Big Picture Mode
Industry issues given the widescreen treatment
So I have been playing Puzzle & Dragons for a year. By that, I don’t just mean that it’s been 12 months since I installed it; I have loaded it up every single day for an entire year. I know this because on day 367 an in-game message thanked me for playing, and another gifted me a couple of high-value monsters. It’s quite the time investment for someone in a profession where there’s little time for true obsessions, and if I’m honest, it’s quite the waste of time. I have long since made my peace with it, but people do give me odd looks when I explain what it is, and I can see why.
Because I ought to hate Puzzle & Dragons. It’s a grindy, free-to-play mobile game that pulls every trick in the book and rakes in vast sums of money a day. You’re never forced to spend, but the endgame would be next to impossible without coughing up. And cough I have, because Puzzle & Dragons’ dirtiest trick is that even spending money is no guarantee of success. In-app purchases might grant entry to the Rare Egg Machine, where the most powerful monsters are found, but to pay up is to put yourself at the mercy of a dice roll. I’ve got a couple of very strong teams on the go now, but have accrued an awful lot of costly crap along the way. Pay to win? If you’re lucky.
Puzzle & Dragons is a fruit machine built on compulsion loops, and I love it to bits. The mechanics – think Pokémon with teams of five at once, and match-three puzzling in which you can freely move a single orb for a few seconds, setting up delightful cascading combos that do damage in the thousands – are such a pleasure that I honestly couldn’t give a toss about its grubbier elements. But it increasingly seems like that is no longer a valid argument. Anything that whiffs of F2P monetisation or a behavioural psychologist’s hand is the worst thing in the world, and I’m somehow part of the problem for liking a simple mobile game with some nasty bits.
Once again, it’s the Internet’s penchant for the binary that’s to blame. Everything is either the best or the worst thing ever, with very little room for nuance in between. There’s certainly plenty of people venting their spleen where free-to-play is concerned, and it’s understandable to an extent – there’s little to cheer about with the influx of XP boosters and the like in full-price console games. But even the reaction to that has been overstated. The problems start not when these things exist, but when they begin to interfere with the game itself. I wrinkled my brow at Assassin’s Creed Unity’s pausemenu microtransaction hawking as much as anyone, but at no point did I feel like my progress through Paris was being artificially slowed to coax me into a purchase.
I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and asking people about it too, and one UK developer put it perfectly a couple of years back. Supermarkets, like mobile games, are designed by psychologists. You put the fruit and veg by the front entrance, because it’s bright and colourful and healthy and makes you feel positive about things as soon as you walk through the door (though I’d venture that whoever came up with the idea has never set foot in Bristol’s Asda Bedminster). The difference between good and evil where monetisation is concerned is the difference between the way supermarkets put the alcohol towards the end of the shop and the way they put sweets at the checkout. By the time you reach the final aisle, you feel like you deserve a boozy treat, just like I feel like rewarding the developers of a game I’ve played every day for a year. Putting sweets at the checkout, though? You’re stuck there, and your already-difficult offspring, who has made the preceding half-hour so stressful that the sight of two-for-one Rioja brought on the sort of rush you haven’t felt since your raving days, and he simply isn’t going to shut up until you get him a Kinder Bueno. I’m over-identifying here, admittedly, but you can see the point. One’s an optional reward for a job well done. The other is a screaming, snotting, self-shitting paywall.
Nuance will come with time, I expect. You may recall the uproar over Oblivion’s horse armour, a cosmetic accoutrement available for a pittance that was painted as the devil in fancy gauntlets at the time. Now it’s an accepted standard, one manifest in hats, neon contrails and bright pink cowboy outfits. In time, studios will get better at monetisation, and players will become more accepting of it. For now, it’d be a fine idea for everyone to stop thinking only in ones and zeroes – and for me to do the food shop online.
One’s an optional reward for a job well done. The other is a screaming, snotting, self-shitting paywall