Creating a hit game is difficult. You need a decent concept, you need to execute it well, and then you need to catch the elusive and unpredictable wave of popularity. Following up an unexpected hit can be every bit as difficult, so when I saw that TwoDots, the sequel to Dots, had been released on the app store it was with a mixture of excitement and slight trepidation that I downloaded it. It turned out to be far, far worse than I thought possible.
In case you missed it, Dots was one of the breakout mobile games of the second half of last year. It was a simple game in concept presenting you with a grid of different coloured dots which you had to link to remove, at which point the grid would refill from the top. It was a Match 3 variant with the twist that if you created a square from your links then all the dots of that colour would disappear, thus giving the game its defining tactic. The key to its popularity came in the ability to compare high scores with friends in both timed and limited move modes, but it also allowed you to play on your own with minimal intrusion of social or monetary aspects.
The basic game was free but you could buy power ups with in-game currency, and that in turn could be topped up with real money, though in practice this wasn’t needed. For £1.49 you could also unlock an endless game mode, an entirely reasonable piece of monetisation.
And so we come to the sequel. They had a number of ways in which they could have built on the success of the initial game, but sadly they chose the very worst option: they went full Candy Crush Saga.
It started ok. The same minimalist but stylish visuals, excellent sound, and the classic, simple gameplay, but it didn’t take long before the alarm bells started ringing. By level 11 it changes from just being about the dots as per the initial game to needing to get anchors to the bottom of the screen. Come level 16 they introduce anchors you can only get rid of with a bomb, which they give you the first time, telling you it’s on the house. I don’t know about you but when someone tells me the first of anything is on the house I’m pretty sure the next time I need one I’ll have to stump up for it. Finally came level 20, the nail in the coffin. I’d tell you what is past it but I’ve tried it more than twenty times and still not manged to complete it.
This is the point where the game started to make me angry. In a normal game when you get stuck on a level due to a difficulty spike it’s either slightly dodgy game balance and/or your own incompetence. Either way you can practice, swear at the designers, and keep playing knowing that eventually you should get past it. When your failure prompts the following screens though it’s something else that comes to mind:
The bottom line is that in a game like this the developers have a direct financial incentive to make sure you regularly fail to complete a level. Let me just say that again: the developers have a *direct financial incentive* to make you *fail* at their game. In the light of that I find it near-impossible to see annoyingly difficult levels as a genuine game balance issue, it’s unlikely to be incompetence as these games are luck dressed up as skill, instead it feels closer to a shakedown. This is the problem with having a business model that benefits from failure, you lose the benefit of the doubt when it gets difficult.
What is so astonishing about the game is that it is so brazen about it. They don’t even hide it behind a secondary in-game currency, they merely stop your progress and demand cold, hard cash in return. It’s both pay to win and pay to play. Heads they win, tails you lose. There are reasonable ways to monetise a game like this, such as charge for every 100 levels or allowing you to make a one-off payment to unlock power ups, but instead they went for the alternative: naked greed.
For naked greed is what it is. It’s likely they have seen the success of Candy Crush Saga, the amount that King has floated for, and decided that they have a unique game and a lot of goodwill that they can slot straight into the business model and coin it in. In doing so they have highlighted everything that is wrong with mobile gaming at the minute. There are huge swathes of the App Store and Google Play that are not concerned with providing a gameplay experience, with balancing the difficulty curve to continually challenge the player, or indeed concerned with the player at all. Instead of attempting to provide an experience they stop the player experiencing the game. They care for little but the colour of their money, and parting them with as much of it as possible.
That brings us to the final paragraph, where I look to tie things up and give you my overall view of the game. On this occasion I’m going to keep it simple and emphasise how much I dislike it. I asked the editor of the site if I was allowed to give a score of ‘I hate this game with the passion of a thousand burning suns/10’ but apparantly that’s not in our scoring system, so instead I’ll put it this way: I hate this game and everything it represents. It’s worse than Candy Crush Saga because they have taken something excellent and turned it into the worst of all things. Count yourself lucky that I have played it so that you don’t have to.