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I was computerless this Christmas. I’d left the UK to spent time with my girlfriend at her parents house at the foot of the Italian Alps. Much of my time was spent walking and reading – but I’ve got gamers hands. I found myself itching to play something, anything. So I turned to mobile games.

If it sounds like an act of desperation, that’s because it was. I had heard very, very little positive feedback on mobile titles. I entered the Play Store hesitantly; feeling my way around the genres available and trying to gauge from user reviews what was worth my time. I quickly learnt that a popular game is not necessarily a good game, and that a free game is very rarely actually free.

Microtransactions. We all know the term, and we all loathe it. We PC and console gamers have, until very recently, been able to negotiate the perilous paywalls of this financial model – but mobile gamers aren’t so lucky. Microtransactions are the primary source of income for most mobile titles. You tempt the user in with a ‘free game’, give them a few hours of content so as to suck them in, then punch them in the face and steal a few coins from their purse.

I jest. It’s not all foul play – and for many developers this financial model provides a steady stream of income – but microtransactions suck; they often destroy the player’s sense of immersion, they complicate and limit the kinds of games developers can produce, and they distract developers during development.

Ludonarrative Dissonance & Instant Gratification

Of all the genres of games I downloaded, I found strategy titles to be the worst. The amount of grind in these games is unreal, as are the waiting times. Real money results in immediate gratification – that mill which will take three hours to build? Well, give us ten pence and it’ll be done instantly. But paying to fill your wallet with gold takes you straight out of the world of the game. There’s no logic to it, nor is there any narrative framework. I’d give them a little leeway if they’d found an inventive way to integrate your purchases with the world you’re developing. But no. Your pennies are suddenly gold coins.

There’s an important term in that last paragraph – ‘instant gratification’. The bulk of mobile games are created with this in mind. They’re meant to be fiddled with over a lunch break at work, touched and tapped for only ten minutes at a time. The assumption is that mobile gamers don’t want to, or cannot, play for more than a few minutes in one sitting. And this is where a game in development can go one of two ways: either have a strong narrative that is built-in such a way that it can be played in 10 minute increments, or, they don’t bother with a strong and interesting narrative. The former can be hard to pull off, and it’s very easy to be lazy with the latter.

I don’t think I need to point out how the bulk of mobile games handle their narratives. Hint: Candy Crush Saga. Second hint: Lazy.

Here’s where I say something controversial like, ‘when a game has no narrative, then what’s the point?’ but that’s invalid. I’ve played hundreds of games that have very basic narratives, but many of them I’ve enjoyed. Here’s the rub; I played these games on consoles and PCs, and, factors like gameplay made up for the lack of narrative. Mobile platforms cannot compete with PC or consoles when it comes to gameplay – not without using an external controller. So with no narrative, and gameplay that cannot compare to PC or consoles, then what’s the point?

I almost gave up at Christmas. I dug deeper and deeper into the Play Store hoping to find some hidden gem, but there were so many rotting corpses in there. So many clones, of clones, of clones of clones. It smelt bad in the Play Store. I pulled up one last handful of Candy Crap – thinking that if there was more Candy Crap beneath then I’ll call it then and there – and I saw something. A glint of gold. I pulled at it, shifted it from the shit, and held it in my hands. It was a majestic crown, and on it’s front read the words; Reigns.

Immersion & Narrative Done Right

Reigns is special kind of mobile game – not only is it narrative focused, it also asks for a one-off payment. No microtransactions here! Also, Devolver Digital clearly recognise the restrictive interactions players are limited to when playing on mobile devices, so the game plays with swipe left, swipe right, and simple tap mechanisms. It’s narrative Tinder – swipe left to build a new church in the town; a decision that will please the church but irritate the locals and deplete your funds. Swipe right to refuse the request; angering the church but freeing up funds to build new schools for the locals.

Every action has a reaction, and intricate plots develop as the cards pass through your hands. Did you flirt with your wife’s sister? This could develop into an affair, then scandal. Did you order the peasantry to keep digging in the mines after a collapse killed numerous people? You may be rewarded with riches – or, an armed uprising…

And never was I asked to open my wallet to give Devolver more funds to access more cards – and it would have been easily implemented too. Yet doing so would have ruined the player’s sense of immersion. Devolver do not want to distract you from the world of the game, they recognise that games are escapism – to get away from the desk piled high with papers, or the yelling school children in the other room. With Reigns I knew that I had complete access to the game from the get-go. I wouldn’t be missing out on key aspects because I had refused to slam more coins on the table. I also needn’t worry about pay-to-win aspects, which have become unfortunately synonymous with microtransactions.

It was a straight up, one-off payment. I could get lost in the game afterwards for as long as I pleased. I wouldn’t have to wait hours for a building to be improved, or put down coin to turn those hours into a few minutes.

Limiting Factors & Distracting Development

If you’re going to sell something, you must have something to sell. Microtransactions are no different. But as a seller, the best microtransactions are the ones that make you money. Aesthetic options are a safe source – players heavily invested in your game might feel the need to change-up their characters; so why not give them the option to personalise? You’ll make a few sales that way – but you know what would earn you some real bucks? Put an XP boost on that dress, and a damage modifier on those leggings, and some extra kick into those boots – then you’ve got a player’s interest.

From then on it’s a dangerous descent into the madness of these forms of transactions. Money can easily become attached to every aspect of the game. Pay to finish the mill, pay for more slots in which to build houses, pay for an extra island – or grind your way there, except, you kind of can’t, because it’s all timers. Wait your way there, then. Just wait. Be patient.

Microtransactions limit a developers ability to express themselves through their product, as they have to think actively about monetization. How can it be implemented, and where? Is the game balanced with and without the items offered to paying players? We can see the same processes with DLC – Civilization VI is a great example. There will be boatloads of DLC for this PC strategy game, and it’ll all come at a price. Us reviewers are now wondering to what extent Civilisation VI was a complete game when it was first launched, and whether it’s fair for the developer to leave out so much content – where can the line be drawn?

It’s hard to know whether these kinds of transactions are enabling developers to produce extra content for games, or encouraging developers to hold back content so that it can be put up at a later date as DLC. The line is a thin one.

The Future

On mobile, free-to-play microtransaction heavy games dominate the marketplace. They are the be-all. They are everywhere, and everything. It looks like this is the future, and we are now seeing microtransactions slip into the PC marketplace. In fact, King’s Tommy Palm thinks that in the near future every game will be free-to-play, and EA’s Peter Moore believes that microtransactions will be in every game soon. If the balance is struck correctly, then I can’t see this being a big issue – the problem is that one word, ‘correctly’.

In the meantime, I’m staying clear of the Play Store – apart from Reigns, and maybe a couple of other beauties.

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