GREE’s card-battling hit Driland hits Android and iOS

GREE’s Driland is a new online card-battling game for mobile devices. It’s available now from the App Store for iOS devices and Google Play for Android gadgets. At the peak of its popularity in Japan, the game earned more than 2 billion yen ($26 million) per month in Japan from virtual item sales, and GREE is doubtless hoping this trend will continue with the North American market.

But “profitable” doesn’t necessarily mean “good.” Is Driland the card-battling game to buck the trend of ’90s-style web interfaces, poor audio-visual polish and a chronic lack of what could traditionally be described as “gameplay?”

Unfortunately not. Driland plays it safe, providing an experience that is almost identical to its main rival, Mobage’s Rage of Bahamut — right down to the fact that neither game has any sound effects whatsoever. In doing so, it sets itself up for success among fans of the genre — of which there are many, if Rage of Bahamut’s extended stay around the top of both the App Store and Google Play Top Grossing charts is anything to go by.

Driland, like Rage of Bahamut, is split into two main components. In what can best be described as the “single player” part, players pick one of the cards from their arsenal to go on a variety of adventures, collect treasure and fight bosses. There is no actual adventuring, exploring and fighting that takes place, however — completing quests is a simple matter of repeatedly tapping the “Quest” button until either the player’s Stamina statistic expires, or the quest is completed. Combat is a case of tapping the “Fight” button and hoping the cards the player has equipped are enough to overcome the monster in question. If they are not, the player must either enhance their cards by fusing them with spare ones they have, purchase new ones or equip a different combination. It’s a numbers game, essentially, boiling down to equipping the cards with the biggest attack and defense values and occasionally choosing cards with opposing elements to the enemy creatures. There’s no real strategy and no real sense that the player’s cards have any unique special abilities unlike in games such as Gamevil’s Duel of Fate or even the grandaddy of them all, Wizards of the Coast’s Magic 2013.

Things don’t get much better in the game’s multiplayer component, in which it’s possible for players to battle one another. For starters, it’s very difficult to actually find the screen where it allows players to challenge real opponents — rather than providing an option on the main page, it’s buried beneath three layers of submenus. After that, it’s a simple matter of tapping on an opponent to challenge them. The battle then unfolds automatically, with the attacking player winning if their attack power overpowers their opponent’s defense deck, and the defender winning if the attacker is unable to overcome their forces. The only information the player is provided with prior to challenging an opponent is their experience level and the number of cards they have, making battles more a matter of luck than strategy.

To the game’s credit, it does encourage a minor degree of socialization between players with a “Kudos” system, whereby players can effectively “like” each other’s profiles and leave a comment on them in exchange for points that unlock new cards. And it’s possible to add other players as “allies” — doing so allows for longer play sessions without paying, as the more allies a player has, the more “stamina” they have for questing and the more “force” they have for attacking other players. But these social features unfortunately don’t take away from the fact that Driland is an amateurish, unfinished-feeling production with a clumsy, clunky, unintuitive interface and gameplay that can be described as “rudimentary” at best.

Why, despite all these flaws, then, do these games continue to prove so popular and profitable? Part of it is tapping into the “gotta catch ’em all” mentality which has made titles such as the Pokémon series so popular over the years, and part of it is the social component. If players engage with this early and build up a big bank of allies and rivals, they need to keep playing compulsively in order to keep up with their “friends.” There is also a cap on how many allies a player can have according to their level, so players must continue playing in order to add more friends to their forces.

Rage of Bahamut encouraged players to add allies by providing them with a “referral code” upon completing the game’s tutorial, but Driland does not appear to offer a similar option. The GREE interface under which Driland runs does allow players to invite friends via Facebook, Twitter or email, however, or they can search for “recommended” allies within the game — though these “recommendations” appear to mostly be picked randomly. There’s no real incentive for players to get to know these allies, since it’s not possible for players to customize profiles with their own text — they simply display the player’s level, number of allies and number of cards on hand. Essentially, allies are simply used as resources rather than true “friends” in a multiplayer sense, making the game a somewhat lonely experience even with a full bank of allies.

Ultimately, Driland is immensely disappointing. While many mobile games are truly pushing the boundaries of what it’s possible to do on handheld touchscreen devices, titles like this are actively pushing back in the other direction, resembling Web games of days gone by before developers figured out how to use modern tech such as Flash and Unity. While this old-school simplicity theoretically makes the games accessible to a wider audience, any benefit of deliberately hollowing out the gameplay like this is completely mitigated by wrapping the whole experience in an incredibly obtuse, unintuitive interface in which the most basic functions are sometimes buried several menus deep.

Despite all this, Driland is likely to be a big success in terms of user figures and profitability if Rage of Bahamut’s performance is anything to go by. GREE and Mobage clearly know what they are doing in terms of user acquisition and retention strategies, and this will enable them to convince players to look past the game’s numerous flaws and continue to engage with it in the long-term. This is not necessarily a positive thing, however — the immense success of these games is likely to convince other developers to try their hand at card-battle games too, which will inevitably lead to a flurry of clones just as we have seen with other popular genres such as farming and citybuilding. For that reason, it’s impossible to recommend Driland in good conscience, as it wilfully holds mobile gaming back in the past even as other developers strive to push the boundaries.

The iOS version of this game was tested on an iPhone 4S and worked with no issues. The Android version was tested on a Motorola Xoom tablet running Android 3.2 and was completely unplayable due to poor frame rates and unresponsive interface elements in both Zoom and Stretch screen modes.