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WarCraft Arclight Rumble impressions: High production values, questionable costs

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Enlarge / Welcome to the mini-styled smartphone-RTS universe of WarCraft Arclight Rumble.

Blizzard

Blizzard Entertainment’s first real-time strategy game for smartphones, WarCraft Arclight Rumble, is slated to launch on iOS and Android later this year, with a tech beta going live sooner in various regions. Ahead of that launch, we were invited to test the game’s current version for a couple of days, and we can confirm that Blizzard is still pretty good at designing games for phones. (Even if they’ve brought at least one related gaffe upon themselves.)

In Arclight Rumble‘s case, however, a certain chicken-and-egg question comes up: When comparing this game to the wildly popular Clash Royale, exactly who is ripping off whom?

Both games overlap, as Blizzard’s new smartphone game adopts more than a few of Supercell’s well-trodden, touchscreen-friendly conventions. Yet Supercell’s game arguably borrows a lot from the original WarCraft series on PC—not just in its adherence to RTS traditions but also its medieval, primary-color aesthetic.

However you parse it, Arclight Rumble appears to add just enough depth to the smartphone RTS genre to stand out, though anyone new to this gaming space should brace themselves for a whole new universe of microtransactions. While not as aggressive as some of the smartphone world’s worst offenders, Arclight Rumble‘s approach will still be a tough sell to anyone who remembers buying WarCraft RTS games outright.

Familiar fare gets bigger, more strategic

If you’ve played Clash Royale, you know the drill. The game defaults to one-on-one faceoffs without any fog of war, and the object is to send troops from your side of the battlefield to your opponent’s to destroy an enemy base while protecting your own. Troops appear as cards, randomly shuffled into players’ hands from a deck, and players spend a battle-specific currency to turn those cards into active troops (or spells that can be cast by tapping on the screen). More powerful units cost more currency, and each unit type has strengths and weaknesses over others, so savvy players will generate and direct troops with that in mind in order to succeed. (Melee beats ranged, ranged beats aerial, and aerial beats melee.)

That entire paragraph could apply to either game mentioned in this article, so what’s different in Arclight Rumble?

Blizzard’s game better splits the difference between a smartphone card-battler and a PC RTS. Battlefields in Arclight Rumble are bigger, and they typically don’t fit on a single smartphone screen, thus requiring finger swipes to move your viewpoint between your base (bottom of the screen) and your foe’s (top of the screen). These arenas are vertically oriented, so it’s more of an up-to-down swipe to glance around, not left-to-right, which feels good in practice.

Unlike a classic RTS, players don’t rapidly click a mouse to issue commands, but troop management is also not as wholly simplified here as in Clash Royale. Arclight Rumble players can tap an arrow on the ground to tell troops which way to advance when a path branches, and they otherwise automatically march forward and target foes along the way.

Blizzard adds the RTS-like convention of putting control points and gold mines onto its larger battlefields. If your troops can successfully wear down a control point, it becomes yours, and some of them come with auto-firing catapults. Once you take over one of these, you can opt to spawn troops that much closer to your foe’s base. And gold mines can be smacked by any of your melee troops, including a low-cost miner character who comes as a default in your deck, no matter what other cards you put into it. You need gold to spawn new troops, but the miner, who costs only one gold, can quickly grab two gold pieces from mines that regularly regenerate near your base. (There’s also the strategic option to spend your allotment of gold to move troops toward enemies’ gold mines—especially for special troops that can be freely spawned outside of your control points.)

Increasing the game’s average map size and dotting each with control points is an interesting tweak to the fits-on-one-screen combat of Clash Royale, and mid-arena control strategy makes this game feel deeper than some of its peers. But such an expansion in scope exposes how simple these smartphone strategy games can feel once play hits a higher level. In particular, there’s no way to contend with Blizzard’s auto-targeting failures. As of press time, I’ve seen my melee troops turn around and react to enemies that have passed them by when two battling lanes criss-cross. This happens even when I’ve devoted my limited gold economy to a massive rush meant to bombard my foe’s base, my own defenses be damned. There’s no troop tag for “kiting” in this game, which might have indicated that enemies could lure my melee forces away from my objective.

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How Zelda fans changed the ending to Ocarina of Time on a vanilla N64

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Enlarge / This… isn’t supposed to happen in Ocarina of Time. Here’s the story of how some fans made it happen anyway—all on a stock N64 with an unmodified Ocarina cartridge.

Summer Games Done Quick

Shortly after our guide to Summer Games Done Quick 2022 went live, the event hosted an astounding demonstration of a classic video game—one that has since crowded that Ars article’s replies. If we want to split hairs, this run through the 1998 N64 classic Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is not a “speedrun,” but it’s another example of the “TASBot” concept transforming games in ways we would never have dreamed of 24 years ago.

The team of fans and programmers responsible for this week’s “Triforce-percent” demonstration have since revealed how they achieved the feat with nothing more than a stock N64 and an original Ocarina retail cartridge—though the secret involves controller inputs so fast and precise that they cannot be performed by anything less than a computer.

Nothing stale about this run

An early 2020 video that explains how stale reference manipulation works. You may want to watch this before watching the SGDQ 2022 video, embedded further below.

The 53-minute demonstration (embedded at the end of this article) opens with an exploit previously unearthed in late 2019, which the community dubbed “Stale Reference Manipulation.” This exploit takes advantage of a vulnerability in the game’s original 1.0 version, which allowed players to manipulate numerical values assigned to specific objects in the game’s memory. The breeziest explanation for this complicated technique can be found in a YouTube video from early 2020 (embedded above), as it spells out the various numerical values assigned to each object in the game, such as their X-, Y-, and Z-axes and their rotation.

Savvy players can make values overlap or overwhelm the game’s original code so they can be manipulated as players see fit. The technique we see in this week’s run requires Link to pick up a rock while going through a “loading zone,” a hallway used to disguise loading pauses on N64 hardware, and to do so in a way that the game was not designed to handle.

Initially, this exploit was a speedrunning tool, as it could trick the game into loading the final credits sequence and technically count as a “completion” within only a few minutes. But the Triforce-percent run goes much further.

RAMming new content into a classic game

Hey, wait, that doesn't belong here... but as the TASBot demonstration team points out, an Arwing from <em>Star Fox 64</em> was left in the original <em>Ocarina</em> cartridge, as a reminder that this object was used to test certain animation routines in the early development period.
Enlarge / Hey, wait, that doesn’t belong here… but as the TASBot demonstration team points out, an Arwing from Star Fox 64 was left in the original Ocarina cartridge, as a reminder that this object was used to test certain animation routines in the early development period.

Summer Games Done Quick

By picking up and dropping specific items, then making the game’s hero Link move and perform maneuvers in a specific sequence, the TASBot team opens up a Pandora’s box of what’s known as arbitrary code execution—the type of vulnerability used by hackers the world over to make a closed computer system run whatever code they want. What’s more, the TASBot chain of moves and commands begins to tell the N64 to accept button input from all four N64 controllers as if it’s code.

This item-manipulation menu was left in the game as a beta element, easily unearthed for use in the SGDQ 2022 run.
Enlarge / This item-manipulation menu was left in the game as a beta element, easily unearthed for use in the SGDQ 2022 run.

Summer Games Done Quick

At this point, a computer takes over all four N64 controller ports and sends a rapid-fire series of button taps, as if it were a zillion-finger superhero equivalent to The Flash. The glitched-out Ocarina cartridge has instructed the N64 to accept each button tap in a way that corresponds to specific code strings. Once enough of this payload has been sent, the team can return normal control to the “player one” port, so that a real person can play through an entirely new sequence of content—all being dumped into the N64’s random-access memory (RAM) by the other three controllers’ incredibly fast input.

These on-the-fly patches can do many incredible things that, combined, resemble a fully blown patch of a cartridge’s read-only memory (ROM), though the TASBot team restricts itself to changes that specifically apply to the console’s RAM: tiny changes to existing code, total file replacements, or commands to tell the game to ignore content that it would normally load from the ROM. As a result, this exploit can glitch or crash if players go outside the expected path that this exploit is optimized for.

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Diablo Immortal is bringing in over $1 million a day in microtransactions

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Use cash to buy orbs.

Despite backlash from some players, Diablo Immortal‘s free-to-play, microtransaction-laden game design seems to be working out just fine for Blizzard’s bottom line. Using data from mobile analysis firm Appmagic, MobileGamer.biz estimates that the iOS and Android versions of the game brought in $49 million in earnings from just over 10 million mobile downloads in the versions’ first 30 days of availability.

Those estimates, which are based on public charts provided by the mobile platforms, don’t include the PC version of the game and, thus, may actually be underselling the scale of its financial success. With PC players included, Blizzard announced that Diablo Immortal hit 10 million installs after just over a week, well ahead of the mobile download pace estimated by Appmagic.

By way of comparison, Diablo III took nearly six months to sell 10 million copies after its troubled launch back in 2012. But that game sold for a $60 MSRP, making it hard to compare directly to a free-to-play game that has so far brought in an estimated average of less than $5 in earnings per download, according to Appmagic.

The long tail

While Diablo III‘s earnings were front-loaded on initial sales, though, Diablo Immortal seems well-positioned to bring in additional revenue from its existing player base for a long while. As of Monday, for instance, the game was still the 34th highest-grossing app on the entire iOS App Store, despite having fallen to 134th in terms of new downloads.

Many of those initial Immortal players (and payers) will eventually fall away from the game, of course. But that process might happen slower than you might think. Estimates of Android app retention from analysis firm Quettra suggest an app that launches in the “top 10” on the Google Play Store (as Diablo Immortal did) can expect to keep close to 60 percent of its initial users after three months. And public data from mobile hits like Pokemon Go, Angry Birds, and Candy Crush Saga suggests that roughly 10 to 20 percent of all players who had downloaded those games were still regular players a full year or two after launch.

That all suggests that Diablo Immortal will have millions of active players well into next year and beyond. And while the vast majority of those players will never spend a single cent on the game, the top-end whales could easily spend enough on the game’s confusing sets of currencies to keep the revenue rolling in for Blizzard for a long time.

Blizzard has already promised that the upcoming Diablo IV will limit microtransactions to optional cosmetics. But the early performance for Diablo Immortal helps show why the free-to-play business model can be so appealing for a publisher like Blizzard, even if it can be annoying for many players.

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The best game-exploiting speedruns of Summer Games Done Quick 2022

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Enlarge / All four of the mascots seen in this SGDQ promo image appear in various speedruns hosted over the past week.

Summer Games Done Quick

The Games Done Quick series of charity events has long been a favorite among the gaming fans and critics at Ars Technica since it combines classic, beloved video games and carefully studied methods to break them apart in search of high-speed exploits.

This year’s summertime installment is particularly special, as it’s the first in 2.5 years to take place at a physical venue—albeit with some of the most stringent masking and distancing requirements we’ve seen in a livestreamed public show in 2022. (GDQ’s organizers appear to read the news, which makes sense for a series that benefits the likes of Doctors Without Borders.) Even with precautions taken, its combination of players, commentators, and crowds in the same room has brought excitement back to its broadcasts, which is why we’re pulling together some of the best runs from the past week, as archived at GDQ’s official YouTube channel.

The event is still ongoing as of this article’s publication, which means you can watch it right now via its Twitch channel. The event’s final runs, dedicated to Elden Ring, will conclude in the late hours on Saturday, July 2.

Tunic speedrun, Summer Games Done Quick 2022

Tunic, 2022, “true ending” run

If you haven’t yet played Tunic, we recommend you pause before watching this game-breaking, spoiler-filled romp through many of its biggest secrets. (My March review of the game has far fewer spoilers.) But if you’ve already collected the game’s slew of hidden “instruction booklet” pages, consider this a must-watch, because it includes a compelling guest on real-time commentary: Andrew Shouldice, the game’s lead designer, programmer, and artist.

He’s joined by a member of the Power-Up Audio team, which worked on the game’s soundtrack, and they divulge tons of information about how the game was made—including confirmation about how many of the biggest exploits were intentionally left by the devs in the game. At one point, Shouldice watches a trick begin to play out, telling the crowd that he programmed it to be a possibility but could never personally trigger it. Moments later, the speedrunner demonstrated the trick, allowing him to warp through a wall and bypass a ton of tricky content.

Halo Infinite speedrun, Summer Games Done Quick 2022

Halo Infinite, 2021, “no tank gun” run

Many classic games’ speedruns include multiple categories, and the most broken ones are known as “any-percent” runs, since they allow players to use any tricks and skip any quests that they want. In certain games’ cases, these kinds of runs can be boring to watch, and the infamously glitchy Halo Infinite is no exception.

This speedrun begins with a demonstration of the “tank gun,” which bolts an unlimited-ammo gun to Master Chief’s feet. That’s too much assistance for speedrunners’ tastes, but this SGDQ demonstration still includes a ton of wacky tricks that combine geometry clipping and otherworldly physics exploits—all boosted by Chief’s immediate access to a new grappling hook item. Sure, the hook makes players move much faster through the world, but it also figures into a wild glitch that makes players bounce off explosive barrels in ways that defy gravity.

Thunder in Paradise speedrun, Summer Games Done Quick 2022

Thunder in Paradise, 1995, all-cutscenes run

We’re not sure whether this is GDQ’s first speedrun dedicated to a full-motion video (FMV) game, but it’s certainly one of the dumber examples of the mid-’90s CD-ROM genre. Thunder in Paradise is based on the short-lived TV series of the same name, which starred Terry “Hulk” Hogan alongside Jack Lemmon’s son as a crime-solving action duo on the beach, and it was as bad as that sounds. The video game version, relegated to the CD-I console, forces players to watch excruciatingly bad live-action footage between light gun shootout sections.

In most video game speedruns, players skip as many cinema scenes as possible, but GDQ elected to show this game’s filmed footage in its entirety while cheesing the gun gameplay parts as quickly as possible. Strap in, brother.

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