Mobile Gaming: (Time = Money) -> Quality of Life

Before getting into another section of the time segmentation series, I have a confession to make — a few months ago, I got really addicted to the mobile game Fallout Shelter on my iPhone 5. I don’t normally play mobile games (I’ll always be a PC gamer at heart) but since I’ve always been a fan of the Fallout series and was excited about the upcoming release of Fallout 4 at the time, I decided to give the game a try.

Gameplay screen for Fallout Shelter (Bethesda). Click on the green thingies to collect your resources!

Maybe it’s a habit that I picked up working in QA back in the day, but when I start a new game, I usually ignore the tutorial and just start clicking on things randomly to see where things go. If the game tells me to take the left door, I take the right. If it tells me to click on this thing, I’ll try to put a hazmat suit on the cactus just to see what happens instead. Most games encourage you to “find a balance” between the resources that they provide (power, food, and water in this case) but there are always going to be people like me who’s going to want to find the path less traveled by, for one reason or another.

It might be tempting to quote that famous poem by Robert Frost at this point, but in gaming, the motivations of the user are usually less than noble: more likely than not they’re probably just looking for an exploit…like say, finding a looped pattern that lets you get an infinite amount of water or food or something. This dynamic has always been interesting to me, especially in single-player games, where “getting ahead” has no intrinsic value, other than how the player feels about themselves in relation to the game. It is an ego thing? Is it the feeling of progressing through a puzzle or figuring something out? Where is the source of enjoyment really coming from?

Exploits and bugs are fairly common for any game release, even for AAA titles. If there’s money involved, though, you can be sure that they’ll be patched fairly quickly.

Of course, for a AAA-title company like Bethesda, these exploits are usually few and far in between. The game did go through a few bumps at its initial release, but by the time I got around to playing it most of the obvious bugs and exploits were already fixed. (Damn! I mean…good!) What they had instead, though, was the opportunity to buy “lunchboxes” for a measly 99 cents each. These “boxes” basically gave you a boost in resources that gave you a slight advantage when progressing through the game in its normal state.

So I’ll admit that at the height of my addiction I actually did buy a few boxes in order to help me build my shelter more effectively. (A few Mr. Handys to be exact.) But what was I actually paying for, anyway? Materialistically, I was literally getting nothing in return.

That’s kind of when I realized that what you’re actually paying for in these games is time — here the old saying “time is money” comes to life in a very literal kind of way. You don’t want to wait for 4 hours for that thing to recharge, so you pay a few bucks to try to keep the momentum of the action and narrative going. We’re used to paying 10 bucks for a 2 hour movie, so what’s an extra 99 cents to keep on enjoying the game for a few more hours, right?

Bureaucracies and the Player’s “Quality of Life”

Without going into the gory details of the game mechanics themselves, you could argue that games with in-game purchases such as Fallout Shelter and Farmville basically make their money from improving the in-game “quality of life” for the player. People play these types of games to feel like they’re in control of their own domain, where the decisions they make have a real and important impact on the overall result. It might sound boring to call it “resource management”, but it’s exactly that: these games are essentially simulations of bureaucracies and administrative organizations. Like any good bureaucrat, the goal of the player is to make the system as efficient as possible, reducing procedural inefficiencies and redundant tasks as much as they can.

Gameplay Screen for Farmville 2 (Zynga)

In gaming, a “quality of life” feature is basically something that helps the player save their time and/or effort in-game. In a RPG it might be an inventory auto-sort feature, or simply the option to skip ahead of narratives and dialogues that has already been displayed. In theory the player could still progress through the game even without these features, but it would make the experience of the gameplay much less pleasant.

If there’s anything players hate, it’s 1) waiting around for no reason and 2) doing redundant, repetitive tasks over and over for extended periods of time. Planting tomatoes might fun at first but after the 5000th one it does start to get monotonous, after all. People tend to underestimate how powerful these feelings are — Zynga practically built their empire around the avoidance of these situations at all costs, in a lot of ways.

In Farmville 2, here’s one process you might use to make some money:

Farmville 2’s gameplay gets complicated fairly quickly once you get into it for a few hours.

(1) Plant Tomatoes -> (2) Water -> (3) Fertilize -> (4) Wait -> (5) Harvest ->(6) Turn Into Feed -> (7) Feed Chickens -> (8) Sell Eggs -> (9) Profit! -> (10) Reinvest [Back to 1, or do something else]

That’s a lot of steps! With enough practice you can get through the most of the steps pretty quickly by just clicking a lot everywhere (my favorite tactic), except that step 4 is designed so that you can’t just repeat the process endlessly…the waiting period forces you to pause your game until the crops have time to grow. Farmville has a lot of incentives (like finding friends to join) built around the waiting period, which redirects the player’s anxiety towards actions that might help the game grow.

Of course, there’s always the ultimate time-saver: money. Why bother doing any of that when you can just directly buy the FarmBucks themselves? As with the real world, people are strongly incentivized to convert labor into money, and visa versa. (In this case, labor = clicking.) But does using money in this way really increase the player’s “quality of life” in-game?

The thing is: a lot of people are reluctant to buy virtual currencies not just because of the stigma, but because it feels like “cheating” — money lets them skip a lot of the more tedious steps in the game, but it often cuts out way too much of the gameplay itself, ultimately leaving the player feeling like their victory was bought, rather than earned. They don’t get the satisfaction of getting better or improving the farm itself, leaving them in a perpetual state of existential dread. (Pretty serious stuff!)

And direct currency conversions also have a fatal flaw: it’s 100% efficient, meaning that if you spend enough money you have essentially “won” the game without actually having done anything. And once you reach that state, there’s nothing to be done, nothing new to be learned, and your relationship with the game comes to an end. Cool, seems normal, no big deal, it’s time to move on, then. Except that if you’re a game developer (especially for mobile/social games), that’s not usually not the kind of outcome that you’re looking for.

Robots To the Rescue!

Fallout Shelter does have an interesting take on the whole time-and-effort-saving feature, though: robots! Usually only available as an in-game purchase (extremely difficult to unlock through regular gameplay), Mr. Handy is a “helper robot” designed to aid the player in doing some of the more mundane tasks, such as resource collection, exploration, and defensive patrols. It works tirelessly all the time (even when you’re not actively playing the game) and requires very little maintenance on the player’s end end to keep it running.

Mr. Handy from Fallout Shelter. He lives up to his name.

Rather than allowing the player to skip through parts of the game, Mr. Handy helps the player by doing some of the smaller tasks involved in keeping the shelter afloat. I do think that for games like Farmville, adding these types of “helper” entities could add a lot of interest — as well as depth — to the game overall. Something like a sprinkler system for water or auto-feeder for food that you could queue up occasionally would add a level of strategy, as well as peace of mind for the player while they’re not looking. People get a nice, warm feeling inside of them knowing that they’re still progressing in the game even when they’re not frantically checking their phone every 15 minutes, after all.

Many have admitted that Mr. Handy was the first time they’ve ever spent money on an in-game purchase (myself included), not necessarily because it helped them “beat” the game, but because it made the gameplay a lot “smoother” and a lot more fun. Mr. Handy definitely saved my thumbs from a lot of exercise, which made the game more enjoyable overall. (Not a fan of carpel tunnel, gotta say.) Cammy from idigitaltimes seems to agree:

Ok, so for those of us that have been playing Fallout Shelter on iOS, Mr. Handy is the first “paid” feature that might be considered a major asset. Up to this point I have honestly not purchased one lunchbox and have reached the goal of the game (200 dwellers) numerous times. While I won’t call Mr. Handy essential to success in the game, I do think the robotic butler makes life in the vault a bit smoother.
Cammy Harbison, idigitaltimes

If only robots were that useful in real life! But that’s what makes playing these kinds of games fun — stuff does what they’re actually supposed to, at least most of the time. These AI-based “helper” entities allow for a lot of new options for both gameplay and monetization, which we’re bound to see more of in the near future.