Thoughts on Alphabear

I love me some Spry Fox.  Dan Cook, David Edery, what’s not to love?  These are brilliant, ethical, exploratory artists working at the cutting edge of the interactive medium.  For me, it has the same sort of brand loyalty as Blizzard: I’m going to purchase what they make at full price and with no regrets.  Alphabear is no exception.  It’s quick to learn, hard to master, and provides a remarkably deep engagement for the simplicity of its interface.  If you’ve ever enjoyed word-making games like Scrabble or Boggle, download it now; it’s free and you’ll love it.  $5 gets you unlimited play time.

My wife continues to be delighted by the game and plays every day, but I’ve stopped.  When I realized that the bear bonuses continue to increase semi-exponentially, it broke a fundamental tension for me.  At that point, the difference between skilled play (being able to put together longer, more complex words) and long-term play (the meta-game of unlocking and upgrading bears) tilted inexorably in favor of the latter.  I’m sure that this evens out eventually, that at the end of the progression, the difference in scores is determined more by skill than time investment, but I’m not really interested in grinding to get to that point, as much as I enjoy the process of playing the game.

It’s a personal bias, no doubt, but I’ve always felt that the tension between what you can achieve currently and the promise of being able to achieve more – in a meaningful fashion – is at the heart of gameplay.  As flawed a dichotomy as it is, this is part of how I separate games from toys.  Games have a skill progression; toys don’t.  I’m not going to spend a lot of time justifying that, as it’s fairly arbitrary, and there are all sorts of overlap points where skill with toys can be meaningfully differentiated from non-skilled play.  But for me, at the point that I realized spending time grinding out matches was more important to my progress than my score in those matches – that I fundamentally could not progress without spending match after match inevitably falling short of the goal due to predetermined design math – Alphabear fell into the classification of “time-waster” rather than “game”.

It’s not that I’m opposed to grind in itself.  Hell, I played more hours grinding WoW than I did following quests or learning new skills.  But, the grind was subservient to mastery – it was necessary to the end-game, but not determinative of success.  I think that this dynamic is also a component of why I find the Elder Scrolls model of RPG progression less than satisfying.  Yes, there is something intuitive about getting better at things the more you do them, but I’m not looking for a game experience where I need to spend hours upon hours jumping – without any sense of purpose – to become superhuman.  There’s a point where the skill progression curve gets overtaken by the time investment curve, and for whatever reason, that invalidates the skill progression for me.

As a game designer/developer, establishing and maintaining this tension – keeping players involved over the long-term because there is skill reward as well as stat reward – is a key component.  In the free-to-play world this often gets mistaken for monetizing effectively – maintaining the tension between what you can do and what you want to do within the limits of your monetization tolerance.  However, that is a bastardization of the core dynamic.  It’s one of the reasons why hard-core gamers continue to resist free-to-play, games-as-a-service, and microtransactions, because too often they have tried to buy butter and been handed margarine.

Clearly, Spry Fox is not one of those companies playing bait-and-switch with gamers’ expectations.  Probably to their corporate detriment, the monetization approaches in their games are extremely loose.  It is not in any way required to monetize to get the best out of their games, and I would bet that they make less money as a result.  So, I look forward to their next release avidly, and I fully intend to pay money for it – even though that is not going to be required – but for now, at least, Alphabear goes into the back folders of already-played games, even though I never got to play the last word.

Posted in Game Design, Game Industry.

Leave a Reply