Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe that it’s already been a month since I deleted Marvel Puzzle Quest from my smartphone. I played the game for almost six months and had a decent roster of characters built up. And yet… almost every single change that the developers made during the time I played the game made the game less appealing. I finally reached the point where I just didn’t want to like it any more, and gave up.
The sad part is that the core gameplay is actually really solid. The puzzle combat isn’t finely balanced, but I’m fine with that, as I don’t mind a bit of imbalance. It is well crafted and adds some nice twists to the Puzzle Quest formula. If the game can be taken purely on its combat, it’s a fine addition to the pedigree.
And yet, the progression scheme and monetization scheme (intricately tied together, but even without monetization, the progression would be awful) just kill the game in the long run. Of course, that’s “kill the game for me”, since it’s apparently still live and gathering clients, but I would really love to see some numbers on what sort of churn they are seeing. It is very much a “winners win more” game, with elements that skirt the dreaded “pay to win” area. Some of the judgment on the latter depends on how you define the phrase, but for me, it’s clearly designed to give an edge to those who spend inordinate amounts of money on the game, in no small part because of how glacial the progression system is, and that you can pay to speed it up.
This is not anything new in the F2P arena, to be sure, and it’s less grievous than being able to flat out buy victories, but it does undermine what could be very satisfying PvP combat puzzling.
In the end, though, it wasn’t any single huge change that made me uninstall the game. It was a death by degree. The poor progression scheme. Nothing worth spending money on (which saved me money, but it was still what I thought of as poor design). New characters introduced fairly regularly… but predominantly at the rare tier, so recruiting them was a crapshoot with their slot machine sort of character acquisition. (Almost everything in the game is tied to a random chance of acquisition or absurdly overpriced… sometimes both.) The change in healing so that it was limited to the combat of the moment. Damage persists after a fight, limiting the ability to play multiple rounds in succession unless you heal in the fight or pay for refills between fights. You get a few free refills, but they don’t last long if you’re in a heated race to top the competition boards to get some character you’d like. You can buy refills or wait for them to recharge, 1 every 35 minutes, and you can hold 5 at a time. (With 3 characters in combat, that’s not a lot of healing to go around.) Competition is mostly PvP of a sort (never against other players; the AI just takes their team and runs it), which isn’t terrible, but PvP really needs to be balanced to be fun, and when character levels can be as disparate as they are in the game, it gets old when you play a few successful rounds and then get matched with an overpowered team you have no chance of beating. Normalized PvP (like Guild Wars) where skill and team composition rule would go a long way to making the game better… but that sort of level playing field is harder to monetize.
Playing the moment to moment combat was still good fun. It’s just… everything else isn’t, and the combat alone isn’t enough to save the game.
On the other hand, there’s Slingshot Braves. It’s sort of a weird mix of PS1-era graphics (so it still looks good; I’m playing on a phone for crying out loud), Squids and Angry Birds, with a gear upgrade system that feels a bit like Puzzle & Dragons (consume hundreds of little pieces of loot to level up your gear) and a newly introduced gem/slot system that is a bit like socketed gear in a Blizzard game, but you can also level up the gems by combining several of a kind, and you can move some gems around, so it has a slight FFVII flavor. It’s simple, but the five weapons are fairly elegantly designed, each with its own niche. Leveling gear is slow, and the only way to make your team stronger, but it feels just fast enough to be acceptable. Marvel Puzzle Quest’s character leveling is very, very slow by comparison.
Acquiring gear is only done via very rare loot drops or by the “Gacha” system. It’s effectively a gear slot machine. This is a bit annoying, but the game provides you with enough “gems” (the currency you can buy directly or earn via play or the occasional promotion) to get the occasional new bit of gear in that system. Gear is in four tiers (C, B, A, and S, increasing in value), and you’re guaranteed at least a B level bit of gear in the Gacha. It’s a bit annoying in that the best gear seems to be in the Gacha gamble, but at the same time, you can level up your gear and evolve it to a higher tier with enough little loot drops, so you can grind into some good gear eventually. It’s slow, and annoying to get great new gear that you then have to level up, but that’s the quirk that comes with leveling gear in general. It’s still much faster than MPQ’s system, and less frustrating.
I’m not sure there’s much that offers good value for real money here, either, but at least progress in the game isn’t as tedious as is is in MPQ. You can buy gems, which allow character renaming, larger loot libraries, Gacha “pulls” and stamina refills (each mission you play consumes stamina, which recharges slowly; a standard F2P throttle). Still, it’s not necessary, and most importantly, buying gems doesn’t have a huge effect on your success or pace of progress.
Perhaps most importantly, though, the only multiplayer system is a cooperative one, so it’s OK if someone else is stronger than you. You both win faster that way. There is some light competition among scoring leaderboards on some events, but the majority of the time any reason you have to care about the gear other players have is in how much it helps you, not how hard it is to beat. That’s a huge underlying shift in assumptions and goals, and it makes a world of difference.
…and is it telling that the progression scheme is the first thing I write about? That’s really where these games live or die, since that’s where they monetize, usually. It’s also where things get annoying, and where MPQ got worse as time went on, SB just keeps getting better. Loot drops have been made more frequent, promotions give people more goods to work with, the gear Gacha was split into a weapon Gacha and an Armor Gacha (anything that increases player control over the slot machine is a Good Thing for players), and the new socketing system makes gear more flexible.
But how does it play, moment to moment? Largely like Squids, where you fire your character in a direction and watch it bounce around the arena, beating on foes or careening off of your ally unit or the walls. Maybe it’s just the billiards fan in me, but I love that a good eye for angles and thinking ahead pays off in the game. It’s a simpler game than MPQ, but it still seems to reward player skill, and that’s one of the things that I appreciate most in games.
So, while Marvel Puzzle Quest’s fortunes in my library sank, Slingshot Braves has risen to be the game I most prefer to play at the moment on my phone. Tiny Dice Dungeons is another great contender, but it hasn’t seen as many “live” changes.
I find it striking that MPQ made most of its changes to try to squeeze out more monetization, and it’s obvious. SB wants more money too, certainly, but their changes have almost uniformly felt like they were improving the progression scheme, and occasionally the combat engine. My visceral response to the two development teams couldn’t be more opposed. The more I see each in action, the more I like SB, and the less I like MPQ.
In a world where games can mutate and adjust over time, I think it’s critical that the changes feel like they are making the game better, and that’s really the difference between these two when it comes to whether or not I play them and recommend them.