I’ve been on a match-3 kick lately. The genre spawned largely by the likes of Bejeweled has become almost ubiquitous nowadays, being the go-to choice for puzzle games, but Aileen told me about one freemium game called Puzzle and Dragons which her brothers – both around my age, and both longtime gamers – were having fun with. I figured if Dude and Fluff1 liked it, then it could be something I’d be able to check out. So I went and downloaded it on my phone, and have been playing it for a couple of weeks.
It’s a decent game. As far as freemium stuff goes, it’s definitely one of the least offensive games out on the market, as I’ve been able to play with no problems despite my ardent “no money” policy at this point2. In all honesty, I’ve been trying to get past my almost visceral hatred of the free-to-play school of video game design, even if my referring to Puzzle and Dragons as one of the “good ones” simulates the way a racist neighbor refers to the one black guy he can tolerate. But while the game is decent, two things stop me from diving in fully: waiting for the hammer, and a superior game.
I’ll expound on just how Puzzle and Dragons works before I go into my problems. If Pokemon got drunk and had sex with Bejewled, nine months later Puzzle and Dragons would be what popped out. Players are given a starter – water, plant or water, no surprise – but unlike Pokemon, there’s only a few elements – just lightning and darkness on top of the big three – and most of the monsters are just effectively palette swaps, with slight tweaks for element. On the other half are what the player does in the dungeons. PAD is a match 3, but there are no real rules as to where you can move pieces. Any piece can be moved anywhere, which counts as a move; monsters have numbers over their heads corresponding to how many turns there are before they attack. There are guides showing how moves can be strung together into massive combos, but ultimately, it’s match 3 with all of the difficulty removed. In fact, unless the player can string together some serious combos that multiply damage to ridiculous levels, winning stages is simply a matter of power; if the player has stronger monsters than the dungeon, the player will win, and if not, the player will lose.
This is where my fear of the hammer comes in. See, PAD has all sorts of artificial limits put in. When entering a dungeon, you lose a set amount of energy. Beginning dungeons cost three stamina, but bigger dungeons can take anywhere up to 30. That’s important to note because it takes 10 minutes to regain one point of stamina, so by going in that later, 30 stamina dungeon, you have to wait around for five hours to get that stamina back. How do you regain that stamina immediately? There’s an app purchase for that! One nice option is the ability to take “helper” monsters into battle with your team, which are monsters that other people own. Those people can later be befriended. Of course, there’s a set limit on how many people you can friend; one guess how to increase that. Also, there are a lot of monsters that can either be found in dungeons, bought with Pal Points (a really nice option; pal points are gathered by either using helpers, having your monster be used as a helper, or logging in on consecutive days), evolved, or bought with Magic Stones (more on these in a bit). However, there’s a limit; the only way I know of to increase that limit is to spend magic stones, which are the game’s effective currency (there’s also coins, but in fairness, these come easy enough and can’t be purchased). Magic stones are somewhat rare to come across most of the time, but like any freemium game, they can be purchased in packs of various sizes. So far, I haven’t had to spend a dime, but I know the difficulty’s going to spike once I’m fully invested in the game, at which point I’ll be more or less forced into either spending money, or letting all of the time I will have invested into this game go for naught. For a game with no ending, no real goal other than catching lots of monsters and lots of loot, that seems onerous. Therefore, despite the game being tolerable to this point, I can’t really say I’m excited by it. It’s a generic version of two other games, and one that I know is going to get expensive if I want to do anything of note.
So after all that, is there a reason to continue to play Puzzle and Dragons? Honestly, that’s a good question, because in addition to all of the points mentioned above, it’s not even the best match 3 released in the past year. It’s not the best game, in its own genre, that I’ve downloaded to my phone in the past month.
On the other side of the divide is 10000000. Created by two people, it is, itself, a combination of multiple genres: match 3, endless runners (Canabalt, Jetpack Joyride) and role playing games. Instead of moving everything around wherever you want, the option is to move an entire row vertically or horizontally to match up pieces, while attacking monsters, unlocking chests and doors, and acquiring materials to upgrade the areas in what can best be described as your jail cell. Eventually, the player will grow strong enough to score 10,000,000 points, which grants the avatar his freedom.
What’s great about this game is the tension to it. Not only does time always pass when you’re at an obstacle, but enemies can hit you, knocking you back farther. Despite that, the avatar doesn’t die so much as get knocked back into his cell, with the caveat that he keeps the gold (purchase weapon/armour upgrades), stone and wood (open up and upgrade “shops”) he collected. Therefore, “losing” isn’t a punishment. This is unlike PAD, where death is highly costly; if you die in a dungeon, you’re given the option of continuing at the cost of – wait for it – a Magic Stone. If you don’t have one, no problem, you can IAP it right away! Of course, if you don’t want to do that, you lose everything you gained, and also lose the stamina you spent, so if you went into a higher level dungeon – especially one where the healing tiles are useless – and lost, and didn’t want to spend money, you’re effectively done playing PAD for the rest of the day. Even in a “good” game – and let’s face it, PAD is one of the better freemium games on the market, which is why it’s making money hand over fist – the carrot and stick are the name of the game; give the carrot for awhile, then beat those that don’t assimilate with a stick.
Therefore, whereas in PAD, I never feel like I’m really accomplishing anything, every single run through the dungeon in 10000000 – even those that don’t go particularly well – means I’ve accomplished something. It’s almost impossible to get out of the dungeon without at least some gold, or some building material, and at the stage I’m at, I really don’t need anymore building material, so thankfully, there are potions that allow me to turn that into gold and experience, both of which I need in abundance. It’s a more fulfilling experience. Granted, I’ve paid more for 10000000 than I will for PAD – two separate versions cost me about $4 thanks to a Steam sale – but that’s fine. I don’t *want* the freemium experience, where I will be assaulted with constant reminders that I can be better if I just dip into my wallet. If I want constant attempts to reach into my bank account, I don’t need a video game – my escape, and my favorite hobby – to do that, I just have to walk down a busy street in a city. I rather like the model where someone makes a game, and we pay money for that game. It’s only worked for me for the twenty or so years that I’ve actually been purchasing video games.
It’s too bad that GungHo – a company that has, under its’ umbrella, everything from Ragnarok Online (an early MMO pioneer) to Game Arts (Grandia) – had to compromise their game design for this model. Considering how inoffensive PAD is, imagine how great it would have been had in-game revenue distribution not been the main driving point of the game’s design. That was the case with 10000000, and that’s why Eighty Eight Games will continue to get my money, and GungHo won’t see a dime.
1 – Personally, I think it’s adorable that 27 year old Aileen still calls her brothers – a 31 year old animator and a 35 year old doctor – “Dude” and “Fluff”.
2 – That’s not a hard-and-fast rule; I’ve spent money on Jetpack Joyride with no qualms, and don’t regret it. But even that’s only $4.