Sunday, 24 August 2014

DLC Loves My Wallet

Post soundtrack: Barrett Strong – Money

While I’ve been waiting for the pre-expansion patch to come out for WoW, I’ve been spending some time with three free-to-play games on my pc and iPad. And my experiences have covered the spectrum from “That’s the way to do it!” through to “The developers just want me to open my wallet, don’t they?”

Just wait until I load. Then just wait.

I’m a cheap gamer, I’ll just come out and admit it. Mostly it’s because I don’t have much in the way of disposable income, but it’s also because I am cheap. (I drink supermarket-brand instant coffee, what else do I need to say?) Anyway, I’ve been dabbling some more in Defiance (although I’ve let that slide since picking up MH), playing Godus (insert gem to continue), and getting heavily into Marvel Heroes 2015 (I must resist the temptation to buy an alternate costume for Punisher – for now, at least).

I’ve already written about Defiance, so I don’t think I need to add much there (although I’ll probably explore Silicon Valley eventually, when the MH’s siren call has faded). So that leaves Godus and Marvel Heroes. I think I’ll leave Heroes to another post (to do it justice), so that just leaves one title to talk about.

This has been developed by Peter Molyneux-led 22 Cans (whose previous project was the cube-clicker Curiosity), and is nominally a god-game in the style of Populous, which was successfully Kickstarter-ed to much acclaim (and cynicism about the ability of Molyneux to deliver all that was promised) in 2012. It’s since been released both on Steam and as a free-to-play title on iOS. (I’m talking about the latter version here, as I don’t have the pc version – mostly because I’ve no interest in paying for a desktop game with f2p timers)

Visually it’s a pretty game, I’ll give it that. The stylised graphics work well, and the sound work is “good enough” (although nothing really stands out on the audio front). The problem for me with the game is the gating mechanisms, and the way the disguise the lack of anything to do in the game besides adjust the terrain as best you can (I’m not counting the ship missions, which just frustrated me to the level of pointedly ignoring them), and spread out over the land like a stylised cancer.

Downtown Fabsford.

Just an aside, there’s one audio aspect that really irritates me. Somebody thought “Hey, wouldn’t it be cute if there are musical notes that play when you touch each dwelling to collect the belief? And if you touch enough, it makes a song! But if they don’t touch one fast enough – maybe they’re collecting their crops or minerals or scrolling the map or something – then let’s play a discordant note that totally ruins the ambience of the experience!” <grrrr>

There isn’t any combat. Nor much of anything, apart from “expand flat terrain, tell followers to create house on flat ground, repeat”. Eventually houses get bigger, and you can clumsily manipulate thicker areas of the terrain, and you unlock the ability to combine groups of abodes into settlements, and later into villages. But there doesn’t seem to be much more to the game. (They introduced a “happiness” mechanic, but I think I broke it after wiping out all of the “opposing” native population using a couple of my more malevolent god powers)

The technology tree, such as it is, consists of cards which are made unlockable by achieving quantity-goals of “Population > x”, “Number of Farms > y”, or “Number of Mines > z”. Then you are required to use in-game stickers to unlock each card, which gives you the ability or bonus on the card. Stickers are either purchased in packs for increasingly large quantities of gems, or are occasionally found in chests which you discover in the game world (these are sometimes stuck underground where you have to terraform to expose them, which can be problematic if they appear beneath the sea, beneath the lowest point of the seafloor and are unreachable – or occasionally found just outside of your zone of influence, which is equally unreachable). Chests spawn randomly after storms – about the only reason to explore the game world, aside from expanding your colony or collecting belief.

Fight the future! And the controls!

The odd thing is… For all the crap I give the game, the experience of terraforming and expanding your territory is surprisingly satisfying. It’s just incredibly frustrating that the rest of the game is so focused of separating a fool and his money.(I’m currently sitting on a population of almost 5000, which unlocks a x5 buff on belief generated by abodes near trees – which would be useful if trees didn’t get clear-felled in the process of creating flat land to build on, a great example of the game design)

Disclaimer: I cheated at the start – there’s a common work-around for time-gated games on portable devices, where you get the game to where you have to wait, then set the device’s time forward, and switch back to the game and continue. So I guess my gamer ethics are a little flexible. Anyway, at the stage of the game where I am currently, when I collect my belief during in-game housekeeping in the morning I end up with over 120k (probably getting closer to 150k tomorrow, due to my current expansion). So once over that initial hurdle, belief is less of an issue (although still a limiting factor, due to the necessity of leveling mountains.

But I digress.

I was thinking about free-to-play and DLC, and the way developers want to make money out of their hard work, and the three approaches these games bring to the table.

The first is the wholly-consumable approach that Godus embodies. The game is inherently limited by both belief (which is granted by playing the game) and gems (which are primarily purchased for real-world money). Once you’ve spent all your belief, there’s not really anything interactive you can do in the game – you have to wait until more has been generated, and then collect it. The problem is there isn’t much to do with it, aside from terraforming – it’s a pretty shallow game. (Also the conversion of $-to-Gems is what feels like a typical mobile/f2p money-grab)

It just feels like the Godus devs want me to be distracted by the pretty graphics while they pick my pocket.

The second is DLC and consumables in Defiance. They offer cosmetic options (it’s pretty much the only way to get new outfits and headgear – which are on special right now – aside from a scarce handful you unlock by playing through the story missions), expanded content (new in-game content and an additional playable race, for example) and of lockboxes. The downside of lockboxes (which cost $4-$5 each) is there’s no guarantee you’ll actually get anything out of them that you want – or even anything useful. (There’s been some community work done with the in-game-currency-purchasable ones here, giving some firm numbers on what drop)

The problem here is that the power curve on your gear is not only very shallow, but itemisation is ridiculously random – sure, you might get a great orange (legendary) item, but there’s no guarantees that the affixes will make it any better than a blue (rare) of the same type. Spending real money is no fun when you feel out of the gate that the odds are very much stacked against you. (I have a similar perspective on Star Trek Online, but there’s a much larger pool of item types in-game, and you can sell STO’s lockbox keys to buy things you actually want)

While I don’t mind picking up the DLC while it’s on special (and I might someday pick up a cheap retail box, for the extras that unlocks on a free account), there’s just a feeling that the game is on maintenance support.

The approach that Marvel Heroes has made is similar to that of Defiance with unlocks, consumables, and lockboxes – but with the addition of quality-of-life purchases in the form of inventory unlocks. You get a single hero when you start playing (you can pick from a pre-selected 11 of the current roster of 37), and can unlock additional characters through a currency earned playing the game (Eternity Splinters).

Additional heroes can be unlocked either by purchasing a particular hero outright, by purchasing a “Random Hero” unlock, or occasionally dropping in-game (admittedly rarely, with no guarantee that it’s for a hero you haven’t unlocked – but you can use a token for an already-unlocked character to give it a boost to the power if it’s “Signature” power). Alternate costumes for heroes can also be purchased with real money, or drop in-game (again, albeit very rarely, and with no guarantee that it’s for a character you’ve unlocked), or are rewards from the equivalent of lockboxes.

And speaking of lockboxes, there are a couple of takes on them. There are cards which offer random rewards (including exclusive costumes, pets, and consumable buffs). There are also themed lockboxes, the last example of which (Cosmic Lockboxes) offered a guaranteed random hero or costume token and random consumables or other items.

The odd thing was, after playing the game for a week, I was already so happy with the gameplay and the way they make money off it, that I quite happily bought a couple of 5-packs of cosmic lockboxes, and a couple of stash tabs. And this week I picked up the Hawkeye hero pack on Steam, and bought an unlock for Cyclops.

I guess what I’m saying is when it comes to spending money in-game, it helps to feel I’m actually getting something for it. With Godus, it feels like the developer keeps on leaning over my shoulder and commenting “Gee, this is taking forever, isn’t it? You know, it’d be soooo much quicker if you just buy a pack of gems or two, you know, to speed things up.”

With Defiance, the game itself is fun, but the feeling is less “Hey, here’s this fun new DLC that adds feature X!” and more “Lockboxes! Get your Lockboxes here! Guaranteed chance of giving us money – and maybe you’ll get something you won’t immediately vendor!” I think part of the problem is the extremely tight focus on combat, and lack of other avenues to explore (crafting comes to mind immediately, as does the lack of exploration in the small and strongly theme-park-ish map).

Meet The Punisher. There are many Punishers. But this one is mine.

Marvel Heroes? Well, I have to admit, when the game first came out I was very doubtful about it. I mean, you couldn’t even create your own character, in this modern era of customisation! But after finally giving it a try (probably thanks to all the times Scott on The Final Score commented on how much he’s enjoying it), it’s surprised me with its fun gameplay and the very even-handed manner in which they’ve chosen to make their money without restricting gameplay.

The lack of inventory space is kind of grating (and the inventory system itself is clunky), but the cost to expand it isn’t exorbitant. It helps that your inventory is account-wide, but it does get tricky (and starts feeling cramped) when you’ve unlocked multiple heroes and start saving items for crafting and hero-specific unique items.

Basically, with MH I don’t feel like I’ve been nickel-and-dimed, and I’m getting value for my money. (Although I’d be a lot less likely to feel I’d been screwed over if things actually cost nickels or dimes, but that’s a rant for another time when I argue for reclassifying most in-game purchases as Macrotransactions)

If you’ll excuse me now, though, Cyclops is about to save the world again, and I’m going along for the ride.