Pay to Win

For free users, tiny slimes; for paid users, gigantic dragons.At first, Puzzle and Dragons seemed like something pretty cool- a mobile game which, roughly, combines something like Pokemon with a match-3. Form a party of elementally-themed monsters and explore dungeons with them; fight enemies by matching tiles. Monsters have special abilities that can be triggered with time, and can also be made more powerful by combining them with other monsters. Monsters come in one of five different elements- matching three or more tiles of a given element makes every monster of that element in your party attack, and may do more or less damage depending on their target’s element. The obligatory twist to the match-three gameplay is that rather than simply swapping a tile with one next to it, you’re given the ability to grab a tile and then drag it around for a few seconds, meaning that with speed and foresight you can put together a couple matches in a single move, or build ones larger than would otherwise be possible. With a variety of elementally-themed dungeons to visit, each providing a set of missions with a fixed series of battles, it seemed a pretty solid game.

I played it off and on for a couple days. As seems standard for microtransaction-based games, it featured two currencies- coins, which are earned with every dungeon run and are used for ‘normal’ tasks like combining monsters, and Magic Stones. Magic Stones are earned slowly; you appear to gain one every day, and clearing all missions in a dungeon for the first time gives you one as well. The latter can be spent to refill your stamina, continue if your party falls in battle, and gambled in a virtual gumball machine for new monsters.

That last bit is the sticking point.

After a few days, I’d assembled what I thought was a pretty decent party- strong enough, certainly, to complete the dungeons I’d run without a whole lot of trouble. The monsters you win at the conclusion of normal missions, however, are fairly generic, common types- weak slimes and goblins with the occasional mediocre warrior or decent Ogre thrown in. To get rare monsters, you need to drop a couple magic stones in the aforementioned gumball machine- something I’d done as frequently as I could. The first couple times, I got interesting, unique monsters that were akin to the fire-breathing dragon I’d started with in power; a Naga with the ability to stop enemies from attacking, a Golem with the ability to reduce incoming damage, a Knight with decent stats. My fourth spin, however, yielded the Hell Golem Mk. III.

Before every mission in the game, you’re compelled to bring a ‘helper’ along; a monster recruited from another player, either a “friend” or one of a handful picked at random. I’d observed in the past that an abnormally large number of these folks had suspiciously high-level nonstandard monsters, but I’d always chalked it up to folks who’d been playing longer than I was or had put all of their resources into building up a single character rather than spreading them around.

Hell Golem Mk. III was ranked five stars, denoting the rarest and most powerful tier of monsters. While specific five-star monsters are nominally the rarest in the game, getting five-stars from the slots couldn’t be that unusual, given the number of similar examples I’d seen helpers come with. Hell Golem Mk. III started at level 30; my highest-level monster was at level 15. Hell Golem Mk. III, like the other five-stars I’d seen as helpers, was significantly more powerful than the rest of my monsters put together.

Seeing my carefully-assembled party so totally outclassed by a virtual die roll pretty effectively killed my desire to keep playing the game. Why bother leveling my party up, when simply spending Magic Stones was so much more effective? I tried running another mission anyway, with the Hell Golem on point. Having effortlessly steamrolled it, I sighed, hit ‘home’, and deleted the app.

I’ve said before- perhaps not in this space- that this sort of nonsense is the bitter fruit of the race-to-the-bottom that is app pricing; I draw a direct line from the inability to sell a game on the App Store for more than $3 unless it has the words “Final Fantasy” in the title to reliance on microtransactions and ‘encouraging’ investment of real money into the game. In this case, the advantages that could be won with a fistful of Magic Stones and a moderate amount of luck were so great that building a party the ‘normal’ way seemed a waste of time- and without the need to strategize and work my way up that ladder, there didn’t seem to be any purpose to playing the game at all.

Maybe this is an argument that, despite previous evidence, it is possible to strip too much gameplay out of something- or at least that it’s possible to go too far in providing a real-money end run around it.

– HC

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