Ninja Must Die 3 - Deep dive into a Chinese hit

15.04.2019

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Ninja Must Die 3 (忍者必须死3) - a Deep dive into a Chinese hit

Author: Juha Mikkola, Project Director at MyGamez

In this first entry, we’re taking a look at Ninja Must Die 3 (NMD3) by Pandastudio, the game that took home the “Excellence in Gameplay” award at IMGA China 2018 and has taken the Chinese casual game market by storm.

Pandastudio’s CEO, Yeqing Lu, attended the IMGA China CEO summit and shared insights about the studio’s development methods and philosophy for this game. He was extremely proud to win the Gameplay award, as that was their main focus area developing this title. He specifically mentioned it was their goal to make the coolest possible mobile gaming experience.

Introduction

First, here’s is their trailer showcasing some of the high-paced action gameplay: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8noGCUBmr90. As you can see, the game is a very fast-paced 2D action/combat runner.

Some basic background information on the game:

  • Developed for 3 years with a team of ~20 people.
  • IOS China launch on August 17th 2018.
  • Around top 50, sometimes top 10 on China iOS games downloads chart
  • Steadily in top 20 China iOS games grossing chart (for comparison, Supercell and Playrix titles are found below top 50 mark)
  • On China iOS according to Sensortower, the game earned 9 million USD (post Apple share) in March 2019
  • As for China Android appstores:
    • Huawei 13.2 m downloads
    • Vivo 21.6 m downloads
    • Oppo 10.1 m downloads
    • TapTap 1.9 m downloads
    • Tencent 1 m downloads
  • The game is only out in China iOS & Android, no global launch so far

The development studio was founded in Hangzhou about 5 years ago. Obviously, the game has done extremely well, receiving numerous featurings from Apple as well as the top Android stores. What is the secret behind their success? Let’s take a glance at some functions in the game.

Gameplay

Here is a screenshot of the basic gameplay screen. The controls are simple and all actions feel indeed very cool and responsive. The game overall is very high quality and well polished.

You only have two methods of attack; using your weapon or your Ninja’s special ability. There is a lengthy cooldown on both, so you must time your attacks well. Additionally there are objects you can sometimes pick up that activate a small attack dealing some damage - most notably in boss fights.

The game combines bullet-hell elements as you can often see enemies or attacks coming and have a short time to decide how to dodge. This can be done with a sliding move (the ninja ducks doing this), or jumping and double jumping. The ninja can’t take many hits, but the HP regenerates automatically at moderate rate.

NMD3 nails that “easy to learn, hard to master” model that so many games strive for. After a quick basic tutorial you’re already feeling like a Ninja dodging incoming arrows at seemingly breakneck speed, but the difficulty ramps up steadily especially if you want to go for 3 stars on all levels, or the “no damage taken” achievement. Of course the true challenge is in the PvP modes where your performance and scores are ranked against other players.

There are several different Ninjas in the game. While new Ninjas are difficult (or expensive) to obtain, the gameplay feel, special ability and visual style&effects of each Ninja are drastically different from one another.

Riding the Dragon is another “cool” factors of the game. The dragon is your personal mount/pet.

The default mount is a Black Dragon and additional ones can be bought or unlocked via special events. Mounts can be trained and upgraded. Occasionally during levels you can find a horn to summon your mount to fly into the sky and collect a large amount of points. The mount is basically invincible, and it’s only a matter of maximising the points you can get by hitting all the items. There are also boss fights where you use your mount to fight!

Game Modes

Story mode is the most basic one, which includes nice voice acted and animated cut scenes to progress the story, giving a strong anime style vibe while providing nice pacing to the fast gameplay. The player can score 1 to 3 stars on each level, and getting enough stars in a chapter unlocks a loot chest. There is no energy and levels are replayable as many times as the player wants.

PvP Arena mode is one of the core modes of the game. The core gameplay itself is basically the same as Story mode, and the PvP here is ranking-based. Your goal is to keep going and to get as many points as possible before dying. It gives out PvP tokens daily based on your ranking, and those tokens are then used for the Arena Gacha. Rice rolls are required for each run. These can be bought pretty cheap or received from in-game friends as gifts.

The Arena rankings are split into Leagues based on Trophies. Trophies are given out on Wednesdays and Saturdays based on your ranking in the current league. Higher Leagues award more Arena tokens based on the daily ranking, which then allow you to get more stuff from the Gacha.

The Arena mode also features daily and “growth” quests inside of it. Examples for daily quests include killing x number of bats, or using your Ninja Ability y times. There are 3 growth quests, which are basically achievements: 1) Maximum points in a single run, 2) total accumulated points in Arena mode and 3) total bosses killed. The targets here keep getting bigger and bigger with increasing rewards.

A meta-layer is added in the form of tools (bonuses) you can buy pre-level. For example these give you 10% bonus points or let you start off with your Ninja ability ready. Apart from the Revive item which is bought with 30 hard currency, all the others are bought with soft currency.

Clan mode is another staple in Chinese mobile games. Clans have Honor (=experience) and levels. Exp is gained whenever Clan members participate in Clan activities. Clans also have their own quests that grant a hefty amount of exp. Clan includes the Clan shop, where Clan tokens are exchanged for high level items. Higher Clan level naturally unlocks better rewards from the Clan shop.

Each member of the Clan can try a challenge level twice per day, giving a small individual reward, and all clan members’ scores are added up to determine a big Clan-wide reward.

The clan also has a red packet gifting function to gift hard currency to your Clanmates and increase your Clan’s exp. The biggest option here is 328 RMB (about 50 USD) that gives out 3800 hard currency to clanmates with a chance for a bonus rare item and grants a big amount of EXP.

The Clan includes a Gacha function. Each player can use it 5 times per day, with the first time being free and subsequent times costing 30 hard currency. Each Gacha roll grants a random item to the player and EXP to the clan.

Another function inside the Clan is the Clan boss fight. The boss must first be summoned by giving some tribute items obtained from the Gacha. Then, 3-5 players from the Clan can fight a boss to take it down as fast as possible for some nice rewards.

Clan rankings can be viewed with different filters: China/Shanghai/City district. The competitive aspect is big in China, for instance Shanghainese people definitely want to beat the Beijingers and vice versa!

Finally there is a big timed China-wide Clan league and tournament system. Based on their performance over the season, top clans proceed further into the tournament eventually resulting in the final Top 16 in a playoff bracket, and finally China Champion clan.

Here’s a screenshot of the tournament bracket in-game. It’s possible to bet on the matches and win some items as well. In the bottom left they are promoting streamers from these Clans, offering links to various Chinese livestreaming platforms.

3v3 PvP Mode

This mode is a big part of the so called “end-game”. As the name suggests, teams of three fight head to head in simultaneous multiplayer, although the Ninjas are not fighting each other. At its core it’s again very similar to the regular gameplay. The first team with a player defeating both bosses is the winner and everyone is essentially playing their own level that is just matched against the other team’s performance. If all 3 members die, the other team wins. This mode even features an in-game voice chat!

The mode includes an additional metagame layer in the form of cards. The cards add bonuses such as extra life, or an extra attack or two. You choose which cards to take with you to the level, but the card’s effect must be unlocked by buying the card mid-level before the boss fights using coins collected during the level.

This mode runs in seasons, with great rewards such as unlocking a whole new Ninja available. Similar to the PvP arena mode, this mode includes its own Shop, Ranking, Daily Tasks and events.

Progression and Metagame

This is the area where Chinese studios are generally the strongest. One way to describe this is that there is a lot of stuff to do outside of the core gameplay and playing actual levels. While the core gameplay stays effectively the same, there are numerous different game modes that reward different resources, which are again used in different progression systems.

Providing several avenues of progression to the player ensures that they always feel like the next upgrade is within their reach if they just keep playing a bit more (or put in a bit of money). Here’s a quick list of what you can upgrade/advance in some form:

  • Ninja rank
  • Ninja
  • Ninja’s ability
  • Weapon
  • Treasures (these are non-visible items providing stats)
  • Mount

Ninja rank refers to the basic progress of your Ninja. You start as an “amateur” Ninja, and advance your Ninja rank by doing quests, such as reaching a certain level in the Story mode, or getting a specific amount of points in the PvP arena mode. Higher Ninja rank unlocks Story Chapters, new game modes, and more, while boosting the amount of points and coins you earn from levels.

This acts to stagger player progression for PvP as well, as the points you can earn as a “high level” Ninja are much higher by default, so you will feel as if you’re getting better and reaching higher and higher amounts of points, where in fact it was just your new Ninja rank granting you +10% more points. These sorts of artificial progression stages are very common in Chinese games to combat the situation where players’ progress extremely fast starting off and progression becomes slower and slower until the player churns out as a result.

First, there are 4 rarities for weapons: Normal, Rare, Super Rare and Super Super Rare.

There are two ways you can upgrade weapons. “Enhancement” and star-upgrading. Enhancement raises the level of a weapon and increases stats. It requires soft currency and upgrade hammers or other weapons.

Upgrading stars of a weapon increases the maximum enhancement level and greatly improves its stats, but requires a lot of lower level weapons. Upgrading a 1-star weapon to 2-star requires three other 1-star weapons, then upgrading a 2-star weapon to 3-star requires two 2-star weapons, and so forth. Through this system, it becomes exponentially harder to get a 4 or 5-star weapon, as it requires countless rolls of the weapon Gacha to get those weapons.

Treasures can be considered as armor, although they’re not visible on the Ninja. Treasures provide stats or special bonuses, such as less damage taken from small enemies. There are 5 tiers of treasures, C, B, A, S and SS. Lower level treasures can be combined into a single higher level Treasure. Treasures can also be crafted after obtaining Crafting patterns.

Another staple in Chinese games are daily quests that accumulate points.

The basic daily quests only reward soft currency, but also give activity points based on difficulty. Reaching 100/200/etc activity points unlocks a further reward. These accumulated points are reset weekly. The further rewards are quite nice, including a good amount of hard currency and some even a Gacha key worth 128 hard currency. Some daily quests are rather clever as well, for instance spending 100 hard currency.

Monetization

Some of these have been touched upon in earlier sections, but I thought it’s worth separately highlighting some of the monetization aspects. Ninjas Must Die 3 (NMD3) features several monetization systems commonly found in Chinese titles, with several currencies and resources serving different purposes, as well as several Gachas for obtaining different items. The basic currencies are the same you can find in western games: Hard currency which is also earnable in small amounts by just playing the game, and the soft currency, which is pretty easily earnable as well as exchangeable for hard currency.

In addition to the PvP Arena Gacha mentioned earlier, there are a few other Gachas.

Below is a screenshot of the main weapon Gachas. There is a public announcement at the top mentioning SSR (Super Super Rare) weapon drops from the Gacha. Clan chat will also inform everyone when a clan member obtains an SSR weapon.

Another Gacha is found in the Clan function. Most Gachas are free for the 1st time each day.

The game also features several different shops:

  • Currency shop with Hard Currency, Soft Currency, Skin tokens and PvP Arena tokens
  • Main shop with Ninjas, a mount, skins, weekly limited items (bundles, etc), and a secret shop unlocked at a higher Ninja level
  • Clan shop with access to several desirable high quality items
  • PvP Arena shop (in fact a Gacha activated with PvP tokens)
  • 3v3 Arena Shop
  • Probably more that I haven’t unlocked yet, such as limited time event specific shops

Currently there are 2 Ninjas available for purchase in the shop. One is around 20 USD and the other around 25 USD.

Another extremely popular item is the weekly and monthly card. These give you an obscene amount of value over the time period. The 30 RMB (about 5 USD) monthly card gives items worth 3400 hard currency, which directly bought would cost about 50 USD! It gives 50 hard currency per day, 200 arena tokens, 1 free revive in the PvP Arena per day, and other goodies, such as doubling the daily login reward on certain days.

The weekly card costs around 12 USD, and gives Gacha keys, soft currency and weapon upgrade materials. Do note that neither the monthly or weekly card is an actual subscription IAP, you simply buy them and then get access to the items for 30 or 7 days.

Social Functions

NMD3 incorporates several interesting social functions. One notable thing they did was to incorporate Oppo’s and Vivo’s leaderboards into their PvP modes, securing big additional featurings from these two leading Chinese handset manufacturers.

If you’ve ever stumbled upon a Chinese livestreaming service, you might have seen something like this:

This is actually a screenshot from NMD3. On Chinese streaming platforms, viewer’s chat messages are viewed in this manner on the screen. In NMD3, during unplayable story sections at the beginning and end of levels, players can leave messages. Leaving messages is free, and they are limited to 25 characters per message. These can be disabled of course.

There are chatrooms for PvP arena, Clan, city (in my case, Shanghai) and private. Party invitations for 3v3 Arena also appear here.

Rice rolls are required for PvP arena and can be sent to and received from in-game friends. Sending one does not actually consume any of yours and costs nothing, so there is a big benefit of having many in-game friends and this acts as an incentive to invite friends to join the game.

Ninja Mentor is another social function they have. Here, as the name suggests, a high level Ninja can help out a lower level friend in special 2v2 boss fights that grant some nice items to both players. This mini game mode also includes some quests. They also include a function where players can review things, such as levels or weapons in-game. Here you can see reviews for a weapon. Users can “like” reviews, facebook style.

Visuals and Audio

The visual style, including the audio effects and music, are extremely well done. The game is is 2D but combines 3D elements. The music is a great fusion of traditional Japanese music and contemporary rock.

The artstyle incorporates ancient Chinese style ink painting very successfully, with beautiful hand-painted backgrounds.

2D hand-drawing with 3D game engine technology are combined to create a unique look.

Conclusion

Ninja Must Die 3 offers players several avenues of progress via numerous different systems, each requiring their own currency and method of obtaining. This is to ensure the player always has a goal in mind and some shiny new item to chase after. As is common in Chinese titles, major parts of the game, such as the 3v3 Arena mode, aren’t unlocked until much later on. This staggers progression and helps ensure new players aren’t overwhelmed while veteran players have new objectives to tackle.

If you’re interested in trying out this amazing game (and honing your Chinese skills), it’s available in the Chinese iOS store and for Android via Chinese appstores. You can find the direct Android store link at our website among the 3rd IMGA China Winners.

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