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Review of Pitfall on iOS

Rather than write a regular review, I will present my experience of playing the game as I played it. I was chatting with some friends as I played, and here is the chat log, with their comments removed for brevity:

Sirlin uh what is up with this
Sirlin a while ago I happened to read reviews of iOS Pitfall
Sirlin and everyone hated it, saying it was a fairly good game but the method of charging was totally terrible and way too much, way too required to progress, everyone said avoid
Sirlin right now it has 9,759 ratings, almost all of them 5/5
Sirlin ok I played the Pitfall game, I have a report
Sirlin it seems to be made by professional makers of games
Sirlin good controls, good production values, good art style, polish
Sirlin seems to have integration with various social medias and some sort of elaborate progression scheme or something to keep you playing
Sirlin hmm, if I reach a checkpoint (I didn't reach a checkpoint yet. Thanks) then I can spend a macaw token to start from there
Sirlin I can buy macaw tokens in the store
Sirlin Macaw token is gold.
Sirlin it costs 6000 silver bars + 10 diamonds
Sirlin oh man, this is so made by professional game makers
Sirlin I wondered how much diamonds cost to buy. In the store, one item is 8 dimaonds and it's FREE
Sirlin so that I get used to using the store
Sirlin I am amazed yet again by another thing
Sirlin I have a feeling this game is full of amazement
Sirlin Another store item is "2x treasure" and it costs $1.99. The picture is a silver bar transforming into a gold bar
Sirlin if you buy it, then all the silver bars you pick up as you play (there are tons, that's like the point) are gold bars instead, worth 2x as much
Sirlin "A great long term investment"
Sirlin I mean if I'm going to play the game, the earlier I buy this 2x gold upgrade the better!!!
Sirlin every time I play without buying it, I wasted something basically
Sirlin wow I can buy all sorts of barely different t-shirts for my guy, costing like $1 each sort of
Sirlin oh, this is confusing on their part
Sirlin actually the outfits are really different, but the icon for each outfit is a barely different t-shirt
Sirlin hmm how about 3d models of characters in Yomi, and you can buy alternate costumes
Sirlin I can buy consumable anti-venom tonics to cure bites and stings
Sirlin more amazement, it just does not stop
Sirlin today the bear outfit (one of the many you can buy) is the outfit of the day
Sirlin so it's free?
Sirlin no
Sirlin If I wear it, I get poison immunity today.
Sirlin So they could have made a poison immunity thing to buy, but this is even better because they can take away poison immune tomorrow.
Sirlin "Unlock the ability to get free diamonds in 5 more runs!"
Sirlin I get free treasure by liking them on Facebook, from within the app
Sirlin do you think it's even more incredible now, or the same level of incredible?
Sirlin if  you guessed more incredible, you're right
Sirlin I leveled up or something, twice. Also I passed a checkpoint
Sirlin and it tells me that now I can use Macaw tokens to start from there. To see how that works, press the store button
Sirlin already wow, but get this: you have to press the store button. You can't do anything else until you do
Sirlin then you can buy macaw tokens for 10 diamonds, by pressing the large pulsating button for that
Sirlin it's not optional!
Sirlin they give you some free diamonds to get you started
Sirlin and there is no way to do anything other than buy the macaw tokens right now. so again, they are training you to use the store.
Sirlin it's just never ending, the tricks
Sirlin now I died and there is a blue button restart
Sirlin OR
Sirlin a bigger, golden, gleaming, animated Macaw button to continue from last checkpoint
Sirlin By unlocking the checkpoint, I got 5 macaw tokens for free, but I can always buy more from the store!
Sirlin that's a line it said
Sirlin I clicked the blue restart button
Sirlin I would expect this to restart
Sirlin "ARE YOU SURE? Sure you want Harry to go all the way back to base camp, when you could use a *Macaw Token* to start at the last activated Checkpoint he passed?"
Sirlin I forgot to mention that each time I do a run, it starts with a sad horn honking sound as a t-shirt icon comes up that says "Outfit of the day: No Match"
Sirlin how do they keep topping themselves
Sirlin Now I unlocked the ability to get free diamonds!
Sirlin this sounds like a fantastic deal, who wouldn't want free diamonds
Sirlin I can click on "show me" to see how it works
Sirlin and it says by signing up for various offers, I can get the free diamonds now
Sirlin like sign up for discover card and freecreditscore etc
Sirlin I UNLOCKED the ability to do that lol
Sirlin wow I got a free diamond
Sirlin I completed one of the offers of watching a 30 second video
Sirlin I could get 106 diamonds for getting a free trial membership at though
Sirlin Playing this game feels like if Disneyland said "hey come to Disneyland free! As part of the experience, we will have a professional thief hold your wallet the whole time."

Some of these things are probably just good busines practice that I should consider for More revenue means more ability to reinvest to make the site better. But taken all together, it's just so over the top in Pitfall, and the focus on money over actual game design is kind of frightening. It seems players are voting that that's what they want, as Pitfall on iOS has made a whole lot of money.

UPDATE: Hours later I turned on my iPad on the home screen, Pitfall notified me that my burst tonics have refilled, so it's a good time to get playing again.

Reader Comments (21)

It makes me sad that these techniques are successful. I think there will be a cultural burnout and rejection of these free-to-play social engineering techniques over time. I don't mind how Team Fortress 2 and a few other games have implemented their free-to-play structure, but most of them feel offensive, more like slot machines than actual games.

December 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBob Shelline

But isn't it kind of positive that you only pay for as long as you are playing? With a traditional game the entire payment is up front. With this scheme payments are scattered over the game's lifetime.

I get that some people might end up paying more than they really "want", but that's also the case with traditional advertising in the sense that it might cause me to spend 40$ on game that I only play for an hour or two.

December 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFalke

The funny things, with these "free" games, is that most of the times, you can unlock everything by playing the game or you unlock them with real money.
So basically you are paying to reduce the life span of your game...

December 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSkritz

@Falke: Good point. I suppose that how you pay isn't necessarily related to the quality of the game, and if it allows you to try the game before deciding whether it's worth paying for, that's a positive thing. I know that for myself, I love when I buy something up front and know that it will continue to improved and added upon for free (like FLStudio, a music program that has free updates for life, or Minecraft, for a game example). I tend to have higher loyalty and enjoy spending more money on companies that do this than on companies that I know are looking for another way to charge me, even if their product is a quality one (like Adobe software, or most Massively Multiplayer games with their subscription fees and scheduled expansion packs).

December 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBob Shelline

Macaw tokens are basically a reincarnation of the arcade model, with non-continue games free. This is acceptable.
Having an energy mechanic to limit how much one can pay to continue is probably a bad idea for both sides.
Watching advertising instead of paying money, as long as it's optional, is generally acceptable as long as paying the money is acceptable.
Money for reskins is known to be acceptable from other games.
Trying to make the player feel bad for not giving you money is not acceptable. It results in players feeling bad.

December 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBucky

Triple Town is doing this to me right now, you get 1500 free turns and you can use your earned coins to buy turns and play for free indefinitely. BUT coins do other cool stuff, and you can just "buy" the game for $3.99 and get unlimited turns. Then you can actually use the coins you earn to do stuff instead of just "wasting" them to play the game for free. So the longer you go on playing the game for free, the more you feel like you are wasting your time/coins.

The other things you can do with coins are basically time savers or small conveniences, which I never buy. BUT they build buying stuff with coins into the tutorial, so you think that it's part of the game, which makes sense because it's kind of Sims City-ish so you don't think it's weird to buy buildings with coins. By the time you realize those buildings are the "pay-to-win" items you're used to using them and they're just time-savers so you don't feel bad about it. And there's nothing better to do with coins once you've bought the game so obviously they're not really "pay-to-win" because otherwise they'd just sit there. Tricky stuff!

December 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohnny Smash

Some of the apologists here missed the point entirely. It's not some specific thing like selling cosmetic items is bad (it's not). It's that the MONEY DESIGN of this game is on par with the complexity of the GAME DESIGN of something like Yomi, or any real game. And oh by the way, Pitfall contains a game design, or something, as a secondary tacked on thing.

December 10, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

I’m trying to wrap my head around this part of the app description: “EXPERIENCE FAST-PACED RETRO HD GRAPHICS AND VARIED CAMERA ANGLES” over a screenshot of some 3d cliffside road thing

December 11, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterzem

To me its like someone suggesting "Hey, you know that pushy salesman you have to talk to before you buy what you want? Well what if you could have that product for FREE!, on the condition that you have to listen to the pushy salesman the entire time you use the product........forever.

December 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Parris

I think you could argue that the money design seems very elaborate because you are a game designer. To someone else, the game design might seem incredible. A tutorial for playing the game is a basic requirement in all modern games. Why is a tutorial for using the shop such a bad thing? You complain about not being able to continue without pressing the shop button. But you don't complain about not being able to progress past the first obstacle without doing the correct swipe motion. It's almost the same thing.

And why not spend as much time on the money design as the game design? It's everywhere else after all. Movies (ads, product placement etc.), sports (ads, endorsements), even on a hike you might come across a "kodak moment".

Mtg seems vastly better today than when I played some 15 years ago. To me, that's because they have an excellent money design and thus are able to employ good artists, good designers and so on. Of course they also had a good game design in the first place. But I think, to succeed on a big scale today, you gotta have both.

December 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFalke

I'm an IT teacher and I like to insert a class on piracy in general, mostly using video games as examples because it reaches out to a lot of students. One of the questions I make them ask themselves is, if you pirate some games and buy others, what makes you decide what to actually buy?

One answer is that they buy games they cannot pirate - MMOs, game with really tough copy protection (I think an early Sims game was really hard to copy for a couple years), and so on. Not good games, not games that are a really good value, just games they fail to steal.

The problem is, what you do pay for, not what you don't, is telling developpers and publishers what to invest in - in this case, if they have a $10M budget for a game, it would be most reasonable to make a $10k game with a $990k copy protection scheme - since that's the *one* selling point to some people.

Bottom line is, companies have a duty to make money for their shareholders, and can't be blamed for doing (legal*) stuff that works. You can choose not to encourage it, by not buying the product and hoping it fails - as well as buying into other, healthier business models, such as "make interesting games and hope people pay for them".

I'm okay with that prioduct existing, though. It's a stupidly expensive product that is for other people, much like alcohol and Ferraris.

*If you think something shouldn't be legal in the first place, don't blame the company, write to your representative. And vote.

I just realized -- that's Activision, right? It seems they never make anything i want to buy play...

December 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterArchon Shiva

Falke, "And why not spend as much time on the money design as the game design?" For Several reasons. First, as the maker of the game, you may well want to do this, but as a game player (Which is what Sirlin was in this case), the customer wants as much effort put into the "fun" part of the game. The more effort spent on the freemium scheme, the less effort spent on the actual game. Secondly, spending your time actually making a better product, lends itself automatically to improved sales. The reverse is not the case. Take Angry Birds which I'm pretty sure is the most successful iOS game. How much effort was put towards the money making scheme? Basically none. In focusing on making an extremely good product (though I'm not personally a fan), they made it far more successful than any zynga style freemium sales game.

Also, this isn't very comparable to ads in movies. If the design in pitfall was either that A: all of the pushy salesmanship was at the very beginning before you start, or B: very subtley inserted in the middle (as is the case in movies) there would be far less need to write the article. As it is, the game stops you constantly DURING game play. This is especially damaging for a mobile title where people mostly just want to kill a minute here or there. It is as if the movie theater stopped the movie several times during the movie and refused to start it again until you visited the refreshment stand, even if you didn't buy anything.

The real problem I take with this, is that the more culturally acceptable these sales tactics become(and that includes on disk dlc, I'm looking at you capcom), The more likely we are to see it in games that are NOT free to play. You're already starting to see this with Halo and Call of Duty soft drink cross promotions. Once this harassment style of advertising becomes palatable to gamers, why not add it to games they've already payed $60 for? Stuck on that level in Halo on legendary? Buy the $1 extra checkpoint pack. In fighting game terms, take Street Fighter X Tekken's gem system and add pitfall's monetary scheme? Scary thought.

December 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Parris

I feel like if you talked to Tim Rogers about iOS game design it would probably start a fist fight.

December 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAcosta02

there's nothing special about “on-disc dlc” as opposed to, uh, downloadable dlc. if they made all the stuff ahead of time anyway, but didn’t put the data on the disc itself, is it no longer objectionable? why?

there are reasonable arguments to be made about DLC/IAP/whatever you want to call it, but distinguishing between unlocking stuff that you already have locally vs downloading data is a big distraction.

December 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterzem

Justin Parris: You make good points. I think you exaggerate a bit in your movie comparison; getting up from your seat and going to the refreshment stand is a way bigger break than tapping the shop button.
I still hold that the bombardment of ads (which I see as just as bad or maybe even worse than fremium and other non-traditional payment schemes) in other media is WAY worse than it is in games. But I grant that the difference is getting smaller.

Regarding what sells and what doesn't, I don't care much for graphics. I don't care for graphics to the degree that I often avoid games that are praised for their graphics, thinking I won't get my money's worth in gameplay since they spent all their effort on graphics. In a way this is analog to the argument against payment schemes so I definitely see where you are coming from.

The good thing about payment schemes is that I can just opt out. I even get to try the game for free.
The bad thing about eyepopping graphics is that these set a huge entry barrier for smaller developers (like Sirlin). If it was culturally accepted to put out good games with bad graphics, I'd probably get more of what I like (good gameplay).

December 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFalke

It would be more clear to state my opinion that I am opposed to breaking off part of a completed product to make it dlc, as opposed to designing extras after you've completed the base product. Take Yomi for example. There's an expansion pack coming up soon. Now what Sirlin is doing is making an expansion to a previous existing product. This is a good thing. What I would be opposed to, is Sirlin selling you the complete first edition, but printing tournament rules so that you can only use the Argagarg and Rook decks (that you already own in your box) in the tournament if you've bought his "tournament deck rules upgrade pack."

Whether or not the dlc is on disk doesn't define whether or not it was broken off of the final product to be made into dlc, its just slightly taunting to that effect. Like buying a refrigerator and finding out that there's an extra compartment you can use, but the fridge won't keep cold until you pay some extra money.

December 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Parris

@ ArchonShiva: Your claim doesn't match up with my personal experience. The vast majority of gamers I associate with on a regular basis pirate only the games they wouldn't buy anyway. Maybe I just happen to have smarter friends than most other gamers, who realize that supporting the companies you like is a necessary step if you want them to keep producing more games you like. I don't think it's that farfetched though.

To take that a step further: Your $10k game is presumably going to be shit. Nobody's going to want to steal it in the first place, at which point you've spent a boatload of cash building a world class vault to store your old socks ($10k + $990k = $1m, not $10m, btw) . If you put $10m to use on actually building a good game, those sales will probably crush those of the $10k game by orders of magnitude.

Yes, there will be pirates, but fuck those guys. They don't matter, and fighting them is like feeding trolls: lose-lose. Douchebag or not, Wardell had it right. The pirates were never your customers in the first place, stop worrying about them.

December 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDelha

zem: I think what's so objectionable about on-disk DLC is that we pretend (or try to believe) that the DLC was made after the game was shipped (either before or after the release date).

With on-disk DLC we don't have that comforting illusion, and can see that we're simply being charged extra for some content that's part of the game as a way to extract more than $60 from us.

December 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterfirecracker

@firecracker: People need to just get the fuck over it. So long as the extent of what is being purchased clearly represented, this shouldn't be considered problematic.

If half the Shadows characters were already 100% finished when the baseline version of Puzzle Strike went to print, their exclusion doesn't mean that players are suddenly being ripped off. The fact that A Feast for Crows was split into two books (half of which was later rewritten) instead of being kept together as a single massive volume doesn't make GRRM suddenly a money grubbing whore.

If people feel that 10 characters isn't enough to justify spending $50, that's fine. Just don't buy the game. If they feel that 1000 pages isn't enough for $10 or whatever, that's cool too. Just don't buy the book. What's stupid is when the person that actually did feel that getting MVC3 with just the initial cast was a worthwhile purchse suddenly develops a sense of entitlement and starts bitching about how Capcom is gouging them by not including Shuma Gorath and Jill for free.

December 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDelha

Delha: There are several problems I don't think you adequately address. Firstly, I don't think people accurately express what is objectionable about launch day dlc (particularly in the case of fighting games). Its not that we don't feel we aren't receiving enough for our 65.69. Its that we feel we are being charged more than advertised. Let's take your example of Jill and Shuma, in order for a fighting game to be AT ALL balanced, all players need equal access to all characters. Especially when you consider patches that change balance after the game is released, equal access is of paramount importance. Therefore, you must conclude that in order to have a functioning competition level fighting game to play, you need to have access to every character. To find out after you buy the game that there are some characters that you have to pay extra to unlock, flatly raises the cost of the final product for anyone who bought the game for competitive play. Again, its not getting enough characters for $60, its that it wasn't a "complete" competitive fighting game for the advertised price.

PC games have had expansion packs for ages and virtually noone has had a problem with that. Why the change now? Back then, expansion packs didn't even start their development cycle until the base game was completed with all features. With DLC on day 1, gamers feel (and are usually correct) that publisher's are hiding price increases by breaking off bits here and there and calling them "add-ons".

Regarding "people just need to get the fuck over it.": This argument could be used against literally anyone objecting to anything. For example I think you just need to get over people objecting to on disc dlc.

Finally, and more on the original topic, These freemium money-schemes aren't something we're saying developers should be banned from doing. We aren't saying they're unethical, or stealing. We aren't saying we deserve what we want for free or for a lesser price. What we're saying is that these practices hurt game design and will only hurt the industry in the long run. The last thing you want as a game designer is to have to design your levels not around what is fun, but around what will sell the most optional powerups.

Just ask Zynga how they're doing if you want to see how this ends.

December 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Parris
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