The Palm of My Hand Pt. 2

This is part two of a short series looking back over some of the mobile games Shaun played in 2014. The first part was published yesterday, and part three will follow tomorrow. Starting at the beginning is recommended.


Monetise, Monetise, it’s the American Way

When we think of mobile gaming we often reflexively think of the games in this category. The umbrella terms for them are often used interchangeably – free to play, freemium, pay to win – although the strict definitions are quite distinct. It’s well known at this point that an awful lot of research, planning and refinement goes into these games, and controversy still bubbles away regarding how cynical or exploitative they are. Regardless of your thoughts on the matter, for the time being they are here to stay.

The Battle Cats

I’m not sure which genre I’d place this in, other than ‘occasionally creepy almanac text’.

In this game you spawn units from your base to attack the enemy base which is doing the same right back at you. Upgrading your economy is essential in the long run but you also need to keep troops (cats) on the field, tailoring what you use to the level’s particular challenges. There’s a huge metagame too with upgrades for your cats, rare and special cats to unlock, etc.

The Battle Cats is good enough that I’ve almost completed it on New Game ++ and I’ve done a bunch of challenges too. I suspect I’m near the Wall of Diminishing Returns which exists in virtually all free to play games, but in this instance the wall appears so late in the game that it’s not objectionable at all.

My only complaint is that the real investment of cash is so pricey as to rule it out for me. That’s a weird thing to say about a free game that I’ve played for upwards of twenty hours or more, but on the other hand post-twenty hours seems like a weird point at which to think about investing £26 (the actual sum the game wants from me for what I want from it: 10 pulls on the rare cat machine during an event which guarantees an uber-rare). I’d be happy to give it maybe £8, a figure I arrived at using the calculating power of my arse.

Candy Crush Saga

What more needs to be said about Ellie Gibson’s game of the year 2013? It contains more than a thousand levels, or some number that is so great as to make the mind go blank when it is comprehended.

Candy Crush Saga is not for me, which is a nice way of saying that I find it a little dull in anything other than 15-minute doses every week or month or quarter or so. What I find most interesting about it is that it has a sort of ‘who cares?’ level design. By which I mean that you match candies and there’s variety in objectives and layout and other aspects of level design, and sometimes you won’t be able to win because of randomisation, but who cares? Most people will never finish the game, or repeat any of the levels they’ve already played, but who cares?

By all of this I don’t mean that Candy Crush Saga is a bad game – rather I feel that as a game it is an activity that you do, rather than a challenge that you beat or an experience that stays with you. There are worse things than for games to simply exist to be played, of course.

Clash of Clans

I elected to try this out because I never had. That’s it! I believe Clash of Clans holds the title of the highest-grossing mobile game of all time. That’s one hell of an accomplishment, and it deserves looking at for that reason alone.

It is, unfortunately, exactly what I expected: a more competently and cleverly executed version of a game I’ve played before (even if, and I have no idea if this is true at all, Clash of Clans did it first).

As with all games of this type, sooner or later you’ll hit the part of the curve wherein you either start investing money (into a theoretically bottomless pit) or you accept that your play sessions will become less involved and more infrequent because of the escalating timers. What this suggests to me is that ultimately, you will find yourself playing Clash of Clans solely because you already play it. You may not have invested money, canny consumers, but you’ve already invested time and that is also of value.

VEGA Conflict

A Google Play store recommendation that is apparently popular, this is more or less Clash of Clans in space. Initially I thought VEGA might have something more going for it because you can actually exert direct control in battles. You may order and group order your ships, select targets, issue lateral movement commands to dodge slow but powerful enemy shots, and so on. Unfortunately my experience suggested that in practice you’re better off just letting the AI get on with it. Maybe it’s better with the later ships but I took its early lack of lustre as an indicator that this wasn’t a core part of the game and would never really change.

Beyond fleet battles the science fiction stylings are meaningless; same drink, different brand, just not as recognisable. One thing that can be said for Clash of Clans is that its bright and cartoony graphics make everything instantly recognizable and comprehensible. That isn’t very important in a gameplay context because Clash of Clans isn’t very interactive, but it’s a step above VEGA’s fairly gloomy, generic black and grey everything.

Clay Jam

I’m ambivalent about Clay Jam. A little. It’s targeted at sprogs, you see, and there’s a real charm to the way it looks. I’m not sure if it uses actual claymation or digital graphics cleverly souped up to look like claymation, but either way its aesthetic stands out from the crowd.

It also has some gameplay mechanics that involve direct, almost tactile interaction, unlike the last two games I’ve covered, in that you must flick the touchscreen to roll a clay ball along, collecting up the smaller creatures and objects and avoiding the larger ones. Your ball grows as you roll along each area, culminating in a mighty launch towards a big clay monster. It’s a bit Katamari Damacy, but you are channelled endlessly forwards and the aim is to get as big as possible before the inevitable launch.

Clay Jam is simple and cute and diverting, though I stopped playing because there didn’t seem much scope for gameplay growth. The reason for my ambivalence isn’t that, though: it’s because this is a free to play game aimed squarely at kids, and no matter how charming you look or how accessible your gameplay that’s a little bit sinister.

Hero Forge

This is a rather good wee game that blends 3D tile-matching puzzles with one on one RPG combat. You pick a character class, each with certain special abilities, and then compete in battles with other heroes. I’ve not played anything quite like it, which isn’t a scream to the skies about how unique it is but acknowledgement that it has achieved interesting fusion of two genres.

Battles come in two stages: in the first you match as many cubes from a 3D block as possible within the time limit. It’s intuitive, quick and clean. Trying to use all of your blocks becomes quite compulsive to boot. There’s also some tactical depth, in that focusing on gathering certain kinds of blocks allows you to execute special attacks, and everything you match or trigger in the puzzle component will play out in that same order in the battle stage (which plays out without player involvement). In multiplayer it can be quite tense seeing who was the quickest and who used their abilities in the most effective order.

Quick Mentions

  • Tetris Blitz – a recommendation from Dylan, EA’s spin on Tetris sees you trying to max out your score in just two minutes. It’s quite difficult to achieve very high scores without the use of powerups and, particularly, finishers, but it’s still pretty good fun and you get a regular smattering of freebies. I’m not sure how the game’s economics will pan out long-term but this is a good sofa game to play with my girlfriend, sending matches to each other and ruing each inevitable defeat.
  • Plants vs. Zombies 2THIS STILL DRIVES ME UP THE FUCKING WALL. Every victory feels like a Pyhrric victory. I feel as if the game is overwhelming me not because it wants to mock me until I pick myself up and get better, god dang it, but until I avert my eyes and open my wallet and let it bleed me dry whilst I use the idiotically overpowered special abilities to cakewalk through every level. Whoever balanced this game should be fucking ashamed of themselves.

    Since writing the above I’ve resolved to keep playing the game, taking it more gradually and expecting failure at every turn. I’m playing it less as a game and more of a Patience Training Simulator.
  • Puzzles & Dragons – finally stopped playing this in 2014. ‘Nuff said.


Concluding Thoughts

If you’ve read all of the above it’s obvious that most games in this category didn’t work for me particularly well. I continue to be fascinated by the big, successful models of free to play games purely because they are so popular, but whenever I try to play the most famous examples or even some of their clones I find myself bouncing off, unable to find traction among their monetisation strategies. The Battle Cats is an exception, and aside from (perhaps, in the future) Hero Forge it’s the only game I’d contemplate spending money on. Unfortunately it has priced me out of that being likely.

The above list is also longer than the list of paid-for games, suggesting that like most people I’m more inclined to try stuff out if there is no upfront cost attached. However, the amount of time I spent with free games was overall lower than the amount I spent with paid-for games, suggesting that on average I found them a less engaging experience.

I did not spend any money on any money on the games in this list. Clearly, I am not a whale but nor am I… whatever the industry term is for a small spender. A porpoise? A herring? This probably means that the makers of free to play games have little interest in my thoughts or opinions, but perhaps they should. Clearly I keep trying out free to play games and clearly I either bounce off them or don’t spend any money, but not for lack of trying or lack of (some) willingness to part with small amounts of cash.

So am I representative of an untapped market? I don’t know, and prefer not to think that way, but at the end of the day what I’m after are games that entertain and challenge me in different ways, and I’m willing to spend to facilitate that. Just, you know, don’t take the piss.