In Defense of Free to Wait (How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Timer)

With the release of Dungeon Keeper and Jim Sterling's comments on Bombin' in the AM and his most recent Jimquisition, it seems like the Internet is now up in arms and entirely opposed to the F2P concept of timed progression that can be overcome with real money. And I can see where this anger is coming from - Dungeon Keeper is a miserable shell of the game and a naked cashgrab. But I don't think that's the end of the story.

There's one major problem with the blanket condemnation of games like Dungeon Keeper. I've played other games with that exact same formula, such as Nimblebit's Tiny Towers and Pocket Planes, and had a ton of fun with them despite spending no money. In fact, I'd go so far to say that the basic concept works really well on mobile platforms. You check in once every few hours, prod things to start moving again, make a few strategic decisions, and then close the game and go back to work while the game carries out your bidding. The game becomes about prioritizing goals, creating efficiency, and optimizing your time and resources to deal with the imposed constraints. Indeed, managing your resources in view of the timers becomes a key mechanic. And the game limits the amount of time it will take in a given day.

And it's not like these mobile games are the first to use the player's time and frustration as a mechanic. RPGs are often built on whether you want to put in extra time grinding levels, or if you want to go through serious strategy to overcome a potential level deficiency. Major upgrades in games as disparate as Dark Souls or Bravely Default decrease the amount of time required to do something - making travel take less time through warping or an airship, or making upgrades take fewer battles. Hell, even Loadout, the F2P game everyone seems to be heralding, offers pay boosts to decrease the time necessary for upgrades. Upgrades that reduce previous player annoyance are a time honored game mechanic and they work really well.

Mobile Games Versus Traditional Games

I think the conflict comes in where us traditional gamers, and game reviewers, come into timer-based games expecting to play them the same way we would any other game. We're binge gamers. When I sit down and play a console game, I'm playing for hours at time, and I'm expecting to see all the content in a matter of days or weeks, depending on the amount of content and how often I play. Even if the game has designed timesinks, you can put in the time right then and now and get to where you want to go. It might take you a while to see everything in Skyrim, but dammit, you can do it if you put the time in, and you'll never see a timer appear to gate off an area till tomorrow.

By design, binge gaming doesn't work for these mobile games. You're not going to binge Tiny Tower for a day and see most of what the game has to offer. You're going to play Tiny Tower for a bit every day for months and keep progressing, figuring out the most efficient strategies for organizing your tower and arranging your employees. Slowly you'll build up your tower and see new floors.

For these games, "come back and check in tomorrow" isn't an excruciating concept the way many here seem to treat it, or necessarily an attempt to extract money. It often is just what it seems - come back tomorrow and keep playing then. Some people view that as heresy and exploitative, but it often is intentional to spread out the gaming experience, more than it is an attempt to get you to pay. Tiny Tower would not be as fun if you played it for a few long stretches instead of a lot of tiny bursts. It's possible this type of game isn't for you by preventing binge gaming. But that's not because it isn't a valid game.

Issues with "Waiting" Games

All of this is not to sweep away all of the potential problems with this F2P gameplay concept. Like any other F2P concept, there's no doubt it can be exploited, as Dungeon Keeper shows. But it's important to explore why certain games are offensive and don't work. I think there are two major reasons why games of this sort become exploitative.

The first problem comes in when major mechanics are locked behind paywalls. At this point, the game is no longer "free." It's rare that games do this these days, since they want to claim that you can see everything for free, but often there are lots of things that are effectively locked behind the pay currency.

The second problem is one of balance. The rate at which you make progress, see new concepts, and all the rest. Simply put, is the game still fun when you don't spend money? Or is the game unbalanced and designed to quickly create frustration and extract money from you? Like any other F2P concept, or like DLC or microtransactions in paid games, this will come down to a matter of personal taste.

I had fun with Tiny Tower and Pocket Planes - I felt like I was making good progress seeing new things, making strategic decisions, and the entire game felt reasonably designed. You received the pay currency for free in game at a reasonable rate that allowed you flexibility. Quickly in Planes I was running a regional airline, had a hub-and-spoke arrangement, and I had designs on going international. By contrast, I did not have fun with Tiny Death Star or Pocket Trains, because I felt like the balance was out of whack. Progression was much slower, strategy was harder to implement as a result, and lots of things felt hard to come by or locked up unless you gave them money. The pay currency was likewise scarce and required for multiple elements.

It's balance that is key. And it's balance and fun where Dungeon Keeper falls apart - both because the original game wasn't designed to be played this way, and because the timers are excessive to the point of not allowing you to make significant progress. But eventually, if a game is balanced enough and gives you enough entertainment, maybe you'll toss the developer some money. That's F2P with timers done well.

You Don't Have to Like Them, But You Don't Have to Hate People Who Do

This is all a long way of saying that the Dungeon Keeper concepts are not necessarily exploitative, and are not, as Jim Sterling claims, "not a game." If you play them not for pay, the games are a slow burn, are not for binge sessions, and are focused on overall efficiency and time management. That's different than something like SimCity or SimTower, which have similar strategic structure to many F2P games, but use cash and cashflow management to gate progress, instead of strict timers. You still might find yourself waiting for money to build that next floor or building in other sim games, there just won't be an explicit timer. In that respect, SimTower isn't that different from Tiny Tower. And either can be judged by how frustrating the balance and progression is.

You can even take this beyond these type of games. Candy Crush Saga is hated among gamers, and in my personal experience it quickly becomes frustrating and exploitative with overly difficult luck-based levels. But that doesn't stop the fact that lots of people like the somewhat mindless quality, like the way you have lives and then come back later to try again, and like the sense of satisfaction of those candies finally dropping right on a hard level. All without spending money.

The fun balance of a F2P game, like any other game, is going to be a matter of personal experience. And a lot of mobile games are fairly mindless and psychological exploitative. But that doesn't mean the entirety of the mobile market, and the people who play those games, are invalid. As the recently released Bravely Default proves, you can even have timer-based gameplay in a major release and have it work as a mechanic without feeling exploitative or frustrating.

7 Comments

Ending obscures how bad the entire final mission was

There were a lot of high points story and mission-wise in the game. Mordin and the Krogans. The whole Quarian/Geth conflict and the mission inside the Geth Collective. Even what I'd consider the mid-tier story missions were pretty good. You had great moments with the Asari, Jack, Grunt, the Rachni, Garrus, Samara, and pretty much every other major character. Even the new characters were well done. You resolved the major plotlines and conflicts that were set up over the previous two games in a satisfying way. It was everything I could have expected.

But everything involving Earth - the opening mission, and especially the final mission - was a let down. A visually impressive let down, but a let down nonetheless. Compare ME3's final mission to ME2's final mission - in ME2 you flew in and saw all the consequences of your choices and preparation play out, you led your entire team into the mission and made strategic life or death choices. While the final boss was a little stupid, you got closure with the Collectors, the Collector base, and the Illusive Man, making choices that affected the start of ME3. The entirety of the final mission in ME2 was one of my favorite gaming moments in a long time.

Here, you go on the mission and watch a cool space battle take place without your help, where there's no evidence that any of your decisions mattered, go on an action mission, say your goodbyes to everyone, and then go on a corridor crawl culminating in the final boss battle - five Brutes and three Banshees! For each of these pivotal final battles for all the universe you pick two crew members and tell the rest to chill, same as always. And that's all before the much maligned ending. No character choice and no real influence from previous decisions. It was somewhat entertaining, but in a Call of Duty spectacle way, not in a Mass Effect way. As if to remind you of this, there was even another pointless turret shooting sequence in the middle of you saying your goodbyes.

Maybe I was expecting too much - but where were the choice and hard decisions? Where was Shepard leading his arrayed forces into battle? Shepard played a comparatively small role in this overall battle, and becomes nothing more than a really good grunt troop in the end of the day. After spending hours resolving centuries old galatic racial strife, uniting the races, and leading troops, he ends by running a couple of standard missions that could have been done by any other random people. There was at least some emotional closure with characters, but almost no actual interaction and the hallmarks of what make Mass Effect great.

And then the ending happened and gave a giant crotch kick to the universe, logic, and everything you've done in the series up to that point. Spent the entire game uniting races and overcoming division to battle a common foe? Nah, that's not true, synthetics and organics will always kill each other, Reapers are here to protect you by exterminating you, and don't question it. Now make one of three arbitrary, contextless choices, and we won't even show you what happens as a result. Oh, and your choices are affected by your EMS for unknown reasons. I really need a big fleet here to synthesize everyone. Now watch these explosions and condemn the entire army you gathered to a slow death from starvation in the Sol system! Ugh. I hope the indoctrination theory is true if only because I respect Bioware too much to have the ending as is be true.

18 Comments