Microtransactions. It's a grubby phrase in the eyes of many, mainly because it represents a concept that thrives on being small and inoffensive, yet has the capability to lead to extravagant costs or to simply wreck a game's momentum. It's worse than 'free-to-play', as a phrase, because it's less honest - free-to-play might have simple paid unlocks, but microtransactions, at their worst, give you unpredictable rewards. You might pay for something and barely benefit, which is never a particularly enjoyable transaction.
Yet microtransactions make big bucks - ask any analyst tracking the smart device gaming market, and they'll positively rub their hands together at the profits that are possible. From the outside looking in I've always thought of them as a form of betting - pay for this item or buff that doesn't guarantee progress, and then buy it again. Or pay simply for the right to play, right after we've sucked you in with casino-style gameplay. The reason puzzle games and match-three games are so darn addictive is that, surprise-surprise, they trigger the obsessive nature in us. I've seen relatives play Columns II for hours on end on level 99 on the Mega Drive, back in the day, because it's so entrancing.
When you pay up front for a game like that, then that's just fine. It's entertainment, after all. Yet iOS and Android tiles often play into that compulsive nature and try to monetise as you play, and with online wallets and funds automated it's possible to spend ludicrous amounts before you realise what's happened. It's not hard to find horror stories of people becoming addicted to a game and spending small fortunes on microtransactions.
Today was interesting for me on multiple fronts, then. I downloaded Pokémon Shuffle to see how this first Nintendo dabble in this most treacherous and tough-to-balance models would shape up. I was also doing this as someone who avoids microtransactions like the plague and isn't much of a Pokémon fan - the latter is a crazy confession, admittedly.
My initial thoughts were relatively positive. I rattled through the opening 11 stages which were structured as a tutorial, probably in about 30 or so minutes. In that time the game kept me going, gave me a 'Jewel' when I needed it, and registered me online to open up the eShop microtransactions and download a special event stage. It was all inoffensive, and I stopped naturally when my hearts ran out; I did note down the final details for the game's economy, though, which are below.
Gem / Jewel Prices
- 1 Jewel - $0.99 / €0.99 / £0.89
- 6 Jewels - $4.99 / €4.99 / £4.49
- 12 Jewels - $8.99 / €8.99 / £8.09
- 35 Jewels - $24.99 / €24.99 / £22.49
- 75 Jewels - $47.99 / €47.99 / £42.99
- 5 hearts = 1 Jewel
- 18 hearts = 3 Jewels
- 38 hearts = 6 Jewels
- 80 hearts = 12 Jewels
- 3000 coins = 1 Jewels
- 10000 coins = 3 Jewels
- 22000 coins = 6 Jewels
- 48000 coins = 12 Jewels
At this stage the game unlocked a rather tricky 'special event', which is hard to clear, but after a few hours of letting my give hearts regenerate (30 minutes per heart) I began to progress through more of the 'main' levels. I got to a point of unlocking extra, more difficult stages, and this is where the setup becomes a little murkier. If you fail initially - as you have limited moves to defeat a 'mon - the game offers an opportunity to add more moves (or time in the time-based special challenges) by using a Jewel; if you don't have a jewel you can skip to the integrated eShop to buy some. I even redeemed a jewel that I'd earned but still couldn't beat the level, feeling rather peeved as a result.
Before a stage you can use in-game coins to buy various tools, too, including options to add moves or strengthen your 'team' of 'mon. Yet you can't buy items with this in-game currency when you fail, but only use a jewel. It should also be noted that these items are expensive, many over 1000 coins; clearing a stage only typically rewards you with 100 coins, with greater rewards for occasional 'boss' encounters. When you combine the limited plays every 2.5 hours and modest coin rewards, there's certainly a temptation to speed things up, which makes the option to buy coins with jewels tempting.
It all comes back to jewels, and we're already butting up against stages that make items imperative. You can clear a stage without capturing the pocket monster, for example, as some have ludicrously low capture percentages that clearly necessitate a 'Mega Ball' and, yep, they're pricey. When you add the fact that there's only about 10-15 minutes gameplay in five hearts - though you can buy lots of hearts, only five will regenerate for free - there's the possibility of achieving very little in each session without eventually spending some money. We have little doubt that it'll be possible to beat the game for free, but it'll take ages to do so, and a lot of Pokémon and extra stages seem borderline impossible without paying out.
My issue at the moment is pricing: with one jewel for $0.99 / €0.99 / £0.89 you'll get either five hearts - 10-15 minutes play - or 3000 coins, which will get you a couple of truly useful items at the most, maybe just one. There's a bit of economy at higher values, but the game would be better value if it was completely open for a one off cost of about $7.99 / €7.99 / £5.99, to fling some eShop prices out there. As it stands, it seems that truly enjoying the game - if the puzzling is doing the business for you - could turn into an endeavour that costs more than it should. Even if 15 minute bursts a few times in a day are enough for you, chances are that the level of difficulty and a desire to collect all 'mon will tug at your wallet.
If we want to truly appreciate the motivations of this release, published by Nintendo or not, consider this detail from the manual.
A spending limit of €100, £80, AU$150, NZ$150 (or equivalent) a month is in place for users below 18 years of age.
You can only carry up to 150 Jewels at a time
There are some efforts to control spending, but let's not dish out any rewards for benevolence just yet - that's still allowing us to spend at least the value of two retail games a month on a match-three puzzle game.
I don't think the balance is right, but gamers will ultimately vote with their wallets.