Free to Play (or to not play)

If you play video games, chances are good that you have run into a game operating on a free-to-play business model. It has been around for long enough that I will just assume you know what it is. If not, then… well, read some short stories instead. It’s probably a better use of your time, anyway.

This last week, I have tried a few new free-to-play offerings on the iOS app store, and I have a mixed feeling conundrum to deal with here. As much as it feels desirable to do so, I will not break out the diatribe about how free-to-play is destroying gaming (ever noticed just how many things are destroying gaming, and just how much gaming seems to survive?), so do not fear this development in this particular post.

Let’s get right down to it.

The game: Best Fiends
The genre: Match-three puzzle

Best Fiends is a pretty cute little game where you touch and drag to select groupings of three or more icons (in this game’s case, bubbly plants) to accomplish various objectives.

I rather like the cutesy atmosphere. If the game’s presentation does not compell me, I usually do not last long in the F2P world. The fiends in question have just the right balance of cute and a little creepy to amuse the shriveled remains of my soul.

In addition, there is a sort of motivating factor beyond Finish Next Level in that you earn points toward upgrading your minions, which has a tangible effect on gameplay. Even on levels that you cannot win (due to running out of moves), you retain any rewards that you gained in the process. Granted, the rewards for victory are greater, but it’s nice to feel like you are not totally wasting your time.

(Aside from, y’know, totally wasting your time by playing games like this.)

The payment structure:

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So far as I have reached, there are no true barriers to gameplay. That is to say, there is no paywall. Each level is at least possible to finish without paying for additional bonuses. That being said, I do not at all care for their approach to offering aid in level advancement.

Here’s how it works. You work on your goals, getting so many strawberries or defeating so many slugs (I mean, those slugs were asking for it) and then you run out of moves. Tragedy! But for the low, low price of one buck, you can get an additional five moves to try and wrap things up. The five-move purchase is no guarantor of victory, and it is not reusable. I have not experimented with this, but presumably you could buy as many moves as necessary to finish a level.

I don’t like it because it seems like it costs too much for what you get. For my dollar, I’d rather have a lasting bonus that increases my moves across the board, even by one. I guess what it comes down to is that I do not care for in-app purchases that are consumable. If I can’t get it back by restoring my purchases, it is highly suspect in my view.

Best Fiends somewhat redeems itself by making its premium currency, gems (because what else?), rather freely available. You can work to save up your gems if you want, and spend them without intense calculation because you’ll get more as the game progreses. I appreciate that I don’t have to spend real dollars to get access to a shortcut here and there.

The verdict: It’s okay, for a free-to-play.

Next up, two Rovio games.

The game: Retry
The genre: side-scrolling annoyance generator

I really am not sure how to classify Retry. It comes in the vein of games that want you to display your keen reflexes (with which I am only occasionally burdened) to accomplish The Objective: get from one place to the other.

You tap on the screen to turn the little plane’s rotor and thus make it fly. But whatever god set the rules of physics in this world was a cruel one (or the plane’s designers just sucked at their jobs) for when you tap, the plane also rotates. Throughout each level, you have to manage the plane’s quirky flight path to avoid obstacles and land at the target airstrip.

I played Retry for about a half hour before I got fed up and quit.

The payment structure:

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Basically, you use coins to purchase ‘retry points,’ checkpoints in the middle of the level from which you can, well, retry if your plane meets an unfortunate end. And it will. So many times. (Alternately, you can lend Rovio your bandwidth to watch a video ad to acquire the checkpoint.)

The verdict: I guess I don’t have a major problem with the IAP structure in this game. It is not aggressively priced, which makes me feel a little more comfortable perhaps investing a buck here or there to aid in advancement. On the other hand, I found the game too annoying to bother with it, so I deleted it before I could be persuaded to open my wallet to its supposed charms.

The game: Angry Birds Transformers
The genre: side-scrolling click’n’shoot

Another entry from Rovio, this one is a new franchise mashup. I almost did not download it because the entire concept seems silly, but curiousity got the better of me.

I didn’t even realize that it was not true to the original Angry Birds model, and I think this is in its favor. Angry Birds has been done, and done, and done. As much fun as it might be to launch Optimus Prime at unsuspecting green pigs, this action-y format feels better matched to Transformers.

I do enjoy leaving a path of destruction in my wake (just see the apartment after one day of me slacking on picking up) and at least the prologue of the game does not get in your way of doing just that. Angry Birds and all of its slingshotting spin-offs always felt too slow in getting to the actual mayhem.

The payment structure:

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Unforunately, Angry Birds Transformers introduces an energy system after enticing with unfettered gameplay at the start. I can grudgingly cope with energy restrictions if the game is fun enough, but that also begs the question as to why a game that is so fun should be hampered so. Indeed, if reviews of the game are to be believed (and I tend to take reviewer’s comments with approximately a mine of salt), the player is eventually backed into a corner where payment is mandatory for progress.

Angry Birds Transformers offers its currency at a minimum of $5 IAP, which I find to be a bad sign. An even worse sign is a game that has a $100 IAP option. (Anything that asks for that kind of money and does not have a substantial offering in return is highly suspect.)

The verdict: It’s cute and cool and has great music, but its lifetime on my device will end when it gets more annoying than fun.

At the end of the day, I have to judge the entertainment value of my diversions against the time and money required to gain that entertainment. I would rather pay $5 for a full-fledged game experience than open a pipeline to my wallet that takes out one or two bucks at a time for little reward.

Plus, I have noticed a trend that in the few circumstances that I have made one of these small purchases, my enjoyment of the game decreased suddenly shortly thereafter. Correlation does not necesarily imply causation but it seems related.

Audience engagement time: what’s your stance on free-to-play? Have you ever made a purchase in such a game, and if so, did you find it substantially improved your experience?

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