From a personal perspective, I have grown to pretty much loathe the mobile gaming industry. I find it interesting to write about for my day job, but as time passes, I find myself wanting less and less to do with it in my free time. It has become abundantly apparent that “free to play” or “freemium” is seen as the way forward, with most developers believing it impossible to get your game seen if it costs money up front; and when developers do release something of comparable quality and price to something you’d see on a dedicated gaming handheld — see: anything Square Enix puts out — everyone seems to complain, even if they wouldn’t hesitate to pay $20+ for, say, a PSP or Vita title.
Consequently, it’s a genuine pleasure when I come across an iOS game that doesn’t feel like it’s violating my wallet and badgering me to do things I don’t want to do. It’s even more of a pleasure if said game falls into the “free to play” category and doesn’t feel in any way exploitative to the player, nor does it feel like a cynical, lazy clone of something else.
I present to you, then, exhibit A: Kiteretsu’s Zookeeper Battle.
Zookeeper Battle is a “match-3″ puzzler of the Bejeweled Blitz mould. You have coloured shapes — in this case, zoo animals — and must swap them around to make groups of 3 or more of the same colour either horizontally or vertically. Doing so causes them to disappear and more to fall down in their place. It’s the player’s aim to do as much of this matching as possible against a tight time limit.
In the case of Bejeweled Blitz, players are simply competing for a high score, but in Zookeeper Battle, it’s a head-to-head competition against another player — and live, rather than asynchronous. Matching animals adds to a player’s attack or defense score for a round, and after time has expired the two players will attempt to smack seven shades of shit out of each other. Attack points are absorbed by the opponent’s defense points, after which they translate directly to damage. Whoever reduces their opponent’s life bar to zero first — or whoever has the most life remaining at the end of five rounds — wins. It’s simple, effective and incredibly addictive, and regular “quests” with custom backgrounds, greetings and other non game-breaking goodies on offer help provide incentive to play regularly.
What I find quite surprising about Zookeeper Battle is that it does most of the “freemium” tricks that I abhor so and yet somehow manages to come out not being obnoxious. There’s an energy (sorry, “CP”) bar throttling how much you can play in a single session, for example — but it restores quickly and the game also provides you with five “energy drinks” to restore it for free upon first booting it up. It’s also pretty rare that when I sit down to play Zookeeper Battle that I want to play more than one or two matches anyway, so in practice, despite energy systems being the worst thing that has ever happened to gaming, here it’s not too obtrusive.
The same goes for the in-app purchases. Zookeeper Battle allows players to spend real money in exchange for “booster” items, all of which allow the player to counter special “attack” items that may be sent their way during a match. The thing is, though, these paid items aren’t actually that helpful and are certainly no guarantee of winning, as all of the “attack” items either lose their effects after a few seconds or are easily countered. In other words, a system that could have easily become “pay to win” is more a system that just doesn’t need to be there at all — like the energy system, it’s a shame it’s there, but it doesn’t really get in the way of the core game, which is solid.
While I would perhaps prefer that Zookeeper Battle dispensed with this freemium crap altogether, I appreciate that such monetization strategies often prove somewhat lucrative for developers — certainly more lucrative than asking for a single, one-off “price of admission”. What I believe Kiteretsu should be praised for in this instance is incorporating all the usually-obnoxious freemium mechanics in such a manner as to not be obtrusive to players who don’t want to play — and, more to the point, not to provide such a massive advantage to paying players that it just makes the game completely pointless to play at all.
The only thing that is a real shame is the fact that the Game Center leaderboards for the title have, as usual, been rendered completely useless by cheating players. The current number 1 player in the world has apparently won over two billion games. Assuming an average of three minutes per game, this would mean that the player had been playing for six billion minutes in total. To put it another way, this would equate to a hundred million hours or 11,408 years. I’m pretty sure the game hasn’t been out for 11,408 years. I’m also pretty sure that iPhones haven’t been available for 11,408 years. And I’m fairly sure that the person in first place isn’t over the age of 11,408 years.
Oh well. I can be happy with my performance so far. Feel free to challenge me — I’m Angry Jedi on Apple’s Game Center, so feel free to add me if you have an iOS device.