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Learning to love free-to-play

I have a confession to make.

I played a few different games last week. I finished this year's season of The Walking Dead. It wasn't great. I also checked out Infamous: First Light. That one is pretty good.

But the vast majority of my free time gaming has gone to something unexpected: mobile-centered, microtransaction-heavy free-to-play games. I'm also having a blast, against all expectations.

WWE Supercard 1920

Training ground

I was on vacation in rural Minnesota when I realized that I had brought my Vita but didn't have anything I was particularly excited to play. I wanted something low-impact to play in the background while focusing on spending time with the family.

I was mindlessly browsing Twitter on my iPad when I realized I had the perfect device to facilitate that experience. I went on to the App Store and started flipping through popular games, with a little hesitation. I figured this would be a good learning experience — a chance to expose myself to whatever's currently hot on iOS for a week. Once I went home I would never have to return to this style of game.

My first download was the recently-released WWE Supercard. I love wrestling and I love Hearthstone. So I should love this, right?

That simple progression system is incredibly powerful

As it turns out, Supercard is a very different game from Hearthstone. Rather than going into a match with a deck of 30 cards, you create a team of only five. You're also not fighting against live opponents; rather, you're matched up against decks created by other players, but with the AI choosing how the cards are actually played.

The simplicity of Supercard lent itself to short, satisfying sessions. I blasted through full matches in two minutes or less by tapping past the silly animations. Each match rewarded me with at least one card whether I won or lost. Cards that I didn't want to hold onto could be "fed" into my main roster to level them up and make them more powerful.

That simple progression system is incredibly powerful and, I would soon discover, the key to making a good free-to-play game.


Magic tricks

After a couple of hours with Supercard, I decided to venture back to the App Store and see what else was available. The first game to catch my eye this time was Spellfall. I had received some press releases about this one, and I have a soft spot for match-three games. Combining that with RPG gameplay (as in Puzzle Quest) meant there was a good chance it would pull me in for at least a little while.

You play a young wizard journeying through a desolate land full of slimes, spiders and other monsters. You cast spells by matching colored gems, but there's a tiny yet important distinction to be made from the regular Bejeweled formula: You can swap two gems from any location on the whole board. They don't need to be right next to each other.

Given that freedom, Spellfall became less about scouring the board to find any possible match and more about setting up and deploying massive chains. The further in the first overworld map that I progressed, the more important it became to always be pushing for giant combos rather than single matches.

Smart play is awarded with more coins, which can be used to buy better weapons, armor and spells. It's RPG 101, but it's all handled very well.

I enjoyed Spellfall's cute cartoon world and smart twist on match-three gameplay. But about a half an hour into it I discovered a frustrating free-to-play mainstay that I would need to learn to accept: timeouts.

farmville 2

Take a break

If you've ever taken a second to try out popular social games like, say, Farmville, you might be familiar with the way these games wield time itself as a resource. You want to build a barn? It will cost 50 gold and take six hours. That's six hours of real time.

"This is bullshit."

In games like Spellfall, this mechanic is expanded to encompass the character's health. Over the course of several battles, my health was whittled down to half, then one-fourth. I was getting into dangerous territory. I had two options: Spend my hard-earned gold on healing rather than the necessary equipment upgrades I needed to progress, or simply leave the game for 20 minutes while my character heals up, hitpoint by hitpoint.

I hated this. I was furious. I closed the game in disgust, opened the Twitter app back up and raged. I turned to an oblivious family member: "This is bullshit."

I understood where it came from, of course. The idea is to force players to make a tough choice: Keep playing at the cost of gold, which can, of course, also be purchased with real money, or do something else for half an hour. But I had decided early into this experiment that I would only spend as much in these games as I would be willing to buy them for — five or ten dollars, maybe, but nothing more. I was determined to not waste money just to skip timers.

I suspect this isn't as big of a deal for most people playing games on their tablet or phone. But as someone who grew up playing games, who has 25 years of experience sitting down to play a game and stopping when I want, this was aggravating and impossible to comprehend. It's not what I was comfortable with, and certainly not what I wanted. Control of your pacing is taken away, and used as a way to make money.

That's how I felt in that moment. Here's something I'm kind of scared to admit: After two weeks of playing these games... I'm kind of okay with the timeout mechanic.

Marvel Puzzle Quest: Dark Reign

Embracing the change

A third game was the turning point for me. I had, once again, returned to the App Store hoping to find something to wash away my anger at Spellfall. But I still had the thirst for match-three gameplay. I had loved the original Puzzle Quest back in the day, and superhero comics are my jam.

I decided to throw caution to the wind and give Marvel Puzzle Quest a try.

It was serendipity that Marvel Puzzle Quest was the third game I tried, because it's strangely kind of a mix of the first two. The core gameplay is match-three battling against other superheroes and villains. But in order to improve  your heroes, you need to collect "covers" that provide them new powers as well as a special currency (called Iso-8) to level them up.

Marvel Puzzle Quest also employs a time-based healing mechanic, but since it's applied to each character individually, it's a little more workable. Once I built up a small roster of heroes to swap between, I was able to keep fighting with one group while another healed, switching characters out as necessary.

The funny thing? While I realized I could use the bigger roster strategically to minimize downtime...I ended up not really wanting to. Instead, when my favorite heroes need to rest, I'd close the game and focus on chatting with the family. Or reading a book. Or, heck, returning to Spellfall and making a little more progress there.

Those mechanics also make these games something specially designed to work for adults with busy lives

A lot of people look at free-to-play mechanics and, understandably, interpret them as exploitative. It's in place to try to squeeze cash out of impatient players with money to burn. I'm sure it accomplishes that.

Here's another angle, though: Those mechanics also make these games something specially designed to work for adults with busy lives. I can play 10 or 20 minutes on a break from work, and then be done, safe in the knowledge that my characters are healing up so I can keep using them later. I can do a couple quick matches before dinner and still be free to help out with my son's bath time. I can casually slot these games into my busy-as-hell day without feeling like I need to schedule out hours of free time to get sucked in.

Part of the reason Spellfall and Marvel Puzzle Quest (and even WWE Supercard to a lesser degree) have kept me invested is because they're simple, sure, but there is legitimate strategy and a sense of satisfaction to improving my skills.

Disconnected to their methods of asking for money, though, I've actually found myself falling in love with the mechanics. Free-to-play games aren't likely to replace full-sized games for me any time soon, if ever. Spellfall isn't a stand-in for Dragon Age: Inquisition. But they're perfect as a side experience than can give me a quick hit of what I love about gaming during days when I otherwise just wouldn't have the time.

I became much happier once I stopped getting upset at not getting what I wanted and instead played the games as they were designed. I'm no longer scared to embrace that.

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