Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Swappin' Blocks: A Match Three Tale about a game that is not a match 3 game

All right: as promised, a game-related post. What a radical departure! Battleheart: Legacy, Little Big Planet, Reign Maker, Costume Quest, Sunless Sea, Cosmic Encounter, and Dark Souls II,all after the break. And when I say they're after the break, I mean the first post where I didn't get around to talking about any of them at all was so long I've decided to do this in pieces.

After finishing Dead Rising 2: Off the Record, I felt like I needed a bit of a break from intense, complex games. Now, Dead Rising 2: Off the Record is not particularly complex, nor intense. But I was at the time still inching my way through Pathologic, which is both. It's also extremely depressing, as it's essentially a game simulating the rather rapid decay of a town inflicted by plague. After you've spent some time trading nuts and razors to small children in exchange for the bullets you need to stop a mad hunchback leading a mob to torch down the prison-asylum holding helpless immigrants (don't ask me why the children have bullets, why the town's imprisoning immigrants in the asylum, or why the hunchback's gone mad. Actually, I know that last one: he blames them for carrying the disease that killed the loveslave he kept chained in house who escaped only to be assaulted by a character who needed an infected, beating heart to--God, why am I playing this game? ), and you're STILL only half way through the plague, you could use a palate-cleanser. And I've had a whole bunch of them. Roughly in order, then:

Battleheart: Legacy. BH:L, as it's abbreviatingly known, is an iOS original RPG. As far as I can tell, it's a fairly small genre, and that's a shame. One of the results of growing up with a Gameboy is that I've come to appreciate long games that you can play on the handheld while you're listening to something else, especially turn-based things that you can pick up and put down. Now, BH:L isn't turn-based, but it is a fairly long (for iOS, not for the genre in general) Role-Playing Game, one that you can buy in one go. And that last part is what seems to be rare for iOS. Candy Crush and other free to play games have had such success that they've come to be the dominant business models for the platform, and part and parcel of free to play is that there's something hardwired into the game where after you play for so long (usually, once you lose a set amount of lives) you either have to pay money to keep playing a little bit longer, or you have to wait. So while I can still start these free-to-play games (heretoafter referred to as they're commonly known, F2P; if it's not clear yet, videogames involve a lot of abbreviations), there's still a cut-off after a few minutes, and I feel this deep seated need to maximize my free time--that is, the time I'm allotted to play before the game makes me pay it money to play more (ironically, my time no longer free in the wider sense of the word, because I've enslaved myself to checking my phone once an hour or so to see if I can play another round yet).

My history with F2P goes back about a year now. I jumped on the Candy Crush train just as it was reaching full momentum, which is something of a rarity for me; with a few exceptions, I tend not to follow game trends until long after their best before date. I think what got me into Candy Crush Saga was the sheer disdain that a lot of male gamers seemed to have towards it, that they kept framing their disdain as "no, it's not because it's a casual game, or a girl game, it's because it's so exploitative." And on the one hand, it *is* exploitative. A successful F2P game survives because a very small fraction of its player base (known as "whales") pays generally more money than they can afford to get ahead in the game, and ultimately, every aspect of the game that they can get away with designing that way is designed to get the players to spend money. On the other hand, it's not like the rest of the game industry is built on dreams and fairy dust; a lot of it is built to be addictive and exploitative, and at some point, being angry at Candy Crush Saga for being somehow worse than anything else is condescending to the people actually playing it.

That said, this February, I gave up on Candy Crush for being too exploitative. 

It was the IP thing that broke my back. Apple is not too interested in policing the games that populate it, as long as the games don't contain anything that it deems offensive. So there's a tendency for cheaply made clones to come out. This happens on a lot of platforms, but most games are complex enough that a half-decent copy takes a lot of resources, or the platform--like the Wii, for example--has a company like Nintendo that makes sure that even if the game is similar to something else that exists, at least it's a good game. A game like Candy Crush--while sophisticated in its own way--is comparatively easy to duplicate, either online in web games or on mobile platforms directly. Now, even if you could copyright/trademark which is swapping adjacent tiles to create a match of three or more identical tiles, which then subsequently are removed from the board, King (the creators of Candy Crush Saga) are far from the first to follow through on such an idea, and any such claim would be rather shaky, especially in a world where Bejewelled still exists. Where they're on surer footing, however, is the claim that people have been stealing their name to make similar cloned games, and incorporating Candy or Crush or Saga into the title. So back in January or so, King decided to get litigious, and filed a claim for trademarking all three terms in any videogame title, period. They then proceeded to go after all the copies. And also several games that clearly were not imitations of Candy Crush, and were small enough that they were unlikely to fight back, like the developers of Banner Saga, a turn-based game about actual Vikings, which frankly gives it a much better claim to the title of Saga than Candy Crush ever had. A few gamers following the story, myself included, thought that this was a rather uncool thing for King to do, and decided to take our match-three gaming elsewhere. 

Now, there's an argument to be made that King didn't have a lot of choice in the matter. As this argument goes, copyright/trademark law in the US is such that if you fail to aggressively defend your IP against all possible infringements, then the courts are predisposed not to grant you anything against the cases you actually should win against the actual copycats. So prosecuting smaller companies, in that model, is just good business sense. That's an argument that I appreciate, while refusing entirely. If the system you're in is pressuring you to do something immoral, that doesn't give you carte blanche to do something immoral. Yes, it sucks that King is potentially losing business from people who are ripping them off. But that doesn't excuse going after the livelihoods of people you know are innocent.  You don't change an unfair system by capitulating to it. Granted, this is a sentiment I don't always adhere to correctly in my own everyday life. But I could adhere to in this case, by not playing King games anymore. (It's not like they were losing so much by my absence anyway; I spent a grand total of $1 in about a year of play. Try to find a gamer obsessed with the AAA games who can meet that value of money spent per time played.)

The catch was, to stop playing Candy Crush Saga meant there were now two, perhaps even three, gaming holes in my life: my new desire to play swap three tile games, my desire to occupy myself with a mobile game, and my desire to play it for long stretches. Those who remember why I embarked on this epic (saga?)-length digression may think I went to Battleheart: Legacy, to fill the last two categories. The short answer is yes. The long answer follows below.

A lot of the news on this subject I got from the PC gaming site Rock Paper Shotgun. So when they put together a list of Candy Crush alternatives, I thought I'd give them a try. Now, a lot of them I already tried, and a few I found from other sources. One of the longer lasting dalliances was with Disco Zoo, an F2P that was pretty simple by even the genre's low standards. It's tile-based, but the mechanic is based on uncovering rather than swapping. The idea is that you travel to a themed area, which is basically just a board of covered tiles. You flip them over, and sometimes, there's a picture of an animal under it. If you uncover all the animals of that type, you get to take one back to your zoo. Animals appear in set patterns. For example, the cow's pattern is that if there are cow tiles on the board, they will be arranged in three adjacent horizontal tiles. So if you find one, the other two are going to be to the immediate left or right. Every animal has their own pattern type, and what animals show up where depends on what area you select.

And that's the basic game. There's a few other wrinkles, and the big one is the game's currency. Only the patterns for the first area, the farm, are given. The others have to be memorized, or purchased. And every zoo expedition costs money, with the price rising the more animals of that area you have in the zoo. Plus, there's a big lump sum to make the first trip. Every animal you have in your zoo generates revenue, once you collect them from trips--but only until they fall asleep, which is where the time mechanic comes in. You have to check on your animals and wake them up when they fall asleep (and different animals have a different max waking period, which increases in length the more you collect of that kind, up to 25). So it's a bone-simple thing, where you're either finding new animals, waking slumbering ones with a touch, or waiting patiently to get enough cash for the next expedition. I'm slightly ashamed to admit I kept playing until I got the time machine, because I really, really wanted a T-Rex in my zoo. Jurassic Park taught me nothing. Except that T-Rexes are awesome. 

And in case you were wondering about the name, it's called Disco Zoo, because you can spend the game's rarer in-game currency, Discobucks, (separate from the money you get from animals) to wake up all your animals and keep them awake for a set amount of time, because they're all dancing in that traditional zoo manner, in a disco party. (And trust me, when you have forty+ animal types all sleeping, that one discobuck is awfully tempting.)

But not all of my time was dubiously spent on pixelated animals. There were so many other dubious things. But I think that's enough for today. Perhaps next time, we'll get to... Battleheart: Legacy. (Not likely.)

Later Days,

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