but maybe something along of the lines of this.
Here’s a great example of an effective upsell screen for reference.
The value and discount is clearly communicated, there’s no question of what they player is getting and there’s a timer to create a sense of urgency.
Coin Balancing
At the time of writing this article this was already changed, but when originally playing the game I was being awarded ~20 coins for winning a battle which took around 5 minutes to finish. OR I could watch a 30 second video for 50 coins. If I wanted to grind for currency it actually made the most sense to sit and watch advertisements.
Account Creation Process
I don’t encourage a forced account creation processes on mobile, but they’re more tolerable to me as a player if I can quickly create one via social networks (most popularly Facebook or Twitter). You can grab all my account information at the press of a button versus forcing me to enter the information manually. I’ve seen huge improvements in day 1 retention by removing forced account creation processes. Also if you’re ever planning to spend money on user acquisition then you need remove as many annoyances or barriers as possible, and this would need to be the first thing to go.
Insufficient Currency to IAP Menu
This is an easy fix, but never grey out virtual items or buy buttons if the player doesn’t have enough money. Players won’t focus as much on those items then or won’t attempt to purchase them.
You want to allow them to select an option that’s too expensive because this is also a great time to notify them or navigate them to your IAP menu. There’s a reason why most top grossing titles with a currency system and virtual store function like this.

Genres may take some time to adapt

Rubicon certainly had their work cut out for them building a F2P turn-based strategy game. I don’t think I can name another one that’s F2P on mobile (or on any other platform for that matter). It would be easier to develop this genre as a premium title, but I don’t think they could expect the same return as Great Big War Game if they did develop Combat Monsters as a premium title due to the shift in F2P market dominance on mobile (even though GBWG was released just 1 year ago). In fact, this is probably a dilemma that several readers are facing. Should I learn to create a F2P game or release as a premium game? Should I work with a publisher? How can I make the most of what I got before launching?

These questions can sometimes be difficult to answer when if you’re trying to tackle them on your own or internally. It’s much easier for the game’s creators to be forgiving than your players so it might be worth having a third party look at your design before launching. If you’d like help in this area feel free to contact me or hit me up on Twitter!

About Ben Sipe

Ben is a seasoned game producer/designer who has collaborated on hundreds of mobile, console and PC titles spanning all genres.