Aggressive Monetization Ruins Games

Look, I understand that game publishers need to make money. I get that. I’m not going to write a frothing rant about how DLC and microtransactions are destroying the landscape of gaming. I’m not going to stack up some hippy-dippy malarky about how creativity and capitalism are at odds and any company that “sells out” has lost the plot. I’m not going to howl and rave about season passes or lootboxes or “$39.99 best value!” piles of in-game funny money.

Companies are here to make money. I understand. I don’t need the lecture.

But I like game ideas. I like seeing even very simple ideas in action and going, “Cool!” I like the thought of some poor, faceless game dev grunt signing on with one of these monstrous mobile game companies, being tasked with making Bongo the Bear Taps His Screen (and Then Asks For Your Parents’ Credit Card) or whatever, and actually managing to inject some fun and creativity into it. I like to acknowledge talent wherever I find it, even if it’s in the badly-organized cash-grab hellscape of the Google Play store.

I want to share two mobile games I’ve been playing recently. One I really like, and will probably keep playing, at least for a while. The other I sank about five hours into over the course of a week, then uninstalled in disgust. These games have two very simple things in common:

  1. They’re both perfectly fine games, which would be well worth, say, a $4.99 asking price.
  2. They both have a major flaw smack in the middle of their gameplay loop, which would not exist if not for their aggressive monetization.

Wordscapes

Wordscapes is a find-the-word game. You’re given a group of letters in a circle, and then you have to make all the words you can think of with those letters. I have a soft spot for uncomplicated little word games like this, and I’ve tried a few that are out there, but Wordscapes packages its ideas up in a way I hadn’t seen before. Instead of just listing the words you find, Wordscapes plugs them into a crossword. For me, this makes all the difference.

Other games in this style I’ve tried have a pretty dumb problem: you end up with all but one of the words on your list, some obscure four-letter Scrabble reject you aren’t going to find on your own. Your only recourse, other than brute force, is to use the game’s hint system (which is, of course, backed by microtransactions). Or, if you’re a savvy Internet hero like I am, Google it using one of those online word finders that ruined Words With Friends for everyone.

What sucks is, using a hint system in a game like this isn’t satisfying. It’s not a puzzle, there’s no logic or cleverness to work through, you either know the words or you don’t. You can’t get a nudge. You basically find all but one word on a level, then ask what the last word is, and the game is like “FROE!” and you’re like ok whatev, next level please.

What Wordscapes does, with its crossword layout, is build an unobtrusive hint system right into the base game. As you knock down the obvious words, including the big one that uses all the letters, the crossword gets filled in, giving you a few freebie letters in the words you have trouble with. When you swipe in “ROSE”, and figure out your last word has R as a second letter, well, you probably still wouldn’t guess “FROE” but at least the searching space is a lot smaller. It’s a neat system that keeps you moving through the levels at a relaxing pace.

There’s a minor innovation, too, which I didn’t realize was helping me at first, but which I really came to appreciate: obscure and obscene words don’t go into the crossword, but count as “bonus words” instead. So the game acknowledges that, say, “RAPED” is indeed a word that uses those letters, and gives you credit for them, but doesn’t take up space on your screen. And if you happen to know what a “FROE” is, you get credit for that too, but level completion isn’t locked behind finding it. This is a neat feature that didn’t happen by accident; a smart game designer noticed the issues other word games were having, and solved them elegantly.

There are powerups you can buy with the in-game currency, which uncovers letters on the board for you, if you really get stuck. The more coins you sink in, the more letters you’ll get. I mostly ignore these because the game isn’t super challenging, but I assume most players use them at least part of the time. I like the bullseye powerup that lets you reveal one specific letter of your choosing; I sometimes use this to get a hint for the rare disconnected words that show up on the edges of puzzles. The game dumps coins in your lap to buy these with, if you need them.

And, of course, you can buy as many coins as you want with real money.

Reviews of Wordscapes complain that the game has too many ads. And, ah, the game does have a lot of ads. Every two levels or so, you have to watch a video shilling Texas Toast or find the hidden “close this ad” button on whatever Bejeweled clone is being pooped out this week. I mostly don’t mind the ads, and they’re not what ruins the game for me.

What ruins the game are the bees.

I’m not totally sure how the bees work. The game gave me a bunch of free ones early on, and when I ran out, it helpfully explained I could buy more anytime. I think the bees get placed on the crossword grid, sometimes revealing letters for you, and awarding you with extra coins as you go.

But you can’t earn more bees, ever. You can only buy them. They’re for premium players only. If you don’t pay, you don’t get any bees.

Are bees a fun and interesting aspect of Wordscapes? If so, then I’m missing out on a fun and interesting feature because it’s been locked up behind a paywall. If not, then they shouldn’t be in the game at all. As far as I can tell they only help reveal letters (which the hint powerups already do) and reward you with coins (which you can already buy). If you need hints, you’re covered. If you want to spend money to buy more hints, you’re covered there too. I don’t see what the point of the bees are, from a gameplay perspective.

It looks like what happened was the Wordscapes guys made a fully-functional, reasonably addictive word game, showed it to their boss, and their boss’s boss’s boss sent word back that it needs bees and this is how bees should work and this is how much they should cost. It’s a totally tacked-on feature that feels like it doesn’t belong at all.

These bees are vocabulary tumors.

Obviously the bees didn’t make me quit Wordscapes. I used the game this past week to unwind a bit after all the Thanksgiving activity. I still like making words and watching coins fly into my giant pile. But it bugs me that every level I play has this annoying “buy more bees” button on it, and always will, for as long as I enjoy the game.

Toon Blast

I played about eighty levels of Toon Blast before uninstalling it.

This is your basic color-matching game. You tap blocks of a particular color, and if there are enough of them clumped together, they explode and new blocks fall in from the top of the screen. Destroying enough blocks at once condenses the exploded blocks down into powerups, which in turn let you clear more blocks. You’ve played a million games like this.

Toon Blast doesn’t lock any of the powerups behind a paywall. In fact, you unlock usable powerups at a pretty steady clip, and they line up on the bottom of your screen. These are like your “emergency powerups”, for when you need to clear a particular block in order to set up an impressive looking combo, or when you’re two moves away from winning a level with one move left.

The final piece of the Toon Blast puzzle is the large amount of types of blocks in the game. There are actually more different block types than there are standard block colors, each with their own behaviors and interactions. When you combine all the different block types with the powerups you can make while playing, and sprinkle the emergency powerups on top of that, there’s actually a surprising amount of strategy involved in clearing each level. There’s no time limit ticking away forcing fast, stupid play (which is the case in a lot of block-matching games), so the Toon Blast experience ends up being thoughtful and liesurely.

And there isn’t an ad break every two levels. So that’s nice.

Without a time limit, and with all these powerups laying around, where then does the challenge come from. Well, Toon Blast limits the number of moves you can take in a given level. A “move” is defined as “tapping a block on the screen”, and if you can’t clear all your objectives in, say, 44 taps, you fail the level. Then Sad Bear pops up and asks if you want to pay 100 coins for five more moves, or if you want to give up. If you elect to give up, Sad Bear points out that means you have to also “give up your crown”, and I have no idea what wearing a crown does in the context of the game, but who would want to give up a crown? And anyway, the game basically poops coins on you constantly, so if you’re faced with Sad Bear and you can see you’re only a few moves away from completing the level, this looks like a pretty good deal.

However, if you’ve misjudged your win state by just a smidge, you might run out of extra moves, and cause Sad Bear to pop up again. This time, five more bonus moves is going to run you 200 coins. And, if you misjudge twice, 300 on his next visit. All the while you’re being warned that your crown (??) is in jeopardy. And you figure, well, I’ve already sank 600 coins into this, I might as well sink another 400 to beat this one stupid level, and wow, now 50+ levels’ worth of coins is wiped out in a blink.

If you’re like me, you might just throw the crown away and retry the level. The game has thought of this too, and Sad Bear works very hard to prevent it. First, the “+5 Moves” button is way bigger than the “Give Up” button, and Sad Bear gives you like three chances to mix them up with his “Are you REALLY sure you’re a stupid loser who gives up?” prompts. But okay, you push through all that, and restart the level. But then you lose a life, of which you only have five, and they only grow back at a rate of once per 30 minutes.

This all sounds pretty insidious: if you’re stuck on a level, you only get to try it a few times per sitting before you run out of lives and can’t play anymore. (Sad Bear will helpfully text message you when you have more lives to play with, of course.) This system immediately sucks all the fun out of the game, because you don’t get to actually go in and try new strategies or combinations of powerups. You don’t get to try playing with all the fun block types in new ways, or set up new combos, or really much of anything. The game discourages experimenting with its systems — which are fun and colorful and combine in interesting ways — because experimenting actively hurts you.

This is all designed to funnel you into what I imagine is a very common screen for the most active Toon Blast players: the big attractive button that gives you more lives for real cash.

I was willing to deal with all of this, because I enjoyed the core gameplay enough. (Well, not all of it. I blocked Sad Bear the first time he texted me, because eff that ess in the bee.) What really nailed the game for me was the inclusion of BS levels.

All puzzle-y games with random elements have these kinds of levels. I’m sure you remember trying to forge new spells or whatever in Puzzle Quest, or clear a particular section of overlapping track in Zuma, and just not getting the pieces you need. Every Tetris player learns immediately to build up their stack with one empty vertical slice against a wall, only to lose it all because the game went 30 moves without coughing up an I-piece. This is just an element of the colored-block-puzzle genre.

But Toon Blast is so slick and so polished, so very purposely designed, that I couldn’t shake the feeling that a boss in a suit somewhere said, “Okay, once every 20 levels or so, make sure there’s one that’s just complete BS. Tweak it just perfectly so there’s always just two or three fewer moves than the player needs.”

I can swallow a lot of BS in games, because their emergent properties sometimes lend themselves to BS. Sometimes Shadow Man slides when it looks like he’s going to fire, sometimes Zeromus’s ATB just happens to line up so you get Virus’d immediately after getting Big Bang’d. It happens. You get screwed, you reset, you win next time.

But specifically designing your gameplay to have this property, for the explicit purpose of having Sad Bear pop up and ask for cash… wow. It made the whole game incredibly sour. When I cleared a fun level in a satisfying way, the sense of achievement was sapped because I knew the next level might be BS. The rewards for clearing that level didn’t matter either, because I knew the next BS level would just flush all those coins and powerups, leaving me destitute of in-game funny money. And that’s if I was lucky.

I don’t want to pay Toon Blast a dollar every time I get slapped with a level that is purposely designed to be impossible within the boundaries of the game’s rules. I’d much rather pay Toon Blast $4.99, once, and then just enjoy playing it.

Again, I’m not here to rail against games that monetize their features. I can appreciate that the old quarter-munching arcades were a viable business model, and that a lot of these modern mobile games are just an extension of that.

But even in 1985, even in those old dingy arcades, there was a difference between designing a game to be fun, challenging, and rewarding, versus designing a game to just eat quarters. Pac-Man got your quarters by being fun and addictive, with simple gameplay and a steady drip-feed of minor in-game rewards. When the ghosts caught you, they didn’t apologize and offer to let you go for a dollar (and two dollars, next time).

Thank you for reading this post about mobile games nobody cares about!

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