Extensive look at progression systems in Disney Heroes — Part 1

Jean-Baptiste Oger
11 min readFeb 14, 2020

Disney Heroes: Battle Mode is a mobile action RPG starring characters from various Disney franchises to you collect, upgrade and assemble in teams to fight in a variety of game modes.

I’ve been playing this game everyday for the past 9 months and I’ve been impressed with several things which make my experience so addictive, I naturally though of writing an article to deconstruct the many progression layers.

Like in similar games in this market, the combat system is quite deep but, as a player, I have more fun upgrading my heroes than figuring out optimized strategies & builds.

If you understand basic strategies and upgrade the appropriate characters, you can get through most challenges in this game without leaving the comfort of auto-battle option. That’s my style: play some activity, improve my heroes, repeat.

Fast animation & auto combat options

In this two-parts series, I’ll focus on what’s more interesting for my job, progression systems designer on AAA premium games, which is:

  • Part 1: How the hero upgrade systems works and how they create a long, evolving, and motivating vertical progression structure
  • Part 2: How the various activities encourage this progression and push the player to unlock & use many heroes (horizontal progression)

There is much more you can learn from this game’s UI, monetization technique, live strategy and more but that would be for another story.

PART 1 — HEROES

Heroes are at the center of the game,which makes sense considering they’re probably the reason players download the game in the first place.

In the rest of the article, you’ll discover each hero upgrade mechanic, how they’re designed and linked with one another.

The hero collection screen

STATS PAGE

The home page when clicking on a hero gives a general overview of the key stats (Level, Stars, Rank are all presented in details below).

Note the Power stat: it roughly indicates the hero strength in combat, by doing some sort of average of all the progression layers & stats. This can be a bit misleading but such aggregated indicators are still much easier for players to do approximative comparisons between heroes.

From this page you can do three things.

1. Add XP to increase Level

There is a dual XP system in the game:

  • Team XP is the max level attainable by your heroes. You earn a little bit every time you use stamina and a lot when completing Quests. The max Team XP is capped for the entire server and raised regularly via updates.
  • Hero XP is the current level of that particular character. You gain some XP when playing with this hero in your team or by spending XP boosters (which give 60, 300, 1.500, 7.500, 37.500 & 300.000 XP respectively).

The amount of XP needed to pass each level increases progressively. It accelerates a lot towards the end as you can see on the curve below: going from level 99 to 100 takes the same amount of XP as going from 1 to 56.

2. Collect chips to unlock heroes and add Stars

To unlock a new hero, you can either get them directly from crates, or you can amass enough hero chips.

Once the hero is unlocked, the chips you collect are spent to add Stars to your hero, the more Stars the higher overall statistics.

When checking the hero, you know immediately directly how much you need to reach the next star and where to collect hero chips.

Each hero has its specific chip sources, refreshed regularly through updates (one hero which whose chips would previously drop in some levels of the elite campaign can suddenly be obtainable from a shop and vice versa).

Example of an hero chip offer

The chip-to-stars ratio is the same for every hero:

In order to create more variety/rarity/desirability, new heroes can start with either 1, 2 or 3 stars by default; to unlock them with chips you need the sum: 10 chips for a 1 star hero, 30 for a 2-stars, 80 for a 3-stars.

2-stars locked hero = 30 chips to unlock

Also note that when dropping a duplicate hero from a crate, you’ll receive the hero’s chips as a compensation:

  • 7 chips for 1-star hero
  • 18 chips for 2-stars hero
  • 30 chips for 3-stars hero

3. Check the Detailed Stats

I won’t get into details since I’m not an expert of the combat system. This page is important to compare the relative strengths & weaknesses of each hero you own, a precious source of info for theory crafting fans.

Note an important information mentioned only here: the Trial Team the hero belongs too (Red, Blue or Yellow). It has an impact on several modes and mechanics, we’ll get back to it.

RANKS & BADGES

1. Ranks

Each hero starts at White rank and goes through the following afterwards:

  • Green, Green +1
  • Blue, +1, +2
  • Purple, +1, +2, +3, +4
  • Orange, +1, +2, +3, +4, etc

The max rank attainable for heroes at a given item is set for the entire server and regularly raised via updates.

To increase one hero’s rank, you need to collect and equip 6 badges, then hit “Promote”.

2. Acquiring badges

Badges can be dropped in the campaign, purchased in shops, found in crates or gained in special events. There are at least 300 of them in the game, with various degrees of rarities and number of compatible heroes.

When checking a badge, it’s clearly indicated which campaign level can be played to drop it easily, but you might also check the regularly refreshed shops to see if it’s on sale somewhere.

3. Crafting badges

Except for the early ranks ones, most badges need to be crafted by combining with several intermediate badges. This is of course done to reduce the feeling of grinding in later ranks and also recycle early-game rewards.

The “Power craft” feature eases the process by indicating how much energy and consumables would be needed, if you were to play each individual level until you have all the needed intermediate badges.

4. Badges enhancement

Enhancement is a feature to increase the stat boosts offered by an equipped badge. To do so, you need to spend gold and materials (either specific enhancement material named SD cards or any other badge).

The badge enhancement is lost when promoting the hero, which makes it a very expensive optimization mechanic (you only get partial refund on materials).

The amount of needed materials is based on the badge border color and the number of small square slots:

  • Green badge: 20 materials
  • Blue badge: 30+50+80 = 160 materials
  • Purple badge:60+100+160+300+500 = 1120 materials
  • Orange badge:90+150+240+450+750 = 1680 materials

The three SD cards consumables respectively count as 10, 60 & 200 materials.

Each badge in the game has an associated material value from 1 to 1000+, which is a good way to recycle them (you can also sell them for gold).

5. Badges information

In the ‘Badge list’ page, you can check in advance all the badges needed to promote a hero through all ranks. New badges are regularly introduced as rewards for the newly-added campaign levels and newly updated max rank.

Conversely, you can check which heroes require one particular badge and if it’s used to craft other badges.

MODS

Here comes a more advanced progression layer which isn’t unlocked from the start of the game and kinda have its own game loop.

Mods are collected and upgraded only by playing the Invasion. They come with a color and can only be equipped on a hero of the matching team color.

1. Equipping mods

A mod gives a bonus in one of the 3 universal stats: basic damage, max hp & skill power (recognizable at the shape).

A hero can equip up to 4 mods at a time, the slots unlock progressively:

  • 1st slot at Purple+1 rank
  • 2nd at Purple+3
  • 3rd at Orange+0
  • 4th at Orange+2

2. Leveling mods

Mods can be leveled using the Mod power currency. The max level attainable by a mod depends on its advancement: mods have a default max Level 20, but Mod+1 can go up to 30, Mod+2 to 40, etc.

3. Advancing mods

Mod advancement requires mod fragments of the corresponding shape and/or color, plus hero chips (20 then 30, 40, etc).

The first advancement will attune it to the hero it’s currently equipped, meaning it will only be compatible with that hero moving forward. Each advancement give +10 Max mod levels and an extra stat bonus.

4. Upgrading mods

Mods can be specialized further by using Upgrade pieces. A mod needs to be at Level 20 and can only have one upgrade applied. Each mod shape has 3 different upgrades available with an effect on the secondary stats.

Once an upgrade is applied (it costs 15 pieces), it can be improved further by spending more of that upgrade pieces, as long as the mod is max level.

SKILLS

In the third tab of the character menu are Skills: the special attacks used in combat by your character (automatically for the most part).

Characters start with one first skill by default and unlock the others when promoted to Green, Blue & Purple ranks.

Each skill can be upgraded by spending gold & skill points, up to a certain point (the hero level for the first two then hero level -20 & hero level -40). Skill points are refilled overtime or using consumables like stamina.

The pricing for skill upgrades is the same for all heroes and use linear functions per segments.

The cost for the level of each skill follows is very predictable indeed but it’s not too noticeable for players because the slope curves aren’t rounded numbers (0.49, 0.99 & 2.97).

FRIENDS

An hero can become friend with other selected heroes if both of them reach a certain XP level. The friendship works one way: hero 1 can unlock things by being friend with hero 2 but the hero 2 doesn’t get anything from the friendship (he has his own friends).

The friend menu has several components:

  1. The Friend XP Level (detail below)
  2. Wall (to re-read dialogues if you’re into the story)
  3. Campaign: activity detailed in Part 2
  4. Missions: activity detailed in Part 2
  5. Memory disk (see below)
  6. The friends available for this hero

Friend XP Level

Each friendship has its own XP level, it goes from 1 to 15.

To gain friend XP, you can either do the daily friendship quest (play with both heroes in a team at once), play in their friend campaign or complete their friend missions (see the details in the Part 2 dedicated activities).

Friend XP needed per level

When increasing the Friend XP level, the player unlocks further friend campaign chapters and new missions. The thresholds vary from a friendship to another, except for two constants: the campaign always unlock at friend level 3 and the memory disk evolution at level 12.

Memory Disk

The Memory Disk is another item to equip on heroes and upgrade over time. Each disk comes with a unique effect based on the hero and additional stat boosts.

Disks can be upgraded in two ways:

  • The Disk level uses the “Disk Power” currency, gained from clearing the virus & other activities. The max Disk Level attainable is the Friend’s level minus 40 (which therefore pushes you to level up another character you might not use)
  • Disk stars are upgraded using Memories, collected from crates, friends missions and a special “Memory market” shop with its own “Memory Tokens” currency. The stat upgrade is usually related to the unique effect of the disk (not just basic stats).

As with everything in this game, costs are progressive and use a linear curve.

  • Stars upgrade respectively cost 25, 65, 95 & 135 Memories
  • Levels upgrade cost is slowly rising (slope is+25 for the first few, then +50 and +33 starting disk level 20)
Disk power needed for each disk level

PART 1 KEY TAKEAWAYS

  1. If you want lots of mechanic, lots of content and still be able to regularly add more and raise the bars, the most important thing you need is a design system to produce & balance it all at once.
  2. Links between systems allow both to keep the player’s mental charge in check and create a series of interconnected goals (e.g. team level is also the max hero level, hero level is the max skill level, etc.)
  3. The cost for about anything in the game should be progressive, and the gains too by the way (but slightly less so).
  4. Put a direct link from the reward to the the activities where you collect it: if you want the player to set his own goals, you need to help him.
  5. Some systems can have a lot more impact on progression than some others and it’s fine, the player can focus on the annex ones later (or you can just decide to unlock them progressively).
  6. To keep the progression relevant, you need to reduce permanent upgrades to the minimum: each new piece of content can then be a fresh start and benefit from the full depth.

You can continue reading about Disney Heroes progression systems in the Part 2, dedicated to activities. It will not only give you a better understanding of how & why you upgrade the heroes but also explain how it pushes you to use several different ones:

You can now find all my articles on Substack, I send a new game design analysis every other week.

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Jean-Baptiste Oger

Game Director. I write mainly about the design of video & board games. Aspiring to better understand the world around & human psychology.