June 22, 2010

Finger Puns and Me Too Design

I just now obtained an Apple iPad, which means I'm about 4 years behind the times regarding touchpad interfaces. Like a kid in a candy shop, I'm downloading every app I can find.

Only in this candy shop, they only serve Skittles. But they're off-brand Skittles...and tropical instead of regular flavored. These free-to-play Skittles apps are okay at first, but about 18 seconds into each of them you realize it's the same game as the last one you played. You're starving for content and a purpose!

We Rule was first up on my roster. This game is slow and pointless. It's slightly less slow if you have a ton of friends playing, but the pointlessness remains. There is no challenge, no pressure, and really, no rewards. The developer's business model is to sell Mojo which expedites a player's progress. To me, this seems like I'm paying to circumvent the gameplay, right? I wouldn't pay money to skip to level 10 of Gears of War!

Farmville is identical to We Rule, only in We Rule you're building castle stuff instead of farm stuff. We Rule keeps pushing me to download other games which look startlingly similar to both of these, only with a slightly different setting.

Then, I encounter Godfinger from the same folks that make We Rule (ngmoco). Godfinger makes me the most sad, as I feel it is so close to being something fun. It's really close to being a game.

In Godfinger you play as god. Your job is to manage a tiny planet (literally a floating sphere you can spin around) and keep your followers happy and busy to earn gold. You then use the gold to buy better ways to keep your followers busy, decorations for your planet, or new ways for your followers to relax. 

There are some back pressures -- followers get tired and need to take a break. Surprisingly, there are a few ways to take care of this problem:
  1. Buy your followers a fountain and put one at the fountain. Then, drag a rain cloud over and use your god powers to cause it to rain. This fills the fountain and your follower splashes, burps, and regains energy. Adorable!
  2. Hold down on the planet and drag downwards to create a depression. Then, drag a rain cloud over, hold down to create a downpour, then fill the depression. Now that you have a lake, drag a follower over and they'll fish until they are happen again.
  3. Spend some gold to purchase a tent. Drag a few followers over to build it. Once it's constructed, have them sit down to take a load off.
  4. Use Awe (a currency you slowly earn from leveling or can buy with real money) to re-invigorate them.
Holy crap that's four choices! And choices are a fundamental component of a game! 

Unlike We Rule, which discards goals after 3 tutorial steps, Godfinger always has goals for you to solve. Buy this, earn a new follower, recruit a friend to play, and more. I love goals, even if they are stupidly simple, because they make a mountain out of a mole hill. What I mean by this hick saying is that it turns repetitive content into a satisfying accomplishment. Why do you think World of Warcraft shifted from just grinding creatures to doing quests to grind creatures?

The game, err, app thing, oozes personality. My followers sigh, burp, cheer, and scream based on what I do to my planet and them. If I cause and earthquake they panic. If I throw them they shout "wheeeeee!" They have this simple and charming appearance. You can also name followers based on your friends list, which amuses the hell out of me. 

I mentioned a few god powers earlier -- there are many!
  1. Terra-forming
  2. Make it rain/Downpour
  3. Lightning strike
  4. Cast sun beams/Cause fiery inferno
  5. Pick up followers and drop/fling them
  6. Pick up and move buildings

This, however, is where the game breaks down. Black & White was a brilliant premise limited by hideous controls and bizarre design choices. Godfinger's controls are fantastic and simple. They make sense. In fact, almost everything is manipulated via drag or push down until something happens. But after they reveal a power they do nothing with it. 

One time early in the game skeletons came and attacked my followers. I had to use lightning to destroy them, which was great. When I learned the fire ability later the tooltip told me I could use it to destroy skeletons as well. Alas, skeletons have never attacked again. I would love to reload my game to find my followers in disarray, chased by skeletons. I could then figure out the best way to zap them and bring my followers back to happiness.

One time these scary trees spawned and  needed to be removed. I removed them with the fire. No scary trees, outcroppings, or anything have spawned since. 

Wouldn't it be cool if rival, mean followers built a scary statue that I could topple with terra-forming? Or, there were evil followers I needed to banish with a righteous flood (if were doing God, we might as well do the flood story that's in every ancient holy text). Or a flood was coming for my people and I had to fling them over the waves to get them to safety? Or grow a bridge of vines using sun and water to have them immigrate to a new planet? I came up with these just now. I'm not saying they're great ideas, but they are ideas. I feel like ngmoco did the hard part implementing a suite of cool, easily controlled abilities and didn't take the last step to make a game. 

I would pay for the content I just described! If they gave me challenges and a way to actually play a game I would give them money. Instead, they only want to sell Awe, a way to circumvent the game and skip the content. 

It's just dumb. I'm curious how long these companies will continue to survive making the same game with the same business model. It doesn't seem revolutionary, cutting edge, or really that novel. People complain about the over-abundance of World War II shooters, but at least they are games. 

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