Double Fine creates a novel routine that is as tedious as the subject it satirizes
Free-to-play games are consistently monotonous. Monotony, while often maligned in games, is equally ignored for it’s potentially positive attributes. When I first started playing Middle Manager of Justice, the way I tend to play games clashed with this new model. The way I tend to play games is long chunks of uninterrupted play. It became clear that if I wanted to complete the game, and enjoy my time doing so, I need to reduce my one to two hour chunks a day to fifteen minutes whenever I had the free time between whatever it was that I was doing.
The previous monotonous design never changed between how I consumed the game, but my reaction to it couldn't be further from the case. A sense of annoyed bitterness turned into novel satisfaction. The screen where you spend the majority of your time, the office, is excellently designed. Giving you an array of potential areas to improve your crew of super heroes you’re managing. The most intelligent part of the layout is that there is a clear discrepancy between what is important to upgrade and not. Within what is clear that should be upgraded first, there are an array of options unclear to their importance. On top of this well crafted decision making process they give you, it's presented in a way where no time is wasted in making the decisions.
When I was contemplating why shifting from long play sessions to chunks in Middle Manager worked so well, I was hearkened back to my experience with Papers Please. Once a day, I would fire up Papers Please, and devote one run to that day. I was too exhausted after each session to continue with more. This experience with these two games reminded me at of the staggering number of players who don't complete games. I think this can often be attributed to the fact that games often times take too long to start. Middle Manager gives players routine set of goals with a reasonable set of decision making opportunities to complete those goals and that’s it. Whether this system was by design or not, it's application to a mobile game makes a lot of sense. Not only do games take too long to start but they also expect to much extended periods of time from most player, which on mobile especially most users don't have.
It’s funny that a game that by it’s nature of being free-to-play sets out to waste the time of the majority of it’s users, also happens to waste the least amount of time in the decision making process. That’s something a great deal of pay-to-play games don’t accomplish.
The game is not without it’s faults. Bugs to the Android version did not include any game breaking bugs, except for one. I have been unable to complete Beastfly, the new boss added since the release of the Android version due to a bug. Continuing to how much I liked the design of the office, where you spend the majority of the game, I believe the battle system Double Fine crafted for Middle Manager could use some work. As someone who’s imported a lot of the Japanese restaurant management sims, and have continued to play their predecessors like Cook, Serve, Delicious. Those games, split the gameplay very similarly. Eighty percent of the time your were quite mundanely managing a space and the rest of the time your were playing a timing based rhythm matching game. This contrast created a really cathartic juxtaposition. It’s a shame that Double Fine didn't implement such a mechanic in Middle Manager when they showed that in Costume Quest they understood how powerful a mechanic it could be. For my own taste I thought the battle system was never challenging enough for what they went for and I wish it had something, possibly not the timing based rhythm matching mechanic but had some more worthwhile mechanic there.
Despite these bugs and annoyances, I enjoyed immensely my time with the game. This was the first time playing a free-to-play game where the commercial aspect of the design felt not only justified, in that it felt like they weren't overcharging. It’s the first time it felt like this payment model improved the design, in the ways that it could. My expectations going into Middle Manager is that no game should have to be free-to-play. I left the game appreciating the model for what it can be, by showing me that maybe it’s unhealthy to play games for long uninterrupted sessions. Also the fact the game is free-to-play makes me much more hopeful that the bugs will be patched. The fact that the game is less of a product and more of a service gives Double Fine a economic incentive to fixing whatever problems. Double Fine, as they often do in games, exceeded my expectations.