I've been playing a lot of phone free-to-play stuff lately. I realize this is sacrilege or whatever, I just don't care a lot. Puzzle and Dragons was so good that I didn't mind giving other games like it a shot. What I've noticed is that there are types.
You Don't Have To Pay
I've been playing Puzzle and Dragons for over a year and I've given it a dollar. I've enjoyed the game to such an extent that I kind of feel bad and would like to give it ten bucks for its own sake, but I understand that that is a deep hole and if I pay them ten bucks, it won't just be ten bucks.
This game has pay currency (Magic Stones), and if you log in every day, there will be times when the game gives them away, one per day. Five stones every couple weeks is more than enough to fulfill basic functions that would normally cost money, namely expanding your monster inventory.
So how does the game make its money? There's a slot machine in the back. Rare monsters can only be obtained by either beating particularly challenging dungeons or by taking a 5-stone spin on the Rare Egg Machine. This comes out to 5 bucks, but if you buy in bulk the price goes down slightly.
Players understand that just playing the machine as it is is a fool's errand: the game periodically has events where the odds become much better and that is when the big spenders put down $50 or $100 or whatever. In other words, the designers understand not to ask even their whales for all their money all the time.
The game has a fair difficulty curve designed for one player, and the key to winning is patience and careful planning whether you pay or not. The rare monsters are stronger, but you're not going to find the win button to this game anywhere.
This is a pretty common model: the average player plays undisturbed and the game gets funded like crazy. Obviously this only works if you're a massive hit like PAD, and a small game can't exactly count on hundreds of whales just appearing somehow.
You Don't Have To Pay For A While
I was recommended Brave Frontier as being like PAD without the tough XP curve. I gave this some time and decided I wasn't really fond of it. It's true that the slow experience climb (not truly necessary to win levels) of PAD is out, but so is the element of skill, fundamentally.
A lot of PAD is clever use of the character skills, which can be all kinds of tricks. Beating tough levels and bosses is about putting together the skills you have in a smart way and forming a strategy; it's a very meta game going way beyond just the puzzle part. That's the part that makes it engaging, not the slot machine.
BF takes that part out, and the puzzle, too. You just click your guys to make them fight. Skills are just special attacks. Player agency is reduced to just clicking, and sometimes casting a heal spell. Everything feels pre-determined by the numbers. If you can't beat a stage you're just going to have to level up (XP is readily available, at least) till you can.
Anyway, the game is baby difficulty for a long time, and when you finish the first "world" the difficulty spikes dramatically (there's a new evil god, much worse than the last one!) and your max-level super-god guys all fall instantly. It's not a matter of planning or control; the game is just raw numbers. At the start the numbers are strongly in your favor, and as you move along the tide starts to slowly rise against you, and then you're swallowed up.
The game wants you to either start paying up for better characters or beat super-hard "you will probably have to spend a few magic rocks on continues" stages that have the evolution materials for your existing guys... or you won't really be able to advance. I dropped out after this point, wondering why on earth I'd been playing this crap to begin with.
You Actually Have To Pay
I'm really into Dragon Coins lately. I picked it up because it's a Sega game, and you know, personal bias. I wanted to see the Sega ripoff of PAD. Its gimmick is that it's based on the old coin pusher machine at the arcade, and it's actually really polished and smart and fun. I want to write a post about its more advanced mechanics, where it is clearly the aggressive reverse of PAD's stall-oriented play style.
It's one of those free-to-plays that is technically free to download and play for a little while, but you basically have to pay. If I didn't give this game $10 after the first week, I would have actually had to drop it.
The game does this with a combination of mechanics. First, you get an extremely small inventory and way too many monsters: 3-5 for every stage you play. You start with something like 30 slots. In addition to the pay slot machine there are two free slot machines, and one of them is "use it or lose it" style. If you keep playing the game, you keep getting monsters, always. Most of these are combined with other monsters for experience, but many are too rare to just throw out like that.In PAD this is not a problem because you can expand your inventory with the free Magic Stones you get from logging in.
Dragon Coins' login bonuses are pathetically stingy, like 1000 gold or maybe 50 cents' worth of pay currency. You can earn pay currency by grinding really hard on early stages, but the returns on that are also really bad. Plus it's not like you're going to get anywhere with 30 inventory slots.
So you pay. The game speaks loud and clear here. They didn't make things difficult for the free player, they built a wall, and if you don't like it then goodbye. I paid, because the game is really fun.
You Don't Have To Pay, But If You're Playing This, You Probably Want To
The LoveLive phone game is the most basic imaginable music game: in fact playing the songs probably isn't even the point. Your score doesn't even depend on player skill! You can play perfectly and still get a C rank, in fact you will. Score is determined by how leveled-up your idols are, which is done with card-combining just like in PAD and so many other of these games.
Regular idols are total crap, stats-wise: the adored heroines from the anime this is based on-- the characters the players of this game would actually want-- are all rare cards. You can play all you want without them, of course, but if you're playing the LoveLive videogame you probably want the LoveLive characters. (When you start playing you're allowed to pick your favorite as a starter.)
Of course, you don't just get your favorite character and be done with it; the same characters are available over and over again in endless rare variants that the super-fan is going to want all of. This game expects you to drop (roughly) $50 in the slot machine in a go: it actually has a promotion running right now where you're guaranteed a super-rare card if you just spend 50 gems. You see, this game is aimed at megafans, and nobody opens their wallets quite like the idol fan. Behold the brutal statistics of the LoveLive slot machine, laid bare in-game:
-90% regular rare (even free players get a lot of these)
-9% super rare (again, you're guaranteed one of these if you just spend $50 in a shot)
-1% ultra rare (there are three different ultra-rares in the slot machine right now)
Did I mention you have to get two of each card in order to "evolve" them? $50 is just the beginning. Like I said, the system is brutal. Unlike other casual games aimed at wider demographics, it is not quiet or tricky about this.
The game also runs events during which the goal is basically to play the game more than anybody else, and since there's a stamina bar it's really who can insert coin the fastest.. it goes on forever. But you don't gotta pay! But why else would you be there?