Somehow I’ve been able to avoid free-to-play games. Maybe it’s because I tend to stick to the Switch or Vita for my mobile gaming instead of a phone, or maybe because, as a guy who writes about games for a living, I have to basically mainline whatever big new console thing is out almost every single week. For whatever reason, I’m able to stand here in the year 2018 and honestly proclaim that I have never gotten hooked on a free-to-play mobile game or spent any money on microtransactions. I feel a little proud about that, sure, but I also just feel relieved—as an addictive personality, I know the distance between a functional bank account and the poorhouse is only one free-to-play obsession away.
So thank god I wasn’t able to spend money on the advance version of Legend of Solgard that I’ve been absolutely hooked on for the last week.
Yes, my streak is over. I can no longer stand here in the year 2018—or any year that might possibly still happen in the future—and humble-brag about avoiding the witchy ways of the free-to-play boondoggle. Solgard, the new color-matching phone-swiper from King and the Sweden-based studio Snowprint, has charged its way deep into my brain, driving me to stare and poke at my phone for far too many hours a day—and even more at night, when I should be sleeping. I did try to microtransact. I feel terrible admitting that, and fortunate that the vagaries of technology prevented me from going through with it.
Solgard strikes directly at two of my gaming weak spots. It’s a match three puzzler that’s also a turn-based strategy game. In each battle I have units of different colors (usually four, sometimes less) and in order to attack or defend I have to line three units of the same shade together. When that happens they form some kind of super unit; three of them (or more) in a vertical row creates an attacker, and when aligned horizontally they form defensive fortifications. When four of the same colored units are clustered in a square formation, they’ll turn into an even bigger and more powerful offensive threat. The goal in most battles is to shoulder past the opponent’s forces and plow into the portal that they’re defending. That portal has a hit point total, and when it’s wiped out the other side loses. It’s like football, in a way, but without a ball, or points, and with an army full of bears, elves and dwarves laying down their lives instead of burly men sacrificing their mental health.
The basic concept will make total sense after a single game. Solgard keeps it interesting by steadily introducing various wrinkles that add depth and complexity, and then dumping all of that underneath a dizzying number of options, modes and additional content.
An example: the units aren’t generic or interchangeable. Each of the primary colors (red, yellow, green and purple) features a small cast of beasts with different strengths and weaknesses that can be unlocked by playing the game. Some will reel off a physical attack that will remove them from the board as soon as a turn ends; others will launch small ranged attacks for several turns before their timer ticks down and they start their main offensive against whatever enemy lies in front of them. Some of them are more useful for building fences than attacking. Each individual unit has its own name and whimsical design, and can be leveled up and expanded with unlockable skills through the gems and gold won through battles. Only one unit per color can be used in any battle, resulting in four types of units total per fight, with multiple versions of each unit appearing on the field and waiting to be matched. Constructing a well-balanced team is part of the strategy.
If talk of gems and gold brings up thoughts of microtransactions, well, yep, that’s where this is all headed. For those who don’t want to stay patient and acquire that booty through the campaign (which has limited plays a day) or the various other modes that are gradually unlocked, gems, gold and diamonds can be purchased for real cash directly through the app. It can speed up a unit’s development, letting them hit higher levels faster, making them more useful in battle. More alluringly, it can speed up the downtime once daily plays are maxed out, letting players back into the action more quickly than usual.
That’s where they get us. Eventually, even after unlocking all the different modes that become available at higher levels, I’d wind up blowing through all my freely allotted action well before I wanted to quit playing. (There is an asynchronous player vs. player mode that is always playable and that opens up when the player hits a certain level, but the rewards are so minimal in those battles that they only really matter for scoreboard position.) If I couldn’t earn what I needed to level up my warriors by playing the game, I started to think, maybe I should just go ahead and pay for that stuff so I could still be making some kind of progress? The clock would tell me I couldn’t play the Treasure Hunt or Bounty modes for another 20 hours, and it would take at least two hours to freely collect enough lightning bolts to play the next campaign stage. But if I just typed in that credit card number and hit a single button I could be back in at least some kind of action immediately.
When I get into something I tend to get too into it. That’s why we have six pinball machines in our house. That’s how I went from zero 4K Blu-rays to like 45 or so in about two months earlier this year. If I caved and spent money on Solgard, I know that I’d wind up spending way too much money on Solgard. Everything about the game is perfectly crafted to urge the player on, with so many beasts to unlock, and different levels of progress layered on top of each other beckoning us to drive those numbers upward. It intentionally claws at my brain and makes me want to keep this app open and at my fingertips as long as possible, all day long, in hopes of hitting entirely artificial and insignificant goals. And then, after a certain point, it erects walls around everything and tries to make me pay to feed my addiction.
Legend of Solgard is simple, brilliant, and fiendish. It takes two things that would regularly keep me up at night—puzzles and strategy games—and then gives me enough of a free sample that I seriously consider paying for more once I have to. It’s impossible not to respect how well designed it is as a game, and about as hard to not be disappointed in how shamelessly it tries to squeeze money out of the player. It’s a game I can’t stop playing until it makes me stop, and one I know I would spend way too much money on if my phone let me.
There’s another, more positive way to look at this, though. I can’t spend money on this game, and that keeps me from playing it for too many hours a day. That means I now play it for maybe an hour at a time, long enough to do everything I’m able to do without having to spend money. After that hour I have to wait until various clocks and invisible meters count down or fill up enough for me to play again. Those microtransactions that keep me from getting too deep into any one play session also prevent me from playing Solgard for eight hours straight in some kind of robotic daze. As frustrating as it can be to not play a game as long as I’d like to, it’s probably more frustrating (and depressing) to look at a clock and realize that I’ve stayed up to 4 A.M. playing a game that I started right after dinner.
That’s one advantage, but there are still are a lot of problems with the free-to-play model. Yes, it’s exploitative. Yes, it’s cynical. Yes, it can drive the player to spend far more money overall than they ever would if they could pay a flat rate for the game. It also points out some of the fundamental issues plaguing the business side of the games industry. Snowprint is at the mercy of a marketplace where free-to-play has been the norm for mobile games for years. They couldn’t have made the game they’ve made if it was targeted to sell for two or five bucks, as one might’ve seen in 2008 or 2009, but nobody today would pay even that much to download a game from the App Store. Mobile games have to be free to download in order to capture a large audience, but they have to be laden down with microtransactions to make a profit. Snowprint could easily find itself in a situation where a large number of people download and play their game, but not enough actually spend money on those microtransactions to make it financially successful. The size of the player base doesn’t matter as much as converting those players into paying customers, and that can lead to a design that’s essentially predatory, intentionally cultivating the player to feel the need to spend money.
Solgard made me want to spend money. I would have if I could have. There’s enough here that I can still get a solid hour or so of enjoyment out of it each night, but I’m always left wanting more. That might be a good thing when it comes to managing my free time, and it will probably keep me from burning out on the game as quickly as I otherwise might, but it’s still a little disappointing when I hit that wall every night and have to wait until the next day to play again.
Still, though. The fact that I’m even willing to wait proves that Solgard is a well-designed game. The free-to-play setup might be a hassle, and might prey on those with addiction problems or impulse control issues, but there’s still enough to do each day to keep me interested. It might be a perpetrator of the questionable ethics of free-to-play, but in a way Solgard is a victim of that, too.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections and also writes about theme parks. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.