Which Game Am I Playing?
Despite the strange beginnings free-to-play games are now a part of the everyday gaming landscape. They’ve taken many forms and there are now very few genres that doesn’t have a f2p (as they’re colloquially known) title in their ranks. What was heralded as the death of the industry is, as these things always are, just another part of the business and entertainment landscape.
Still, as a business it rose with the popularity of what is known as an “Incremental” game, a game of simple interaction that gradually doles out incremental rewards. Candy Box and Cookie Clicker were two of the prominent early games and they both revolve around the increasing acquisition of delicious treats. At first you are required to interact fairly often, but it’s a simple act of clicking on a single button, but as you do this you get access to upgrades, which all serve two essential purposes: automating and increasing your income. As you do this the cost of these features also increases but at a larger rate, creating a situation where you’re constantly chasing the next upgrade and, thanks to the automated income system, you mostly invest your time waiting for your income to amass enough that you can buy your next one.
It’s a treadmill and, it has proven, a somewhat compelling one to many people. There are many, many incremental games now and they’ve followed a similar structure but, as with all game types, ideas continued to evolve. Most games operate multiple types and levels of income, which creates a staggered set of timers and meters that a player waits to fill; on top of those there are usually extra “currencies” that can be purchased with real money, which tend to allow a player to instantly skip ahead, negating a wait.
One such game is a fairly popular iOS and Android title called “Bud/Pot Farm: Grass Roots” which, as the title so subtly suggests, is about running a marijuana growing operation. It’s a slickly produced game with heavy leanings on the Cheech and Chong comedic image of potheads; it’s art is bright and accomplished and it has enough surface level weed culture references to entertain the general public well.
The game is, as all incremental games are, simple enough. You plant seeds, which mostly cost a small amount of money, you harvest plants and you sell to people. Gradual complications appear quickly, such as there being a variety of strains to grow for customers, more planters to purchase, equipment to upgrade for greater yields and facilities to build and staff. While the foundations of a great management game are there, the mechanisms are the same as all incremental games: wait, click, wait, click. There isn’t much to the general game, at least that’s how it seems, and it’s perfectly possible to play as long as you want on only this level, or to buy “potbucks” for real money in order to get further faster.
Only as I started to play, enjoying the art and theme, I found that the game they presented me with was not the game I was playing. As much as I do support game developers I find that with these “idler” games I am only willing to spend a very small amount on them, far below the top possible purchases (many games offer currency packages for $99.99), and more in line with what I would spend on the game up front (something closer to $5–10). This is where I stopped playing Bud Farm and started playing to beat Bud Farm. Not to finish it, not to achieve the top level of farm available, but progressing as much as I could without spending anything before my attention waned.
Time is the name of the game and so time management and efficiency became the way to play. Each seed you sow grows automatically after a certain length of time which changes depending on the strain, but at the same time each pot can be watered at specific time intervals in order to get a greater yield when it finally does sprout buds. Ideally you want to be watering plants the moment it becomes available, failing to do so will often stop you from being able to get the maximum yield, and so I started setting external timers. BEEP, time to water, set a new timer for the next pot in line, BEEP, etc…
Then I started breaking out my rusty maths skills. Certainly customers will want certain strains or edibles and what they offer is money and XP, both of which you really want, so it becomes a game of working out whether it’s faster to grow strains myself or go looking for them on the in-game market? Do I use guano to speed up the plant growth or save it for later? Is the job even worth taking at all given the time investment to the payoff? Which upgrade is best to begin now, knowing I do not have enough “potbucks” to speed it up? Everything can be worked out in advance mathematically and in doing so I reduced the game down to it’s timers, down to it’s income and outgoings, and in the end turned it into a surprisingly involved management game. I was heavily engaged with a game that offered the easiest progression when left to it’s own devices and I was, to my own surprise, having fun divining this efficiency.
Eventually my interest went, shinier games approached, but I was left having had an oddly interesting experience in a genre that thrives primarily on a lack of interaction and provoking impatience. Games challenge us in many ways, sometimes through intent of a developer, sometimes through our own quirks, in this case the latter was invoked for me. In the end I enjoyed that time in a way that could not be represented in a traditional review, nor could truly be anticipated before I opened the app.
Other titles provide less, despite a more solid game at the centre. Disney Emoji Blitz is essentially a Bejewled Blitz clone which adds a few of it’s own twists on a largely trodden genre and paints it in an enticing Disney coat. The game is proven, solid and satisfying in it’s explosive cascading gameplay.
Here though the mechanisms of F2P are more insidiously difficult to game. The game’s unlockable content are the Emojis, cute little representing classic and recent Disney/Pixar characters which each have their own powers to play with, but also become available to use on your device as an emoji as well! That latter part being highly enticing for Disney/Pixar fans and frequent texters of which I, and countless others, am. Unlocking these emojis is not a trivial task, emojis cost either 15,000 or 30,000 in game coins and are distributed through a “blind box” system where you cannot choose who you are getting. The total amount of in-game money you would have to spend is 810,000 for the current set of emojis and that money can either be earned through play or by paying real money for packs of “jewels” which can then be traded for money. The amount of jewels required is 5250 and the absolute minimum amount of money you could spend to achieve this is $99.98, buying two packs of jewels priced at $49.99, and that is only if you are 100% lucky in opening your blind boxes as you can still receive duplicates of emojis you already have (which level up existing emojis but that is not really what a player is after). To earn money otherwise can be done through completing “missions” and leveling up, collecting item sets or just through regular play. Missions provide a slight problem, some are simple like “Clear a certain number of emojis”, others are completely gating such as “Complete seven games with a girl emoji” which is, for now, completely impossible in my game as of all the 4 blind boxes I’ve opened none are considered “girl” emojis. Item sets are a grind, but they can always be completed, it’s just easier with some characters for who rare items drop more often. The amount of money you earn is uncertain and sometimes missions or item sets reward you with a paltry number of jewels or lives.
Finally there is earning money through regular play. The amount varies depending on how well you play, which is heavily luck-based in a game like this, but skill can play a part. On average, weighing good games against bad, it seems the most likely amount per game is 200 coins. This would require you to play somewhere around 3800–4000 games to achieve the full 810,000, give or take mission rewards and item sets. Playing a single game costs one “life” of which you can have 5 at maximum and those five will recharge in roughly an hour so it should take, in the best case scenario, around 822–866 hours, including the time it takes to play each round, to collect each emoji. That’s roughly 33 days, and that would be if you were playing every single hour a day offers, 66 if you were only playing for 12 of your waking hours.
It’s an impeccably designed machine for extracting cash. Were this emoji keyboard sold separately it would be likely a $5 purchase, at best, from most people’s wallets. Creating the game and placing the emojis behind it creates a value far beyond their normal worth. Is that a bad thing? Possibly, I’d certainly prefer access to them without rafts of cash or time, but I cannot speak for the enjoyment of the game people may have. Perhaps those hours of investment are something someone is happy to achieve over a year, perhaps not, but it’s certainly a shallow experience at best and somehow that feels like less of a game than I set for myself in Bud Farm.