Ruining Angry Birds: In-app purchases and top scores

The following is a slightly modified version of something I originally posted as a comment at the Angry Birds Nest website. Angry Birds Nest (which is not affiliated with Rovio) is a site devoted to all things Angry Birds. One section of the site includes Leaderboards, where members can post their top scores. As Rovio has added features to their games, especially ones that require in-app purchases to obtain items that may improve your scores, there has been an ongoing debate on ABN as to whether such “enhanced” scores should be allowed in the Leaderboards. Purists (including myself and apparently most of the site’s members) want them kept out. But it’s been increasingly hard to enforce such restrictions. As a result, the site has gradually loosened it rules.

My posting was a response to this loosening. If you’ve never played Angry Birds, this may be of little interest (and some of it may be a bit hard to follow). Even if you have played the games, this may not be relevant if you don’t care about high scores. However, many people do play Angry Birds and do care about high scores. Also, I believe the basic arguments have relevance to many other competitive iOS games. So I thought I would repost the comment here, where it may get a wider audience.

“I wanted to offer my two cents regarding ABN’s policy of allowing scores achieved via character swaps (an option that ultimately requires in-app purchases and allows for higher scores than could be otherwise obtained) on the Leaderboards for Angry Birds Star Wars II.

In brief, I support the decision. But not because I think it’s a good idea. Rather because, given how Rovio has structured the game, ABN really had no other choice.

Here’s the dilemma from my perspective:

Completing any Angry Birds level is about achieving two related goals. The first is to get the highest score you can. The second (which doesn’t get mentioned at ABN as much) is to solve the puzzle.

To explain what I mean by “solve the puzzle,” I go back to the original Angry Birds and Angry Birds Seasons games. Here, all players were restricted to the same level playing field: the set of birds assigned to each level. There was an unstated assumption (which turned out to be true) that Rovio had designed each level so that it was possible to get a top score that was significantly higher than the minimum needed for three stars. To achieve these top scores, you needed to figure out how Rovio had designed the level to be best played. That was the puzzle to be solved.

Often there were non-obvious semi-hidden paths to success. Figuring out what best to do was similar to solving a maze game or a crossword puzzle. This aspect of Angry Birds was always the most fun and challenging for me. There was the joy of that “aha” moment when you suddenly realized there was a totally different way to play the level than you had been doing, one that achieved a much higher score.

That’s why, when I checked the Leaderboards and saw some top scores (or worse still, average scores) that were significantly higher than my best effort, I knew it was time to head back to the drawing board — and figure out what I was doing wrong. Eventually, occasionally only after hours of experimenting, I almost always solved the puzzle and joined the group of top scores. As a last resort, I checked the walk-throughs to discover what I had missed. For me, going to the walk-throughs was an admission of defeat. It was tantamount to going to the solutions page for a crossword puzzle to find out the answers to the clues that had stumped me.

Taken together, this all made Angry Birds and especially Angry Birds Seasons two of my all-time favorite games.

But now, with things like the character swaps (and even worse, the horrible “Last Chance” option) in Angry Birds Star Wars II, all of that is gone. Solving the puzzles have been largely supplanted by an assortment of gimmicks that allow you to get “enhanced” higher scores. All of these gimmicks encourage you to spend money on in-app purchases, something that the game continuously and annoyingly prompts you to do. The Last Chance option is especially irksome, as it entirely abandons a critical aspect of the game: the limit on how many turns you get before a level is over.

To be fair, solving puzzles is not necessarily gone. You can still play the game as if all those gimmicks do not exist (which is what I do). But it’s gone if you want to compare your scores with the Leaderboards at ABN or in Apple’s Game Center — because those boards contain the “artificially enhanced” scores.

This became especially apparent in the Rise of the Clones levels. There were levels that had top scores between 20,000 and 45,000 more points than I had been able to achieve. I was almost certain there was no way to get those scores with the default set of birds. Mystified as to how these scores had been obtained, I went to the walk-throughs. Sure enough, I discovered that these scores were made possible only via character swaps. The purist in me rejected this as a solution.

Now, I suppose one could argue that figuring out which characters to use and how best to use them is just another type of puzzle to be solved. I might be persuaded to agree with that, but only if the swaps were truly part of the game — meaning that players had an unlimited permanent pool of all the characters to draw from. That way you could experiment and try different strategies — just as you can do with the default set of characters.

This is definitely not the case. Inevitably, to experiment with an assortment of different characters, and especially to try low probability of success maneuvers, you will have to spend money to purchase additional character quantities. This erases the level playing field of yore. Those with more money (or at least a greater willingness to spend money) will wind up with a significantly better chance of attaining high scores. And, without checking the walk-throughs (which, as I said, I like to avoid), there is no way of knowing how the listed high scores were achieved — especially if or how character swaps or last chances were used.

Let’s be frank. The reason Rovio put all these additional options into their games is not because they thought it would improve gameplay or add to a player’s enjoyment. If that was the case, they could have included the options for free or perhaps for a one-time upgrade fee. No, Rovio is looking for every way it can to squeeze more money out of its user base. And a never-ending stream of in-app purchasing is, from their perspective, the perfect way to do it. Combined with the incessant unavoidable advertising (and “Stuck?” screens and “Carbonite melting” messages) that keep appearing, my personal enjoyment of Angry Birds Star Wars II has deteriorated to the point that I almost ready to abandon it altogether.

So yes, for all these reasons, I would prefer if the Leaderboards remained free of character swaps and such. However, I recognize that enforcing this, especially for a game that had these options built in right from the start, is all but impossible to do. As I see it, the ABN site was in a rock vs. hard place position and made the best decision they could. It’s just too bad that Rovio put them in that position.”

Update [July 2014]: Rovio has somehow managed to make a bad situation worse. In the Master Your Destiny section of the latest update to the Star Wars II game, there are no provided birds at all! Instead, you have to use saved characters for each and every toss, drawing down your storage. This effectively means that getting a top score will require spending money, as there is no way to sufficiently experiment with different strategies given the limited amount of birds you can acquire for free. For example, I typically play a level several hundred times before assuming I’ve got my best score. There’s no way I could do this with spending a lot of money here.

I checked the reviews of the game on iTunes. There are now many one-star reviews expressing this same sentiment. As for me, I have dumped this game and will never play it again. I only hope that Rovio does not wind up doing something similar to Angry Birds Seasons, my favorite of the Rovio games.

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