Squad Busters is a disturbingly addictive mobile game

Squad Busters artwork
Squad Busters – you hate to love it (Supercell)

GameCentral explores the carefully crafted world of Supercell mobile games and how they manipulate players even as they’re having fun.

If you play mobile games it’s a racing certainty that during your time in the Play or App Stores, you will have come across at least one Supercell game – and that’s despite the fact that they’ve only released six in their almost 15 year history. The enigmatic Finnish developer is legendary for its quality control, only ever giving a global release to games it believes will be played for years rather than weeks.g

That means it kills way more games than it publishes, but the ones that get as far as launch tend to make a big splash. Even though it’s 12-years-old, Clash Of Clans is still played by millions, as is the newer Brawl Stars, and the slightly ailing Clash Royale. Even Boom Beach, Supercell’s redheaded stepchild, makes enough money that most studios would regard it as a major hit rather than a minor embarrassment.

Their latest, Squad Busters, has been out just over a month, and marks a slight departure for the mobile giant, in that there are no clans to join, and despite being another multiplayer game it has absolutely no chat or community features, other than the ability to invite online friends to play with you. Instead, what you get are tense four minute rounds played against nine other players, that force you to split your time between farming resources and fighting.

Starting with a single character, killing monsters and smashing pieces of scenery earns coins to open chests, which reward you with more squad members. Each new person you add brings their own attacks, special moves, and in some cases buffs for the whole team. And if you add multiple iterations of the same character they fuse into a larger, much more powerful version of their former selves.

Your squad’s mission is to collect gems and the player with the largest collection at the end of the round wins. Finishing in the top five triggers a winning streak, which supplies a slightly more generous chest to open at the end. Finish in the bottom five and your winning streak ends, unless you pay gold to extend it.

The first thing you’ll notice is Supercell’s customary level of polish and panache. Its characters, many of whom are familiar from past Supercell games, are lavishly illustrated and brightly coloured, their animation perfect and their responsiveness to the onscreen joystick feeling sharp and lag free.

That refined design extends to the sensation of playing and winning. Coins bling, chests bounce, and you need to tap repeatedly to open each one, every tap representing a level of bonus, further ratcheting up the impression of achievement. The rewards, despite the massive fanfare that precedes them, are less impressive.

YouTube Poster

The chests you open at the end of rounds contain anywhere between two and 10 baby characters. 10 babies evolve into a two-star character, and 10 of those make a three-star. That means unlocking a single four-star character takes 1,000 babies. With 30 characters to unlock, and more arriving in updates, that’s a dizzying number of chests you’ll need to open.

There’s also something interesting going on with the way the game celebrates your performance. While it’s happy when you come first, the announcer’s pitch and excitement level aren’t much different if you place fourth, or bar a slight lowering of tone, seventh. You’re encouraged to want to win, but it’s desperate for you not to feel bad when you don’t.

The same goes for rewards, which with a winning streak might earn you a handful more babies. Given that you need 1,000 to unlock a single four-star character, the extras make an infinitesimal difference. The upshot is that winning, losing, and maintaining your winning streak have a vanishingly small effect on your overall progress.

That makes using keys, which instantly level up squad members for the duration of a single round, even more futile. Why squander premium resources on very slightly increasing your chance of victory, when winning means so little in the first place? With all the sparkle, bling, and chest opening, it’s easy to lose sight of that.

There’s another factor neutralising the benefit of levelling up, in that you always play against your peers, the competition effectively scaling with you. Sure, you’ll gradually unlock new arenas to battle in, and collect more mega characters, who arrive larger and more powerful, but since they occur randomly it’s an unreliable advantage that won’t be available every round.

And yet it somehow manages to remain compelling. Like Halo’s infamous 30 seconds of fun combat loop, Squad Busters’ four minute crescendos are different every single time. A confluence of the characters you get, what other players do, and the game mode you’re randomly assigned mean each round is its own unique experience.

Squad Busters trailer image
Squad Busters – too slick for its own good? (Supercell)

It also feels good to play. Even when you’re aware of its Skinner boxes, deliberate psychological manipulation, and the fact that winning makes no difference, opening chests never fails to release a hit of dopamine, even when their contents gets you an irrelevant 0.3% of the way towards your next four-start unlock.

Whatever it is, we keep voluntarily coming back for more, a feature that’s at once fascinating and disturbing. If having an inkling of what’s being done to condition the reward centres of your brain is no defence against that actually happening, what does that say about a future where content is made, distributed, and measured by increasingly sophisticated AI? Whatever it is, it doesn’t end with ‘happily ever after’.

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