Saturday, December 20, 2014

Devil Off My Back: How I Stopped Competing in Marvel Puzzle Quest

There were a few of demands on my time the last semester, mostly ill-advised, self-imposed ones. First and foremost, I sank an ungodly amount of time into my new course, on forms of fantasy. I can't really regret the time I spent on it, though, as it was by far the most I've enjoyed researching or teaching in ages. It's really the first time I've been teaching a course where both my students and I were interested in the material; I really hope I can channel that interest into future projects.

Speaking of future projects, there's the dissertation (which is really an ongoing project. This segue is not the best). It's been progressing, though rather slowly--I found some vital research I needed on a journal  that's only in French, which has meant slow going. And there's the aforementioned course I was teaching--I tallied up all the notes I took for the fantasy course, and it wound up being 200 pages.That length is about 4/5 of a dissertation right there. Again, I'm hoping to do better next term, but since I'll be teaching two courses--Introduction to Rhetoric and Forms of Science-Fiction--that's going to take some focus on my part.

Luckily, I just had some of my distractions removed from me. Remember my glowing reports of Marvel Puzzle Quest, the freemium, superhero version of Candy Crush? Well, I finally have that devil off my back. Or, to be more accurate, the devil climbed off my back, told me it was time to see other people, and walked away, whistling a jaunty tune. But it's the end result that matters, right?

What happened involves another facet of Marvel Puzzle Quest I don't think I've described much until now. A player of MPQ competes against special battles or other players' rosters; either way, she accumulates points, and moves up and down the ranks depending on how many points everyone else in her bracket has as well. And at the end of a set period of time, rewards are handed out based on ranking. There's an individual tally of points, but there's also a group tally--you can join an group, or an "alliance," and then the points a player accumulates go to her individual tally, but also her alliance tally, and one can get additional rewards based on the alliance tally as well.

What players can do for each other is limited; there's a chat function, and there's the option to send your characters out to help someone else. But mostly, the only purpose of the alliance is to work together towards that alliance tally reward. As such, anyone who isn't scoring high on the individual level and seems to be latching on in order to get the alliance reward is seen as deadweight. (You can probably see where this is going already.) And a cycle of top tier and lower tier players develops in the game overall--the best players and alliances win a bracket and get the best rewards, which allows them to perform better in the next competition. The losers don't get worse, but they don't get to improve either. The gap can be met somewhat through a willingness to spend real money on the game for better characters, but mostly that willingness exacerbates the gap rather than closes it, as it's the top tier players who seem most willing to shell out money to stay in their positions. There's two things (probably more, but two that occur to me right now) that can change this dynamic: the developers slowing down on the characters they release or doing something to increase the likelihood of drawing good characters for low level players, and the players' chief resource, time, becoming scarce. Both are unlikely; it's the top tier players who tend to invest the most time (understandably, since they get the most reward and motivation) and it's also the top tier players who, as I learned, pay the most cash.

And this is where I came in, or rather, fell out. I was doing fairly well on the player versus player side of things, but that was largely because I was taking advantage of my open schedule to select brackets with very unfavorable end times. (Play until my bracket ends at 4 am? It... seemed like a good idea at the time? Well, it kind of did.) And thus, I maximized my own time potential. But I did *not* have time to play through the player versus environment matches multiple times a day, especially given that my characters aren't really developed enough for it. As my individual rank dropped below my alliance's rank, the writing was on the wall. The real eye-opener moment was when someone asked in chat how much everyone involved has paid for the game. I have never spent a cent on Marvel Puzzle Quest; while you can pay to advance faster, or at least for the chance to advance faster, I stuck to my slow, plodding way. My teammates, however, were not so restrained. The *minimum* amount they spent was $150. It was fairly clear at that point that we had very different notions on what we wanted to get out of this game.

So this morning, one of the alliance's leaders kicked me out. There was no warning, no "time to shape up or you're dropped"--just a notification that I'm no longer aligned with anyone. I can't blame them for it; I can't even look up who they replaced me with, since I don't remember the name of the alliance to begin with, which suggests my commitment was never really that firm, despite the time I was sinking into playing.

I haven't looked for a new alliance, but I haven't deleted the app either. I think I'll keep playing the game--it's a good filler for when watching junky TV--but at the same time, I think I'm going to fall back from the competitive side of it. It's an investment I'm not willing to make financially, and shouldn't have been making in terms of time. I'll probably miss it, but if you can look at your time in a game and say after that it should have been spent elsewhere, you're probably right.It was an interesting experience; I've always said that my personality precludes any serious investment in MMO-type games, but through the magic of MPQ, I've inadvertently gotten at least a small taste of the competitiveness and serious time commitment involved in multiplayer affairs. I have to say, I prefer games with clear, unambiguous endings much better--I need that "stopping point."

MPQ has also taken down some of the barriers in my mind about the difference between casual and hardcore players. I know intellectually they're terms that have no reality behind them, but MPQ really blows them away. At its core, it's a "casual" game--a match three tile based on Bejeweled. But because of the competitive aspects added to monetize it, it is also a game requiring a very, very high level of commitment in order to excel.

The numbers my former fellow players reported spending on it are interesting too. Popular industry wisdom and consumer reports claim that most freemium titles are supported by "whales"--that is, 0.15% of all freemium players account for over 50% of its revenue. So you have many players, but only a few who pay enough to keep the lights on (it's similar to the porn industry that way). My teammates belie that number, paying enough to be significant, but not enough to land in the whale category. Now, one anecdotal result doesn't contradict a million sample size survey. But it's fun to speculate. Does MPQ attract a different audience through its focus on superheroes and competition? Did I wind up in an atypically large spending group? Is the 0.15% number wrong?

I don't know. Can't know, really. But I appreciate the opportunity to watch things unfold from the sidelines, instead of in prime freemium seats.

Later Days.

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