iPhone game Groove Coaster was a critical sensation in the mainstream gaming press when it was released earlier this year, receiving 9-out-of-10 scores from ‘high-end’ gaming magazines Edge and gamesTM. But one element, the relationship between the game’s DLC and the core game, was entirely glossed over in reviews. Although Groove Coaster‘s microtransactions aren’t quite as manipulative and troubling as those for certain free-to-play iPhone games, I think they warrant further examination, especially as the game possibly sets the tone for what we can expect from ‘core games’ (games that appeal to hobbyist gamers) on mobile devices in the future.
For the benefit of those who haven’t encountered it, Groove Coaster is a rhythm-action game in which you tap, hold, rub and flick targets in line with the music. I’ll point out here that Flick Targets are significantly more awkward to hit than the other targets, to the extent that the game provides a consumable DLC item that transforms them into regular Tap Targets. There are also other types of DLC – extra tracks and the usual optional time-saving/game-breaking stuff (things that make it easier to clear levels, but that don’t actually make it easier to get a good high-score). But I don’t think these are particularly problematic, especially since the price of the core game is very low (£1.99 but 69p during promotions). It’s the consumable items that I find concerning, in particular the way they relate to the game’s achievements and online leaderboards.
Groove Coaster is a fairly low-difficulty rhythm game, and I’d argue that the true experience isn’t really in completing the levels but in mastering them for the purpose of gaining the game’s achievements, or working your way up the online leaderboards, or maybe even both. But some of the game’s achievements either require or strongly influence you to buy DLC. There are achievements for completing the DLC levels in Hard mode but, again, I don’t have a real issue with this. If you like Groove Coaster you’ll happily hand over your money for the extra levels and without the achievements you wouldn’t get much of an acknowledgement from the game for bothering to play them. But the requirement for one achievement, the Use Item achievement, is simply to buy and use a consumable DLC item. So here we have an otherwise high-quality ‘core game’ forcing you to purchase a one-use item to unlock an achievement (although I should point out that it’s more like a ten-use item, as you buy them in packs of ten). ‘Ad-lib’ points are another gameplay element that I’ve neglected to mention up until now – these are essentially invisible targets that are scattered around the levels. There is a consumable DLC item which makes these visible… and there is an achievement for hitting all the ad-lib points during the course of a track.
I complain about all this but in some respects it’s small stuff – it’s perhaps a little disturbing that the future of ‘core games’ on mobile devices may involve having to pay a toll to access some achievements, but to some extent these are extraneous to the main game (and if you buy a pack of the ad-lib visibility DLC items for the Use Item achievement, you can kill two birds with one 69p stone). The thing that really troubles me about Groove Coaster‘s microtransactions, the thing that really makes me fear for the future of ‘core gaming’ on mobile devices, is the way in which the presence of the consumable DLC items makes you question the motives of the developers in certain design choices, and poisons the relationship between the player and the game designers by making money an issue that hangs silently, but perceptibly, over the whole experience of the game.
I’ve mentioned above how the Flick Targets are hard to hit and how the game provides consumable DLC items to transform these into regular targets. The problem is this makes you start to question the level design, and the motives for adding certain features to levels. On Hard mode, the final level in the pre-update game (which is actually a paid DLC level) pits you against a barrage of Flick Targets, from above, from below, and then in a multi-directional assault requiring swipes in eight different directions. The question: is this just an attempt to add a sense of climax to the final level of the game, or is it a cynical attempt to encourage the game’s most committed players to purchase DLC to more easily complete and high-score a level that they have already had to pay to play? If there were no consumable DLC items, this question wouldn’t need to be asked and it wouldn’t linger over the experience. An update later added the level ‘Just no friend’ to the game. This level is free, but it comes across as a blatant cash-grab – it’s packed with Flick Targets, and they make up a larger proportion of the targets than in any other level by far. I’m not even questioning the developers’ motives here – I feel certain that this level was designed specially to encourage purchases of consumable DLC items. And while you might have inferred this by now, I don’t think I’ve made it explicit – the consumable DLC items make it easier to get higher scores, so there’s an uncomfortable relationship between spending money and topping the high-score tables.
I don’t think anyone really wants to see a future where you play games and don’t know whether the designers did something because they thought it would make the game better or because they thought it would make more money, a future where getting to the top of a high-score table is as much about opening your wallet as applying your skills. But it’s a future that Groove Coaster heralds, despite its Metascore of 87, and its Edge and gamesTM scores of 9/10. I’ve read nothing of these issues elsewhere. By not even acknowledging these issues when they occur, what murky game design practices are we letting through the backdoor?