Disappointment of the Year 2013

Ridin' dirty.

Ridin’ dirty.

“[T]he fact that gaming tips are now reduced to financial advice is disappointing,” Wired‘s Nate Lanxon said in his review of our Disappointment of the Year, and that neatly sums up my feeling on the game and what it represents.

As a source of entertainment, Plants vs Zombies 2 is an abject failure for the reasons that I detailed in my own review back in August. It’s a game that’s just as fun as it needs to be to merit a bit of your attention, which it then exploits to try and sell you more and more stuff. But simply being a cynical, limp follow-up to a popular favourite isn’t enough to merit consideration for Disappointment of the Year. PvZ 2 is here because of what it says about big publishers’ attitudes towards mobile gaming.

Stay dead this time.

Stay dead this time.

One of my year-end takeaways in 2012 was that big game publishers weren’t taking iOS & Android seriously. Instead of using the great resources at their disposal to innovate on an exciting new platform, they were playing it safe with knock-off freemium games and half-hearted junk with familiar logos pasted on.

With the exceptions of 2K (especially their Firaxis unit) and Ubisoft, that remains true in 2013. Plants vs Zombies 2 was clearly EA’s mobile game flagship this year, attended by huge advertising media buys and PR offensives. If a dull, grindy F2P game was EA’s show pony for 2013, then clearly we still have a long way to go. EA, Activision and their ilk need to go back to the drawing board.

The biggest problem with the free-to-play game is that it pits you against the game developer. For evidence of this, look at Touch Arcade‘s occasional “How To Play X Game While Spending As Little Money As Possible” features. The unspoken premise of these features is that the F2P game is an antagonist to be defeated, not a partner in fun — that’s why Touch Arcade‘s (presumably) popular features teach you how to get over on it. This is exactly what Wired‘s Lanxon is lamenting.

Free-to-play games are a bubble. Hundreds of studios are looking at the cash generated by success stories like Puzzle & Dragons and Clash of Clans and are attempting to replicate it. All but one or two will fail. As the market floods with more and more F2P games, those games have to compete harder to win the attention of F2P gamers — a recent study by SuperData shows that the average cost of acquiring an F2P player for your game now exceeds the average revenue each player generates by almost 100%. Free-to-play games will always be here, but the mania around them cannot sustain itself much longer.

Being constantly prodded for money isn't the best way to relax.

Being constantly prodded for money isn’t the best way to relax.

Reports of the death of the premium game have been greatly exaggerated, a fact to which Pocket Tactics itself is a testament. 90% of the games we cover here are paid for with traditional pricing models, and we have no shortage of things to talk about or successes to celebrate. If anything, I’ve anecdotally noted that prices for games are going up, as 2013’s plethora of $10 and $20 games will attest. The idea that game devs on the App Store can’t make money by charging up-front for their work is demonstrably false. That isn’t to say that it’s easy, but the free-to-play route is no picnic either, as EA can tell you.

Plants vs Zombies 2 appears to have been a failure, and I’m having trouble squeezing out a tear for it. I have a lot of other games on my iPad that were crafted to be fun and hoped to earn their money on the back of that. I think I’ll make the long bet on those.

 

For all the games recognized in the Pocket Tactics Best of 2013 Awards, visit the awards index page.