Monday, May 2, 2011

How Much is a Free Lunch?

I've been playing the game TowerMadness pretty much since I got an iPod touch, or around the beginning of 2010. The object of the game is to use various weapons towers to stop waves of invading aliens from stealing your sheep (they want their wool for scarves).

Originally, it was supported by ads, with the option of buying an ad-free version for a dollar or two. Before too long, alongside one of their periodic updates and releases of new levels, they began offering extra level packs for a buck apiece. Not something I personally felt like paying for, but I wasn't about to begrudge Limbic Software every chance to make a profit off of their (very fun) game.

Limbic still puts out periodic updates with new free maps as well as offering more level packs. They also offer special weapons for the same prices ($0.99 each). Two of them, flash bait and mines offer different strategies and options. Like the level packs, I find them interesting, but not worth paying for.

The other weapon is the flamethrower. I don't like the flamethrower.

The question I find myself asking now is whether I really have a right to not like the flamethrower.

Oh flamethrower, why must you vex me so?
You see, the flamethrower is a powerful weapon. Very powerful. Its damage per second (DPS) is higher than any other weapon in the game, it can hit both air and ground targets, and the more an alien is hit with it, the more damage they take from it in the future. It's unequivocally the most powerful weapon in the game.

So what, no problem. Sure, it's powerful, but that just makes it worth paying for, right?

I tend toward stinginess in my app purchases (mostly because I know how much I would spend if I wasn't), so I didn't pick up the flamethrower right away. And I started to notice something.

The newer levels that were coming out were much more difficult than ones that had been out previously. Easy and Medium levels were requiring multiple playthroughs and greater strategizing than earlier ones had. Hard and Madness levels required serious work. And each update's new levels only got harder, bit by bit.

If I'm absolutely stuck on a level, I'll often check TowerMadness's online leaderboards and watch replays of people who'd gotten high scores. Most times, these would reveal a better chokepoint or more efficient distribution of defenses. Usually, I'd jump into a new game after only watching a minute or two of a replay.

However, as time's gone on, one strategy has filled the leaderboards: spamming flamethrowers. For every level, the only difference is what a player uses to hold off the waves of aliens until they can afford their first flamethrower. I've filled the newest levels with fully-upgraded, high powered weapons only to watch waves of aliens march through to my defenseless sheep.

Apparently, TowerMadness' Facebook discussion board has multiple topics where players are gathering to try to puzzle out how to beat these levels without flamethrowers. It seems impossible to get a perfect score, but saving at least one sheep is apparently doable on at least some of these. Of course, the levels they're talking about are all part of the Hard difficulty, not Madness.

For a while, this would trigger an odd insanity in me. I'd play these levels for a while, eventually convince myself that I couldn't beat these levels without paying for victory (buying a flamethrower), and rage-quit. Then, I'd ignore it for a while. Finally, Limbic would release another update and I'd be drawn in again to start the cycle anew.

I was right about to the rage-quit step last week, when I started thinking about all the things I'd said about George RR Martin and his fans. I started to really think about whether I had any more right to be angry about the flamethrower/difficulty problem than Martin's fans had to begrudge him a life.

I tried to tell myself that I was upset about the drop-off in strategy that comes from having a weapon that's good for pretty much everything. That it was the fact that the winning solution to every level was now the same. But that was mostly bullshit.

I was really mad because to beat otherwise free levels, I'd have to pay a nominal amount. Once. For that, I felt cheated. But, what right did I have? What did Limbic owe me? I'd gotten the game free, hadn't spent one dime on level packs or weapons or anything. I'd even got the ad-free version when they were offering it free for a limited time (to promote the level packs and pay weapons). And I'd gotten more use out of it than I had any other app. Hell, it's probably logged more hours than any other use of my iPod.

I've gotten all kinds of utility out of it, and had given nothing in return.

And this kind of difficulty disconnect was inevitable with the release of purchasable weapons: levels will be easier for someone with more options. Limbic can either design levels for those who are skating by for free, or for those who have contributed. In their place, I know which I'd choose.

The more I think about it, the less I can be actually upset about the situation. Like with the George RR Martin situation, I've done nothing to make them owe me. If anything, I owe them. I don't think I'll be rushing to pay for the flamethrower any time soon, but I think the rage-quit part of my cycle is going to be a little less enraged from now on.

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