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Free-to-Play Three Ways: Capitals, Future Fight and Fallout Shelter

July 2, 2015 Leave a comment
Sometimes, I just revert to mucking around in Pixelmator instead.

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I have no aversion to spending money on mobile games, and some of my best experiences with iOS games have been paid for: Plants Vs Zombies, Hitman Go, Thomas Was Alone and Monument Valley to name but four. Still, the plethora of free-to-play games does allow me to try out new gameplay experiences more or less forever, as long as I’m willing to risk the intrusion of money-making schemes into your fun. Recently, I’ve been playing three F2P games that have taken very different approaches to monetising fun, with very different results.

Monetization-Lite: Capitals, NimbleBit

Capitals is a clever little app that combines a Scrabble-like word game with some simple head-to-head strategy. You and your opponent start with one space each (your “capital”) on a hexagonal board, and the aim is to grow your territory and ultimately conquer your opponent. You do this by claiming spaces: each space has a letter, and if you use the letter in a space connected to your territory, you expand into it. But if your opponent claims territory bordering yours, some of your territory will turn neutral again.

A huge amount of strategy emerges from this simple gameplay: Sometimes it’s better to avoid a big word in favour of shoring up your defences. Sometimes you see an opportunity to strike deep into your opponent’s territory. Sometimes you want to use up convenient letters so as to cramp your opponent’s options. In the games I’ve played, some have been brief and wild struggles, others chess-like confrontations of advance and retreat.

There’s not much to complain about on the gameplay front: a few games turned into slogs as I tried to grind my opponent down (or they tried to grind me down), but there’s plenty of fun to be had. All the same, you wonder whether NimbleBit thought out their F2P strategy very far. Right now you can pay for unlimited “lives,” which you can also claim by watching promotional videos (one view equals one life). It feels restrictive, and Nimblebit might have been better simply making this a cheap paid game instead. Still, they’ve been updating Capitals gradually since it came out, and they might yet get the balance right. In the interim, I’d recommend giving it a try.

Monetization-Heavy: Marvel Future Fight, Netmarble

I’m a comic book geek, and when it comes to superheroes, you can Make Mine Marvel. So a F2P fighting game starring a range of Marvel heroes, with good gameplay and high production values should be a winner, right? Future Fight certainly makes a good start, giving you three leading heroes (Iron Man, Captain America and Black Widow) to start with and plenty of free goodies just for logging in every day. But it then buries the whole experience under layers of complexity, social networking hooks and premium currencies.

The core gameplay is a lot of fun—the three hero types (brawler, speed and ranged), are each stronger or weaker against one of the other types. Missions last no more than two minutes, providing experience and equipment to improve your heroes, and there’s even a story illustrated with quick cut scenes before and after missions. So that’s fun. The problem is that managing everything else becomes a chore. There are multiple ways to improve your hero, multiple types of mission you can take on, and coins, gems and tokens galore to collect.

If you’ve got the patience to get to grips with all of this, there’s a rewarding game to be found under all of the cruft. However, I found myself reduced to logging in once a day to pick up my daily reward, telling myself that I’d try to get to grips with it later. I never did. It’s one of the problems of F2P—having paid nothing, I’m not invested, and the grind of gaining expertise and levelling up my characters has put me off. Which is a shame. This is a well-coded, slick and fun game that might have done better had it been paid-for with much less in the way of complications.

Just Right?: Fallout Shelter, Bethesda Game Studios

Fallout Shelter caused a lot of fuss when Bethesda announced it alongside Fallout 4 at E3 recently. As a promotional iOS app, trading on an established franchise name and using a F2P model, it could have been awful. It isn’t. In fact, it’s one of the friendliest F2P games out there, with an in-app purchase model that actually seems to work. (It’s currently at #18 in the top-grossing games in Ireland.) How did Bethesda manage this? By keeping things simple and sticking to the feel of the Fallout franchise.

Whimsical ‘50s nuclear paranoia might not seem like a good basis for a game, but it’s worked for Fallout for years. The main Fallout games have been roleplaying-focused, but this is a management game that charges you with creating a paradisiacal “Vault” in the midst of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. To do this, you’ll have to guide your vault dwellers to create food, water, energy and medical supplies, send them out to explore the wasteland, and encourage them to breed in order to swell your population. Do it right and everyone will be blissfully happy. Do it wrong and you’ll have miserable, radiation-raddled inhabitants who fall prey to radroaches, raiders and the occasional nuclear reactor fire.

The first ingredient that makes this game so appealing is the grace notes sprinkled across the game (equipment descriptions, wasteland explorers’ journals, and cheesy banter between dwellers—the writing is uniformly excellent). The second ingredient is an in-app purchase system that doesn’t intrude and even enhances the game. The standard currency is bottle-caps, with which you pay for new rooms (and occasionally resurrecting unlucky vault dwellers). The premium currency is lunchboxes, which serve as booster packs that contain equipment, caps or dwellers, some of them better than any you’re likely to find in game. You can earn these lunchboxes through the game, but the excitement of opening a new one is enough to encourage you to plonk down actual money for more.

It’s not a perfect game—the learning curve is a little steep if you don’t RTFM, and there’s a lack of depth in the challenges you’ll face as you build your Vault beyond 100 inhabitants. But even so, it manages the SimCity trick of making you feel proud of what you’ve created while allowing you to peek in on the lives of your dwellers and even get a little invested in their continued existence.

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Tiny Death Star

November 18, 2013 Leave a comment

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It’s a hard life as building manager of the Death Star…

Nimblebit, iOS, Free

It’s a mark of how watered-down Star Wars has become that Tiny Death Star even exists. The villains of the original trilogy, a bunch of faceless, menacing, planet-destroying quasi-fascists are here rendered down into cutesy 8-bit form, as you’re asked to fund the construction of the planet-destroying battle station by turning it into a residential/commercial emporium.

Yeah, someone didn’t put a lot of thought into that. Best to just roll with it.

Tiny Death Star is, of course, a reskin and slight reworking of Nimblebit’s hugely popular Tiny Tower, taking the basic mechanics of building a tower block and filling it with inhabitants and things for them to buy and tweaking it for a kiddiefied version of the Star Wars universe. As such, anyone who’s played Tiny Tower will find themselves right at home. However, they may also find themselves uncomfortably constrained.

The big draw of Tiny Death Star is the Star Wars ambience, and the game sprinkles it around liberally, with famous figures from the movies roaming the levels of your growing battle station, sometimes incongruously so. Fittingly, the soundtrack also consists of musak versions of famous Star Wars themes, though these soon enough grate through repetition alone.

Tiny Tower’s gameplay has also been tweaked in several ways. In addition to the standard residential and commercial floors, you can also build Imperial levels, which allow you to complete missions (about which more later). Since these levels don’t make you money though, this slows down the process of building new levels, which was already slow in the original game.

Of the game’s two currencies, then—credits and bux—the former, used to build and stock new floors, comes more slowly than before. Not half so slowly as bux though, which are used to buy elevator upgrades and hurry various other aspects of the game. As purchases of bux are the main form of in-app purchases the game offers, it’s understandable that Nimblebit have chosen to strangle in-game opportunities to earn them, but in doing so they’ve also strangled the sense of progress for players who don’t want to spend extra coin.

Providing at least a modicum of variety to gameplay that strays close at times to Ian Bogost’s Cow Clicker (click on things to earn more things, then click on them to earn yet more things) are the missions, provided by Darth Vader and the Emperor. Both provide credits as rewards, but although the Emperor’s missions are designed to guide your construction efforts, the rewards are meagre. Vader’s missions are slightly more rewarding, but I ran into one that required me to build a specific level (the game chooses which levels in a specific category are built at random), stalling any progress in that direction.

In the end, this is a Star Wars game, offered for free. If that appeals to you, go for it. But be aware that unless you’re willing to pay up, it’s going to present you with a choice between a long, hard slog and an escape route from this doomed battle station.

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.

Tiny Tower – An Addictive Experience

April 12, 2012 3 comments

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The tip-top of my Tiny Tower.

Tiny Tower on iOS isn’t so much a game as it is a drug for obsessive-compulsive completists (people like me, in other words). As is the way with most drugs, I was introduced to it by a friend, and even though they’ve had the sense to wean themselves off it, I haven’t quit just yet. Maybe tomorrow

The purpose of the game is to build a tower up to the heavens, filling it with shops and apartments full of “bitizens”. The 8-bit graphics are almost terminally cute, and there’s a quirky sense of humour at work, but just how much game is there here?

The game itself runs on two currencies. The first, money, is used to build floors and stock shops and can be gained through selling goods from those shops and giving lifts to bitizens. The second currency, towerbux, is used throughout the game to speed up the sometimes slow process of stocking floors and gaining new bitizens, as well as to spruce up floors with new paint jobs and bitizens with costumes.

Importantly, players can purchase towerbux for real money, which is where the profit part of the equation comes in for the developer NimbleBit. It’s perfectly possible to play without ever paying for towerbux, and the more attention you pay to the game, the more towerbux you’ll pick up from in-game sources, such as completing tasks and fully stocking floors, but in order to make towerbux an attractive option, the game has to tweak players’ impatience, and it does so by getting slower and harder to build floors as it goes along.

Most of the fun to be had with Tiny Tower comes early in the game, when you get to add a few new floors every day. There’s a basic community element too, which uses iOS’s Game Center to show your friends’ progress. However, as the pace of the game slows (at the moment, I get a new floor slightly faster than every other day) there’s not much attachment to your tower or bitizens to keep you coming back. Worse, the ability of towerbux to speed your progress diminishes, making them less appealing right at the moment a player might want them most.

There was a lot of fuss not long ago about Zynga’s decision, after being rebuffed in an attempt to buy NimbleBit, to simply copy Tiny Tower wholesale for their own game Dream Heights. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that kerfuffle, I can’t help feeling that NimbleBit missed a trick. Tiny Tower was the iOS game of 2011, but the two main wikis on it haven’t been kept properly updated. Perhaps selling at the height of the market might have been a good idea?

At the moment, this obsessive-compulsive completist is still playing, mostly because I want to get all the available floors. Which, at my current rate of progress, will take perhaps two more months, assuming that NimbleBit don’t release yet another update adding a batch of new floors. Is it really a game? I’m not sure, but I’ve had fun with it. I’m just not sure that I’m still having fun with it.

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