Did 'Classic' games train me against Free To Play?

If you're the kind of person who likes to make up their mind about an article in the first sentence and then stops reading, then for your benefit let me extend this sentence awkwardly and state that there's nothing wrong with Free To Play (F2P) games and I don't think there's any such thing as a 'normal' game. Read on.

The 'classic' that I refer to in the title is just the classic paid model of a complete game. Not the type of genre or the period of the game's release. As for F2P, for today's article I'm entirely focused on mobile F2P, not other platforms.

So I'm 29, and I've been playing games since I was about 7. 1994 is when I got my first computer so I've a 22 year career in playing games. The majority of games that I played in that time were games I paid for once, as complete experiences, and played to completion (less so in recent years. So many more games, so little time). So that's normal for me anyway, and it's still the way I prefer to play games.

X-Wing. My first ever game.

X-Wing. My first ever game.

I don't want to pay for a subscription where you'll give me 6 or 7 mystery games (Humble Monthly Bundle). I don't want to pay €60 for a half a game then another €50 for the 'Season Pass', the value of which remains to be seen (virtually all AAA games these days), and I don't particularly want to download the game for free and pay real money to change the colour of my character's hat (other than to show support if I did enjoy it. Don't care about the hat colour per se). I especially don't want to pay for the game and then pay more for 'loot crates' or new character skins (aka 'Fee To Pay') because I've already paid the entry fee and why should I pay more?

That's just how I feel about how I consume games. It's entirely subjective. There's nothing automatically wrong with any of those models (though some can give rise to pretty dubious practices) and they'll suit some people more than others. I work from home but if I commuted daily I might be a bigger consumer of Free To Play mobile games (though I still doubt it).

So yeah; in gamer-years I'm an old grump who doesn't like change. Why is this? And what prompted me to write this article?

Trying out mobile games again

I'm primarily a PC gamer. For lots of reasons. I don't own a TV. Most of what I would want to play on a console I can get on PC anyway. I like space games. I like indie games. My first gaming experiences were on PC. I prefer keyboard and mouse. All of that!

I've owned a console each generation since the Megadrive/Genesis until now. I just prefer PC.

I do go outside of my comfort zone to try new games though, especially now as a game designer I want to play what people are talking about, at least a little, so I can see what's hot and what's not, so to speak. For instance, I recently finally got my hands on a PS3 and got to try the Uncharted series, The Last of Us, Journey, Metal Gear Solid 4 and Killzone 2 as well as a few others. This was only days before Sony announced that Playstation Now is coming to PC, but whatever. I'm glad I did. Great games, all, and a few long-standing items ticked off my To Do list.

I also pick up mobile games from time to time, like if a friend made it, or if enough people won't shut up about it. Angry Birds was my first mobile game and it was probably the one I enjoyed the most. I've also tried Jetpack Joyride and Crossy Road but while I can see the fun, they're not games I felt like playing more of, and I certainly wasn't compelled to spend money in them (I wouldn't be around long enough to get anything out of the purchase). 

More recently (relatively) I tried a new batch. I haven't tried Pokemon Go yet (I will, but I hear there's virtually no 'gameplay'. Its popularity stems from its novelty of the 'Go' part, not its strength as a Pokemon game. Personally I look forward to other 'Go' games that really explore the gameplay side a bit better) but I was catching up on a few other games that won't seem to leave me alone until I try them.

80 Days is so far my favourite mobile game but it's a paid game. You pay, and you get the whole experience. One that isn't artificially slowed down to compel you to spend more money to speed it up. For this blog post though I'm trying to get to a point about F2P games with microtransactions, so I won't go into 80 Days. Just wanted to give the shout out. It's now also available on PC if that's your thing.

Fallout Shelter

I've a lot of time for Bethesda, so I tried Fallout Shelter. I found it to be an extremely compelling Skinner box of a game that occupied me for a couple of days, but that ultimately went nowhere. You build up your vault to protect your settlers from nuclear fallout. You expand it, attract new settlers, build weapons to protect against raiders and infestations and... just keep doing that really. Once I'd seen a few of the mechanics and realised that I was now just clicking the thing so that I could click more things I lost all interest in the game and stopped dead. Endless games don't really do it for me, as fun as this was early on.

It tries to earn its money (and succeeds, just not with me) by selling cheap-ish loot drops and upgrades like legendary weapons which ultimately just save you time in getting those things through 'gameplay' (mostly waiting) and with no ultimate goal in mind other than to buy/earn the next thing. One thing that I hate about the type of drop they use ("lunchboxes") is that what you get is random. You might want something in particular. Pay them money and you might get it. If not, pay them more money and try again. It's gambling at its ugliest if you ask me (all sorts of games are doing this now so I'm not just picking on Fallout Shelter). The 'house' (developer) doesn't risk anything. They create a new instance of a virtual good and give it to you, whether it was the one you wanted or not. You always spend money and can never get it back. You'd be better off in a casino.

The free game is fun enough for a day or two though.. I guess. It's really well designed.. I just struggle to find anything truly nice to say about it because of how much its monetisation method turns me off.

Clash of Clans

Next up was this phenomenal success. And again I really can't see the attraction. Sure there's blips and bloops when you press things (positive reinforcement for the easily impressed, or just good game polish for the more cynical) but there doesn't seem to be any end goal. You can attack the clans of other players but with feck-all control of your units in battle. It's not an RTS (which might have been interesting). You build up your village/clan and get better defensive structures and offensive units.

I always find it frustrating to get trolled by more advanced players in games, though getting revenge can be fun. But then they'll just do it back to you. It's an endless cycle that goes nowhere. What is this game?

You can pay to speed up the process of earning things. Which, as I sometimes see it, is paying not to play the game.

Clearly, I haven't found the magic that hundreds of millions of other uses have. If anyone would (seriously) like to try to 'sell' it to me or explain something I'm missing, feel free.

I once played a Facebook game that was similar. Can't remember the name but it took after Red Alert a bit in terms of units and art style. It was fun, and I actually spent a few bucks on it at the time, but ultimately it just becomes about getting attacked by the same couple of local players every other day, and attacking them back in between. Whoever pays the devs more can do the better attacking, and ultimately there is no winner. The devs are basically Lord or War in this regard, arming both sides and watching them go nowhere. Knowing that Clans was basically the same thing with a theme that I found less interesting, I didn't play much past the tutorial (can you tell that I crave story or some sort of overall goal from my games? Yeah, I think you can).

Oh that's the other thing. Mobile tutorials (yes, I generalise) tend to be sooo patronising. Like "press this button if you would want to do this", yet you can do literally nothing else. The first half hour of the game is just pressing the one available button as and when you're told. There's no room to experiment or make choices. Very dull. You do nothing but read and tap, read and tap. I know you're learning but Christ that's a boring way to do tutorials, and I've rarely found the post-tutorial gameplay to be much more compelling when games start out that way. It's a prejudice I've picked up, yes, but it's held true for me so far. I always find it a bad sign.

Kings Of The Realm

Made by Digit in Dublin, I know many of the team from the Irish Game Dev community so of course I had to play this at some point. I haven't a tablet, just a Galaxy S4 so I liked that I could take my same profile and play on the PC with larger screen and mouse controls.

There's a bit of a story going on, which I definitely appreciated, and there's pretty good systems in place to ensure that you can't attack or be attacked by players of a vastly different rank than you. 

In an over-simplified way it's like Clash of Clans, or at least it sits in the same genre. You have a base, you upgrade the base with better defences and more advanced barracks to build better units to attack other players or NPC camps to gain resources and level up.

The art is far superior to Clash of Clans. This is a much prettier game in my opinion. Your castle and grounds look amazing. You can even see villagers working in the fields and walking around. You feel like it's a real place and start to imagine enemy hordes streaming through the gates and feel compelled to boost your defences asap to protect your subjects. But that's the problem. You have to imagine it. The battles are all auto-resolved. You don't see what your attacking armies or defending troops are actually doing, and you can't directly command them. Again - it's not an RTS.

I lasted longer on this than Clans and I do think it's the better game, but the gameplay was still too shallow and repetitive for me, in many of the same ways. If I could actually have more involvement in the attacks (and you do have some..) that'd be it for me, but that would require building a whole other game on top of this one so it's not going to happen.

Again, microtransactions allow you to skip build times.

My takeaways from my latest round of mobile gaming

I'm willing and trying to embrace more facets of gaming. For instance, thanks to Xcom, I now like turn-based games, whereas I never did growing up (except Worms. That was hilarious). But mobile gaming, at least those games that adopt the F2P model and design around it, still fail to do anything for me.

Remains my favourite mobile game to date.

Remains my favourite mobile game to date.

To me it just feels like you're levelling up to level up, whereas in games like Fallout 4 or Pillars of Eternity you actually use your level. You fight at that level for a while and really feel a boost when you get a new ability at the next one. It's not that mobile games are somehow inherently unable to deliver on this, it's just that, for me, I've never seen one that does.

Computer games added the tabletop RPG ideas of levelling to make core mechanics like shooting or spell-casting more interesting. Deus Ex and Mass Effect are great examples of levelling in games that aren't just solely about achieving the next level. There it's a companion to gameplay. Intended to be the icing on the cake; not the entire cake! Levelling for the sake of levelling feels very empty to me when I can't actually play any part of the game.

The best mobile games are of course technologically inferior to most PC and console games, but there's no rule that says they have to be inferior in terms of gameplay. I'm aware of that. I'm not trying to be a snob. I'm making an effort. But I've never found a free to play mobile game that held interest for me.

So I started to think about this and I asked myself "is it me?".

'Classic' model

Just for the purposes of discussion, let's say I'm a "classic gamer". Ever since I was 7, I've had at least one game on the go at a time. I've always played games and for the most part, certainly during my formative years and throughout all my school and college years they've all been of the classic paid model. So I paid for the game and played the crafted experience (majority were single player) without even the option to pay to see more parts of the game or buy new characters, weapons or skins. 

Why, in my day, DLC (or "expansion packs" as they were known) weren't necessarily even considered  for development until the core game seemed to be selling well. They certainly weren't planned in advance as season pass hostage material.

So with that as my norm, I've been trained to think of games in a certain way. As a business/marketing graduate I've no problem acknowledging that things change and have to change and that alternate models are viable, if not superior. I'm just saying that I like what I like and I've been affected by my experiences, as has everyone.

I'm kind of taking ages to get to the point, but what I came to realise (half-jokingly, half-seriously) was this:

Classic Games trained me against F2P

There are all sorts of studies into how we can teach through gaming and a growing area of the industry is focused on the "gamification" of things like education. Games can train us to do things and think certain ways. In a good way (though like anything it can be used for evil. But never mind that for today).

Games can improve our reflexes and reaction times, even in the elderly. They can improve our ability to track multiple moving objects. They encourage lateral thinking. They can teach us about history, physics, warfare, how do drive a car or how to fly a plane. Games are especially good at teaching logic and efficiency. Any sort of game with a combat encounter to be overcome trains you how to best use your resources (weapons, time, money, environment, allies) to overcome a problem.

So I think it was while playing Fallout Shelter that I started thinking about one of the common ways that F2P games monetise, which is to place a removable build timer in the game. They say "you're building this building, which will be ready in 4 hours, or you can pay us money and it'll be ready now". Aside from that feeling a little bit like extortion (the person asking for money set the build time after all), it's also a no-brainer to me. Well my cash is a real-life resource. I can save that resource by waiting for 4 hours. Not 4 gameplay hours, but just turning off my phone and doing housework or reading a book or going to bed for the night. The most efficient thing for me to do is to set buildings building, wait, and never pay for them. I'll have the same result in a relatively short amount of time.

Of course, the value I place on €1 is different to the value a higher-earner does, and everyone's time is valuable. But the games I've played have trained me in lateral thinking, and lateral thinking leads me here: I'm not being asked to weigh time against money, since I don't have to actually spend my time watching the building get built.  It happens anyway. So it becomes more like weighing money against no money, and that equation works out the same every time. I can achieve something else in the same time. Thereby getting two tasks done and saving money. Efficiency for the win!

The Harvester Effect

Take almost any Command and Conquer game. You need to build harvesters to collect ore or tiberium. The more harvesters you have, the better. They cost c1,400 to build from your War Factory. But they also come free with a Refinery, which costs c2,000. However, all buildings can be sold for half of their purchase cost, so building and selling a refinery has a net cost of only c1,000 and still leaves you with a harvester in the end. Think laterally and maximise your resources.

Games are full of examples like this. I went in to many of them (and even finished writing this article) but even though I saved my draft, it was somehow forgotten when I returned. I haven't the heart (or recollection) to fully rewrite it so suffice it to say that games teach us to get the maximum efficiency out of our resources and assets, be they that you have a ranged weapon against hordes of unarmed aliens, that you're outnumbered but can use cover to your advantage, that you can focus fire on units in an RTS to kill one unit more quickly to reduce the number of guns facing you, that you have a stealth character and don't need to take a dungeon entrance head-on, or that you're more agile than the giant, lumbering boss you're facing down.

You take the resources and abilities you're given, and use them to overcome a challenge. Do so in the most efficient way possible and you'll even get the high score or unlock secret levels. Every day of my gaming life I've been trained to think smarter and waste not. Then along come games that offer little of this same worthwhile gameplay that I'm referring to, and try to convince me to pay them to make the game go faster. In the case of build timers, paying to remove them isn't the best use of my cash, because I can get what you're offering simply by going to bed for the night, and if your gameplay is a shallow loop I place very little value ('utility', since we've ventured into the realm of microeconomics now) on having the new asset, or even playing the game any further at all.

Games like Cities: Skylines are great for teaching you to plan ahead, how to multi-task and how to manage a crisis.

Games like Cities: Skylines are great for teaching you to plan ahead, how to multi-task and how to manage a crisis.

I see avoiding the payment as almost a further aspect of gameplay. You're already trying to save your units and buildings from danger, so you're already in management mode and saving your cash resource by planning your play sessions becomes just another challenge. I know that goes against the intended payment model that the devs envisioned, but it's how I feel games have trained me to play up to this point.

I'd like to restate that if you enjoy something you were given for free, and the mechanisms are there to reward the creators, you should engage with it if you can afford it. However, with F2P games, I ask myself "now that I know what the game's about and how fun it is, would I have been happy to pay for it up front"? If the answer is no, as is so often the case with me and mobile games, I don't feel any guilt skipping the transactions. F2P games I have paid for are usually on the PC. Heroes & Generals and Planetside 2 come to mind.

I know that in the F2P model, the devs count on having players like me just present in the game so that they can attract and retain the "whales" who will spend hundreds on their game, and if that's the model they're going for then more power to them. I don't even really feel expected to have paid at that rate. I'm worked into the model as a short term '+1' to the monthly active users for that month, which is part of the plan anyway.

To Conclude

It's clear that I'm fairly down on my mobile gaming experiences to date, though I do try open-mindedly every now and again to get into it. For me there's just nothing that offers the depth that I normally seek in games, and the endless Skinner box loops, meaningless levelling, and transparently worthless microtransactions turn me off even more.

I know not all mobile games can be like this, and I know they can do better, but with all I'm hearing recently about the fact the premium mobile games (pay once up front model) are all but dead, I'm not encouraged for the future.

Crossy Road had the best payment model that I've observed. You can opt to watch ads which gives you game currency that you can spend on new skins that don't affect your ability to play the game. It's non-intrusive, honest, straight-forward, not tied to gameplay, and the ads are only short. This also suits the mobile space because play sessions are inherently shorter than a typical console or PC play session.

I'm still happier paying for a good game and experiencing it though. On that note I can heartily recommend 80 Days and Guild of Dungeoneering as games you won't regret paying for. They're both now on mobile and PC, so whatever your preference, go for it. I think 80 Days is best played when you're already on a holiday though. The travel theme just fits so well.

I know I'm a bit of a grump, and my theory about older games training me against engaging with these newer payment models is only a vague notion, but I'd love to hear peoples' theories on it. Does it make sense? Are other people as hesitant as I am to engage with microtransactions even in free games? 

And can anyone please explain what I'm missing about these games that really gets people engaged? It can't just be that the mobile players have never tried anything better and think Clash of Clans is the pinnacle of multiplayer strategy gaming... can it?

Also please recommend any mobile games I should be trying out. If I add Danger Mine and the adorable Ship Antics to the games I've mentioned here, that's pretty much every mobile game I've ever played, so there's plenty of room for recommendations.

Until next time..