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Hitman GO and the Pit of F2P

August 25, 2014 Leave a comment

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On my way to make a killing…

I’ve been looking for a new smartphone game recently. It’s a fraught process these days. The goal is to secure a source of entertainment. The dilemma you face is this: do you go free or do you pay? I’ve done both, and I’ve returned from the wilderness of the App Store with dusty wisdom.

Free-to-play (F2P), or freemium (ugh), games have flooded App Stores in recent years. After all, with so much competition, it’s all about about ensuring that as many people as possible sample your wares. Free entry means that there’s no barrier, so the potential audience is everyone who has a device capable of playing your game. With such a large audience, only a small percentage have to make “in-app purchases” for a game to be profitable.

The problem is that F2P games are a balancing act. On the bright side, they can offer you plenty of enjoyment at no cost, with the option of throwing in some cash for more of the same, or faster progression. On the dark side, the reminders to spend money can be relentless, multiplayer games can fall into “pay-to-win” scenarios, and progression can become a terrible grind for those unwilling to fork over their money.

My first attempts at finding a new game headed in the direction of golf games. (Blame Rory McIlroy’s recent success for that.) I’ve an old copy of EA’s Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2012, but it’s creaky and buggy now. EA’s King of the Golf Course seemed like a sensible replacement, and its core mechanic was beautifully smooth, but the game structure of a linear set of challenges devolved into a slow grind after a couple of days. Com2uS USA Inc.’s Golf Star was even worse: old-fashioned mechanics stuffed into an overly ornate game that never missed a chance to encourage you to spend money. Both were highly rated on the App Store. Both are no longer on my phone.

It doesn’t have to be this way for F2P games. NimbleBit’s NimbleQuest is an addictive arcade game that is fun to play even as you’re grinding, and their Pocket Trains trades a little immediate fun for a lot more strategy. Plain Vanilla Corp.’s QuizUp is still one of the best multiplayer experiences on the iPhone for trivia geeks. Gameloft’s Rival Knights devolved into excessive grinding by the end but was fun until then. PopCap’s Plants vs. Zombies 2 took a F2P approach to a superlatively fun paid game and only suffered because it made the game more complex, a different kind of entry barrier.

The fact is though, I’ve found that the best results are to be had when you’re willing to pay for a game that isn’t going to nag you or slow your progress. You’re rarely going to be paying more than the price of a pint or two for an iPhone or iPad game, and for that price, ten or more hours of entertainment is a small price to pay.

Paid games seem particularly suited to more story-based titles, games with a finite span. Capybara Games’ Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery is an absorbing adventure, beautifully presented. Bossa Studios Thomas Was Alone is a similarly absorbing recreation of an atmospheric online puzzle game. Lastly, usTwo’s Monument Valley is a perspective-based puzzle game, perfectly suited to touch screens. I paid for all three and don’t regret it, even if Monument Valley is a little light on content.

There’s plenty of space for both models in the App Store economy. F2P games when you want to sample, browse and check things out. Paid games when you know what you want. Well, I tried out the browsing side of things, but if was paying that got me what I wanted.

Square Enix’s Hitman GO, (pictured above) is a genuinely strange mobile adaptation of a first-person assassinate-em-up. Rather than try to recreate the shooting segments of the game that inspired it, the mobile version focuses on the tactical thought behind it, locking the player into a turn-based board game as they make their way through a multitude of levels, setting numerous targets along the way.

The board-game aesthetic is beautifully realised and feels only a little cramped on a phone screen. The rules of the game are rigid enough to allow the player to plan, and the occasionally mutually exclusive achievements encourage replay. There are a massive number of levels too, with the option of paying for more if you want to. (The line between F2P and paid is blurry in places.) At some point in the future, I may exhaust its appeal, but by then I’ll have long since got my money’s worth.

Comparing Distractions

January 9, 2014 1 comment
Yes, my image editing kung-fu is not strong.

Only one will walk away…

Over the Christmas period, I went in search of distractions. Specifically, of new apps that would entertain me while wasting my time. (I’m trying to give up on apps that promise entertainment but actually just waste time in various elaborate ways.) The result of this search was two promising free apps, Clumsy Ninja and QuizUp. As usual, I’m a little late to the party in both cases, but they’re an interesting study in contrasts anyway.

Clumsy Ninja (Natural Motion, iOS, Free) is the latest in a long line of virtual pets, stretching all the way back to Tamagotchis. In this case, your task is to take a clumsy ninja (hence the title) and train him up until he’s capable of rescuing his friend from a mysterious villain. The story is a thin veneer at best, but really it’s all about playing with your ninja using various toys. He has plenty of character, and though he’s not as reactive as some virtual pets, the sense of progression will keep you coming back to play with new toys as your ninja visibly improves.

QuizUp (Plain Vanilla, iOS, Free) is a very different beast. Rather than you and a virtual pet, it’s you versus the rest of the world. Melding Wikipedia, table quizzes, TV quiz shows and social networks, it challenges you to compete against anyone, anywhere on the topics of your choice. It’s a genius move—most people have at least one topic that they’d consider themselves to be an expert on, and QuizUp offers rewards for that expertise: rising through global and national leaderboards, crushing your friends and showing off. And if that’s appealing to the general public, it’s going to be even more appealing to true quiz freaks (like yours truly).

As free apps, both Clumsy Ninja and QuizUp rely on in-app purchases for funding. More specifically, both of them thrive on human impatience. Ninja allows you to buy crystals (part of its by-now standard two-tier currency system) that allow the purchase of in-app goods, such as costumes, or quicker repairs to training equipment. However, you can earn a small amount of crystals through the game itself, and the sense of progression is balanced so that you never feel things are going punishingly slow.

QuizUp’s in-app purchases are a little trickier: you buy experience boosts to double, triple or quadruple your experience gains from every quiz you take part in for an hour. It’s therefore possible to shoot up the ranks a lot quicker than non-paying competitors, but it won’t be cheap. Plus, it doesn’t matter how much you pay: head-to-head, it’s all about knowing the answers to the questions. In fact, those who don’t pay might have an advantage there: there are a finite, albeit plentiful, number of questions on each topic, and by the time you’ve reached the upper ranks in any topic you’ll likely have memorised many of them.

Both games obey the important rule for phone apps of keeping play times short and sweet. Each individual QuizUp bout lasts a maximum of just over a minute, so you can fit plenty into a bus trip, and even one or two into waiting for the kettle to boil. Similarly, with Clumsy Ninja, you may have a few tasks to complete and 4-5 training items to use, but a few minutes will see you through all of them, and built-in “repair times” mean there’s no need to play more than once every couple of hours.

It’s not hard to see why both of these apps are as successful as they are. Clumsy Ninja is polished, sweet-natured and rewarding, and it’s gentle with its in-app purchase prompts. It’s the first time I’ve played around with a Virtual Pet app, and while I’m not in love with the concept, I’m enjoying it enough to stick around for now.

That said, QuizUp is by far my favourite of the two apps, and that’s not just because I love quizzes. Its use of social networks to provide a competitive environment and supply it with a bank of questions is inspired, and there are a multitude of clever touches. Games against random strangers are played in real-time, but you can challenge your Facebook or Twitter friends to asynchronous duels, with the app reporting the results once you’re both finished.

It’s not quite perfect, but the few problems it has will likely be resolved with time. As mentioned, expert players have probably memorised most of the questions in their favoured topics, making duels with them more a matter of memory and speed of reaction (you get bonus points based on how quick you answer a question) than knowledge. However, the app’s web site permits users to submit questions (which can be queried in-game, adding a Wikipedia-like quality control element to proceedings), potentially solving that issue over the long term. The other issue is probably just a niggle for me: the app’s presentation of its gathered data. There’s no clear way to see your head-to-head record against a friend, and the app itself conflates categories (science, history, etc.) with their constituent topics (Chemistry, Ancient Rome, etc.) in presenting user statistics. A little more thought applied to this area could really sharpen QuizUp up.

Ultimately, though, it’s the application of the social that sets QuizUp apart. In Clumsy Ninja, training your ninja up only matters to you and your pet. In QuizUp, you can become the best in your country or even the world at a given topic, if you’re willing to put the time in.* And that’s just far more of a draw. Maybe a future version of Clumsy Ninja will offer duels or obstacle course races between users’ ninjas, but for now, it’s QuizUp by a length.

* If you think you have what it takes to compete against a former 15-to-1 episode winner, you can find me as “Cerandor” on the app. 🙂

It’s About Time for Zombies

August 22, 2013 Leave a comment

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Part of the Pirate World in PvZ2

Plants Vs Zombies 2, Popcap, iOS, Free

No game on my iPhone engaged me as long or as deeply as the original Plants Vs Zombies. A tower-defence game blessed with an abundance of humour, impressive cartoon visuals and a catchy score (including the best end credits song since Portal), it also had the benefit of a developer that continued to enhance and upgrade the game for several years after it came out, with new game modes and other add-ons.

Well, the sequel has finally landed, in the form of Plants Vs Zombies 2: It’s About Time, a punning, double-meaning subtitle that reassures fans of the original that the same twisted brains are still in charge. The big change this time around is that PvZ2 is free-to-play. The game itself comes without charge, but players can decided to pay more for extras within the game itself.

Free-to-play is rightly viewed with some suspicion. It’s a new business model for the games industry, and earlier efforts to make it work have resulted in crippled games that frustrate players. Luckily, PvZ2 takes another tack: the game offers an abundance of content, all of which can be accessed for free, but players can spend some coin to make their passage through the game easier or to buy some new plants to improve the variety of the experience.

As far as gameplay goes, the winning formula hasn’t been altered: the player places plants on the left of the screen and zombies attack from the right in waves of increasing intensity. There are some new elements thrown in, such as new plants and new zombies, but if anything the variety is a little bit down compared to the state the first game reached with all its expansions in place.

Tweaks have been added to the gameplay in the form of new special powers. Plant food supercharges plants temporarily and coins can be spent to activate special powers that will squish, electrocute or fling zombies offscreen. For an old-school player, these powers can seem a little like cheating, but the game is balanced so that while plant food is often necessary, the special powers rarely are. However, the in-battle currencies of plant food and coins do add complexity to a game laden with currencies (the familiar sun for buying new plants, stars for completing new levels and keys to unlock new routes).

These routes are the big change in the presentation of the game world. The first game took place in a back yard, by day and night, with a pool and without, and occasionally afflicted by fog. The player progressed from level to level, in a linear fashion. In PvZ2, the game is split into three worlds (Ancient Egypt, Pirates and Wild West, with an upcoming Far Future world having been announced). Each one is completed by following a linear path, but keys gained during battles allow the player to unlock side paths and gain extra plants and abilities thereby.

It’s a slightly more graphically intense game than the old one (only iPhone 4 and above need apply), and the graphics designed for retina displays take a little adjusting to, but everything is in order gameplay-wise. It’s as addictive as the old game—I’ve already completed the first world and made my way through part of the second, at a time when I really shouldn’t be playing games (or writing reviews of them).

The one niggle I’d point out? Although the side routes in each game world do offer different challenges akin to the mini-games of the first game, there’s no way to tell which one is which from the isometric world map. It’s a bit of an odd design decision, and one that I suspect will be fixed in further updates. If nothing else, Popcap’s reputation breeds confidence in the fact that this will be a well-supported game for a long time to come.

Recommending this game is a no-brainer (ahem). For no money at all, you get the same great gameplay of the original PvZ, and you can happily play through it without spending a penny. My only worry is that a lot of people will do just that, and that PvZ2 won’t be the financial success it deserves to be. Because, honestly, we could all do with more games like this.

(A quick reminder to clarify: the Android version of PvZ2 isn’t out yet, but it isn’t likely to differ too much from the above.)

Pocket Planes: Fly the 8-bit Skies

June 29, 2012 Leave a comment

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Flying out of Baghdad – generally considered a questionable idea…

Not too long ago, in a review of Tiny Tower, I commented that the publisher, Nimblebit, may have missed a trick in not selling out to Zynga, which proceeded to photocopy its game when rebuffed. As addictive as Tiny Tower was, it was an ultimately shallow experience, with most of the enjoyment coming from comparing towers with your friends. Well, I may have been worried prematurely, for Nimblebit’s follow up to Tiny Tower, Pocket Planes, is in an entirely different league.

Instead of building a skyscraper and filling it with stores, apartments and occupants, Nimblebit now asks you to craft a globe-spanning airline, starting from a handful of airports and a few rickety planes. It might seem obvious, but the premise of the game permits it much greater depth than Tiny Tower, as you actually have to think about how you expand: go for cheap airports for quick cash or save for more expensive ones and build for the future.

Some Tiny Tower mechanics are carried over: the whimsical 8-bit graphics and tone, and the “bitizens” that fly with your airline. There are still two forms of currency as well: cash for building and upgrading airports and “bux” for purchasing new planes and hurrying your flights. You can purchase bux for cash through the game, but there’s nothing you need to spend money to achieve. All it costs you is a little more patience.

The main substance of the game comes in routing flights of bitizens and cargo from one airport to another: the further the flight, the more money you make, and if you can fill a plane with items for a single destination, you’ll get a bonus. Meandering flights will make you less money (or even cost you money), so some strategic thinking when purchasing airports will pay off in the long run. As your airline grows, you’ll purchase airports further and further apart and faster planes with longer ranges to connect them. In turn, you’ll need to concentrate on higher tier airports that can support those planes.

There are plenty of achievements to pursue, unlockable items to collect, upgrades to pay for and cosmetic changes to tinker with. As for social elements, there’s both a step forward and a step back from Tiny Tower. The ability to view your friends’ efforts has been lost, but in its place there’s a chance to cooperate as part of a “Flight Crew” sharing a hashtag to achieve particular tasks in-game and win bux and special aircraft. It’s a little less personal, but it offers new content every few days, and novelty in a game like this is an important feature.

Pocket Planes isn’t perfect: it’s still a little buggy, with a tendency to quit quite often and an odd Flight Crew glitch that delivered me way more bux than I’d actually earned. The Flight Crew mechanic is also somewhat compromised by the fact that the #toucharcafde hashtag is by far the biggest anywhere. Still, Nimblebit will undoubtedly patch the game until it works smoothly, and for a free offering, there’s a huge amount of content in here. Whether I’ll follow it as far as I did with Tiny Tower, a game that burned out my obsessive-compulsive habit, I’m not sure. However, Pocket Planes is a far superior game to its predecessor and well worth trying out just to see if it suits you.

Mass Effect 3: Endings are Hard

March 25, 2012 1 comment

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Not Vancouver’s best day ever…

The biggest game release of 2012 so far has come and gone, trailing controversy in its wake. Fans of the Mass Effect series have been enraged by what they see as a substandard ending for Bioware’s space opera magnum opus and have raised a lot of noise (and money) about it. I’ll talk a little about the ending later, but if you want deeper, more philosophical, design-oriented takes on the ending, you can read them here, here, or here.

In any case, if you have an interest in Mass Effect 3, beware of SPOILERS from here on in.

The first thing that you have to realise about Mass Effect 3 is that it’s all pay off. Unlike the first two games, where you had an abundance of side-quests to distract you as you pursued the main plot, here all of those smaller missions contribute to the main plotline. And if you’ve played through the previous two games in the series, it’s massively satisfying, occasionally heartbreaking and once or twice hilarious as it brings to a close the stories of the richly drawn characters who have accompanied you through the series. Which is not to say that there’s nothing for newcomers: the lengthy intro to the third instalment ably sets up the players and the stakes, but you won’t get the full effect if you’re coming in fresh.

As far as gameplay goes, Mass Effect 3 represents a bit of a step back from the streamlining that took place between the first and second games. The combat feels more fluid than ever, if significantly more finicky, with controls that are apt to put you in the wrong place if you get too enthusiastic with the key/button presses. With increased weapon and armour options, there’s plenty for you to tinker with too.

The sense of everything you do having an effect on a galactic war does lend weight to the decisions you make, and fittingly Bioware has the central Shepard character show the stress of the losses and compromises required to make that war winnable. (This sense of player agency is somewhat undercut by the fact that unless you play the game’s multiplayer mode or use the clunky Mass Effect Datapad smartphone app, it can be much harder, if not impossible, to reach the very best conclusion.)

So, anyway, onto that ending. And, in case I didn’t say it loudly enough before, SPOILERS.

The ending, by which I mean the final few scenes, draws on two main sources, one good and one iffy. The first is the original Deus Ex game, where the main character is presented with a choice that will change the world (and apart from scale, the choices presented in Mass Effect 3 are identical). The second is The Matrix Reloaded, where a heretofore unsuspected god in the machine reveals himself and offers the main character an insight into the true reasons behind the conflict they’ve participated in.

Now, I’m a completist. I scoured every inch of the galaxy in all three games, and I only found one hint, late in the third game, that there was some director behind the massive threat of the Reapers. So there was a lack of impact to him when he showed up. Secondly, of the three choices you’re offered, one of them is barely explained, even though it seems to be the preferred option from the designers’ point of view. So on the front of emerging from the choices that the character has made and the story that he or she has experienced, the ending falls short. However, I do love the fact that all three choices in the ending adhere to the theme of sacrifice, either of yourself or of at least one friend and possibly an entire race, in order to ensure the galaxy’s future.

Anyone who’s tried to put together a compelling narrative will tell you that endings are hard. Providing a pay off for a story as big as Mass Effect was always going to be a massive task, and I can see where Bioware wanted to go with the ending: consequences at a scale appropriate to the tale being told and a sense of closure to Shepard’s personal journey. However, Peter Jackson spent half an hour on the ending/epilogue for his Lord of the Rings trilogy, so fan disappointment at the two brief cut scenes that round off the Mass Effect series is understandable.

Still, that doesn’t mean that the final game in the series isn’t worth playing. It’s a compelling, finely crafted narrative wrapped up in a polished storytelling and gameplay engine, and it’s done horrible things to my productivity over the past week. Even if it doesn’t spot the landing perfectly, it still engages and enthralls throughout its performance and is worthy of the high scores that it’s been getting.

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