Brawl Stars Deep Dive: An Analysis of Supercell’s Soft-Launched Shooter
Is This The Next Clash Royale?
By Dimitar Draganov, Senior Product Manager, Flaregames
The Flaregames team is full of committed mobile game players who spend all day, every day thinking about the nuances of the market’s biggest and most significant games. These deep dives into mobile game design are the product of the individual writers’ findings, rather than those of Flaregames as a whole.
Out of all Supercell’s mobile games, Brawl Stars is the one that has spent the longest time in Soft Launch.
In this post I take a look into how the game plays out today, disregarding all its previous iterations, and pinpoint the core issues behind Supercell’s decision to neither release nor kill the game yet. I conclude with some speculation on the final outcome of this extended tweaking phase.
As the graph below shows, Brawl Stars has a very simple and streamlined core loop:
- Battle to win keys;
- Keys open boxes;
- Boxes allow you to unlock new brawlers and their special star powers, and upgrade existing ones.
The tickets referred to in the chart as the entry price for battles are in fact only required for the special weekly event, a game mode which is unlocked after 1–2 weeks of play and is only available on weekends.
The majority of keys received by non-payers are therefore coming out of battles in the regular events, where players usually earn 5 keys for losing and 10 keys for winning a battle. Players can access up to 4 different event types at a time, and each event comes with a cap on the number of keys awarded in a set period of time. Once that cap is reached, players stop receiving anything but XP and trophies. This incentivizes them to stop and return later, when new events and fresh key caps are available.
The biggest disappointment in this core loop is how meaningless the trophy and level systems are. Players get trophies for each brawler, and the sum of these trophies determines their rank in leaderboards and seasons.
Once brawlers go above certain arbitrary trophy thresholds, they can no longer fall back beneath them. They also receive some keys as a reward for getting there, with more keys rewarded based on total player trophies at the end of each season.
So the only reward you get for reaching a high trophy level is more keys. The only additional benefit you can hope for is that, by having a better trophy rank, you will have more meaningful and well-balanced battles that have fewer idle players in them.
The leveling system is even less exciting, unfortunately. Finishing battles yields experience and leveling up in XP means being awarded more keys. With endless experience levels, the system replicates the flow of quests in Clash Royale. But since the XP required for the next reward is always increasing, this system is in fact less rewarding over the long-term and tying it to XP instead of to some version of missions or quests is far from the obvious choice.
In summary, the core loop is extremely straightforward and entirely centered on battling for keys, which turn into boxes, which allow players to unlock new or upgrade existing brawlers. Aside from my disappointment with the XP and trophy systems, there are two reasons why I believe this loop is suboptimal.
Firstly, the middle step of transforming keys into boxes doesn’t add anything to the player experience. On the contrary, opening the exact same box every time you gather 100 keys (that’s right, there is in fact a single box available in the game) is simply bad UX that instantly feels stale and massively unexciting.
Secondly, the split between unlocking a brawler and collecting power points specific for that brawler feels extremely artificial. I’m not sure if Supercell is trying to differentiate this upgrade system from Clash Royale’s, or if they already have plans around this — e.g. a means of transforming power points from one brawler to another — but currently the upgrade system doesn’t feel as smooth and natural as we’ve come to expect from Supercell.
Brawl Stars’ action phase puts 3–10 players on a map, giving them an objective and a time limit. Currently, players are forced to cooperate with 2–4 more players to achieve victory — and therein lies a fundamental obstacle to success in the West.
Relying on others pretty much all the time, means players need not only have the skills necessary to play the game, but also the strategic thinking and selflessness to help their team to succeed. For many players used to MOBAs, this might not come as a huge surprise, but for the typical Clash Royale or Hearthstone player, relying on multiple allies to score a win can often turn out to be quite frustrating.
It’s not a surprise, then, that one of the hot topics that has consistently gained traction in the community since the game entered Soft Launch is the contrast in strategic approaches: Team Mindset vs. MVP Mindset.
Games that force players into cooperation push the limits of players’ sociability, which in turn limits the reach of such games. Allowing for burst sessions of 2–3 minutes and having an art style that’s appealing to a wide audience will not take you all the way to a smash hit when:
- Your gameplay is not accessible enough (something we’ll look at next);
- You are forcing players to be reliant on random others right from the get-go, way before they have mastered the game or built any kind of emotional investment into it.
The second fundamental issue that the game’s action phase has tried and failed to solve multiple times already, is how complex and imprecise controls are. If we compare it to its predecessor Clash Royale, the action phase of Brawl Stars requires faster and more complex interactions which significantly differ based on which brawler you choose, but at the same time controls are much more imprecise.
That combination of complexity and imprecision challenges the traditional foundation of games that last for years: “easy to learn, difficult to master”. The learning curve in Brawl Stars flattens rather quickly and, observing myself and most YouTubers, it’s quite clear that months of practice had a less-meaningful effect on performance than the auto-aim introduced with the game’s latest update.
This, for me, shows that Brawl Stars fails not just in the “easy to learn” aspect of gameplay, but also in the “difficult to master” one. The game allows players to learn aiming, shooting and executing basic moves at an extremely slow pace, which ultimately delays — or, in some cases, entirely prevents — their participation in the deeper, more strategic layers of the metagame.
Thirdly, a multitude of minute details in the game mechanics and design choices amount to an overall leaning towards a hardcore action phase experience that frustrates even highly-skilled players:
- Unlike in Clash Royale, latency is a serious issue for the twitch gameplay of Brawl Stars. Every millisecond matters and lag is often a point of frustration. On top of this, many brawlers have time-delayed attacks which amplify both the impact of lag and the frustration of experienced players.
- Casting super skills doesn’t feel special or exciting. VFX is often hard to distinguish from a normal attack (e.g. Ricochet’s bouncing bullets), but most of all the imprecise targeting makes it likely that the Super attacks do no damage at all. Players spend half a minute charging their super attack and then they end up doing no damage with it.
- Getting to the super skill cast requires players to deal quite a bit of damage. This strange design decision amplifies the skill gap between players and teams making well-balanced matches less likely as even minimal skill difference can easily snowball out of proportion.
- Matchmaking feels worlds apart from any of the other Supercell games. The explanation for this could be the small sample of players in soft launch, or it could be the fact that in an attempt to boost early retention, Supercell purposefully pushes players up to a 200 rating by having wins give far more trophies than losses take out. This ultimately results in huge skill disparity at the same trophy level.
- To top this, ending up with an idle player is a common experience in the 0–400 trophy range and when that happens there’s little else one can do than wait out the match to be over. The drop-off correction mechanism that you will find in a MOBA — remaining players on the team of an idle player get more XP and mana — is not present here, and therefore winning a 2v3 match is not just an uphill battle, it is close to impossible and thus not worth the effort.
These and many more minute design decisions have brought Brawl Stars to a state that provides players with very few moments that they can feel smart about, plenty of frustration points and thus a pretty high threshold for early players to surpass.
It’s not surprising that Supercell quite openly admits most of its iterations since Soft Launch have been aimed at improving early retention. I do believe that the new control scheme, the change to landscape and the addition of auto aim in the latest update are helping out, but I am quite confident there is a lot more to be done to improve Brawl Stars’ action phase and onboarding experience.
In the Core Loop section, we already explained the main progression dimension in the game: to unlock and upgrade brawlers. Not to worry: the years of longevity typical for all Supercell games are still available in Brawl Stars. The cap of keys given in every event and the event refresh limited by time are the main gating mechanics that prevent players from grinding their way through the whole game in months.
The schedule currently running in the game puts the average daily grind yield at 3 to 5 boxes for highly engaged players. The good news is that, unlike Clash Royale’s 20+ years of grind required to max out, Brawl Stars sports a modest 3–4 years of grind and a correspondingly lower spending cap. The downside is that upgrading brawlers feels less impactful as a consequence, as well as being artificially attached to the action phase.
Comparing Brawl Stars to Clash Royale, we find that brawlers not only have fewer upgrades than most cards did, but more importantly that brawler upgrades have only half the effect. Each upgrade to a card in Clash Royale provides an increase of around 10% to base health and attack power, which becomes around 5% when applied to Brawl Stars’ brawler upgrades.
This is a major change in monetization philosophy for Supercell, as this time they decided to put more emphasis on new experiences — unlocking Brawlers and later unlocking their star powers — than on impactful, but more grindy upgrades. This newly debuted approach ultimately resulted in a 5 times less grindy economy, with three distinct monetization stages in the lifecycle of a brawler.
Firstly, players are tasked with unlocking all the brawlers. For a non-paying player who optimizes grind and opens on average 4 boxes a day, this will take anywhere from a month for the rare brawlers to a year for the legendary ones. In that timeframe, players are heavily pushed towards purchasing the premium big boxes and key doublers to speed that process up.
There is no brawler limitation incorporated into matchmaking, so players often get to see the brawlers they don’t own yet and therefore the desire to explore the game mechanics by playing all the brawlers remains a powerful monetization push even when the player is only missing a few of them.
Secondly, players are tasked with upgrading brawlers. Once a player has tried a brawler and understood all its mechanics, it comes down to buffing him/her up through the 5%-per-level upgrade system.
The tools players are already familiar with — the premium boxes and key doublers — are still useful as they increase the chance of getting the brawler-specific power points necessary to level up. However, the emphasis now falls more on the direct purchase of brawler-specific power points that are available for gold in the shop.
This amplifies the lack of gold in the already tight gold economy and forces players and payers to shift their focus from key doublers and big boxes to monetizing on gold packs. This is noteworthy, because unlike Clash Royale where the ultimate progression gating is the lack of cards, in the economy of Brawl Stars the ultimate gating mechanism is gold.
This means that even if players never spend gold on buying shop items, they will still end up grinding boxes for gold long after they have enough power points to upgrade all their brawlers. In essence, any gold spent on shop items is actually slowing players down in their quest to max out all brawlers.
Thirdly, after a brawler has been upgraded to level 9, another unlocking phase begins as this time players have to find the star power of each brawler. Star powers are a passive boost to a brawler that can either drop from boxes or be purchased for gold, but only after the respective brawler has reached level 9. Giving players a choice between the tight gold economy and a long wait for a random draw, the third phase puts their patience to a final test.
Given the 1% chance (the percentage disclosed by Supercell) for a star power to drop from a box, non-paying players are on average looking at another 1,900 boxes — more than 1.3 years of grind — to find all star powers. And again, this can only happen after players have reached level 9 with their brawlers, which should take roughly 3,000 boxes or more than 2 years of grind.
Now that we have a clear understanding of the progression in the game, let’s take a critical look at it. Apart from the trophy and XP level systems we already discussed in the core loop section, the game’s biggest weakness is the lack of incentives to engage with more than one brawler. A fundamental design principle for any character-focused game is to give players as many reasons as possible to meaningfully engage with the full range of offered heroes, but Brawl Stars deviates from this in two major ways.
Firstly, the incentive to specialize in a single brawler outweighs the incentive to rank up multiple ones. As shown in the core loop diagram earlier, players are rewarded keys when brawlers rank up in trophies. However, the optimal way to grind keys in the long-term is to aim for as high a win rate as possible, because winning always rewards more keys, player XP and a “first win” bonus once per event.
And what maximizes win rates? Investing all your time into mastering the single most powerful brawler you have. Maybe this will change as Supercell rebalances the game, but trying to push the usage of 19 brawlers through metagame rebalancing will be difficult.
Secondly, due to the team-based nature of the game, even the different game modes provide negligible advantage to specific brawlers over others as every brawler can fit at least one role on every team. Events don’t have brawler-specific requirements and the matchmaking takes care of placing players, even those that keep using the same brawler, in evenly matched battles. There is no energy mechanism that prevents players from doing this and there is no game mode that requires players to participate in it with more than one brawler. In short, the behavior of playing the same brawler is not only encouraged, but it is also not discouraged — whether penalized or bluntly forbidden — even though mechanics to achieve that are widely-used and well-proven in many other titles.
We conclude the section with two economy design decisions worth mentioning. Firstly, there is currently no source of gems apart from the In-App Purchases. This means the vast majority of the in-game shop is only available for payers; gold, boxes and boosters are priced in gems, while gems and bundles containing them are priced in real money. This goes against the free-to-play status quo and is likely to change if the game ever globally launches.
Then there’s the game’s gacha system. We already discussed the split between brawlers and brawler-specific power points, as well as how uninspiring it is to open the exact same box repeatedly. The real issue with the system however, kicks in when players max out their brawlers. When this happens, brawler-specific power points and star powers stop dropping and all that players get is gold and sometimes an event ticket or a key doubler is thrown into the mix.
Taking the majority of gacha drops out of the loot pool is certainly unusual, and would traditionally be detrimental to long-term monetization. But it’s interesting to observe how quickly players found ways to abuse the system. Plenty of YouTubers (e.g. Sensei Adam) have already maxed the game and are currently sitting on hundreds of boxes, because there is no point in opening them — there is nothing to spend gold on anymore, they can live without the grind of keys from ticketed events and they are not in a hurry to grind even more boxes with key doublers.
They are piling up all these boxes, so that as soon as a new brawler arrives to the game, these players will be able to max it out without spending a dime.
Is Brawl Stars going to successfully metamorph into something worth launching globally or is it destined to join Spooky Pop and Smash Land in the Supercell celebrated graveyard? Despite taking a rather critical look into the flaws of the game, I remain very positive towards the new take on the action shooter genre Supercell spearheaded.
Even though PUBG and Fortnite have stormed the mobile market as of late, I am confident there is a vast opportunity for a more casual shooter that remains focused on 2–4 minute battles, short and satisfying sessions and meaningful progression that can hold people engaged for years by living up to the principle of “easy to learn, difficult to master”.
Brawl Stars in its current form is not that game. There is a lot of genre potential and innovation that Supercell unlocked, but uncharacteristically for them, they missed the one thing that has so far made them a success and kept them at number 1 on mobile for years: making everything click together and polishing the user experience to a degree so absurd that any fast followers and copycats have been doomed to fail.
I believe that if Brawl Stars gets killed, the reason will ultimately be its action phase. It offers challenging controls that prime players into a fixed mindset — preoccupying them with thoughts about preventing basic movement and shooting errors — instead of a growth mindset of feeling in control, being able to experiment and experiencing joyous moments to be remembered and celebrated.
To end this on a positive note, I think that after 10 months of soft launch it is quite likely that a successor to Brawl Stars is already in the making — be it from Supercell itself, learning from its soft launch experience to propel itself forwards yet again, or from an external challenger for this mobile gaming niche that Supercell, to a huge extent, founded.