“What are you doing?”, I casually enquired of my wife. She’s the owner of a popular brand of tablet computer, and I noticed that she was uncharacteristically deep in the settings of said device. She told me, calmly and desperately trying to hide the signs of an addict, that she was just moving the clock back on her machine.
“Why?”, I casually asked. I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t resist. I should have resisted.
Because as it turns out, she was trying to fool said device into thinking that sufficient time had passed that she should be allowed extra lives on Candy Crush.
Since we had this conversation, two things have happened. Firstly, she decided to cough up. Secondly, I’ve spent a bit of time with Candy Crush. It’s a really well designed puzzle game, that lends itself exceptionally well to a touch screen interface. Sure, it stands on the shoulders of many games I’ve seen before. But it’s got some interesting ideas of its own, and apparently, it’s got the best part of 15 million people glued to it. And I can see why.
I relented then, and downloaded a copy to try myself. It didn’t take long to be hooked. I’ve always been a bit of a sucker for puzzle games. Heck, I’ve lost more time than I’d care to think about to the likes of Klax, E-Motion, Plotting, Pang, Ballistic, half of the PopCap catalogue, number of word games and the majesty of Bust-A-Move (the score to Bust-A-Move 4 on the PlayStation remains a flat-out classic for my money). I hunted around for the ‘buy’ button, because I’m a bit old fashioned. I wanted to actually buy the game outright.
I couldn’t. And I hope that’s just me missing an option here, as that’s where the sugary taste of Candy Crush started to turn a bit sour.
The creators of Candy Crush, King, don’t want a few pounds off me in exchange for their admittedly strong game. No. They’d rather get me to do it in instalments. To charge me for things that games aren’t supposed to charge you for.
So, stuck on a level and want just a little bit more time? That can be arranged for a small fee.
Is it just me that has a problem with that? That you can trade off the skill of defeating a tough level by chucking a few coins at the company behind it? Because if that’s what gaming has come to, what’s the point? Defeating the end of level boss on R-Type was a hugely satisfying moment. I appreciated from the off that it needed skill, determination and a bit of luck. It certainly didn’t need 69p and a secure socket layer transaction.
But then this is the modern world of micropayments. The in-app purchase is king, and has become, in some cases, more important than finishing the game the proper way. Run out of lives, and want to top them up, rather than waiting for a fresh allocation every half hour or so? No problem, we take Visa, says the game. Some boosters to help you beat a level? Walk this way. Oh, and have you visited our shop? It sells everything but the full game itself. In fact, you can buy a permanent ‘cheat’ of sorts for £27.99. £27.99! You’re allowed to spend that cheating the game, you’re not allowed to spend that buying it.
It instantly means, of course, that there’s suddenly no upper limit on the price of Candy Crush Saga. Once upon a time, you could buy a game for £20-30, and that was that. Now, this free download has a major sting in its tail, and if you’re a particular devotee, you could comfortably have got to £10 or £20, perhaps even more, without even realising.
It’s an inevitable sign of the times, perhaps. It used to be we paid extra for new levels. Now, we pay extra to get help with the ones we’ve got. It’s like the premium rate tip line is built in from the off.
The cynic in me also fears that there’s no incentive for King to make the levels fair once they get past a certain point. I’ve played some tricky ones, where I’m sat wondering if this is good game design I’m up against, or a corporate decision to suddenly up the ante, to try and get at my wallet. This is nothing new, of course. The coin-op of Arkanoid notoriously had a bastard-hard third level, so that you could be chucked off in time for the next person. And anyway, whoever managed to get to Thursday on Paperboy without a significant financial investment has a rare talent. But at least Arkanoid and Paperboy never had a stage where you had to stop playing for 24 hours before the game would unlock the next level. Unless, of course, you crossed its palm with silver.
My problem here, then, is a simple one. I think the game is terrific. I want to buy it, and feel it entirely fair I do so. But, in any traditional sense, I can’t. King, in the FAQ on its site, argues – and I’ve no evidence to doubt this – that most people complete the game without spending any money. Fair enough. Whether they can get through it without plastering their Facebook wall for a plug for the game isn’t clear. Either way, you do get a reasonable amount for free here, and it’s hard to argue with that.
But in the rush to get us continually spending money while playing a game, can the likes of King make room for fuddie-duddies like me, who want to give them money in exchange for an end to the nagging?
As it stands, I feel like I’ve been given a quote for how much it’ll cost me to play the game, but with a warning up front that things may go over budget. I’m just grateful, in hindsight, they never got me playing Tetris on the same kind of meter…
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