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Dungeon Runner

I have spoken about Hearthstone’s Dungeon Run mode before, but these last few weeks I have finally figured it out: Dungeon Run is the mobile version of Hearthstone.

That is, of course, a pretty silly thing to say considering a feature-complete version of Hearthstone is already an app. In fact, you can only access Dungeon Run from within the regular Hearthstone app. But having played it at work pretty regularly now, consider the following:

  • It requires no prior card collection
  • Randomized bosses/abilities for variety of experiences
  • No Rope, e.g. time limit on turns
  • Relatively fast games
  • No real penalty for losing (or winning)
  • Can stop and start at your leisure

The last point is a bit dubious, as I have had my Run prematurely canceled when I closed the app in the middle of a match and came back hours later. But aside from that, as long as you complete the current match, I have been able to come back and choose my set of cards for the next round.

In short, I have been having a lot of fun with Dungeon Runs on mobile that I was not having playing at home. And that is largely because I wouldn’t play regular Hearthstone at work, because I might have interruptions that would cost me a game (and ranking). Clash Royale has the same issue, honestly, but losing 2v2 is not a big deal, and each round takes a maximum of 4 minutes in any case. And on the flip side, playing Dungeon Run at home feels pointless because there aren’t any rewards or real “reason” to, comparatively.

Not that it would happen, but I honestly think Blizzard should just release Dungeon Run as a standalone app in the future. Hearthstone on mobile is incredible bloated – the latest balance patch was over 700 MB worth of downloads, and the overall install sits at 3.41 GB, which is absurd for an app. Then there are all the 3Dish animations for cards and minions that are not strictly necessary and could be simplified. So, size, CPU usage, patching… all of those things could be scaled back and optimized as a standalone package.

Or, I suppose, I could try finding a good CCG-ish app that already does those things.

Uh… any recommendations? Aside from Shadowverse, of course – I’m looking for more Ascension-esque than a competitive CCG. I’ve heard good things about Slay the Spire, but that’s Steam only.

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Subtraction Through Addition

One of the new features in Clash Royale are “Tournaments.” Indeed, Supercell believes Tournaments are so important as to rearrange the entire app UI around to feature them prominently. Which is wierd, consider Tournaments are about the most poorly designed thing I’ve seen in any game.

Just imagine this x100.

Even the premise is dumb. At the lowest level, someone offers to pay 500 gems to “host” a 50-man “local” tournament, 49 people join for free, and in this pool everyone plays as many games as possible within the allotted time. The winner of the tournament – which would ideally be the person who started it – will always get less cards than they would have otherwise by spending the gems in the shop. Perhaps the joy of creating all this free content for people should suffice, but I don’t anticipate this lasting long. Especially given the fact Supercell introduced a one-time achievement refunding the cost of the lowest-level tournament. Once that dries up… then what?

Part of the design of the tournaments was to reduce the ping issues by concentrating players in closer geographic regions. Which is okay, I guess. But how is that really a solution at all? The tournaments can last for X amount of time (hours or days), but you are of course limited to just the pool of players in the tournament. I haven’t had an issue finding games once in a tournament, but I don’t see how it is effective for, you know, everyone else.

And don’t even get me started on actually getting into these tournaments. There is a “search” interface that essentially brings up around 10 tournaments, and invariably they all show 50/50. Sprinkled throughout are 49/50 that get your hopes up for a second, before a series of rapid Join presses revealed that they are full. Hell, I saw a 1/200 tournament appear and apparently fill in the time it took my thumb to move half an inch. What moron designer thought this was a good design? Were these not play tested at all? Was there a particular reason why they did not include a “join next available tournament with X criteria” function?

Like I mentioned, I did indeed manage to get into one of the tournaments by some stroke of luck. And it was… okay. I do appreciate the idea that it uses a different ranking system than the outside game, so you are free to experiment more. Plus, since tournament rules are in effect, all the cards are more balanced – no more cheese like someone dropping a level 11 Royal Giant on your lane and calling it a day.

That said, the tournament absolutely encourages you to spam games. Your ranking is determined by trophies, and since you can take them from anybody, that means someone trying to sit on 1st place will soon find themselves slipping down if they don’t keep up. Which, I suppose is better than the alternative, unless you happen to be the highly ranked. For me, I got inside the top 10 after about four games and just sat on my rank with the knowledge that I either had to claw my way to 3rd+, or be fine with 8-10 free cards depending on how many people occilated. Iroically, as I stared at the screen deciding my next move, I actually gained a rank from someone else above me losing a game.

In any case, I find the tournament feature to be an overall net negative for a game in which my interest is already waning. My range in the regular ladder seems to fluctuate between 2800-3000, which means every win is an absolute struggle. Or would be, if I didn’t face people with the previously mentioned level 11 Royal Giants. Which, I guess, is the ladder system working as intended. But it is work, and sometimes ends up taking 30 minutes to get enough chests to last the entire day, even on vacation.

“So stop playing.”

Yeah, it might end up coming to that. Especially since Supercell seems inclined to make no changes to that godddamn Ice Wizard or the Royal Giant.

Royale with Cheese

Like with many bloggers, I have been playing Clash Royale for quite a bit lately. It has been an interesting experience – my feelings on the gameplay, the payment structure, and overall package has oscillated wildly, sometimes several times within the same day.

The basic structure of the game is dropping troops to go destroy towers, MOBA creep style. Resource parity (1 elixir per second) and the random nature of “deck” draws (4 cards out of 8) makes for an often nail-biting experience. While I hesitate to use the term CCG, considering there are nearly 50 different cards, Clash Royale does have that seductive element of deck-building and metagame strategy that makes the genre difficult to put down.

ClashRoyale1

I love waiting arbitrary amounts of time.

The game is not without its cheese, however. The reward mechanism are Chests, which are time-released and tied to the general Arena rank you were when you earned them. There are four empty Chest slots to fill, and the shortest timer is 3 hours; you can cap out your Chests in four matches, which can be done in 10 minutes. You can open these chests early with the cash shop currency, of course, or spend dollars buying gold, which is necessary to level up your cards. Cards, incidentally, which are randomly opened from chests.

The random card distribution mechanism is the source of most of my ire these days. There are card rarities, of course, and the Epic cards are some of the most powerful. It isn’t that they are impossible to counter, but rather they need to be countered somewhat immediately. The difference between not having a given Epic card and having one is immense. Getting a 2nd copy will let you level it up to level 2, which is a 10% stat gain. So not only is it possible that you won’t get a powerful Epic troop, you might be facing someone with one that will always win against your own even if you do get one.

The Prince in particular is one I have harped on elsewhere. He costs 5 elixir to deploy and can easily be swarmed with low-HP, high-volume units, sure. But if he isn’t, he deals double-damage on the first hit on your tower, and will often completely destroy it before you can even drop more troops… unless you are specifically pooling elixir to directly counter this strategy. The Giant can also destroy a tower if left alone, but his ponderous gait and inability to deal minion damage means 1-2 skeletons can finish the job. It’s hard to even say that the Prince is a high-risk strategy though, because even if he can be countered by being swarmed, he’s still, you know, a high-damage troop. One that you have to plan around in every single match lest you be taken unawares.

ClashRoyale2

Current deck. Would not recommend this setup.

I continue to play Clash Royale though for a reason that’s somewhat surprising: I can. I still boot up Clash of Clans periodically, but my play is limited to ~3 minutes every 1.5 hours due to the structure of the game. I was originally playing Clash Royale the same way, mentally declaring it a toilet game, e.g. something you only play once you have empty chests available. But… you don’t have to. As Syncaine notes, you can still play and get rewarded with trophies for wins, which eventually pushes you to the next Arena rank, which makes the chests you acquire contain more and better goodies.

After a particularly brutal series of humiliating defeats dropped me out of the Arena 4 bracket though, I realized that hey, it’s actually kinda fun just playing the game and trying different things. You’ll encounter bullshit matches against vastly superior troops, sure. The leveling system structure even means you’ll face opponents who have towers with more HP and damage than your own. But… but! There is literally nothing stopping you from pressing the Battle button again. There is no Energy gauge to limit your screen time to some arbitrary, cash shop optimized level. Getting zero progress rewards does suck and makes my eye twitch with the inefficiency of it all… but, hey, I’m pushing buttons and playing a game.

Which is surprisingly and embarrassingly uncommon for phone games of any genre.

So I say give it a shot, if it sounds interesting to you. The early game experience is kinda terrible I’ll admit – people running around with Princes in Arena 1 and Arena 2 are terrible people – but once you get a handful of epics, the game opens up considerably. Well, as considerable as a two-lane MOBA-esque quasi-CCG can.

Not Sure About Fallout Shelter

[Blaugust Day 20]

Months after it lost almost all topical relevance, Fallout Shelter was finally released on Android systems. After quickly downloading it and playing it for the last two days or so, I’m not entirely sure whether it’s actually good or not.

That room is so busy that I'm not surprised it burst into flame.

That room was so busy that I’m not surprised it burst into flame.

In the broad genre that is time management games – in which I place all apps that feature activity timers – Fallout Shelter attempts to ride the line between time management and “normal” games. It features the construction of resource rooms and trying to maintain certain levels of supplies, but the timers themselves are generally incredibly short. A Gold Mine in Clash of Clans might take 12+ hours to fill to capacity, for example, but a fully-staffed room in Fallout Shelter might be ready to be clicked in four minutes or less. String enough of these events along – including tapping Dwellers to level them up, rearranging room makeups, planning ahead, etc – and you can legitimately play for 30 minutes or more at a time.

It is also entirely possible that you enter a depressing death spiral from which there hardly seems to be any escape.

My first Vault was a disaster. I did not think I was expanding too quickly, but my glee at having a one-man repopulation strategy (mainly because it amused me) backfired when six, resource-consuming kids suddenly materialized. As it turns out, bitches be thirsty. The lack of water led to widespread radiation poisoning, reducing all Dweller HP down to 50% and zeroing out their happiness.

It seemed like a good idea at the time...

It seemed like a good idea at the time…

At that point, I did not have enough Caps to build more Water Treatment rooms, and Caps themselves are a resource that is only gained from A) Wasteland exploring, B) selling items, C) Rushing rooms, or D) spontaneously when collecting other resources. Between the radiation and everything else, I did not have anyone to spare to send into the Wasteland, which subsequently meant I did not have any items to sell. Collecting resources provided no bonus Caps for the last dozen times I collected them. That left Rushing room, which carries a ~30% (and increasing) chance of failure.

Well, let me tell you something: 30% apparently means 99% in the Fallout world because I Rushed six different rooms and failed five times in a row. Each failure is an automatic Incident, which could be a fire or Radroach or even Mole Rat infestation. All of which lowers the HP of anyone in those rooms, by the way. At the end of things, so many of my Dwellers were inches from death that I considered it almost a mercy to wipe that saved game from existence.

Instead of deletion, I went ahead and took advantage of Shelter’s 3 save slots and just started a new Vault. Two of them, in fact. The second is probably the most advanced, but the third ended up netting me multiple Legendary (or at least super powerful) items and some extremely high-stat Dwellers from the half-dozen free cash shop “lunchboxes” every new Vault gets. A friend of mine told me he somehow got a level 30 Dweller complete with Power Armor and an AK-47 right from the start too. All of which makes me think the optimal strategy is creating multiple Vaults from the beginning and deleting the ones that don’t give you good loot.

Less smiles, more crunches.

Less smiles, more crunches.

Incidentally, when I finally got back around to poking my head into the original disaster-Vault, everyone was still irradiated but back at 50% HP. I collected my resources and either hit the lottery or perhaps there is a timer-based failsafe on Caps collection. Plus, the six useless kids grew up to be rather useful Water Treatment slaves. The Vault turned around in a hurry, which leads me to believe that Shelter is leaning more towards the more traditional “play for 5 minutes every 5 hours” style.

Which would be nice… if not for the fact that Dwellers sent to explore the Wasteland continue exploring until they drop dead. You can revive them in the field for a (costly) fee, but the setup means they’ll die unless you log in every X hours. Or at least schedule yourself a log-in and send them a Recall signal. Which brings us closer to the “play in real-time spectrum.” Which is not useful for exploring, since the items you encounter are based on how many real-world minutes/hours your Dwellers are out in the wild.

The end result here is a bizarro game that is both fun and feels bad. Was my water death-spiral the result of poor decision-making on my part (probably), or an engineered trap to entice me to purchase lunchboxes (which always contains X Caps)? It’s nice that I can sometimes play for a longer period of time, but I also feel like I’m better off avoiding negative events by not playing for as long as possible. Except now I need to log in every X hours to retrieve my explorers.

Sigh. The things I do for love (of Fallout).

Impression: Kingdom Rush

So… anyone got mobile strategy(-ish) game recommendations? I’m on a bit of a kick here.

I am currently playing Kingdom Rush and finding it rather fantastic. Tower Defense is one of those genres that seems sort of shallow on the face of it – and perhaps even is in the scheme of things – but I’m liking how it’s presented here in Kingdom Rush. You have the standard lanes, tower placement, and varied enemies with their rock-paper-scissors attributes. Even the implementation of a somewhat controllable hero and magic powers seems almost standard these days.

The very attractively stylized graphics doesn't hurt either.

I could go AFK for the next two waves, honestly.

The thing that strikes me though is that the lanes in KR are wide. In other words, the enemies marching down the road and the resulting battles feel a bit more organic, as your soldiers might engage near the edge of the lane and allow a few enemies on the far end slip past. There is a granularity there, a sense that slight tweaks to troop or hero placement will result in better outcomes. Tower choice is such a huge change that there are clearly better options given the enemies you face (high magic defense vs high armor defense). Moving your troops just slightly to the left of the corner though? The result might be better just 5% of the time, but that 5% chance gives you the opportunity to demonstrate mastery over the game mechanics.

Of course, just like with most other Tower Defense games I have played, discovering OP combinations of towers usually results in me going through the motions for the rest of the game’s duration. I am definitely at that stage with Kingdom Rush right now, although it has lasted longer than other, similar games like Bloons.

So, yeah. I’m also playing Clash of Clans (near max TH7 base) at the moment. I have enjoyed the aforementioned Bloons TD 5, iBomber Defense, and the Anomaly series. I recently picked up Ironclad Tactics from the latest Humble Bundle but haven’t played it yet. Heard good things about Card Crawl too, and might actually pick it up if I can mentally prepare myself for playing on my tiny iPod Touch screen. Speaking of iPods, that reminds me of Hero Academy… another good one from back in the day. And presently perhaps? It’s been a while.

Give me your best strategy, Tower Defense, and/or card game games. Apps. Whatever.

Dungeon Keeper App: A Study in Bad Game Design

Your first thought might be: “Obviously!”

No, not obviously. When the Dungeon Keeper (DK) app first came out, the entirety of the criticism revolved around EA and the bastardization of a beloved (?) franchise into a time-n-money sink exploitative F2P game. Here is the thing few people might know: DK is perhaps the best entry into this sub-genre. This might sound a little be like being called “the best STD,” but the game itself is surprisingly good.

At least, it was good.

My original design.

My original design.

What made DK good (and still does) is the fostering of creativity and depth through constraint. As you might already know, DK is a downtime management game – you spend more time not doing things than actually doing them. The basic principal is to construct a dungeon filled with traps to safeguard your own stockpile of resources while raiding the dungeons of others. Everything takes time to complete: summoning minions, constructing traps, upgrading traps, excavating rock tiles to make room for traps, and so on. On release, the excavation was particularly lampooned in that the map was filled with tiles that took 4 hours and 24 hours apiece to dig out. Or, you know, you could spend Gems (an RMT currency) to dig them instantly.

Here’s the thing though: being time-locked forced you to construct novel dungeon designs with whatever you had available. Since everyone starts on the same map, we could imagine there being X variations of the perfect defensive layout had all the squares been filled with soft dirt (takes 3 seconds to dig). Instead, we have X * Y variations because different people are at different levels of excavation; some concentrate on digging out all the 4-hour tiles instead of the 24-hour ones, some are the opposite, and still others concentrate all their time on upgrading traps instead of excavation. Creativity through constraint. Yes, technically this also enables the designers to wheedle in-app purchases out of you. But! It’s a compelling gameplay mechanic nonetheless.

Somebody just got sent home.

Somebody just got sent home.

Before I move on, I also want to mention that the other end of the creativity came from watching the replays of your own dungeon getting sacked. Given how attacking players can use magic to bomb open your walls or remotely disable your traps, sometimes it feels like there is nothing you can do to stop attacks. But what you can do is make your dungeon punishing. Magic regenerates very slowly, such that a player looking for enough resources to purchase an upgrade are unlikely to blow their entire load just to sack your one dungeon when they could split it up inbetween juicier, less-defended targets. It is a particularly novel delight watching a replay of someone throwing 2+ hours of congealed time at your defenses and see them go home with nothing. It’s part of the reason why I have played DK for so long.

The problem(s) with DK really came with their Update #2 several weeks ago. There are other fundamental problems, but I’ll get to that in a bit. In short, Update #2 destroyed the in-game economy.

Prior to Update #2, you unlocked bomb-proof walls as you upgraded various rooms and the Dungeon Heart. The number of such walls you could place were extremely limited, so you really had to think about the best location to place them. Did you want to protect a particular room? Force minions down a particular corridor? Or did you want to prevent people from digging a tunnel from the South part of the map? What the Mythic devs decided was to up-end the entire mechanic: instead of bomb-proof, they made walls upgradable. Instead of 20 bomb-proof walls at the end, you could have 100 not-bomb-proof walls that could sustain various amounts of magic damage depending on level.

Seriously, watching people fail on your dungeon never gets old.

Seriously, watching people fail on your dungeon never gets old.

For example, my current Bomb Wall spell deals 500 damage in a 3×3 square. A level 1 wall has 300 HP, and each level beyond that increases wall HP by +150. It costs 10k Stone to place a level 1 wall, 30k to upgrade to 2, 60k to 3, 120k for 4, and so on. As you might imagine, this whole “wall update” introduced a Stone sink on a massive scale. The game already had sinks of sorts – my current rooms now cost 2 million Stone apiece to upgrade – but I can imagine there may have been a need at the higher end. Or, perhaps more cynically, the devs wanted the DK Premium “subscription” (+40% resource gains from raiding) to be more appealing.

The Stone sink though has set off a cascade of fail throughout the game. The amount of resources that can be stolen from your dungeon is 30% of your stockpile (up to a maximum determined by your Dungeon heart level) + 10% of your unclaimed resources from quarries/mines around the map. Although there was always an incentive to “hide” your Stone in upgrading traps and such, there simply weren’t all that many locations; you can only have X number of Fire Traps and doors and such. Update #2 introduced 100 more to the pile, e.g. walls, and made it a high priority to upgrade them, e.g. to help prevent more Stone from being stolen via Bomb Wall spells. But since all the high-level players are now Stone deficient, the only people who have Stone laying around are… low-level players.

So the current “metagame” in DK is sandbagging, which means intentionally lowering your Trophy score (i.e. ELO) to get matched against noobs who either don’t know what they’re doing or have already abandoned the game and are simply letting their resources rot. Since they are low-level, it’s easier to steal their resources with your high-level minions given how their traps/layouts aren’t difficult. Since it’s not difficult to invade, you can send in less advanced troops that have quicker build times (e.g. 40-second Trolls instead of 20-minute Ghosts). Since you have quicker build times, you can raid more often and likely not need to use magic at all. Since you’re raiding more often, you are in-game for longer, which prevents your rapidly accumulating Stone reserves from being vulnerable to theft. And because of all of this, you are more likely to hit whatever Stone target you were going for and then spend said Stone, putting you back down to near-zero and safe to log off.

My current dungeon noobgrinder. Hint: don't spawn inside the killbox.

My current dungeon noobgrinder. Hint: don’t spawn inside the killbox.

The Mythic devs have responded on the forums that Update #3 will fix all of this and punish the sandbaggers, but the preview we have gotten is woefully naive. Their “solution” is the introduction of PvP tiers of sorts based on ELO. The higher the tier, the more bonus Stone you receive for a win. At my hypothetical tier, I could see an additional… 35k Stone. For fighting someone tooth and nail as advanced as myself. Who isn’t likely to have 35k Stone laying around to begin with. Compare that to someone at a lower ELO would could easily have 200k sitting around just waiting to be stolen.

Needless to say, this is bad game design. It is not bad simply because I dislike it; it is bad because it will not accomplish what it set out to do, or worse, have the opposite outcome.

I am not especially surprised at this non-solution, as the devs have yet to address a similarly counter-intuitive decision vis-a-vis intentionally not opening mines/quarries. There are 8 mines along the outside of the map, and unlocking them means getting free resources each time you click them; at the highest levels, you can get 200k+ Stone every 32 hours or whatever. However, enemy Keepers use these same mines as spawn points. Thus, the more mines you open, the more vulnerable your dungeon. The less mines you open, the less vulnerable your dungeon (just stuff all your warehouses in the corner), the easier it is to keep resources you steal from others, and the better off you are in general. Also? You can’t close mines you have opened. Basically, if you’re like me and open all the mines, you’re just screwed, permanently.

This shit is so stupid.

There is close to zero downside to this.

There is a similarly counter-intuitive punishment mechanic in upgrading your Dungeon Heart. You gain access to more traps and rooms by upgrading the Heart, but each level increases the maximum amount of resources that can be stolen from you. Thus, the only sane strategy is to make the Heart the last possible thing to upgrade. If you upgrade early, whoops, permanently screwed with hardmode.

My solutions to these issues? Well, first, I’d levy a 20k (or 20%) penalty to resource gains for each mine you do not unlock, down to some minimum – if your raid would have resulted in 100k Stone, you actually only get 60k if you have three mines unopened. Considering how the only players worth attacking are those with 100k+ Stone up for grabs, this would hopefully encourage people to open their mines, making more targets available. On a related note, the second change is one’s ELO score should be commensurate with the amount of Stone that can be stolen, not Dungeon Heart rank. Thus, the sandbaggers can get “easy” Stone, but significantly less such that they might have been better going after equally-skilled players.

Third, mine/quarry resource gains should double, minimum. Fourth, flip the numbers: 30% of unclaimed Stone is vulnerable and only 10% of one’s stockpile, not vice versa. This encourages more periodic log-ins during the day and makes people feel safer in saving up their Stone rather than immediately sinking it into walls. There is nothing more demoralizing than logging on and seeing someone having stolen 100k Stone, knowing that you would have been better off upgrading a door or whatever.

This may seem like a lot of words to devote to an evil, bastardized mobile app, but… I think you’d be surprised. I have long since deleted Castle Clash and feel like another game in this sub-genre would have to get a lot of things right to surpass Dungeon Keeper in terms of fun and strategery. Is it annoying waiting all the time? Sure. Then again, a 4-hour excavation only takes 2 hours if you slap your imps, and thus each time I boot the game up during my breaks at work there is something new to do. I spent two hours (!!) “playing” last night (in 6-minute increments) trying to scrape up 500k Stone to hit 2 million without risking getting bled dry overnight. The app definitely has an expiration date at some point – the thought of trying to get 6 million Stone for an 8-day upgrade is just obscene – but the same could be said about a lot of games.

So, yeah. Dungeon Keeper. Didn’t see that coming, did you?

No Such Thing as F2P Anywhere…?

The comments to yesterday’s post about a EU regulatory body’s intention to crack down on the use of “free” in game descriptions were rather illuminating.

As you may or may not have known through prior posts, I vastly prefer the “B2P” model (e.g. the default) to F2P because the latter is associated with (IMO) compromised gameplay mechanics that serve no intention beyond the enforcement of the payment model. Plus, I cannot turn off the parsimonious part of my brain when it comes to purchasing things, thus frequently leading me to extreme and, frankly, insane behavior to save a literal handful of dollars that would have been eagerly frittered away en mass in other contexts.

That said, both eyebrows were fully cocked at what I was reading yesterday:

Saying you can play LoL for free is like saying Spaghetti Bolognese is a vegetable meal because you can just choose to not eat the meat part. I’m sure the EU doesn’t allow you to label Spaghetti Bolognese as a vegetable meal.

F2P has become a buzzword added to everything, completely useless in providing information as if you can really play for free, so it’s not that bad if they force producers into labeling their games into something more informative.

No for-profit product or service should ever be generically described as “Free”. It breaks the language.

“Where is the confusion”, you ask. Lawyers are very good at finding the confusion. Leaving the definition to be argued in court would be sure to burden games players and EU taxpayers with the very expensive costs of both sides of such a court case.

Regarding that last one, it is indeed true that Apple ended up settling their court case with the FTC for $32.5 million this year over in-app purchases (IAP). I suppose there is something to be said about “kids games” having IAP and potentially targeting children specifically, but I can’t help but wonder if companies other than Apple are being held accountable for the children of parents who hand them credit cards unsupervised. And to what degree court cases like this justifies the UK banning of porn. It just sorta seems like a concession that adults are incapable of being responsible parents by default; I mean, you’re either not monitoring their phone/game usage, or you’re not utilizing both Apple’s and Google’s ample parental controls before you hand over the small supercomputer to a seven year-old.

Let’s dial the politics back a bit though, as I want to focus on F2P. Or rather, how it apparently does not exist.

It was Bhagpuss that quipped that second to last quote, regarding how the term F2P “breaks the language” because it has free in the description when you can’t actually play for free. Or you can, but since the company is for-profit, it’s misleading. Just like those “free samples” in grocery stores. Or my anti-virus program. Or, I suppose anything at all from any for-profit company as we can assume they’re making money somewhere along the line. To be charitable, Bhagpuss suggests that the way games are labeled will be changed to accommodate the new rules, by making them say “Free to download, IAP optional.” Which they pretty much already do:

Just picking a game at random.

Just picking a game at random.

My question from the prior post still stands though: where are the EU-approved (no-IAP of any kind) free games? I poked around the Google Play store for a bit before running into an old stand-by that pretty much highlights the gaping holes in the EU commission’s logic: Where’s My Water?

It's worth getting the full version.

It’s worth getting the full version.

Hey, look! No IAP at all! EU 1, Disney 0. Of course, scrolling down a bit, we see…

Sneaky, sneaky.

Sneaky, sneaky.

I’m actually pretty sure that I’ve seen these sort of “free trials” or demos for game apps long before IAP were ever implemented, so there’s a certain symmetry to companies circling back to what worked before. Because, let’s face it, if in-app advertisements are fine, advertisements for the full version of the game you’re playing (and others) are fine too.

Feels almost like those old Shareware games.

Feels almost like those old Shareware games.

As you might expect, the completely and totally free version of Where’s My Water? is a severely truncated mess that plays full-screen video advertisements every 2-3 stages you complete, followed by level selector that ends with a link to a paid app and the Where’s My Water? 2 sequel. At least they’re not selling gems though, right? Sure. But there’s no reason to suggest that they couldn’t advertise the full, “Try Now!” version that is also free to download with all its microtransactions intact. Considering that even a child will burn through these IAP-removed “free” games within 20 minutes, and they can still navigate to the app store via handy in-app advertisements to purchase the “full” IAP game within moments, I have to start wondering if the language is worth saving. Seriously, I was three clicks away from purchasing either a new game or the unlocked version of the one I was playing.

I mean, what, will the EU disable click-through advertisements next? If they did, that would actually be pretty amazing. They won’t though, because they can’t, and since this entire concern is predicated on children being able to circumvent their parent’s (likely nonexistent) IAP prevention measures, it won’t stop kids from buying the entire App store.

In which case we’ve come full circle, minus the word “Free,” while doubling the number of ad-riddled Shareware in App stores. So… success? Or maybe they could have simply mandated that IAP (and ad-supported) filters be more prominently displayed, so that reckless parents have one last chance at sanity before they download just anything and let it babysit their child for hours.

Dungeon Keeper

Heard about that Dungeon Keeper controversy? You’d be forgiven for thinking that EA must have cooked up some particularly nefarious innovation in the mobile wallet extraction app market, but the reality is that this game is merely another straw on a camel-back-breaking pile. From the article:

Whenever you write about this phenomenon, the common complaint from people making the games in question is that not all of them are bad. As Thomas Baekdal realised though, the problem is definition. When your free-to-play game is all economy mechanics rather than game mechanics, when your game is all business design rather than game design, you’re not actually making a game – you’re constructing a scam, whether you realise it or not. If you’re doing it knowingly, you’re just a high-tech gangster.

If we get right down to it, I almost agree with him.

Yeah, no thanks.

Yeah, no thanks.

It is not a particularly robust defense to say that Dungeon Keeper isn’t doing anything worse than what other games have done before. Tobold compared it to Clash of Clans, which I haven’t played, but I have played Castle Clash which I assume to be similar. And between Dungeon Keeper and Castle Clash, there are a lot similarities, mechanics-wise: building troops (which takes time), harvesting resources (which takes time), removing obstacles on the game map (which takes time), attacking other players’ maps and stealing their resources (which is kinda fun). Indeed, about the only real difference between the flavors is how quickly you can reach the sticker-shock of needing to waiting 24+ hours for an action to complete; Dungeon Keeper immediately requires a day to dig a particular type of dirt block along the edges of the map (but there’s plenty of inner-map space), whereas Castle Clash took a while before revealing building upgrades would eventually start taking 7-10+ days.

In fact, as I type this, I have 5 days to go to upgrade my Gold Mine to level 16, 2 days and 10 hours for my Barracks to hit level 14, and it’d take 15 days, 7 hours, and 24 minutes if I queued up the level 3 training to improve my Ornithopter troops. As near as I can tell, it’d cost roughly $1 in gems to knock off one full day of one timer.

This design is more effective than you'd think.

This design is more effective than you’d think.

The trick about these games is sort of the trick about Hearthstone: as long as it isn’t your primary source of entertainment, the restrictions are mostly irrelevant. I “play” Castle Clash maybe 3-5 times a day, for about five minutes at a time. Under this schedule, there really is no difference between an action that takes 10 minutes and one that takes 3 hours, as I’m either done with my break at work or whatever loading screen I was waiting on for my PC game has finished. If you only play Hearthstone every 2-3 days, then you will have enough gold to pretty much do whatever you want in each play session. You generally only really get into trouble with F2P games when you feel compelled to play them every day for hours.

Of course, that’s kind of the rub. Tobold is challenging people to think up a better alternative to the wait mechanic that doesn’t result in finishing the game in an hour, but it does sort of strike me as profoundly cynical to engineer a game where not playing is a game mechanic, especially when you offer money to bypass it. I don’t think it’s “entitlement” to ask for a game I can reasonably play for more than 10 minutes at a time, if I have need to. I have zero complaints for having spent a few bucks apiece for Angry Birds, Plants vs Zombies, Dungeon Raid, 10000000, Where’s My Water, and so on, so the admonition of “game devs need to eat” rings hollow. Especially when it’s suggested that dropping $20 on Dungeon Keeper for more imps – which will allow you to run twice as many 24+ hour queues at a time, but still otherwise constrict you to 10-minute play sessions – is considered “reasonable.”

Not optimized by any means, but you get the idea.

Not optimized by any means, but you get the idea.

All that being said though, I have officially added Dungeon Keeper to my game app rotation. I’m not a fan of it’s constant up-selling in terms of ringtones/wallpapers and such, or the badgering for me to log onto my Google+ account (which I silenced by creating a fake profile), but it’s otherwise a perfectly serviceable Progress Quest-style game for those who derive pleasure from time-management multitasking. Between Dungeon Keeper, Castle Clash, and Candy Crush Saga, I can have an almost uninterrupted 30 minutes (!) of gameplay.

Which is a pretty sad thing to get excited about, don’t get me wrong. But there’s only so much you can do when you’ve beaten all the other mobile games you’ve paid for.