Recently, while trawling through app store RSS feeds to find new apps, I stumbled across Snoopy’s Sugar Drop Remix – and it made my heart sink.
Not just because it was a Snoopy game selling virtual gems for up to £42.99 at a time. No, it was more the realisation that someone had sat down and thought about the rich history of Charles M. Schulz’s comic strip and its instantly-familiar cast of characters, and ultimately decided that it would be perfect for a Candy Crush Saga clone.
Money talks. Candy Crush Saga players spent £865m on that game in 2014 alone, fuelling a lucrative IPO for its publisher, King, and inspiring a new glut of match-three puzzle games with gems, power-ups and the full freemium works.
“Just swipe the delicious candies,” suggested the App Store listing. It was a neat encapsulation of where we’re at in early 2015 with many mobile games, where the massive monetary success of Candy Crush, Puzzle & Dragons and Clash of Clans has spawned a dispiriting clash of clones.
It’s not just specific games or genres, but the mechanics that sit within them. Map-like charts of levels with three-star ratings and friends’ Facebook profile pics are now standard, as are timers, pay-gates, precipitous difficulty spikes and push notifications.
This may sound like yet another anti-freemium rant, but I don’t have form on that score: I’ve spent a fair amount of time defending these games over the last few years, as free-to-play became the dominant model on the app stores.
I played and enjoyed a lot of freemium games, and saw a lot of other people playing and enjoying them too. Free-to-play didn’t seem “evil” as its fiercest critics claimed: it was just a catch-all term for games that would make their money from in-app payments rather than upfront purchases.
There’d be good freemium games and bad freemium games, in other words. The reason I’m feeling downcast now is that there are a lot of bad ones, and some good ones made bad by the way they try to make money.
More and more, the most popular mechanics within freemium games feel designed to make us pay, rather than to delight us so much that we want to spend money. Timers and energy bars are everywhere, and all too often we can see the monetisation coming from miles away.
The new game wraps a Saga-style structure around Boggle-ish word-finding, and at the sight of the first power-up, my brain leaped ahead to the moment where a level would be so hard, I’d feel the pressure to buy more of them. Suddenly, it didn’t seem fun.
Another example: King of Thieves, the new game from Cut the Rope-maker ZeptoLab. It’s a characterful-looking action/strategy game that combines a key-based energy system to stop you playing, with a Clash of Clans-style dynamic of people attacking you when you’re offline. From quite early on, it didn’t seem fun.
The way that many freemium mobile games make me feel in 2015 is very similar to the way FarmVille-style clicker games made me feel at the peak of the first wave of Facebook gaming. Never mind the fun; feel the monetisation mechanics.
That didn’t turn out so well for Zynga, and I wonder if some of the mobile firms and their partner brands, falling over one another to follow the template of Candy Crush and Clash of Clans aren’t risking a similar decline in the coming years.
Yes, there are still many wonderful, creative, quirky mobile games out there, including many that aren’t freemium. Not so many of them are selling well enough to sustain their developers, which may be one reason Apple has started promoting “pay once & play” games on the front page of its App Store.
A world where games like Bean Dreams, 80 Days, Thomas Was Alone, Threes!, Leo’s Fortune, Skullduggery! and Waking Mars (to name just a few) can survive and prosper is a healthy world.
This isn’t even an argument against freemium games, as such. More against what feels like narrowing interpretations of how these games should work, and a wave of games with diligently-studied monetisation but no original spark to their gameplay.
Freemium certainly hasn’t killed mobile gaming, but I wonder if it’s brought us to the kind of creative rut that will lead developers – supported by app store owners and (hopefully) paying customers – to a new wave of brilliant games. Whichever way they decide to charge for them.
This article was written by Stuart Dredge, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 17th February 2015 16.31 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010