Tuesday, November 4

Spellfall - "freedback"

To the creators of Spellfall, congratulations and thank you for creating a premium game free for me to play- the correct new phrase for this being a "freemium" game. Now that I have successfully completed your freemium game this post will serve as my quality feedback that I also will give freely. You can think of it as "freedback".

As you will see from this screenshot, after 72 consecutive days I had successfully completed all areas of the game and I did this without spending any real money or posting on any social media site. I did this deliberately and I'd like to explain why...

(Proof that I didn't post anything to facebook is this the message: You have no friends in Darkon Vale (and now Backflip Studios)).

My decision comes from an aversion to the money-making ethos of all freemium games now days, which it seems is to bleed as much money from players using the most effective methods and mechanisms available. There has even been a new role in the games industry created for that specific purpose: a monetizing producer. This trend has gained so much momentum now that the first tell-tale sign of a freemium game isn't the game being free-to-play, but instead is the extortionary prices of some of the items available, and Spellfall is a poster child for this kind of excess. Even some very basic items are priced well beyond what the overall purchase of a regular mobile game should normally be if bought at full price, which strengthened my resolve to try to complete Spellfall without giving anything in return.

13 real dollars gets you 127k of fake Spellfall money that buys half of a single upgrade of a single 5-upgrade item, or with the same amount of real money it can buy two full-priced Triple-A mobile games. 

170 real dollars can buy the most powerful weapon in Spellfall, or with the same amount of money can buy as many full-priced Triple-A games as you'd care to play (or a month's worth of real-world groceries that you can actually eat). 

To be clear, when your company decides to be monetarily ruthless it is only fair if the players are monetarily ruthless in return. But more so, why would I want to promote anything on any social media site that promotes this degree of overpricing? To do so is to endorse the freemium ethos of bleeding people dry, however what should be of interest to every freemium game developer is that the converse of this idea is also true.

If I were to buy ALL the valuable items in Spellfall for a sum total of what a normal mobile game would be priced at then I would have happily promoted your game on Facebook to all my friends since I also very much enjoyed playing your game. And this should be the yard stick by which all freemium games should set their prices at. To go past this point is to embrace an unrealistic, even Gordon Gecko-like idea of how best to make money from your potential customers.

But would this idea, of setting the total price of all items to just the cost of a normal game, actually work? Whatever profits Backflip Studios would have lost in the lack of overpriced purchases would have easily been made up for in regular sales gained from greater exposure because more people would naturally feel better about sharing their experience. The idea of overpricing objects in a game sends a message that the creators are not convinced the game will be shared on the merits of the game itself, but instead can only gain a profit by fleecing the fools that pay out of desperation or gaming addiction. The truth is that you had a game worthy of sharing, but you ruined it by using a business model that oozes a lack of confidence (or integrity).

And then nothing...

The other regular "freemium" characteristic which Spellfall achieved successfully was that absolutely nothing happened once you completed the game. Once the final villain was slain and there was no corruption anywhere on the map, and I checked thoroughly, there was no indication of any triumph. Not a free item, nor gold reward, nor any kind of reward that you would expect simply playing the game regularly. Not even a simple screen popping up to say: Congratulations. This would have been the bare minimum. To go up from here would be a thank you from the studio for playing their game, or some stats about how much time you played to get you to this point, how many gold coins you earned, etc. How about a single image of concept art showing the final villain being vanquished? Would that really have been so difficult to include? You have the 3d assets used in the game, why not re-use a winning animation with the current state of your character accompanying a bit of text (you have enough text to read in the game already, why not a bit more?). Ideally though, you could have taken advantage of the excellent animators on your team and given them an ending scene to animate. It's what games have always done, and yet Spellfall didn't. Backflip Studios, you just wanted to rob us of as much money as you could and not even give a thank you at the end of it. This is typical behaviour of the Freemium model- just ask Clumsy Ninja.

So why would an ending screen be useful? Beyond just giving you a sense of completion/satisfaction, it could be an excellent opportunity to re-align the player's purpose for continuing to play the game now that they've finished. Your excellent game designers could have easily re-invented a mode of play that kept the victorious gamers interested beyond the end screen. Since literally NOTHING happened once I completed the game meant that there was now no motivating purpose to keep playing, and that's a shame because I very much enjoyed playing the game and it wouldn't have taken me much motivation to continue doing so.

My only motivation now is to watch the entire map go corrupt again while I wait to see if you provide the Lucent Claideamh (Light Sword) as the Daily Gift once I've been rewarded with all the other available Elemental Claideamhs (Fire, Water, Plant, Cold, Lightning Swords).

UPDATE: You didn't.  There was no Lucent Claideamh to reach for. Instead, our motivation was lessened to only go for a rare item at the end of 20 days.  By the time I've finished the game these items are barely worth a look.


But don't let the business model fool you...

I'd like to pay special compliment to your game designers. They did a particularly excellent job of gradually scaling up the degree of difficulty during the course of game as well as the affordability of items in the store. The overall consideration given to all the variable factors as well as the enjoyment of the basic gameplay was very addictive and fun. Kudos to them. When I explain ideas like affordable item pricing (in real dollars) as well as re-aligning the purpose of the game once completed I have every confidence your game designers will be able to do this, and far better they are assigned the task than a monetizing producer.

I was surprised at how much I became a fan of the basic idea of Spellfall, the clever blending of two very addictive game types: match-3 puzzles with an RPG. It just works.

(Match-3 puzzle genre perfectly blended with an RPG = Spellfall)

The other people I'd like to pay particular credit to is the Spellfall animators and the UI interface artist/s. Being an animator myself and a UI enthusiast I was very impressed by the quality these people were able to deliver. It lifted the experience of playing the game and was constantly impressive.

However, I'm also a character designer, and the character designs were a little hit and miss. The overall creative direction of Spellfall didn't quite reach the heights your designers, animators and UI interface artists were able to reach. While the creature designs were excellent, as were quite a few of the weapon designs, the creative direction seemed to completely nose-dive with the armor designs. Some designs of the armor were terrific and fit nicely within the look and feel of the game world as well as next to the creatures you were fighting, like the excellent Solar Armor:

Solar Armor

But the rest of the designs would display this kind of inconsistency...

How can all of these designs exist comfortably in the same universe? Apart from the Solar Armor the rest of these designs are simply not desirable enough to want to buy. Case in point was this design:

The Fuegan Battle Robe

This "armor" had some desirable statistics, and so I bought it for a stupid amount of the game's gold, but it looked so ugly and so out of place that I went back to using some less powerful, but more appropriately-styled armor just so I wouldn't keep being taken out of the game's experience every time I looked at it and thought: "Jeez, that looks like crap".

Backflip Studios, if you were to invest any time and money into a new update (to effectively gain new players) then please update the armor designs to look more consistent with the rest of the very well designed world and its creatures.

Lastly, I thought the music overall was also excellent, but one track with a very rolling beat really shined and I found myself openly enjoying the music above playing the game for a long time. Also, the brilliant opening score seemed wasted on a screen you had to tap once to get past. Apart from a day where I was distracted and accidentally kept my phone on with this music playing I would have never had the chance to hear it otherwise. It's a great piece. Perhaps re-use it on a screen where we spend more time- perhaps a screen where we can scroll through all of the game's text that we've been exposed to/unlocked so far. It's nice dramatic reading music. (Isn't "freedback" great, eh?)

And now some general ideas and suggestions...

Automatic sorting of inventory items - This is a collated screengrab of how Spellfall sorts the items in your inventory. As far as I can tell it's based on the time that you bought the items through the game (from left being the newest to right being the oldest). It would have been more helpful if it automatically grouped each item in its own categories for you, and ordered them within these categories from most powerful to least powerful (and greying out instead of disappearing the runes you're already using). This would have given you a much easier and more helpful way of deciding which items to choose from (and much more quickly as well). Added to this, it would have looked more beautiful scrolling through your collection of items. Using filters to view only runes, weapons or armour may be helpful, but so too would have been a filter to view by element too.

Visual indicator of maxed runes - When a rune has been maxed out it would be nice to see a glow around it to indicate this- that it's status has been maxed out. Too many times I had to sift through the same kinds of runes to find out which ones were more progressed than others and it would have been nice to have that selection process streamlined (with automatic sorting and visual cues for maxed runes).

(A quick example)

Hold and drag within the inventory screen - Since you can so easily do this in the game itself there's no reason I can see why this same familiar mechanic can't also be utilised for the inventory screen. This would work much better if the used runes and items were greyed out, which is not what happens in the game in its present state.

Escape to inventory screen before a fight - Too often I came to the fight screen and realised that I needed to swap out a weapon beforehand, but was locked into the fight with whatever I had. It would be helpful to have an escape to inventory button (see below), even if it came at a gold cost to use, it would still be appreciated.

Cam shake for above 3 elemental attack - I thought it was terrific to see the animation get larger and more involved the more elemental power-ups were used. It became extremely rewarding to see how much more powerful the attack animation would grow, however after 3 elements the animation remained unchanged.

(A 3 element attack)

At the fourth elemental power-up and above a (cheap to do) white flash and camera shake could help indicate a more powerful animation accompanied with a special name reward at each level above that (for example: 4 water elements: Tsunami! x 4)

(A 4 element attack - mock-up)

Ability to burn off waterlogged tiles - It would be fun if there was a way to get rid of the water-logged tiles by making matches with fire runes right next to it as well as obliterating them in the normal way.

A water-logged tile

Omni rune - One of the elements of the game that frustrated me was how runes couldn't be charged unless they were selected. In some ways I understand this to be part of the gameplay's challenge, but on the other hand I also found it an extra level of complexity that didn't need to be there. This idea represents a mid-ground between these two extremes. The omni-rune allows elemental runes (that requires a particular element to charge it) to be charged without it being selected. I.e. It allows the runes you're carrying to be charged in the background. The disadvantage is that it takes up a space on your inventory to have this take effect. Something like this would also be terrific as a reward for completing the game.

The omni-rune (mock-up)

Item Quest - It would be fun if, during the game, you heard of desirable items (a particular armour) that requires you travelling through areas of the map and attacking specific creatures to attain. A side quest, basically. This could start as a small alert on your map (like an bobbing exclamation mark), which you'd click on to find out if it's worth going on the quest, and if it would be to your liking (and you clicked on it to activate the quest) then a route would appear (like the image below).

Customization - It would also be fun if (with enough gold) you could customize weapons or armour. It may work within a single screen like so: You have a number of templates (skins) for your choice of armour/weapon, then you have a currency with which you can allocate to whatever attributes you prefer, taking from some to give to others, etc. I'd imagine this being tempered by stages of customization too (Customization level 1, 2 and 3) and experienced players might prefer to save up throughout the entire game so they can buy a Level 3 customized weapon with a maximum amount of customization currency. Perhaps this idea may even be (or only be) incorporated into the Item Quests- for instance: You save up enough gold to request from a powerful elemental spirit a particular weapon/armour. They may make it for you, but they also make you work for it by giving it to you in the form of a quest.

Level 25 - I didn't mind capping the strength of the characters at level 25, but there seemed like there was nowhere else to go to after this. This was particularly frustrating as everything else seemed to continue to gain in strength. It would have been nice to be able to grow the characters abilities or skills in other ways, which gives weight to my suggestions for customizations and side quest.  Aside from this point, it would have also been nice if the EXP awarded to you as a daily reward (after you passed Level 25) changed to a coin reward instead- since EXP rewards are no longer valid after Level 25.

(Wow, look!  I'm rewarded with zero experience points!  Wait... what?)

Where was the runes for sale? - I saw this advertisement, but I never saw any runes for sale in the shop. Only the chests of gold and the claideamhs. I wouldn't have bought them, but it would be nice to see the selection and I would have been curious to see what they were priced at. (Something ridiculous, most likely).

My play strategy

Here is my personal play-style when completing Spellfall. Basically I favoured the Drain ability and would always make sure I had weapons with as large a Drain stat as I could get, and carry as many Drain runes as possible. My armour favoured the Crit Dam stats, and I had one rune always dedicated to this as well. In the end my play-style was to use the Heal rune once my health was at 1/2, then immediately Make Water to recharge the Heal rune. I would sometimes need to go through this process twice, using the Rejuvenation rune when things got really bad. After a battle I would go visit my friend Tordicus, who was still a low level character and hadn't been corrupted since he was last defeated. I would often grind the runes (and my strength thanks to the Drain ability) all back up to full power so I could get into the next battle. I fought Tordicus countless times... (Below are screengrabs of how my character was for the last part of the game)

To sum up...
  • Make the real money prices affordable- don't go past $10 total.
  • Give us an ending- something, anything! 
  • Credit the staff- they really did do an excellent job. 
  • Give us a reason to keep playing after we complete the game.
  • Improve the costume and weapon designs.
  • Make the inventory screen easier to negotiate- this includes identifying upgraded runes.
  • Make elemental attacks over three visually worthwhile.
  • Include a few special runes to shake up the gameplay (like an omni-rune).
  • And give us side quests for special items or custom items.

While you didn't get any money from me, or ratings or even any social networking exposure from me (no-one reads this blog) I consider my "freedback" a perfect repayment for the enjoyment I got from your "freemium" game. Thank you. :)


nowhere said...

I read your blog.

Mat Brady said...

Thanks nowhere, that wasn't creepy at all.

nowhere said...

No problem. I just found it sad that you wrote this long article and then assumed no one was ever going to read it.

Mat Brady said...

Actually, now that you put it like that, it is rather sad. Thanks again. :)

Edita H said...

Nice article, quite informative, I agree with your suggestion for game.

Edita H said...

Very informative article. Thx.

SDChan said...

Another comment to say that I've read this and am going to share it. It's a great review of a fun game, and all of your points are very valid. I hope the studio takes note.

Vincenzo Alcamo said...

Your review is mostly accurate, just some notes:
- the game can be completed without using real money
- any weapon/armor can appear in the store, even the Corrupt Claideamh: I got it after beating a gold monster
- the new update (V1.6) adds the ending movie, a new Game+ mode, more weapons/armors

Mat Brady said...

@Vincenzo Alcamo

"- the game can be completed without using real money"

I know. That's what I did. ...It's what my entire post was about. :\

"- any weapon/armor can appear in the store, even the Corrupt Claideamh: I got it after beating a gold monster"

The silver and gold monsters are new changes to the game that were put in after I blogged about Spellfall, as is the new light and dark elements. During my entire time I played this game I never saw the Corrupt Claideamh appear in the store, so I assume they made this available after my review. Did I help make that happen? Who knows? :P

"- the new update (V1.6) adds the ending movie, a new Game+ mode, more weapons/armors"

I've since stopped playing this game. The fact that there is an ending now is too little too late for me. The moment has well and truly passed. The fact that they couldn't care to put an ending in at the initial release tells me they couldn't care about the player's overall experience, just an experience enough to coax money from my bank account.

If I went into the game now, will I see the ending I missed all that time ago? I've no burning desire to find out right now, but if I do I'll include an appropriate update to this post.

Thanks for letting me know about the new changes. :)

Vincenzo Alcamo said...

There is a simple trick to get any epic item.
Gold monsters have a good chance to drop an epic item in the store, regardless of their level.
There is a high chance to encounter gold monsters by repeatedly fighting the first spot in the first area (Everlight Village).
In this way I got every epic items in the game: the best items are the Corrupt Claideamh and the Corrupt Lorica, because their power scale with your hero's level.
It is imperative to disable the "Recapturing" flag in the options, otherwise you risk to have the first area recaptured: this means that the monsters will be much more difficult to beat.

Zee said...

That was a cool post and I liked the improvements you have suggested, especially the prices no higher than $10... (One would think that more people would be able to afford that, therefore instead of one guy spending $170 on that #1 sword, there would be 20 who would spend $10 on a sword, gaining more money)

I also don't like the "New Game Plus" thing that one can only begin if s/he starts over...

Peter Gong said...

I broke the game with my 'time magic'..... by accident.

By changing the time and date of your device you can influence the game. So I got all 10 daily elemental items in one day by spam changing the dates, never needed to heal by changing my time, and about 2m gold plus full level runes by the time I called it quits...

So... yeah. Being a Chronomancer makes me feel bad.