This post was actually inspired by my first few hours of playing DOTA 2, a free-to-play game that just doesn’t feel like it should be free. It’s intricate and fun, easy to get into but hard to master, it even gives you free powerups. So where does it make its money? I don’t actually know, but I’m sure it’s somewhere that isn’t nearly as obtrusive as some of the recent mobile games out there.
My first real experience with a pay-to-win model was playing Bejeweled Blitz against some friends over facebook. It was harmless enough but, as I got more into it, I realized pretty quickly that paying real cash for in game-currency would actually get you a higher score once you used that currency to buy the heavy-duty powerups. Then the icing on the “free-to-play” cake came when I tried to play through Candy Crush Saga without buying a thing.
If you, my dear reader, havn’t played it before, you’re not missing much. Basically, it’s a match-three game with a few basic modes and an exponentially increasing level of difficulty. What makes the overly-difficult later levels bearable? Why, powerups of course! And how does one get these powerups? Why, by buying them with real-world money, of course! Yes, you get one free powerup a day but anyone who’s played the game knows that that’s just a teaser and not anything helpful.
So, trying to be as objective as possible, I tried playing through as much of it as I could. I got about twenty-five levels in before I hit a level that was a real toughie. I used a couple of the powerups I had accumulated over the past week and got through without too many complaints. I’m now at level 53 and my frustration knows no bounds. I should also note that the game uses a system where you can only lose a round five or six times before you have to wait half an hour or something before you can try again. This system is yet another hook–much like the free powerups–that pulls you back in without letting you get too frustrated.
I’ve mentioned before that my wife isn’t much of a gamer. In a way, I feel guilty for introducing her to Candy Crush, as I knew it was easy to get addicted, especially if you aren’t already aware of their payment model and how that effects the experience of the game.
Now, when I watch her get frustrated trying to reach the elusive final level (even though there is no final level as they keep releasing new ones), it makes me really hate the designers of the game. The way I think of it is the same way I think about the evolution of food, especially in North America.
First, we just ate berries and meat and nuts and stuff. Then, when we wanted to settle down and manage some growing populations, we started farms. Sure, it’s not as healthy to eat bread as it is berries, meat, and nuts, but we can get way more out of a farm than a forest.
Finally, we reach a point where we’re so settled in, so comfortable with our steady source of food, that we basically devolve into “I only eat what’s the tastiest and the easiest thing.” That is what Candy Crush is. It’s easy and it’s satisfying, but is it really as nutritious as other, less money-grubbing games? Candy Crush is just as unhealthy as real candy only not to the body but to the mind.
I always thought the pay-to-win model was something that developers (maybe not so much publishers) kept under wraps, like the way everyone is a LITTLE racist or a LITTLE sexist but we just don’t talk about it cause we’re better than all that, right? Imagine my surprise when I read this article. The makers of a video game have no problem saying that they’re going for a pay-to-win model. Of course, they eliminated the multiplayer mode, as if that forgives them somehow.
The fact that pay-to-win models are starting to become so commonplace now that people are openly talking about making games with pay-to-win as an endgame is a little disturbing. Isn’t there some inherent satisfaction that gets lost when all you have to do to get that level goal is buy another Lollipop Hammer or whatever to get that last green candy from the top corner of the screen?