Deep Sea at SXSW’s Screenburn

Deep Sea, Robin Arnott’s terrifying sound-based undersea adventure pushes boundaries between game and interactive experience. Sure, there’s combat, a battle between the player and some sort of killer leviathan, but the focus is much more on an experience than a high score.

Deep Sea caught my eye in a sea of stunning indie titles at SxSW’s indiePub pavilion because of all the apparatus. Players wear a modified gas mask, covering the entire head and blocking out all light, and a set of headphones, blocking all the noise from the show floor and playing Arnott’s creepy undersea audio.

Players use a joystick to move and to shoot at the undersea mobs, but enemies can only be tracked by listening intently to the ominous sounds of approaching monsters. Inside the dark sensory deprivation of their hood, a player hears only a crackling help request — which explains the basic commands without breaking the fourth wall — and the vibrations of encroaching but undefined enemies, and the playback of their own breathing.

The sound of shooting and even the player’s breathing will draw the monsters, a mechanic that reminded me of Taiyoung Ryu’s Maum, although I found it much easier to control my breath in Deep Sea than my brainwaves in Maum.

Unexplained horror is much more terrifying than blood and guts, and Deep Sea is no exception. Game players who’d shot their way gleefully though Left 4 Dead or Gears of War, talked about feeling shaken by Deep Sea. The narration offers gameplay hints, suggesting players aim one way or another to target, but never reveals what kind of horrific monsters are being targeted. The vagueness of the storyline, plus the sensory deprivation, really creates an experience.

Relying on equipment like this mask is a risky choice for a game developer, as anyone who’s played a clunky VR game or worn awkward 3d glasses can attest. But Deep Sea uses the logistics of the required equipment to set the tone. The use of the game system itself to establish the situation and setting couldn’t help but bring Brenda Brathewaite’s project, The Mechanic Is The Message to my mind.  After putting on the gasmask, which seems intentionally awkward but was made more challenging by my ponytail and earrings, I reached blindly for the joystick, missed, and needed my hand guided to it. The mechanics are used to amazing effect here; the game opens with the player disoriented and helpless.

I quickly forgot about the mask I was wearing, perhaps because it was meant to inhibit my senses rather than enhance them as other gaming headsets would. I found myself focusing so intensely on the sounds of enemy movement that I was even standing at the Deep Sea booth, leaning towards the source. There’s no replay value, no desire to kill a record number of leviathans or stay alive longer next time, but at the same time, it’s impossible to play it without being moved, or take off that hood without immediately telling friends they just have to try it, too.

I don’t expect Deep Sea to take off as a popular game, or to see mass-production of Arnott’s homemade gasmask hoods, but this is the type of wild, immersive experience that makes me love indie games.

Originally written for Indie Game Magazine, 2011


Actual Concerns In Games Journalism

(Spoiler: None of these involve a secret cabal of games journalists, plotting to destroy videogames in order to take over the world. Also, none of these concerns make me want to join up with a certain internet hate mob.)

1) The system of unpaid internships writing for gaming publications gives a massive advantage to prospective writers who have family money or other resources to support themselves while they work without pay for a year, and it puts writers who need to earn money from their work at a major disadvantage. This isn’t unique to gaming publications, but it doesn’t encourage a variety of voices, perspectives, or life experiences in games journalism.

2) Publications paying writers in revenue share, a bonus based on hits, or other similar methods that basically reward writers for writing clickbaity headlines and inflammatory posts.

3) Outlets that charge developers for “premium” or “expedited” reviews, and then just happen to give the paying developers 5-star reviews, and run these sponsored reviews next to legit reviews. It’s rough for developers, for writers who want to be journos and get these assignments, and the end result is annoying for readers/consumers.

4) One of the great things about the internet is that anyone and everyone can be a games writer! Seriously, Blogspot and WordPress are free, and take almost no time to set up. The barrier to entry has never been lower. (Which is one of the reasons that it’s ridiculous to say that closing comments on a blog or YouTube is censorship. You can write your own blog!) But, when the publisher, editor, ad sales, accounting, reviewer are all the same person, it’s easier for conflicts of interest to slip in. (I keep hearing about all these corporate shills, but in my experience, this is usually about trying to get a few extra AdSense pennies, not massive kickbacks.)
Editors receiving ad money from a games publisher (or soliciting an ad buy from that publisher) might be less inclined to run an unfavorable review of one of that publisher’s products. Reviewers who received their first review copies, or know they’ll need to work with that PR rep again, might be less inclined to write and publish critical reviews. And for one of a billion tiny examples of something other that pure artistry influencing which games are reviewed, Big Fish Games and Amazon offer affiliate programs that let bloggers earn commissions on products they’re reviewed positively, which can be a disincentive to review indie games, where there’s no affiliate profit to be made.
There are plenty of other examples of awkward areas for those whose love of games and game writing drives them to become the writer, editor, and publisher of their own outlet.

Finally, none of these concerns make me want to throw up my hands and condemn games journalism, these are more my thoughts on potential issues to bear in mind than OMG GAMES JOURNALISM CORRUPTION!!! ETHICS!!1!one!!! SMOKING GUN!!!! Still, the recent internet shrieking is probably what’s encouraged me to articulate and share some actual concerns in game writing.

Sometimes Nostalgia’s Not Enough For a Successful Game


New piece up on Hardcore Games.

After the first dungeon, where my biggest challenge was finding my way, the second dungeon became almost impossibly difficult. (The party wipes were not helped by a small bug that caused the game to hang or lag on the Load Game screen, or by a larger one that crashed the game when I returned to town with one unconscious party member. Ugh.) Since E does an all-out attack, the only time I really messed around with the awkward combat menus was when I wanted one of my spellcasters to use a particular spell. Pretty soon, I felt like I was just armoring up, hitting E, and hoping for the best.

Overall, the creative monsters, dungeon crawl theme, and general art styles reminded me of a Dungeons and Dragons handbook, but as I played, it turned out to be one of the D&D editions that required pages of errata and half a dozen house rules to be any fun.

via Elminage Gothic Review on Hardcore Games

Shadow Kings


Shadows Kings Icon

Shadow Kings is a new free-to-play strategy builder from GoodGames, now available to play on CrazyGames. Shadow Kings is also available for Android and iOS mobile devices.

The game is set in a fantasy kingdom where humans, elves and dwarves are under attack from the orcs, goblins and trolls. Players of Shadow Kings begin by building and fortifying a city, with typical builder improvements like barracks and defences to keep out mean old orcs.

As the player’s city grows, they’ll be able to acquire more resources, to build more improvements, and gain even more resources. Then players can build an army from their city, and help the good guys (humans, elves and dwarves) against the fantasy baddies (orcs, goblins and trolls). Shadow Kings also has community events and PvP battles.

Shadows Kings Bombert

Dwarven Tutorial NPC, Bombert

Free-to-play resource management builders are so common online and on the App Store, that a new builder game really needs something to set it apart and make it memorable in such a crowded space. In Shadow Kings, that’s the art quality. All the characters — even the evil orcs, goblins and trolls — are really cute versions of fantasy staples. Even the menu icons are chubby cartoony images.

All the menus and selections are quite clear, too.  (I didn’t realize quite how essential this is until recently. I just finished a review of another game, for Hardcore Droid, where the illogical, poorly-localized menus and options made the game completely unenjoyable.)

Shadow Kings is currently available on CrazyGames, along with plenty of other Flash games like puzzle game 2048, and evil twin 2584, vampire makeouts in Twilight Kissing, and cute buttonmashing adventure Mighty Knight.



crazygamesThis post is shared with you in partnership with CrazyGames.

Checkpoint: Reflections on Gaming, Travel and Place


Possible Cover Art!

I’ve started a new project combining two of my favorite things, gaming and travel, and now I’m looking for contributing writers. This will be a collection of essays, vignettes and general reflections on games and location. I have, um, two pieces for it right now BUT THEY ARE AWESOME.

Here’s the call for submissions:

I see many connections between games and physical location, and I hope you do too.  Do you think of Monkey Island when you visit a real jungle? Did you recognize your Beijing dumpling shop in the background of a hidden object game? Will you always remember which game you played that week you were snowbound in New England? Or the game you played on a long flight? Did a game inspire you to take an actual trip? Did a trip encourage you to try a new game?

I’m looking for around 20 brilliant writers to share personal reflections on games, place and travel. Ideal contributors will have a background in game development, games journalism, travel writing, or just in thoughtful analysis of games.

Tentative release date is Spring 2015.

You should be part of it! Send .doc or .docx submissions to to contribute, or share with other gaming or travel writers.


Related articles

Zyrobotics’ Turtle Invaders

turtle invaders screenshot

Zyrobotics’ Turtle Invaders is a simple, undersea action game for young children, available for both iOs and Android mobile devices. The developers’ goal is to help young children and children with special needs to improve their motor skills with an engaging game, and to allow children to access a colorful action game regardless of skill level.

In Turtle Invaders, players take on the role of an ink-squirting Octoremus, who’s defending their undersea home from invading turtles. Hitting a turtle with ink gives players points, but the game is very clear that the turtles aren’t hurt, just magically teleported back to their own turf. Which is exactly how all enemies should be vanquished in children’s games!

turtle invaders level cleared

Turtle Invaders asks young children to look at the turtles’ path and the Octoremus’ path, and decide when to shoot ink. They’ll need to predict where the turtle targets will be, by the time the ink projective will be. It’s a fairly standard shooter mechanic, in a cute, undersea, non-violent setting. It’s optimized to play with little ones because players can adjust pretty much everything, so you can customize it just right for the child. Slow down the enemies to make it easier for young ones who might be struggling with hand-eye coordination, and keep young players from feeling frustrated. Or add faster and more interesting paths to challenge an older or more skilled player. Although I’m saying “older” and “younger”, because I’m most familiar with adapting games to different ages, developer Zyrobotics has designed Turtle Invaders to be accessible to children with special needs. (Including autism-spectrum children — there are several ways to reduce the amount of sensory stimulation in this game to keep players from getting overwhelmed.)

Zyrobotics’ other work includes apps and toys designed to be accessible and inclusive for different player capabilities, and Access4Kids, accessibility hardware to help users who have difficulties with motor skills use a tablet or other touchscreen.

Turtle Invaders is now available for iOs and Droid, and in keeping with the developers’ accessibility goals, the game is free to download and doesn’t offer any in-app purchases.


This post is in conjunction with Zyrobotics. I’m really pleased to be writing about a company developing cute and accessible games for children with different ability levels.  Getting a pitch on an experimental, edu game means my blog is pretty much where I want it to be.

Other Bloggers on Zyrobotics’ Work:

No Pineapple Left Behind

no pineapple left behindSeth Alter, from Subaltern Games, has a released a trailer for upcoming indie No Pineapple Left Behind, a single-player PC game around education reform. (Seth’s the  developer of serious strategy game Neocolonialism and was also kind enough to do an interview for my students about indie development!)

In No Pineapple Left Behind, players take on the role of school administrator at a school where a wizard has turned all the students into pineapples. Don’t worry, thought, it turns out that pineapples are preferable to students because pineapples take tests and get grades (they are enchanted pineapples, obvs) without asking annoying questions, getting bored and restless, or all those other pesky things that children do. The school’s goal is to pass exams, and no one really looks too hard into whether a child or a pineapple took the exam, as long as they get a good grade. So when pineapples do well on their exams, the school and therefore the player, will get more money. The game’s success is measured in the school’s funding, naturally.

no pineapplesUnfortunately, the pineapple cure is not foolproof, and sometimes an unattended pineapple can turn back into a child. Ugh. This is an undesirable outcome, because children need things besides exams and children do things besides take tests.

Some of the player’s goals in No Pineapple Left Behind will include leveling up teachers and then firing them when they burn out, or identifying and expelling problem children before they affect the pineapples’ exam averages. You’ll also be able to cut those frivolous art classes to save money.

The game will have scenarios to play through, as well as a sandbox mode for free play. Of course, we recommend against anything as open-ended and free as sandbox play, and suggest you study for your exams instead.

Check out the trailer here.

Block, Block, and Block

depression questI tweeted my link to my Depression Quest review the other day, and accidentally walked into the Zoe Quinn Twitter battle. I try to tweet my games journalism multiple times, because I’m a narcissistic attention whore, or working freelance writer, tick where applicable, but this is the first time I’ve had to immediately block Twitter burners saying awful things to me about it.

Game designer Zoe Quinn’s ex-boyfriend has written a pretty scathing tell-all blog post, with dates and names and screenshots of chatlogs, accusing her of sleeping with several guys in the games industry. This would just be weird gossip about people I don’t really know, except for the disturbing number of people (gamers, male) who decide that a post from an angry ex is 100% true beyond all doubt, and proves that the female designer slept with reviewers for positive reviews of a clearly awful game. For large numbers of angry gamers, an ex’s blog post completely legitimatized the shadowy spectre of the talentless and immoral woman, sleeping her way to success, and so the angry hordes took to the internet to vilify Zoe Quinn, in the particularly terrible ways gamers are constantly awful to women on the internet, usually involving Photoshop and porn, or rape threats on burner accounts.

Info from an angry ex is often unreliable (source: Existing on earth), and social media screenshots can also “prove” that Aeneas was on Facebook. Not that I’m saying the ex made it up — I don’t actually know either of them, so for all I know, she cheated even more, with more guys in the industry, and he never found out. For all I know, his manifesto is the tiny tip of the cheating iceberg!  She could have banged every man in the state while her boyfriend wasn’t looking! That doesn’t really have any bearing on the quality of her game design work, though.

For the record, I reviewed Depression Quest positively for Indie Game Mag, over a year ago, before any of this happened, and I chose to reshare the post during a wave of conversations about suicide and depression following Robin Williams’ suicide. Also, no one offered me sex or cash or kickbacks for it. Also if there really is a lot of money and prestige in reviewing indie games, I am definitely doing it all wrong.

Shaun at Discover Games has a really good take on it:

The difference in this case is that the developer is a woman, and the game she’s selling (as pay-what-you-want, I think it should be noted) is the exact kind of nontraditional game that makes myopic hateful nerdbros apoplectic with unrestrained rage. So, instead of people either ignoring it or reviewing the journalists’ writing and questioning their ethics as we do with every other case, all those angry nerdbros have turned this into the Scandal of the Century, and it’s all about the deceitful woman using her sexuality and feminine wiles to extract positive press for her terrible game that could not have gotten good press by any means other than her prostituting herself.

Ultimately, of the many accusations flying around, I have no idea which are true and which are not. And I mostly don’t care. I find it difficult to believe someone would sleep with people they didn’t want to sleep with just to get a few positive nods for a game they’re basically giving away for free. But even if it’s all true, I’m more interested in the way the story is being framed, and the way in which it is different from the numerous other instances of similar situations.

Anyway, Depression Quest is a good, thoughtful game, I hope you play it and I hope you get something out of it. Encountering angry dudebros on the internet is neither good or thoughtful, and I’m embarrassed that this kind of harassment and attack is (still, frequently) happening in my industry.

Related articles

Soccer Physics


soccer physics icon

Soccer Physics, from Otto Ojala and on CrazyGames, invites players to a chaotic mini soccer game.

You can play against a friend, or against the computer, in a funny two-versus-two soccer game. Players try to adjust to random elements in each silly version of the game. Soccer Physics players get random balls (sometimes you get a typical soccer ball, but sometimes it’s a beach ball), random fields, and random player abilities (we’re mostly talking rocking and jumping, here, not superpowers). Five goals wins the game, but be careful, with all the random factors, it’s not as easy as it sounds.

Because the game is a little chaotic and very random, you don’t have to know a lot about soccer (aim ball for goal, stop opponent from hitting the ball into your goal) in order to play. Since you’re just trying to bounce the ball, it’s probably more like foozball than the World Cup. It reminds me of another mini sports spoof, Wrestle Jump, from the same developer, and a little bit of Mighty Knight, another cute buttonmasher on CrazyGames. Not a lot of time for strategizing, but the randomness and fast pace makes it fun.

The silliness and constant near-misses make for a fun, quick game.

You can play Soccer Physics on CrazyGames, along with puzzle game 2048, and evil twin 2584vampire makeouts in Twilight Kissing, and cute buttonmashing adventure Mighty Knight.

This post is in connection with CrazyGames.



Related articles


Is “Cookie Clicker” a Message Game?

cookie clicker iconLike Cow Clicker, Cookie Clicker is a parody of certain casual game mechanics. Players start by clicking a cookie to earn a couple points to spend on an upgrade to earn extra points. Eventually, you’re earning millions of points per second, and saving up to buy that billion-point upgrade that will increase cookie production even more. Whether it’s hiring your first cooking-baking Grandma or opening a portal to the cookie dimension, the mechanics don’t change. Points, upgrade, more points.

Everything else is window dressing on that mechanic.  Players start out buying an extra cursor, for extra clicks, or hiring a grandma to bake more cookies. As the game goes on, all semblance of a consistent gameworld is gone. Grow a cookie farm. Mine for cookies. Open a portal to the cookie dimension. Whatever! Just keep clicking to bake cookies!

Actually, you don’t even have to click. Soon, your extra cursors and cookie farms and cookie mines will start producing click-free cookies. And Cookie Clicker evenrewards you for alt-tabbing over to your work. Finish that email, and you have enough cookies to build a Cookie Farm (Apparently cookies grow from cookie seeds.) Leave it running all night, and you’ll be able to buy a Cookie Lab (or 10) in the morning.

With a casual game like this pared down to its simplest form, the motivators in a lite builder become extra clear. Of course you receive achievements, with funny one-sentence flavortext. Scores are massive, so you can gaze happily on your bajillions of points. There’s no learning curve for new players, either, making it extremely accessible, while the ever-increasing points provide that feeling of improvement, even though the game doesn’t require more skill. Future upgrades are greyed out, and the need to find out what zany improvement will come next is a powerful motivator.

Cookie Clicker is a genius parody of exactly how casual builders work.

Other People Clicking Cookies

Mayflies, Collage, and Music in Super Chop Games’ Ephemerid

ephemerid superchop Super Chop Games’ new iOs release Ephemerid is a musical game, but fortunately, very little of it involves tapping in time with the background music (Ugh. How is that a genre?). Instead, players explore a paper collage world of flowers, leaves, and snowflakes as a mayfly, using the game’s music as a guide.

Ephemerid has no points, no winning, no failure messages. Actually, almost no messages at all. Except for a little icon of headphones next to a thumbs up, Ephemerid doesn’t directly communicate with the player. Instead, the player is gently encouraged to tap and swipe different parts of the papercut art to explore the world and see what the interactions do.

best puzzle ever ephemerid super chop

The best puzzle. Beautiful and simple.

Each scene asks the player to interact with something different, usually in a new way, but always inspired by the music. The music adds to each scene, or hints at what the player might want to try. Taken together, the scenes tell a story of an inquisitive mayfly’s life. Sometimes, you’ll take part in moments of joy and excitement, calling up ancient Chinese dragons or bouncing through the starry sky. Some scenes are puzzles, which can be solved with a little experimentation and exploration. Ephemerid is playful without being childish or cutesy.

There’s no way to screw up in Ephemerid. Not everything you see will help you progress through the world, but there’s no “wrong” thing to tap or touch. This creates an environment for relaxed exploration, allowing plenty of time to enjoy the world, but it prevents players from deviating from the mayfly’s intended path. You might slow down to enjoy the flowers, clouds, leaves, stars, or boombox-bearing dancing spider, but no matter what, your life as a mayfly involves finding a mate, procreating, and then dying.

record ephemerid

Turntable Seasons

When you complete the life cycle of a mayfly (that came out sounding very 4th grade science fair), you’ll be back at the beginning on the Ephemerid record, ready to begin again as a new mayfly. Symbolically, as the vinyl circle of life, it works very well, although I don’t know if there’s much replay value in mayfly reincarnation.  I only used the record-menu to return to sections in which I’d been too absorbed to take a good screenshot.

Actually, I wanted to screenshot almost everything.

Actually, I wanted to screenshot almost everything.

I first checked out a demo of Ephemerid at SXSW, and I loved the childlike exploration and simple elegance of the intro version. (Although I have to admit it was pretty odd playing such a gentle musical game amid the craziness of the SXSW gaming pavilion.)

ephemerid spider boombox
If you follow @SuperChopGames right now, it’s entirely likely that a spider somewhere will dance with his boombox.

It didn’t seem even a little odd to have a cardboard spider light up and dance for followers. Other folks at SXSW offered me breakfast tacos, t-shirts and cocktails for @ mentions, and at least a musical cardboard spider related to a musical paper mayfly, right? When I played the full version, though, I laughed to find my funny spider friend as the mayfly’s dangerous enemy.

Ephemerid is available on the App Store and is currently on Steam Greenlight for a computer version  as well.

No Way Out of ‘Depression Quest’

depression quest choices

I’ve decided to share a post I wrote for IGM last year about text-based Depression Quest. There’s an ongoing conversation about depression and suicide, and talking about games is also how I like to talk about feelings. Depression Quest is a simple text-based game, but it succeeds in using the gameplay format to mimic the hopelessness and frustration of depression. The game brings empathy and highlights the difference between having a bad day (or week. Or month. Or when feeling like garbage is connected to garbage events.) and depression.

Depression Quest is an interactive story in which players take on the role of a twenty-something living with depression. Players attempt to manage family, work, a romantic relationship and a creative project, while struggling with the challenges presented by the character’s depression. Depression Quest resembles another indie game experience, Actual Sunlight in that the game makes a statement about the effects of depression through the player’s interactions.

The game uses a format I particularly enjoy, with a segment of narrative and and list of player options. I’ve already written pretty extensively about how much I love this type of interaction in text-based games like Heroes Rise. This format distills gameplay to its simplest form, a series of situations and choices for the player to make.

Depression Quest very successfully plays on this expectation by presenting a narrative passage describing the character’s experiences, and then offering several player choices, with a range of possible outcomes, but makes some of the readable choices inaccessible to the player. Players can read options like making the most of a social situation, getting a good night’s rest, and so forth, so it’s very clear that these are possible reactions to the presented narrative segment, but they just aren’t able to choose those options.The player might want to call a therapist or get out of the apartment for a change of scene, but the depressed character literally can’t.

Some of the attempts to make the experience universal — a project for an unspecified hobby, a vague but menial job, some awkwardly non-gender-specific pronouns — make it harder to relate to the character’s experience in the beginning. I’m not sure if so much generalization was necessary, readers can connect well to protagonists with names and individualized experiences in novels.

But as the game progressed, the vagueness did create a feeling of isolation. I knew my character was overwhelmed by his job, and worried about screwing up in unspecified ways, and so was I, especially since I wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing at work, anyway. I felt like the named characters – older brother Malcolm, coworker Sam, and college friend Amanda – were bright spots in a vague and somewhat confusing environment, a very effective part of the game’s portrayal of depression.

Player choices influence the progress of the story, but it’s not always a simple cause and effect. Players can’t, for example, decide to seek a therapist or pursue antidepressants. Instead, players are told that a co-worker’s cat has had kittens, and one of the litter needs a home, and then decide whether getting a kitten is a fun distraction or another overwhelming responsibility, for example. Giving players some choices with a little agency, but not a clear way to fix things or counteract depression is an accurate representation of living with depression.

Although it’s not a “fun” gaming experience, Depression Quest successfully uses interactive fiction game mechanics to tell an artistic and informative story about the effects and experiences of depression.

Depression Quest is available online. Players are encouraged to pay what they can, although there is no minimum requirement to experience the game. A portion of the proceeds earned from the game will be donated to iFred, a non profit that works on depression research and education.

Crossposted from Indie Game Magazine, this article originally appeared here: Battle Depression In ‘Depression Quest’  — Meg Stivison | Indie Game Magazine.

Related articles

Free Free Free To Play, Pay Pay Pay To Win

fffff2p bannerIndie studio Elevate Fun’s new free-to-play iOS Game, FFFFF2P, is Free Free Free Free Free To Play. Like most free-to-play games, you can, of course, pay to win.

No, seriously. Pay to win this game!

No, seriously. Pay to win this game!

Free Free Free Free Free To Play smartly satirizes the usual free-to-play model by  blatantly bribing with in-game currency for social sharing and return gameplay,  and blatantly offering in-app purchases to unbalance the difficulty. The message is obvious, and the game is still a cute and playable playable casual game.

When the game opens, your girlfriend, Princess Pixel, is kidnapped by an evil monster who throws ads at you, trying to either squash you by dropping an advert on your head (I died a lot that way) or trap you in a cave of flashing adverts (I died a lot that way). Typical free-to-play calls to action, like limited time and bonus and so forth, flash on the falling ads. The message is clear:  our beloved videogames are being held hostage by free-to-play mechanics.

I’d really have liked the option to switch sprites, and be a little girl player trying to rescue Prince Pixel.  But this game satirizes free-to-play mechanics, not the perceived difficulty of adding a playable female character or the constant invisibility of female players, so male is the only way to play. FFFFF2P is far being from the only game where the player must be a male, but it’s particularly sad that this game so cleverly mocks scammy free-to-play games as one of the depressing and insidious trends in our industry falls prey to another depressing industry standard, the lack of playable females. An option where you could pay extra to be a girl (GET IT???) would fit well with the theme.

I’m not particularly good at platformer jumpy games, and gave this one a try mostly to check out how Elevate Fun mocks free-to-play mechanics. My lack of skill is just fine because players can get several times the coins they’d earn by jumping and closing ads by sharing on Facebook and Twitter. So FFFFF2P literally gave me the choice between earning coins through gameplay or quickly spamming my friends to get lots of coins.  This is Cow Clicker-style interactive satire.

My Twitter friends now know that I've done something very important in a game.

My Twitter friends now know that I’ve done something important in a game.

Coins earned from closing ads or sharing your progress can be spent on upgrades to help you earn more coins. Which help you earn more coins, to be spent on upgrades, to help you earn more coins. I’m no longer sure if this is Elevate Fun having a little joke, or if the entire free-to-play leveling system is an elaborate joke on all of us. In the shop, you can buy a cheap one-use candy or a more expensive multi-use candy for your hero, both candies are good for crushing this saga.

Saga is crushed by candy.

Saga is crushed by candy.

The game FFFFF2P actually is free-to-play and ad-supported, so real ads will occasionally appear as you play. I tapped one out of curiosity, and was prompted to download Blizzard’s CCG, Hearthstone, another free-to-play game that’s recently been criticized as free to play and pay to win. Another level of satire, or just an indie studio trying make some clickthrough cash to keep the lights on?

This weekend, I’d downloaded the Kardashian game, too, mostly to figure out how it could possibly be so profitable (Answer: I have no idea. So far the most entertaining part has been making my aspiring-starlet avatar and discovering that no pretty girl can wear glasses). So whenever I picked up my iPad, I’d have the standard invite from the Kardashian game to bring my doll to a pretend photo shoot, next to the tongue-in-cheek push notification from FFFFF2P inviting me to click for coins, which couldn’t have made the comparison more obvious.

While clearly parodying free-to-play mechanics, FFFFF2P offers more engaging gameplay without forcing an in-app purchase than plenty of serious free-to-play iOs games.

Other Gamers Rescuing the Princess and Paying To Win:

PanemVille: The Hunger Games Adventures

The Hunger Games novels suggest so many good games — a minigame hunting prey with Katniss’ arrows (a popular choice for the middle-school girls in my game design classes), a crafting and survival game like Lost In Blue set in the forest outside District 12, a combat game in the Arena, or even a social RPG, like Whitewolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade, set in the Capital — that I had high hopes for The Hunger Games Adventures.

hunger games adventure in IOS

I hope you like this yellow meter. You’ll be seeing it a lot.

Even when I realized this game had some appointment-style mechanics, I still thought that could work well. Maybe I’ll set snares and traps in the woods, with Gale and Katniss, and come back when I’ve caught something! Maybe I’ll have to perform actions at certain times, like sneaking through the fence when the electricity is off!

Instead, The Hunger Games Adventures is an appointment-style builder with thin missions, where pretty much every action involves spending one point of energy to tap an item,  waiting for the yellow meter to fill up, and completing the action so you can spend another energy to tap the next item. It’s not a unique mechanic by any means, although this particular game is on Facebook, iOs and Android, click-and-wait is the basis of way too many Facebook games. I’ve written before about monetizing on freemium games by designing to bore players and it’s  particularly disappointing in a game set in a world that really invites creative gameplay.

yellow bar primrose everdeen

I can’t wait until this yellow meter fills up so I can fill up my next yellow meter!

The game’s art, although clearly inspired by the movies, is awkward and mismatched. The characters have the proportions of Bratz dolls, with more realistic faces, not quite photos but definitely resembling the movie actors, while bodies are awkwardly cartoony. Arms, legs, and torso don’t quite match up, creating gaps and overlaps at the joints for all characters. (Since the game is a movie spinoff, Katniss is the Jennifer Lawrence version, not the olive-skinned Seam resident from the books.)

default Hunger games adventures

Worth noting that the default character is female. Yay!

capital couture

Unsure if this is genius monetization, or if someone missed the part where the Capital are the bad guys.

One of the introductory missions asked the player to plant flowers at the home base, a pretty standard social game task, although a terrible mismatch for Katniss’ character. In the novels, Katniss complains about the uselessness of candy, iced flowers, rainbows and hair ribbons, so marigolds before food is a pretty unlikely choice.  Also, one of the tokens for premium currency are multiples of the little mockingjay pin Katniss wears in the arena… the precious, unique pin she wears as a symbol of her district… I am pretty sure my middle schoolers understand the themes in these novels better than that.

yellow meter

Shown here is a yellow meter in its natural habitat.

I spend a lot of time around middle school kids, who are all pretty crazy about the Hunger Games. More than one student has shouted I VOLUNTEER AS TRIBUTE! in response to their name at attendance, and I use student name Katniss E as the example for the lesson on file naming conventions. (I do not tell them that working in game development makes me emphatize with Seneca Crane.)  This is particularly good with the  middle schoolers, since the younger students are crazy about some  Frozen thingy which has something to do with asking each other to build snowmen. I discuss the Hunger Games frequently, with dedicated fans in the target demographic, is where I’m going with this.

Genius monetization! At least the first dozen times...

Genius monetization! At least the first dozen times…

As I played the game, tapping to fill yellow meters that representing burning bread in the bakery’s oven, shooting wild turkeys with Gale, or helping Prim heal injuries, I would receive popups telling me that Haymitch had found a sponsor for me, which translated to watching an advert in exchange for free tokens. This isn’t a unique system, and I’ll admit to watching a few adverts for coins on The Sims Social. But here, clicking to wait for an advert to play to give me points just highlighted that I was waiting through an ad video in order to spend those points clicking and waiting for another meter to fill up.

These popups were push notifications, occurring randomly when I was trying to doing something else (usually completing a mission or traveling to a new location. Getting harassed to watch ads, or click a second popup, confirming that I really didn’t want to watch an advert for tokens, combined with a gameplay that mostly involved watching meters fill up became frustrating very quickly.

A popup asking if I'm sure I want to close this popup.

A popup asking if I’m sure I want to close the popup I didn’t request.

No! I do not watch to watch an ad! If I wanted to watch an ad, I’ll click Haymitch and watch an ad! I want to tap on things and pretend I am living in District 12!
By pretty much any standard, The Hunger Games Adventures is not a good game. It’s a click-and-wait mechanic, plus clunky art, supersaturated with click-and-wait adverts. And yet, I kept playing, because I wanted to pretend to be surviving in District 12.  After several days of gameplay (I’m also a dedicated game reviewer), I can definitively say that you’re probably better off running around the back lot shooting imaginary squirrels with a pretend bow or just rereading the books already.