Game designer rates Splinterlands
I started playing Splinterlands last season and I think it is by far the best NFT game in the market. But ...
So, I got a bright idea to share my thoughts about it here. (Specially, because I can earn a million SLT for it ;) Do not misjudge my writing - i like the game and I think it has more positives than negatives, but i will focus on negatives here as I hope they might be seen by devs and improved.
I don't want to brag, I just want to establish I know a thing or two about games:
- I have 100k+ of my (physical) board and card games sold,
- I won one national MTG tournament (back in the day),
- I have graduated from game design,
- I am a Mensa member,
- I am running a decent small company with seven workers.
What is a game anyway?
As I said, SL is by far the best NFT game on the market - but most NFT "games" do not even qualify for a game, so competition is not really strong or planty. A game is a combination of multiple systems that have to operate in harmony. While SL clearly works better than most and is the only fun NFT game I came accross, I fear devs are not avare of it. This systems are:
- game mechanic
- variety of gameplay (PvP, PvE, tournaments, leagues etc)
- appeal (theme, graphics, learning curve, and - in P2E - profit)
- and crypto space also adds internal game economy.
Today I will cover the game mechanic, and if this post is well accepted i can continue to the other.
The game mechanics of SL is very good, I would rate it 8/10. I love the simple and deep battle system, auto battle (I think we all just hate playing against opponent that wastes too much time on every move), different Match rules and mana caps that make every game a new challenge.
While there are some minor issues that can be a matter of taste, there is one huge game design problem i see - the Summoners. More pricise, their Monster level limiting.
Why Summoners are broken
Summoners are way too powerful or way too scarse in drops. The proof is simple - the cheapest Monster card today is $0.12 while the cheapest Summoner card is $3.48. That is 29x or 2.900 % more expensive and that is so because Summoners are so much more important for the game (at least if one wants to win). Maxed good Summoners cost as much as a car and top ones can buy you a house! This makes no sense.
On top of that many Monsters are not cruical for the game (e.g. I didn't have any legendary in the last season and i got to Gold III), while on the other end most of the Summoners are cruical as most of them give strong advantage in certan match rules (e.g. I lose way too many games just because opponent out-summons me, while my cards should win if we had equal summoners).
Not to mention each players needs at least one Summoner per splinter just to be able to play, while for the start most of us will/should try to build one strong splinter and then build another and so on. While starter 1* Summoners are a huge handicap already in the Bronze league.
To make it worse most regular summoners (e.g. silver league material) are not even available for rent - market is just full of 1* we get in starter anyway. If I didnt miss anything, currently there are only 5 rare water Summoners in 3* and 4* combined and for prices they can not repay! This very bad mechanics is therefore preventing me for playing water!
Conclusion - Summoners are broken for following reasons:
- Summoner has only one role in game (bad game design). Compare this to Monsters that can play a different role on different levels and in different Match rules which creates diversity and is good game design.
- On top of that Summoners are game-play platform and as such directly harm the player in summoner disadvantage (disastrous game desing).
- Summoneres are way too scarse/expensive. I heard on one podcast that devs limit card issuance on expectation that only 10% of players can max certain card. Once you consider previous two points this leads to the fact that 90% of players will not be able (ever) to play game in high leagues because they will not have Summoners. A few days ago I was watching a starter video on how to start playing SL with $100. The advice of the host was: first buy a single Summoner for 150 bucks. ... Did you catch it?
- Summoners must be available for all players, completelly reworked or removed. This will be achieved if prices of Summoners are eaqual to the price of other cards.
- Summoners must not limit the Monster cards - League limits are more than enough.
- Probably best solution would be to turn Summoners in support Monsters (maybe taking two card spots) with high mana cost and let players decide if their bonus is enough to outweight two battle cards.
This game has some huge balancing issues and it is very easy to fix them if devs would want. There are starter videos that state - all you need to fly through bronze and silver is Lamma + Chron, if you can't afford them get Mylor. That is true because this cards are enormously OP. It just makes no sense Mylor cost 3 mana - the same as Wizzard of Eastwood or Lyanna. In low mana cap or certain match rules I lost against Mylor with Kitty! I would even argue Mylor should be legendary or at least epic. And there are other OP well known cards , so I will not waste time with them.
- I know this is not hard to figure out, but rebalancing mana cost is simple and efficient. And all great games (and devs) have no problem admiting they made a mistake and rebalance game assets if they turn out to be OP. Actually, the other approach - creating new assets that overpower the OP assets - always backfire because the new cards are even more OP than the previous one and the cycle repeats.
Artificial limits are counter-productive
This game has more atrificial limitations than any other I played. It is obvious devs want to push you spend more, but this eventually leads to the point where players opt out. I would even argue this artificial limits are set exactly the wrong way and can eventually lead to the game's demise.
We touched this problem already in the section on Summoners, but League and Tournament limitations are in some concerns even worse.
For illustration: football has a gameplay limitation that does not allow players to touch the ball with their hands. It is a gameplay rule and it is the same for everyone. Now imagine they would implement the height rule - that only players 2m high and above can play in Champion League and Worl Cup, 1,8m on national level etc. In this case Leo Messi and many other world class footballers could only play in little league. And this game has many unnecessary "hight" limitations that hurt the game.
Saving the Whales
I have heard in a few videos that devs are commited in protecting the early players (that are all whales now), keeping the value of the early cards high, not making reprints etc.
But why whales need the protection? They are big enough and have made a huge profit from the recent price pump - tubers claim they have decks worth million(s) and they turned $30 in 100k. We have a general consensus in crypto that sardines and plancton need whale protection!
The limits to progress in higher leagues are completelly unnecesary (one could argue the only function they have is to artificially drive sales). If someone is good enough to get in diamond league with starter cards they should not be only allowed, but rewarded for it. In fact this limits protect the whales from the better players with less power - it makes no sense in the competetive game. I would even argue this is corruption or pay to win - give us money, we guarranty you better position and rewards.
In fact the limits should be the other way around to protect new/small players from the whales, seal clubbers and smurfers (I think the last was implemented in the new season). Last season I ended in Gold III so I joined a silver tournament. And guess what - out of 152 players I ended in position 140. I only won one game out of 11. I think I played against a players with about 3.5M and 2.5M power with my 100k deck.
Why are those players allowed in silver tournament? The whole idea of leagues is to prevent overpowered players from seal clubbing. Just imagine Fury or Klitschko or Tyson allowed to fight in the light-weight.
But SL is even worse, I can't enter higher rank tournaments because they have min power entry barier - this is the same problem as above. If I want to play in diamond level with gold 3 deck I (should) know my chances and risk of being destroyed completelly.
This limits (or lack of them) are absurd even down in novice tournament - with my mostly starter deck I was paired against players with horrendously OP cards I had no chance against. I don't rember player powers but I am sure they were way out of novice levels.
We could discuss what is wrong with whales that need to beat newbies to feel good, but that would be another topic. Specially since max reward is 300 DEC and I guess this tournament takes about 2 hours, while a whale can make that in a few games in high leagues.
Game vs Investment
There is an inherent difference, perhaps even an opposition, between game and investment. I will discuss this in dept in the article about internal economy of games if we get that far, but for now we shall just say that investors want their asset prices to go to the moon, while gamers want the assests to be as cheap as possible so they can improve their game assets to improve their game. And currents prices are already presenting entry barrier for new players. If devs decide to support the investors the game part ofthe game will crush and then investments will be worthless.
The reason I mention this here is because many in-game limitations are based on economy of driving the assest price up not on improving the gameplay.
I would even argue limiting the cards is bad in long term - because the numner of players is not known and last spike in players has caused the spike in card prices to the point of barrier of entry. And since games are not a necessity, players with $100 will take them to another game where they can have a fighting chance for it.
- I guess this is easy, but still - reverse the limitation to prevent whales sealclubbing weaker players and allow small decks to compete in big leagues for their own risk and amusement.
- The other option is handicap system like ELO, limiting OP players choices (e.g. 2x stronger player can not use legendary, 5x stronger can not use epic, 10x stronger can not use rare cards).
For the disclosure I consider my self an investor in terms i described here, I have bought about 2k in cards and 1k in SPS and DEC. I mostly play to understand the game better so I can invest better - but do I like to play SL because it is fun (compared to Axie that is borring AF after a few weeks). I also think I will limit my deck to gold league.
Gameplay rewards are not really worth my time, but I am gratefull for them anyway.
So why do I complain about devs protecting investors? First, I am a game designer and I hate to see bad elements in otherwise good game. Second, as i mentioned, if gaming part of a game fails, my investment in game will also fail.