Auto Chess does not need an introduction. What started as a custom game in the Dota 2 lobby, soon turned into a craze that led to 3 developers making 3 versions of it(And also ported into mobile) within a span of 6 months. So, what is it about Auto Chess that drove the developers into making and releasing 3 versions of the game in record time?
This article is mostly going to cover the AutoChess app published by Dragonest, since it is the mobile game of the original AutoChess that was developed by Drodo Studios.
However, I will be briefly covering the history of Autochess, so that by the time I get to deconstruction of the mobile app, anyone who is unfamiliar with the game will have some context.
Where it all began
Autochess was first released in the Dota 2 as Dota Auto Chess, sometime in January 2019 as a custom game. And owing to it’s addictive game mechanics (Which we will cover later), went on to have a massive playerbase of over 8 million players by May 2019. The game had become so popular that pro players often played AutoChess in their streams while they would wait for their matches to queue, or even when they wanted a break from the game in general. Soon, there were Youtube videos of it, and the news of the game caught on fire until Valve, the developer and publisher of Dota 2, finally decided to check out what it was all about.
It was not much later that developers from Drodo were flown to Valve’s HQ, to discuss the possibility of developing a standalone version of Dota Auto Chess. But fortunately or unfortunately, they could not come to a final agreement and decided to separate. Which led Drodo to develop their own game called Auto Chess while Valve went on to make their version of the game, called Dota Underlords.
An interesting turn of events was happening simultaneously at Riot games, developer of League of Legends, which was a MOBA that was quite similar to Dota 2. Apparently, the team at Riot were “all about” Auto Chess, and consequently, happened to announce their own version of AutoChess, called Teamfight Tactics which went live at June 25 in the game’s client.
Out of the 3, Two of the developers have released their game on mobile. The original Auto Chess and Valve’s Underlords. Riot should be following with a mobile release soon.
Tencent has also very recently released it’s own version of the game called Chess Rush. So, you know the competition is really about to get tight.
Between Auto Chess and Underlords, Auto chess is a more complete game with meta-game features, battle passes and several other goodies built in while Valve’s Underlords is still in its Beta stage that is currently undergoing frequent patch updates.
In that light, we will be mostly looking at Auto Chess, it’s mechanics and basically a deconstruction of the app as a whole and what makes/breaks it.
The genre that Auto Chess belongs to, can be summarized as an “Auto battler”. If you were to compare it with any existing mobile games, it would be similar to card battlers (Like Clash Royale) with the exception of the cards mechanic.
The core loop of Auto Chess mostly revolves around picking from a set of chess pieces, and placing them strategically on the board during what is called the pick or drafting phase. This is where all of the player interaction is going to be. Players get to pick from a fixed set of 5 pieces, which they can “buy” with coins and place on the chess board. There will be a countdown timer before which all of the picking/drafting needs to happen. On the other side of the board, an opponent will also be doing the same.
The next phase can be called the battle phase, this is where the “auto” in auto battler comes to play (quite literally). Based on the picks the 2 players made, and the placements of their chess pieces, a fierce battle will ensue on the board. The round ends when all the pieces of one side have been defeated. Players are rewarded with XP and coins at the end of the said round.
XP and coins are used to increase the number of units the players can place on the board and purchase stronger chess pieces that they can place on the board.
Duplicate pieces can be combined to form stronger units, which gives each chess piece better stats. There are 3 levels of “grades” possible for a piece (1 star – 3 star). To upgrade a chess pieces, you will need 3 pieces of the previous grade.
In a game of Auto Chess, players compete in a lobby with 8 other players, where they battle a random opponents or NPC’s. Each player has a fixed health of 60, and if they lose a round, will lose health equivalent to the number and grade of the opponent’s chess pieces. A player loses the game when their health reaches 0, or wins if they’re the last person remaining.
A typical game lasts about 20-30 minutes depending on the type of opponents that you’ll be matched with.
Mechanics – A Step Deeper
Now that we’ve covered the core loop of Auto Chess, let us dig a little deeper into the mechanics.
Chess pieces/Units – A chess piece has 2 traits, which is a class and race. Each unit has a different mix of classes and races. Having multiple pieces of a particular class/race gives the player various active and passive bonuses that will help them in their fights for dominance.
These bonuses can be buffs, debuffs or even additional coins/XP that gives them a distinct advantage over an opponent.
The game has some handy pre-set combinations of chess pieces that you can refer to if you’re too lazy or don’t really care for doing all that research.
Skills and Cooldowns – Each chess piece is also associated with a skill. This skill can be either active or passive. Active skills require mana, which they gain when they take or do damage.
Each active skill also has a cool down timer so that there is no unnecessary spamming of skills. For example a piece with high HP that can soak a lot of damage while simultaneously deal damage as well.
Chess pieces can be upgraded when you have 3 pieces of the same grade. i.e 3 One star pieces combine to form a 2 star piece, and 3 two star pieces combine to form a 3 star piece.
Even though a player is shown only 5 pieces to choose from at a time. He can choose to re-roll for a new set of pieces at the cost of 2 coins. This comes in handy when you’re trying to find that last chess piece needed for upgrading or completing a set bonus earned from a class/race.
Note: All players share the same common pool for chess pieces. So the sooner you buy your favorite pieces, the better. This makes the draft/pick phase competitive since multiple people might be going for similar Race/Class builds.
Coins – This is the singular currency in the game with which they can either purchase new pieces, or level up by spending 5 coins for 5 XP. A piece can also be sold at anytime for the same cost as it was purchased for.
Coins are eared at the end of every round. Along with a base value, they will earn coins based on the win streak and also interest on coins that they may be holding.
Items – Items are dropped during gameplay. These items provide stats and status boosts to the chess pieces that equip them. Each chess piece can hold up to 6 items.
Player Health – This basically determines the duration of your game. You start with an initial health of 60. Every loss reduces health based on the number and grade of the chess pieces remaining on the board. A game is lost when health becomes 0.
Player Level – Player level basically determines how many chess pieces you can have on the board for a round. It has a 1-1 mapping for the number of pieces to player level. Each level requires an increasing amount of XP and the cost of 5 XP = 5 coins. Higher levels also gives you access to higher rarity (and in turn more expensive) chess pieces.
AutoChess – Core game changes and Meta game for mobile
Now that we have covered the history and mechanics of AutoChess, we can look at the mobile app of AutoChess starting with what Dragonest has done to adapt the game for mobile and how it engages and monetizes players.
Core Game Changes
Reduced session length – The average session length was easily between 30-50 minutes on the PC client. Which is a lot of time commitment when it comes to mobile, where even mid core games usually don’t exceed 15-20 minutes per session. So Dragonest has done the smart thing and reduced the session length per game.
How? – Reduce max player health from 100 to 60, this cuts down the session length dramatically by reducing the overall number of rounds needed to eliminate 7 players from the game.
Auto Chess also hosts a whole bunch of meta-game features that you typically find in a mobile F2P game. These features lend to the replayability factor of the game in the form for various additional tasks the player can do.
Let us now look at some of the meta-game features that they have currently in-game.
Daily Quests – Player has set quests that they can complete on a day to day basis. They can earn in game currency by finishing the quest. There are also milestones rewards available for finishing a certain number of quests.
Chess Pass/Battle pass – This should be no surprise, the battle pass has had spectacular success in the past with Dota 2, Fortnite, Apex Legends and has proven to be a great engagement and monetisation tool that can be utilized across genres which are focused on PvP.
The Chess pass works like a typical battle pass feature, in which players are rewarded for advancing through the Battle pass levels. Levels are gained from earning Pass points which are in-turn earned from doing specific quests that come tied with the battle pass. Levels can also be purchased with hard currency.
Quests are of two types, weekly and seasonal. So the player can look forward to two sources of Pass Points to progress through their chess pass.
The rewards for the Chess pass are mostly cosmetics, hard currency and some XP/Currency boosters. Cosmetics can include a variety of things like avatar cosmetics, chess piece skins, special effects etc.
The Chess pass can be upgraded to earn better rewards (Junior -> Senior) for some premium in-game currency. The basic Chess Pass (Junior) is available for free to the players.
PvP Seasons – The game also has PvP seasons, during which you can earn certain exclusive rewards based on how you perform in the Ranked modes of the game.
This is very similar to the rank system you see in other games like Dota 2 where you points are given or taken based on the outcome of the game. Earning these points gives you a rank,.By default, you start as Pawn – 1 and you can climb to the ranks of King and Queen (Quite like chess… who would have thought!)
Gacha – Who doesn’t like a good gacha? There is a gacha feature in the in-game Store where you can sink you hard earned currency for a random cosmetic.
Social Features – Dragonest has taken a page from the likes of PUBG and other Battle Royale games in this section. Some of the features available to a player are,
1 – Adding, following and searching for friends
2 – Global chat where you can chat and play with other fellow AutoChess players. This can be seen right in the home-screen of the app, along with the players you follow.
3 – A custom lobby where a player can play a game with his friends or followers. You will always be playing against your friends, however it still makes the game way more enjoyable to play with friends. You can also add bots to fill out any missing slots.
4 – Leaderboard where you can check out all the competition, their custom avatars, chess boards among other things.
Currently, Auto Chess’s monetisation revolves fully around cosmetics. The core game is currently untouched in terms of monetisation and a player can fully experience the game’s content without making any sort of real purchases whatsoever. This is both a good and bad thing.
Good, because this invites more activity and engagement in-game and rules out the feeling of an “unfair” game, and makes focuses on purely the skill and strategy used by the player. Bad, because not everyone is driven to purchase purely for cosmetics sake.
Secondly, the cosmetics for Avatar and chess pieces don’t really seem like they would give the player ample opportunity to show off. AutoChess is mostly about the chess pieces. So you’ll get to show off your custom skin only if you happen to get the chess piece from your picking pool.
Adding to that, Avatars are usually on the corner of the screen and nobody really focus on them. So the idea of purchasing cosmetics for Avatars doesn’t really have too strong of a ground. However there are also several other parts of the game that can be customized, which will be listed down below.
Some of the aspects of the game that are being sold as cosmetics are,
1. Character Avatar : The avatar of the character that is seen in the lobby and in-game
2. Chess Piece reskins: Different skins for a players chess pieces.
3. Chess Board: The chess board in which the game takes place. This is also visible in the lobby.
4. Other custom animations: Projectiles, level up, damage effects etc.
2. Picture Frames
3. Chat emojis
4. Chat bubble art
The game has two types of currency, namely
Donuts – Used to spin the gacha, upgrade Chess pass for the most part. Can be purchased with real cash. This is the premium currency in game and can be earned via the upgrade Chess Pass, PvP season top rewards.
Candy – This is the soft currency in-game. Candies are earned by playing games, doing quests. They are used in spinning gacha for the most part. You can also boost the amount of candies you earn by using the boosters you get from the Chess Pass.
One surprising decision by the studio is to not have any kind of ads in-game, which means their revenue source is purely from in-app purchases only.
Also noticeable is that the all of the game’s voice over is in Chinese. Even the in-game text could have been better. There are a lot of alignment, grammatical and mistakes that could have been avoided.
Which makes one wonder, why didn’t Dragonest go all out to adapt the game for the Western Market?
What began as a fun custom game in a game lobby, is now seeing fierce competition in the form of multiple releases from multiple developers at a fever pitch.
Dragonest has put in some solid-effort to make the mobile version of Auto Chess fun, interesting and more suitable to the platform. But there still are many places where I felt the game could have improved.
The session length, while shortened from the original, is still pretty long. The drive for making a purchase to customize my experience is not as strong as I would expect in a Battle Royale game or even an MOBA. Because there I always have atleast one guaranteed way of showing off my bling there. And finally, the lack of polish in the English version of the game, dilutes the overall experience of the game.
Looking at the downloads and revenue numbers at a high level, AutoChess does not seem to have reached the full potential of what a game belonging in this genre can. Some games like Tencent’s Chess Rush has already addressed some of the issues of the genre (Like introducing a Turbo mode for reduced session times).
It is only a matter of time when one developer checks all the right boxes and a viral hit is born!