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Funny To A Point – I Joined A Devil Cult; Its Name Is Clash Royale

by Jeff Marchiafava on Jul 29, 2016 at 10:01 AM

I'm fairly susceptible to getting suckered into games by my coworkers, a character flaw I wrote about...just last column (another: repeating myself). But long before Pokéfever gripped the G.I. office, some of my fellow editors were obsessed with another mobile megalodon, one with far more sinister underpinnings than Nintendo's cutesy pocket monsters.

Despite my embarrassing antics, Pokémon Go isn't really a good example of my newfound weakness for groupthink mobile crazes. Everyone is obsessed with Pokémon Go right now, and I'm genuinely enjoying the experience. Trying to judge my crisis of character based on Pokémon Go would be like a Saw movie where the victims are forced to cuddle puppies and tickle-fight each other. The true depths of my depravity can only be measured in misery, and for that Clash Royale is the perfect yardstick.

Upon launch, Clash Royale was generally lauded by critics, and rightfully so. Supercell managed to strip the RTS genre down to its fundamentals, replacing long and taxing wars with fun bite-sized battles that virtually anyone can play and appreciate. You build up a small deck of units, send them out to destroy your opponent's three towers, and two minutes later you're either picking up your reward or spamming a new enemy with ill-intentioned King emojis.

FYI, if I give you the "thumbs up" after I lose badly, it means you're supposed to sit on 'em.

The depth of strategy on offer cannot be overstated; Clash Royale is a far cry from the endless glut of match-threes, indie rip-offs, and whatever crap Schwarzenegger is hawking on the mobile markets. There's honest-to-goodness gameplay there, enough to make me feel sorry for gamers who still universally dismiss mobile gaming in its entirety. On the other hand, Supercell took that solid gameplay foundation and globbed together a tower of crap on top of it that's tall enough to make me think the haters have a point.

The process of delving into Clash Royale is remarkably similar to joining a cult, minus the matching sneakers and all-you-can-drink Kool-Aid. Like any cult worth its own gobbledygook, Clash Royale excels at breaking you down and building you back up in its own image, but first it coaxes you in with promises of easy wins and rewards. On the front lines are Clash Royale's evangelists, singing the game's praises while slipping in an underlying sales pitch. "It's SOOO great – you should definitely join our clan!"

In the G.I. office, Dan Tack is our cult clan leader, and has achieved a plane of superior knowledge that I have yet to ascend to. When I first started out, his words were somehow reassuring and concerning at the same time – the kind of cult-bred logic that only works if you don't think about it too much. "The game is the best. You're going to get crushed repeatedly, but it's fun. It's all part of the process. Don't worry, it gets even better once you learn the secrets of the cosmos from chancellor Zeptar."*

At first I really was having fun, thanks to Clash Royale's extended period of the mobile-game industry's version of foreplay – it took me a good 30 minutes to realize how I was getting screwed, and even longer to realize to what extent. Big bulky treasure chests are your main reward for winning matches against opponents, and those chests contain new cards and gold – awesome, right? Then I clicked on my first silver chest and found out it takes three hours to open – less awesome, right?

Of course a reward chest would take three hours to open...

As far as time gates go, the wait to open a treasure chest doesn't even make sense. Are you picking the lock? If so, you must really suck at it – and if you supposedly have the key, then god help you. I resigned myself to the wait only to get walloped with a follow-up punch after my second victory: You can only unlock one chest at a time? Ah, there's a bit of that familiar free-to-play sting.

However, I was still in the grace period before my full indoctrination – I was in the room with the chanting monks, but still hadn't gotten a glimpse of the sacrificial altar just behind the curtain. Whether it's for the sake of efficiency or laziness, I was approaching Clash Royale like I do most games, by trying to get the most out of my efforts. After all, why keep on battling when I don't have any more chest slots to hold my just rewards? The Crown Chest, which is available every 24 hours after claiming 9 towers from opponents, encouraged me to play even slower. Why play a trio of matches for three chests when they would also net me 9 crowns in an hour? For the first week, I played a few matches once a day, while checking back in every now and then to open my newly unlocked chests.

In little doses like this, Clash Royale is fun, and the early game encourages a slow pace – that way it doesn't hurt as much as the hooks sink in. Clash Royale's time gates are a more forgiving version of a well-known perversion of free-to-play game design: discouraging players from having too much fun at any one given time, because if you are, you won't be throwing your real money at a virtual marketplace. The longer you play Clash Royale, the sharper its barbs get, but the real, Royale pain in the ass is still to come.

Crushing an opponent with an angry mob is always satisfying. When it happens to you? Not so much.

Even as I racked up a satisfying run of early victories and started leveling up my units, I knew a turn of the screw was coming. At numerous times, I had seen my fellow pledges walking around the office being trailed by their own personal storm clouds, thanks to horrific losing streaks that left them struggling with their faith in Clash Royale's higher (or perhaps lower) power. I had avoided upsetting this mysterious Supreme Being as I graduated from Royale's beginner zone to Arena 2, but my jump to the next tier called down the Eye of Sauron upon me with a mighty vengeance. My suffering was by design.

Like many competitive multiplayer games, Clash Royale splits its player base up into distinct tiers based on skill – in this case, nine differently themed arenas. Unlike just about any other competitive game (and there's a reason for that), these arenas also grant players access to new units – but only if you're lucky enough to get them from one of your subsequent victory chests. The effect of this decision is that the great sense of achievement you feel from graduating to a new arena is immediately pummeled to death by a string of new overpowered opponents that...well, pummel you to death.

My first downfall was swift. Upon reaching Arena 3, I was suddenly being overwhelmed by roaming gangs of barbarians, devastating rockets, and unit-buffing rage potions, none of which I could earn in the previous tier, and wouldn't be able to earn unless I overcame the new, more powerful decks and strategies my opponents were using. A few consecutive losses were all it took to drop me below the threshold and boot me back down to Arena 2, with its lousy Arena 2-level chests that still didn't contain the new units I'd face when I advanced again.

Am I above squeaking out a last-second win with a supremely cheap volley of arrows? Absolutely not.

With the clan's reassurance, I dutifully trudged along, slowly learning counters to the new units until I could hack it in Arena 3 and start earning them for myself. But the yo-yoing only gets worse the higher you claw yourself out of the pit. Arena 4 introduces tower-crushing Hog Riders, debilitating Freeze spells, and damage-soaking Lava Hounds. Arena 5 means contending with instantaneous lightning zaps, fireball-spewing wizards, and deadly poison clouds. Arena 6...well, I don't even know what fresh hell awaits in Arena 6, because I haven't gotten there yet. Again, none of these units are available to you until they're already slaughtering your fighters on the battlefield; sometimes players from a higher arena will flunk down to your level, so even if you do beat their superior units, you're still getting inferior rewards.

Suddenly, playing a few matches here and there is no longer an option – you've got to constantly hone your skills and strategies, earn mountains of gold to upgrade your units, and level up your player account if you want to remain competitive. That means checking in on the game more often than, oh I don't know, some idiot who has too many babies.  

Hitting a skill ceiling in any competitive multiplayer game is inevitable. But unlike a game like Hearthstone, where players all have access to the same card pool and make one long, steady climb through the ranks, Supercell has done its damnedest to make Clash Royale all ceilings – and ensure you hit each one at maximum speed as you repeatedly rise and fall. Playing Clash Royal is like Sisyphus endlessly rolling the boulder up the mountain – except once you get to the top, the boulder rolls over you on the way back down.

Hey, did I mention you can pay real money to buy bigger and better treasure chests, speed up the opening process, and buy and level up your units? That's right: Like all cults, Clash Royale isn't built on true ideology – the idea here being to build a fun and fair game – but rather cold hard cash. It's pay-to-win in the worst way, and if the underlying gameplay wasn't so good, and Supercell wasn't so skilled at calmly shuffling players up to the edge of the volcano, I would've stopped playing a long time ago.

When did $100 purchases become a standard option in "free"-to-play games?

That said, some brave players have managed to break free. Two weeks ago, G.I.'s selfie expert Brian Shea came into the office and triumphantly declared that he had deleted Clash Royale from his phone. The reprisal was swift; his self-declared epiphany was mocked as "rage-quitting," and he was promptly booted from the clan – after all, you can't have nonbelievers milling around in the flock. But the ostracism hasn't made much of an impact on Shea, and just like a real deprogrammed cult member, he even volunteered an uplifting testimonial.

"I couldn't be happier," Shea told me when he heard I was ragging on Clash Royale in this week's column. "I was pouring so many hours into Clash Royale – I now actually have time for family and friends."**

Not playing a game that makes you miserable should be a no-brainer, like not sticking a fork in an electrical outlet if you don't want to get shocked, or not inventing and standing in front of a crotch-kicking machine if you want to have children someday. But sometimes gamers suffer from mixed motivations. Sometimes fun gameplay is worth the mounting annoyances and frustrations. Sometimes the challenge to overcome an obstacle stubbornly fuels us on. And sometimes it's just fun to be in a group and have a shared experience – even if you spend more time commiserating with each other than celebrating. But learning to recognize the net effect a game is having on your mood is a valuable lesson, as is knowing when to call it quits. Shea's wisdom (two words I never thought I'd write consecutively) has made me realize it's about that time for me as well.

Besides, I've found a newer, bigger cult to be a part of, one with an entire army of demonic monsters to pray to. Its name is Team Valor.

*That last sentence may not be a direct quote.
**Incredibly, that sentence IS a direct quote. Shea has even bigger problems than I do.

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