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Vote with Your (Whale) Wallet

There was an interesting, albeit depressing, exchange on Reddit concerning the release of Dr. Mario World, Nintendo’s latest foray into mobile nihilism. Basically, it’s Dr. Mario meets Candy Crush (e.g. stamina meters) with a dash of gacha game lootboxes. Which is a little weird, considering Nintendo seems to make a point about not being too greedy with their monetization strategies. What changed?

$$$$$$

Five years ago, I made the point that “voting with your wallet” was a losing strategy, in comparison to complaining about things and thereby possibly voting with other peoples’ wallets. That sentiment seems almost quaint these days. The current reality we inhabit is one in which the mere existence of people willing to drop $100 (or $1000) in a sitting dictates how mobile games are developed.

I would like to believe there is some kind of silver lining in all this. And maybe there is. If you are just looking for something to do on your phone, there are tens of thousands of options available for free. Not all of them are even horrible. Hell, go play Dr. Mario World if you want!

As someone who loves the purity of elegant game design though… I’m fucked. I could vow to never play these games again, convince thousands more to join the boycott, and it wouldn’t matter. When 90% of the playerbase is already not paying for anything, and the average lifetime value of paying customers is single digits, one $99 purchase justifies a lot of nonsense. Not just in one game, but every game. There will be exceptions, but they exist as deliberate acts, fighting the ocean current.

When money is speech, the richest speak the loudest.

…er, when did we decide that was a good idea, again?

Mobile Attributes

As I have begun my homebound tour of baby duty, I have a new appreciation for mobile gaming. Because it is the only gaming I can conceivably complete. While there are only three games in particular that I’m playing at the moment, I’m becoming well acquainted with the specific attributes of each one.

Time-to-Play

How long it takes from the moment you press the icon until you can start making selections. This probably shouldn’t matter as much because if you’re counting seconds you likely weren’t going to be having a lot of fun to begin with. That said, it became important to me once I realized that it takes Hearthstone 38 seconds to boot up.

Thirty. Eight. Seconds.

That’s just to get to the quest screen, by the way, not actually playing. In contrast, Clash Royale takes 17 seconds and Gems of War takes… huh, 32 seconds. For some reason, Hearthstone seemed more egregious.

Minimization

How the game reacts to being minimized or otherwise losing focus. This attribute is a bit tough to precisely quantify because apparently it matters for how long the interruption lasts. Sometimes you can minimize to shoot off a text and be fine, and other times the app requires you to log back in.

Hearthstone used to be the worst at this, not only requiring a re-login, but also counting a Dungeon Run as a loss if you minimized in the middle of a boss instead of on the reward screen. As of some patch ago, you can safely minimize without losing progress.

Clash Royale is finicky, but even when there’s the equivalent of a re-log, it’s very brief. Things are significantly different if you are in the middle of a battle though. In some cases you can get back in, but you are generally penalized as “leaving the match.”

Gems of War, in my experience, doesn’t care and will be right back up instantly.

One-Handed Play

Can the game be played with one hand… if you know what I mean. Because you have a baby in the other hand.

Both Hearthstone and Gems of War are perfectly playable with one hand. Both games are basically turn-based, and even if you’re playing a human opponent in Hearthstone, you have a minute and a half to complete your turn.

Clash Royale on the other (one) hand is technically playable, but sometimes entire matches can be decided on pixel-perfect placement of troops at precisely the right moment. So in this respect, I’d say this isn’t a one-handed game.

Fun

Pretty standard.

Depth

Same.

Microtransactions

They all have them.

Overall, I will say that Hearthstone’s Dungeon Run modes have been the MVP for me this far. When I said I had no desire to play Dalaran Heist anymore, that was before I got stuck watching a baby for 12+ hours a day. I’m already halfway through beating Chapter 1 heroic mode with every class, and being grateful I have something to do.

Disposable Progression

As I am playing a lot of mobile games lately, my nose is being rubbed in perhaps the most annoying design “feature” I have encountered in years: disposable progression.

The game in question is Gems of War, but it’s not specific to this title. Basically, you create a four-member team of monsters and use their abilities to fight your foes. There are hundreds of different monsters available, across a number of rarities, with all sorts of possibly interesting combinations. Each monster can be upgraded with a certain currency, special traits unlocked with a separate currency, and a third currency (extra copies) can upgrade the rarity of the card itself.

The problem is that you aren’t likely to use the first four monsters you pick up. So any currency you use to level them up and otherwise bridge the gap between completing missions and unboxing better monsters is effectively wasted. Maybe it can be considered “the cost of doing business,” but it nevertheless creates perverse incentives when I play. “Do I really need to level this guy up?” The answer is generally no, or at least never feels like a solid yes, so I don’t. And thus not only do I make the game more boring and harder for myself, I also rob myself of whatever pleasure can be derived from improving one’s characters.

I mean, it’s possible things were designed this way with the goal of actually getting players to waste currency in a bid to pad out game time. After all, if you sufficiently hoard currency, it’s technically possible to max out a new monster the minute you unbox it. That is not a particularly good outcome for anyone. And perhaps there isn’t really a way around things anyway – this may be a systemic issue the moment you design a game to have dozens and dozens of party members.

Regardless, it still feels bad. I have used the same monster team for the past two weeks, so I possibly should just bite the bullet and spend all my currency leveling them up. But the moment some cool legendary monster or whatever pops out of a box, I’m going to be quite miffed. And miffed to me is not opening the wallet to spend real currency buying fake currency, but uninstalling the game.

Time-Broke

Know what’s downright quaint? This Time-Poor post from back in March.

LastPlayed1

Two or three weeks sans gaming isn’t too bad in the scheme of things. Or wouldn’t be, if there was some kind of known endpoint. I’m a planner, a schemer, an optimizer. Meanwhile, my baby is an agent of chaos. Sometimes he’ll go three hours between feedings, and other times I’m feeding him every 30 minutes for an hour and a half. And since you can’t really do much else, the TV is on in the background, and when he finally calms down, you might be interested in the rest of the show.

This whole experience thus far has given me some first-person views of the gaming edifice though.

On Sunday, I actually had a solid 1-2 hour chunk of time to do non-baby, non-household chore things at like 11pm. The whole world felt like my oyster! Unfortunately, I hate oysters, and I found myself browsing Reddit – which I do on my phone anyway – and then playing a few games of Slay the Spire. The thought of diving back into Divinity: Original Sin 2 was, well, unthinkable. What would I do? Walk around, get in one combat, then turn the game off?

It got me thinking about uninterrupted time, and how often some games require it. The traditional expectation of it being required is when a game functions on Waypoint Saving. But if you have a narrative experience that you care about at all, then uninterrupted time is required. But even if a game doesn’t have a narrative, you might still need uninterrupted time in order to progress in the “what was I doing?” fashion. Or perhaps even the mundane “what buttons do what again?” sense.

Games with grinding are also right out. It used to be “ain’t nobody got time for that” was because life is full of so many other, better games you could be playing instead. Nowadays, for me, it’s literal.

Having said all that, I find time for mobile games. Clash Royale is still an hourly diversion. I bought You Must Build A Boat and also downloaded Gems of War, both of which can be played in small chunks. I was looking at Terraria, but was scared away by a review stating the last update was in August 2016. Instead, I (re)bought Stardew Valley. While I haven’t tried it out yet, I’m hopeful that it can also scratch the progression itch in a more nutritive way that gacha games cannot.

We’ll see how it goes.

Mobile Games Worth Buying

…are there any?

I have around $15 in Google Play money from taking surveys and such, and I was recently notified that some of those dollars will be expiring soon. Looking at the Play store though, I am a bit of at a loss of what might actually be worth buying. What I want to avoid, if possible, is throwing money into the hole of gacha games and/or Clash Royale.

The current top contender right now is the mobile version of Stardew Valley. I have spent a few dozen hours in that game on PC, but stopped a few months ago, as it was not particularly conducive to my play style at the time. Namely, the fact that the game only saves at the end of each day, thus requiring you to play a whole day each time. After researching a bit, it does seem like there are backup saving mechanisms for the mobile version, e.g. if you get a phone call or the screen locks, but I’m still a bit concerned. Clash Royale needing basically 4-7 uninterrupted minutes can already get dicey unless I’m specifically playing during lunch (shhh), whereas Hearthstone might consume longer amounts of time but the turn timers allow short breaks inbetween.

Anyway, are there any paid mobile games that you have been enjoying? Genre isn’t particularly a limiting factor. I have enjoyed Plants vs Zombies, Where’s My Water?, 10000000, and other such games in the past. Not sure that I want anything like FF6 or games that I could basically play on an emulator. Again, the goal is to not throw money at games like Puzzle & Dragons or Clash Royale.

Slain Spire

Remember when I said I wouldn’t buy Battlefield 5 because it would consume all my free time but not “accomplish” anything? Well, I did resist the purchase…

…and promptly put like a dozen or so “empty” hours into Slay the Spire instead.

I think my total hours /played in Slay the Spire at this point is north of 50 hours. Those are rookie numbers compared to Zubon at Kill Ten Rats, who probably put more hours into writing Slay the Spire posts last year than I have playing the game. Which it entirely deserves, by the way – it is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It’s just not a novel experience (to me) anymore, and yet I feel compelled to boot it up any time I spend more than thirty seconds looking at my Steam library.

That’s probably a sign of good game design.

Last year, the devs at MegaCrit tweeted that they were looking at a Switch and mobile version of the game after coming out of Early Access. It’s 2019 and the game is still in Early Access, although there has been a third class added and, more recently, Steam mod support. If and when Slay the Spire ever receives a mobile port, is likely the day that I earn a Corrective Action Report at work.

I can’t wait. Because then I might be able to get home sated, and ready to play something else.

Surplus Deficit

Last week, Keen blogged about a tweet that should be filed under “Things that make you go Hmm… not really”:

In a world of $5 lattes a game with 50 hours of content is worth $1,000. Instead, many won’t touch a game until some stupid Steam Sale. (source)

Wilhelm has already penned an exceptionally good take-down of the latte vs game comparison. What struck a cord in me the most, though, was this follow-up tweet:

The unwillingness to pay what a game is actually worth is why we have on disc DLC, F2P, micros for single player games, season passes, etc. (source)

This, my friends, is the embodiment of everything I warned about six years ago.

surplus1

We as consumers have been beaten down so often and for so long that the argument almost makes sense. It seems “fair” that someone gets paid a proportional amount for the benefit received. But the funny thing is that reasoning only ever seems to go in one direction. Price exceeds the amount it costs to create? Capitalism, working as intended. Benefit exceeds the price? Suddenly there’s a whole lot of hand-wringing and articles about Millennials killing functionally useless industries.

Fight for your own Consumer Surplus! The difference between how much you paid for something and the amount of enjoyment it provided is yours. That’s your profit, not the game company’s. These corporations will try to erode your consumer surplus with ever more novel monetization schemes, and other people might try to guilt you into “supporting the devs” or admonish your “unwillingness” to throw your hard-earned money in a hole for literally no reason. But the fact remains that it’s the game company‘s responsibility to effectively manage their own resources, to figure out what payment models they should utilize, etc. Not yours. Their business is not your responsibility.

Don’t settle for the precise intersection between Supply and Demand. Don’t let anyone make you feel guilty for getting a deal. If you want to donate extra money to random devs in some idealistic hope they generate future value, go for it. But understand this: the only person looking out for you, is you.

Mobile Mindspace

The rise of the mobile gaming over the last couple of years has been covered rather extensively already. And up to this point, I would have argued too extensively. As a phenomenon, it is certainly interesting seeing a market emerge in real-time, but it never really seemed to impact me. The “gamer” population swelled with the ranks of people playing Candy Crush, which had little to do with any core gamers. Maybe a few well-known studios released a mobile app, whatever.

This past weekend ended up being pretty busy, but I still managed to squeeze in around 5-7 hours of gaming. And close to 100% of that time were spent in mobile games on my phone.

Granted, a few of those hours would have been dead time had I not had my phone with me. But close to half of the total was literally me sitting at my computer desk, dicking around with Clash Royale and similar “time wasters.” Part of it was undoubtedly post-game depression stemming from completing Mass Effect: Andromeda. It is always tough for me to mentally transition from 80+ hours of one title into a brand new game that promises similar hours required.

The other part, though? I am wondering whether it is due to my age that I am gravitating towards more instant gratification. Or maybe traditional game designers are getting worse at their jobs?

I spent approximately 20 minutes playing FFXIV over the weekend. I logged in, talked to some NPCs, teleported to some cities, talked some more, then had to take a minute Chocobo ride back to the main base camp to complete the quest. The main story quest, mind you. I had more fun in the 60 seconds of dead time on the Chocobo than I did in the entire 20 minutes playing overall, as I was able to boot up a mobile game, snag some rewards, and restart some locked chest timers.

Now, of course watching chests explode with goodies is a cheap, diversionary tactic at best; it is hardly fair to compare such things to the slow burn of a (supposedly) epic narrative. At the same time, those now-empty chest slots drew my eye to the 2v2 Battle button hovering just above, fat with the promise of compelling and amusing gameplay just a press away. And if I just get 6 more crowns from destroying enemy towers, I can unlock another chest with even more goodies. Hmmmmm.

Needless to say, I logged off FFXIV soon after getting off the Chocobo.

I guess what I’m getting at is the shift towards mobile is a multi-layered “problem.” There is the vapid dopamine rush from getting easy rewards, sure. There is also the front-loaded fun gameplay in quick gaming sessions. Then there is a whole class of game (MMOs) which are utterly reliant on back-loaded… everything. And it is not even that clear that such back-loaded fun is actually required to be back-loaded – that is simply how things have traditionally been done. Why doesn’t Waking Sands in FFXIV have a teleporter when just about every other town does? Is there a legit reason?

I am beginning to question everything. Opening a chest is a vapid reward. Is it more vapid than gaining levels in a traditional MMO? I am playing a Monk in FFXIV, and even after the revamped combat that came with the Stormblood expansion, I’m getting bored to tears with such a limited amount of abilities. I am stuck with limited abilities because the designers don’t want me to get all of them at the beginning because they are afraid I won’t feel rewarded enough in levels 20-60 after having received my full rotation. And they are right to be worried about that – it sounds awful.

Know what else sounds awful? Spending my time playing this game when I can play something else and be having fun right now.

Mobile gaming has not completely consumed my gaming mindspace, as evidenced by the fact that I spent 90 hours in Mass Effect just before this. But I am finding that the proverbial Fun Floor has risen dramatically over the last few months for me, more than it ever has before. Presumably, I am going to remember the twists and turns of FFXIV’s (later) story way beyond Quick Battle #4,872, and thereby justify the time investment.

But sometimes you just want to, you know, have fun when you play videogames. Right now.

Reroll

There is a fascinating game design conundrum that I have encountered twice now, which can summed up by “Reroll.” This is not rerolling in the MMO sense – although it is arguably an issue with WoW’s Legion expansion vis-a-vis Legendaries – but rather in the sense of creating new accounts to take advantage (or mitigate damage) of random rewards. It is a conundrum with no good solutions, and it’s harder still to even imagine which solution is least bad.

The first time I encountered the Reroll dilemma was with the mobile app Puzzle & Dragons. After spending 20-30 minutes going through the tutorial, the game gives you one free pull on the Crack Machine, aka Gashapon, aka Lockbox, aka et cetera. This always results in a super rare (or higher) monster from a wide list of such, and represents pretty much the only guaranteed way to get one of these super monsters as a F2P player before the heat death of the universe.

(You can earn cash-like currency for future pulls on this same machine, but they aren’t guaranteed to be as rare a result as the first pull.)

The problems are many, and there is a deep gradient of bad for all of them. First, you could get a weak monster. While any rare monster is better than the starter monsters you normally get, it’s a fact that some of the pulls are absolutely abysmal in comparison to what you could have received.

Second, in the worst case scenario, you could get an okay monster. This is the worst case because… what do you do? Settle immediately? Reroll? If a result is terrible, the course is pretty clear. When it is technically alright, but not great, it’s hard to justify any particular decision.

Now, imagine you get “best” result: a super rare, super strong monster. Congratulations! Now you get to enjoy not using it for 20+ hours. Each monster has a point cost associated with it, and stronger ones cost more points. The only way to increase the team point limit is to level up your account, which requires getting XP, which requires going through dungeons and such.

The very first time I played Puzzles & Dragons, I got a middling result and just kept it, not knowing any better. While it was a middling monster, it had a lower point cost, which meant that I could use it right away. And I did so for many, many gameplay hours. When I realized my “mistake” later on, I decided to reroll for a better result. After a few dozen rerolls, I finally got a fantastic pull… that I couldn’t use until much later. I ended up quitting the game altogether before I even got to the point at which I could even field the monster.

The second time I encountered the Reroll dilemma was here recently, after installing Shadowverse. I might do a larger post on Shadowverse later, but the short version is that the game is Hearthstone: Anime Boob edition. The relevant point though is that after an extremely quick tutorial mission (which you can even skip), Shadowverse rewards you with almost 30+ free packs of cards.

I think you can see where this might be going.

None of the packs you receive are guaranteed to have any particular rarity. That said, opening all your free packs usually results in around 4-5 Legendary cards, but you can technically get as many as 6-10. Like any other CCG, some Legendaries are better than others, and of course even the good class-specific ones might be “wasted” if you don’t like that class’s mechanics. And thus… reroll.

The sad part in Shadowverse’s case is that there is both a Steam and mobile version of the game. Rerolling on mobile is easy in the sense that you just have to delete some app data and you’re good. On Steam? No rerolling, as your account is linked to a Steam ID. Had I done some research ahead of time, I would have discovered you can reroll a bunch of times on mobile first, and then link your mobile data to Steam and basically be good to go. Instead, I am stuck with my poor Steam results, unless I want to only play Shadowverse on mobile from now on. Or create new Steam accounts for just Shadowverse.

Or perhaps it is better this way, e.g. no rerolling. If I could reroll, I would. Perhaps the designers are simply saving me from myself. On the other hand, getting a bad result is kind of demoralizing. And unlike with Puzzle & Dragons, Shadowverse is ultimately a competitive game where having weaker cards is a real disadvantage.

I am not really sure what the design solution is here. Fundamentally, the problem arises from the intersection of free (random) stuff for new players and ease of new account generation. Tying accounts to more permanent things such as Steam IDs (ala Shadowverse) is perhaps one way with resolving the latter issue, but A) limiting mobile is harder, and B) it doesn’t address the simple fact that random rewards can radically impact your power in these games.

Simply removing the free stuff “resolves” the whole issue, but then you lose out on the “first hit of crack” lockbox effect and generally make the new player experience arguably worse with no catch-up mechanisms. Removing the random element might also “work,” but just changes the baseline and removes any sense of excitement.

So… yeah. dilemma.

Royale Plateau

I am nearing my end with Clash Royale. And not by choice.

One thing to note about Clash Royale is that it, like many games, is very rewarding right away. You get free treasure chests every four hours, with a maximum stack of two. Every eight hours, you can request cards from your clan. You have four slots for treasure chests from winning games. Every X hours, you have a Crown Chest that you unlock by accumulating 10 crowns (from destroying towers). My play pattern basically means I’m opening 1-2 chests every time I boot up the game.

The problem is you run into a very real payslope eventually.

I have been “stuck” in the Royal Arena 7 for going on a month now (or more). My highest trophy count is 2575, which is still pretty far from hitting the last Arena level. But for the most part… I don’t care about that, since nothing new unlocks at Arena 8.

In the meantime, day after day, I open chests and get the same rares/common cards. Upgrading from level 8 commons/level 6 rares to the next higher level is something that takes weeks-worth of gold, for only very marginal gains comparatively.

But it’s not even about that either. My progression is stuck. Here is my setup:

ClashRoyale_Deck

The Baby Dragon slot fluctuates between Barbarians and/or Mini PEKKA.

It is essentially a Judo deck – a reactive deck that relies on countering my opponent’s push and then winning via superior plays. It lacks the sheer ridiculous power of some other deck openers, but it is decently resilient, as evidenced by my trophy levels. Could I use other cards? Maybe. My only level 3 epics though are Freeze, Crossbow, and Mirror. Meanwhile, everyone I face seems to have level 3+ relevant epics and legendary cards. I keep thinking that if I were to get Prince up to level 3 or Balloon or something, that would provide enough of an incentive for me to change my deck.

Then I realized that my little skeleton bomber is a strictly worse Princess or Ice Wizard. All cost 3 elixir, all fill similar roles, but the latter two are (of course) legendary cards that could change the course of games all by themselves. This is a poisonous sort of knowledge though, as each and every chest I open that doesn’t contain a replacement legendary is a waste of time. The expectation that such a legendary will be opened is fallacious, of course, as the odds were remote in the first place, much less that this particular chest will contain one.

And so, here I am.

Most people would say “at least you got 2+ months of entertainment from a mobile app.” That is true. But in experiencing these last MMO-esque gasps yet again… well, it makes me long for the mercy of a quick, definitive end of gameplay. You know, to finish a game before you’re done with it.