• In-Apptitude - 14 Days Of Free To Play

    Does anyone like in app purchases? Developers obviously do. Free to play games with purchasable "coins" dominate the top grossing charts, with some making an estimated 12 million a month. A MONTH. Given the immense popularity of free to play as business model, we've seen a rise in "slot machine" gaming. Simple, addictive iOS games that seek purely to hook the player into spending money on in game currency. Even apps like Angry Birds have "in-appified", shifting from the primary model of "pay once and get free updates and new levels forever" to "that, but please, please, please buy the mighty eagle thing, or some power up thing, or some other thing to help you cheat.

    But is it all madness? Are there some games manage to be a least sort of fun, and at least sort of ethical before drafting you into a virtual farm planting bit-crops like a dutiful little worker? I wanted to find out. Over the past two weeks, I decided to challenge myself. I was to only play free to play games. No Tiny Wings. No Zen Bound. No dicking about in Grant Theft Auto.

    Here's how four of those games faired:

    Temple Run

    Fun-ness: 9/10
    Ethics rating: 7/10

    Temple Run scores points because it's actually fun, and it's the only game in this roundup I had played before. In fact, I've played it a lot. I've played in on buses, in queues, in bed, walking home. Even worse, when walking and playing the game, I find myself getting so into it that I literally have to stop myself from jumping when I make my character jump. I'm entirely sucked into the 3.5 inch world of speedy monkeys and dangerous ravines. I'm honestly surprised I haven't been run over.

    For all my praise though, I came to a sinking realisation about a month in - I'm addicted to the coins. At first I ignored them, happy to merely jump and slide at increasing speeds, but as soon as I started collecting them, I started to only think about them. I'd play the game again and again to buy the upgrades. I'd buy the coin related ones firsts. Coin magnet is especially gleeful. I find myself actually euphoric when it activates, and I can just whizz along with triple value coins getting tripled, watching the pointless number sky rocket. I was spending iTunes money to get more coins to buy an upgrade to get me more coins. All the jumping that I thought was the fun part became just a hinderance to me getting more of my precious coins. I was happy to work for them, but hey, what's 99 cents if it means I can unlock the girl explorer?

    Ethically, the game isn't too pushy towards the coins, it's just that the experience beyond buying upgrades is so limited that it's easy to see where the developer's priorities are.


    Fun-ness: 2/10
    Ethics rating: 6/10

    I still don't get why this exists. It's literally just a slot machine simulator. The appeal of real life slot machines themselves I can at least understand, since one stands to gain something from in person gambling, but Slotmania HD manages to simulate all of the grind with none of the reward.

    When first launched, the game pops up with a now standard "Connect to Facebook screen", then bombards the users with special offers for coins and other power ups. Actually, before any of that the app decided to launch iPad Safari, open a black page with no visible content then bounce back to the app. Attempted Facebook connection? Is my IP address part of some ad network now? I'm still not sure, but at this stage I don't really care to find out.

    The actual "gameplay" is solid, I guess. Swipe to spin the machine, and push a variety of toggles to increase the betting amount, or the number of lines the app checks for matches on. What's weird is how much the game wants to me to win. I went into the game trying to gamble as much as possible, to lose as many coins as fast as I could, but Slotmania just kept throwing second chances at me. I'd get bonus coins, free spins, random mini games - any excuse the game could take to keep me hooked. When I finally ran out, I was offered two reasonable options - buy more coins (during our SUPER SALE! Today only! 150% more coins on ALL PACKAGES!) or just wait a couple of hours for a bonus. Oddly enough, they seemed completely okay with option b.

    I guess it's hard to hate something like Slotmania because they're so upfront with their intentions. There's no facade of pacing out fun gameplay with boring, skippable work. It's just a slot machine with no rewards, free or paid for coins and a number 1 ranking in the Top Grossing charts in the Australian app store. Go figure.

    CSR Racing

    Fun-ness: 8/10
    Ethics rating: 8/10

    CSR Racing surprised me because, well, it's actually kind of fun. The game plays a little like Need For Speed. Start on the bottom of the racing world, work your way up by beating opponents for money, upgrade your car, beat better performance cars, so on and so forth. The races are hardly controller intensive, there's no steering, no accelerating, just gear shifts. Thankfully, the gear shifting mechanism itself is tricky enough so it doesn't feel like I'm just watching well rendered quick time events, and even from my limited play time, the game seems to have a discernible plot, or a least a developed game world to advance in rather than lazily generated set pieces.

    The in-app purchases are handled gracefully too. They certainly hint and hint and hint at how much easier it would be to buy car upgrades, but grinding it out and earning cash is actually fun. Instead of punishing interested players by making power up acquisition boring, CSR racing merely gives lazy players an incentive to skip ahead. It's the best of both worlds.

    Smurf's Village

    Fun-ness: 7/10
    Ethics rating: 4/10

    Finally, if you've never even played any of these free to play games, you've probably at least heard of Smurf's Village. Smurf Village was famous for prompting a handful of mums to sue Apple after their kids racked up huge charges buying Smurf Berries and after playing the game for less than a week - well, I'm sure glad I'm not a parent.

    Smurf's Village is Sim City-esque real time strategy game. With Smurfs. After a warning about the in-app purchases, Smurf's Village sets you to work building what seems to be an idyllic smurf paradise. Pop a house here! A farm there! Use this innocuous berry to build it instantly! At this stage, I was actually pretty happy with how the game worked. I liked the farming. Maybe I'm a simple man. Eventually though, the game wants you to do more. Suddenly, your smurfs are plucked out of action because they need to watch out for Gargamel. Then other smurfs join and suddenly YOU have to accommodate them, which means building houses, which means spending coins, which takes an hour of you being completely unable to do anything except look at smurfs play out their "building a house" sprite animation. Except, of course, if you use a Smurf Berry. This is how it begins.

    While the mechanics of the game are fascinating enough, the communities are astounding. At one point in the game, Papa Smurf encourages you to visit feature villages, or one selected at random. I did, and, jesus, it's like a communist utopia. The featured villages just have rows upon rows of vegetables growing, with the smurfs swarming to farm the patches. It's like a Where's Wally cartoon if everyone in it never slept, ate, or relax lest they waste valuable crop planting time.

    The problem with Smurf's Village is it's so reliant on smurf berries, to the point that it's so difficult to progress without them. It's not merely a matter of impatience too. The game normalises the use of them to a point that I genuinely thought that they'd changed the speed houses were built at when I tried building my first one without the berries. "Surely they've made this longer" I thought, but then I realised I'd never built a house without a berry before. The berries are such a normal part of the game, yet you can't acquire them organically (they're occasionally gifted for completing certain tasks), and they're often required for building certain houses. It's certainly possible to wait it out without spending money, but the game does a lot to ensure this idea is as difficult as possible. Arbitrary restrictions pop up everywhere. Each time you play a mini game, the time you need to wait to replay it increases. Crops die if they aren't immediately harvested. It's possible, sure, but incredibly tedious on purpose.

    So what was findings of my great experiment? Despite my disliking of the in-app purchases mechanism, it's actually not a bad world out there. The games are free, and the prices are flexible. I wouldn't be surprised if this is the future of gaming, because it works so damn well to discriminate on price. 5 years ago, a $50 game might mean unlimited value, a score for users who spent months enjoying Grand Theft Auto, but for the developers, it just means they miss out of charging $20 for someone who gets $20 of value out of it, or $200 for someone who would pay all that and more. If I were a hardcore gamer, I'd be sad, but if this is what it takes to reward starving indie devs, well, then so be it.

    But for now, I'm off to play some Rayman Jungle Run.

    Jared is an amateur filmmaker, casual gamer and full time procrastinator. You can follow him on Twitter at @jaredzammit, at least until he finishes building a half decent tech blog.
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