Rune Raiders is an iOS game by the group retro64. I love the game, but not because it's especially good. I love it because it has three or four really unique, elegant elements which I haven't seen before. Unfortunately, these are a bit hard to see behind several layers of poorly-designed systems.
Rune Raiders is the first game I've ever played which made me immediately want to create a clone game of my own, to tinker with. But since I might not get the time, I thought it would be a useful exercise for others to discuss the game's shortcomings, and describe how they could best be improved.
The Marketing Story
Rune Raiders has a classic premise - assemble a team of heros, and kill monsters in a dungeon, collecting loot and leveling-up as you go. The twist is that your characters are little boxes, and the dungeons are linear strips of stone which go in only one direction. You "move" all your characters at once, and have no direct interaction with them other than selecting their location. I love everything about this marketing story - it is simple, sounds interesting, and gives me a perfect idea of how much mental investment the game takes to play (very little.)
The Economic Models
Rune Raiders has two economic models - both of them deeply flawed. The first is the "gold" economy. Recruiting heroes costs a certain amount of gold. Resurrecting them in-game costs even more gold. Killing monsters earns set gold rewards per kill, and finishing a dungeon level earns you a set gold reward. The idea is that you pick heroes such that the gold you earn for completing the dungeon is greater than the gold you invested to finish it.
But the gold values are set to such ridiculously high levels that there is absolutely no economic pressure in the game at all. The most expensive team possible costs about $5,000, but I earn 7-10,000 for each level. Without an economy in place I just pick the strongest characters, every time, and ignore several of the cheap characters.
The second broken economy is the leveling-up system. About 1/3rd of the upgrades are boring (+20% attack!) but useful. About 1/3rd of the upgrades are thematic (die instead of your ally!) but useless. About 1/3rd of the upgrades are AMAZINGLY POWERFUL and transform the game experience dramatically. You will NOT be playing the same game after you've unlocked a few of these. I really like the idea of dramatic power-shifting upgrades, but since they persist forever, I feel like I've turned on some cheat codes and can't turn them off again. For example, the Ninja is a sweet character who can basically 1-shot any enemy he can get behind - but can't take damage well in return. Once you unlock the ability for him to dodge most attacks, kill 2 enemies instead of 1, and hit targets to the side and in a swath around him, and NOT CONTRIBUTE TO THE MOVE COUNT(!) I basically can use the Ninja to kill 80% of everything in most levels. Without even spending any moves.
The Treant gets the ability to kill stone walls, and heal 33HP to the entire party when he kills an enemy. With those two abilities I stopped ever moving side-to-side in my games - I just put him top center, and drill my way through every level. Killing the walls also heals my entire team, which transforms the minor navigation challenges which really make some levels interesting into a double-whammy of triviality.
So how would we fix these two problems? Let's remember that a good system must generate strategic tension for players. Permanent upgrades are the opposite of strategic tension, so let's change them to be something you earn each adventure, like Crimsonland (or Monster Hunter, for a more topical analogy). Perhaps you select 1 starting upgrade for each member of your party, and then earn some additional upgrades during each level. That would normalize the experience and give more strategic tension.
The gold economy is harder to fix, because it doesn't put any acceptable tension on the player even if we were to fix the numbers. Consider this - what if players sometimes earned less money than they spent? Well, the consequence would be that players have less ability to play the game. That's clearly a down-spiral that we can't actually allow. But without that negative consequence, what is the money system even for?
I believe the money system should be used to purchase new characters, new levels, and new available upgrades in-between dungeons. Award money on completion of each level (monster-kill funds can stay), but don't charge per party member. Just let money build up, so that players will be motivated to select new content and re-play levels to earn the right to that content.
Since the money arrow in this system points only one direction, it is a fine gating mechanic for content. And allowing people to actively add content (instead of just giving it to them) helps to build player engagement with that content.