“Would you spend $179.97 to play a game that lasts one hour and 21 minutes?”
Amazon Underground has been around for a while now, but I’ve never been able to access it, since it can’t be run on iOS devices. But now that I own an Android phone, I can finally enjoy the service. The key hook is that you cannot spend any money inside Amazon Underground games. Bear in mind, you can’t get this app from the Google Play store… but if you search for Amazon Underground in your browser, you’ll find the page which will explain how to set the service up. It’s super easy, no need to be tech savvy to get it going. Once you have it running, you’ll be able to access Amazon’s app store, which features just about everything you’d find in the regular Google Play store under one tab (called All Apps & Games)… and a wide library of games labeled Actually Free under another tab (called Underground Apps). The Underground Apps are fully licensed, totally legal, and totally free. They are in the store due to a licensing deal with the publishers. Ads are allowed, but they are generally presented as optional/opt-in (watch an ad, get an extra continue). I rarely see ads when using the service.
There are a handful of once-premium games in there, like Monument Valley, but most are games that were originally unlimited spend, but got converted to be free of in-app purchases (IAPs). For instance, you can download Gameloft’s My Little Pony, but instead of having IAP bundles that stretch up to $99, they removed the option to purchase currency altogether, and re-built the progression path to reward you with hard currency at a much higher frequency during regular play.
Other once-unlimited spend games took a different route to being released in the Underground store – they didn’t adjust their in-game economy at all, they just made every IAP bundle free. This means you can go into these games’ stores, hit the $99 IAP button as many times as you want, and give yourself access to an unlimited amount of virtual currency at no cost. I was dying to know… when you can play these games without egg timers or hard currency gates, how does it affect your perception of the games?
I downloaded a 2015 game called Top Speed, which is a knock-off of CSR Racing. It works exactly the same way that CSR does… it looks as if the team simply reverse-engineered the CSR monetization structure, and duplicated the game mechanics. The game’s progression takes the player through five Ranks, which is made up of a total of 20 bosses. Beat all the bosses, and you get an option to buy the most powerful car in the game for $30, and a Master Race series unlocks (their choice of words, not mine), providing another 20 challenges. There are also 25 Ranked Races that don’t limit which car you can use, as the boss fights do.
Ok, enough game description. Here is what I “spent” (actually free, thanks to Amazon):
Gold Currency: $119.98 USD
Silver Currency: $59.99 USD
This allowed me to buy and fully gear up the most powerful car in each of the five Ranks right away.
I started by “buying” just one $99.99 Gold currency pack, but by the end, I needed to “purchase” an extra $19.99 in currency to buy the final Rank V Boss Car. The $59.99 Silver Currency was needed to purchase upgrades for the cars without friction.
After spending that, it took me just under 45 minutes to beat all of the bosses in the game. The game stretched on for another 36 minutes as I completed the Ranked races. I skipped the Limited Race, Street Race, and Sponsored Event categories, because they were not progression-based… they’re just there to allow you to accrue gas and virtual currency rewards. There is a Most Wanted category of races, but these are tied to timers that cannot be skipped, which start at 12 hours. No time for that! But if you want to factor these races as core content, you can add an extra 30 minutes of play time to my estimate.
Here are my key takeaways:
- This is a 1h 21m game that costs $179.97 to play without restrictions.
- This is not a skill-based game. It is pay-to-win. After maxing out my cars’ specs, I didn’t lose a single race. Not one. You would have to deliberately try to lose a race.
- Every race feels exactly the same, beyond how frequently you have to shift gears.
- Shockingly, there is no reward or fanfare for completing the Master Race challenges or the Ranked races. The option to play these events simply grey out when they are completed.
- To be fair, I wasn’t “playing it right”… even high spenders won’t tend to play the game the way that I did. This is how the progression is supposed to work:
- The aim of Top Racer is to hook the player into a reward cycle, which is intended to stretch out for a long period of time.
- Check in a few times a day and use your full gas tanks to win rewards. This starts out easy and is free to maintain in the beginning. Being rewarded for expending a few minutes’ worth of effort feels good. You want those good feelings to continue, at the pace you’re introduced to in the first few days of play.
- Eventually, the game ramps up the cost of items and the time gates significantly. If you want to maintain the cadence of rewards you are now accustomed to, it’s going to cost you.
This deconstruction is not intended to represent all unlimited spend games. Further, I recognize that I am not the intended audience for this product. To me, this does not feel like a video game. It doesn’t quite feel like a slot machine, either. It’s something in the middle. It is clearly made for a different audience. I can comfortably say this is not a good or valuable experience for me, but I can’t say that it’s of no value to anybody. And I’m not aiming to describe an ‘us vs. them’, ‘casual vs. core’ dichotomy. I have no problem with the idea that for other people, Top Racer perfectly fits the definition of a ‘video game’. To each their own.
The idea behind Amazon Underground is fantastic. My biggest complaint about both the App Store and the Google Play store is that they are dominated by unlimited spend games. I have yet to see a good reason (from a consumer perspective) that a game should be designed as unlimited spend. So to have an alternative to that is wonderful. Amazon Underground evens the playing field. It keeps people with gambling compulsions safe. It keeps people who are vulnerable to impulse control tests safe. It makes it safe for children to play. It makes competitions fair. Even with a less robust library than the full Google Play store, I prefer to stay within the confines of Amazon’s Underground Store.
And it’s also interesting that Amazon was the company to test this model out with consumers. They are a data-driven company. They are business focused through-and-through. They want to deliver a great customer experience, but they aren’t ethically opposed to Game of War (which is on the front page of their regular App Store). So why go to all the trouble of setting up a space where there are hundreds of banners that promise Actually Free experiences? What kind of data are they getting from their customers to justify this? Could it be that even mass-market customers have come to distrust virtual currency, and the promise of free-to-play experiences?
I think there will always be an audience for unlimited spend games. And I think some of these games can be very good – for the audience they are built for. The biggest fans of games like Clash of Clans know the real cost of these products, and they spend heavily with their eyes wide open, knowing full well that they could buy Lara Croft Go for $1.99 instead. They are not being tricked. They like their hobby. The best proof of this is that the Supercell games are now able to support full-on fan conventions. And while I’m not personally a fan of Supercell’s games, I appreciate their transparency with consumers. The value proposition in those games are always quite clear.
But the larger audience – those who have been playing unlimited spend games because they were advertised as free – they need something like an Actually Free ecosystem. A place where they can play games that aren’t aiming for a long sell.
The recent announcement that Apple will allow games to have subscriptions isn’t as compelling as the Amazon Underground model, but if there’s a game that I like, and I know that I can have unlimited access to it for $14.99 a month on my phone, I’m open to that conversation. That’s acceptable spend-capping to me. It will be fascinating to see how mobile phone business models evolve this year.
“Gear VR is one helluva novelty”
This is the first week this year in which I have not turned on a console device. All of my available gaming time has been taken up by the Gear VR or experiments using the Amazon Underground platform. This is a temporary shift, based on the high novelty of VR gaming. But my interest in this new technology is a persistent – and viral – one.
I have set up get-togethers with friends to show them how the tech works. Letting people see this thing in action is as simple as putting the goggles in my backpack, putting the Android phone in my pocket, and heading over to their place. I saw one of my neighbors outside, who has been playing VR games on Android via Google Cardboard. I brought the headset out to his backyard, and even though it was a bright, sunny day, he was able to place himself into a space ship and a haunted house, and become totally immersed. His predicable reaction was to beg his wife to give it a spin – in part, I’m sure, to convince her to let him pick a Gear VR headset up from Best Buy that night.
It was particularly fun to walk my wife through Affected: The Manor. She insisted on holding my hand the whole time, and she shrieked loud enough to want to apologize to our upstairs neighbor.
This week, I purchased Dead Secret on Gear VR, which is a mystery game that plays a bit like one of those classic Sierra or Lucasfilm 3D Adventure games. The difference here, of course, is that it’s in first person, and you have an extraordinary sense of presence. The pacing is slow, which is perfect for the tech. And unlike Affected: The Manor, which is more of a roller coaster ride than a game, Dead Secret provides you with objectives and characterizations that makes you feel more like you’re participating in a living world. The user interface elements are very strong, too… when you pick up an important item from a desk, the description of the item appears as a message on the desk itself, instead of appearing as a floating word bubble. Clever stuff.
I dug more deeply into Minecraft VR this week. A few takeaways:
- It’s best played standing up, without using the right analog stick to turn. Physically moving is much more immersive.
- The framerate is rock solid; abstract environments are great for mobile VR.
- I still find myself a bit lost as to what to do once I build a house that protects me from the monsters at night.
I’m very impressed with the scope of Minecraft, and this is the best version I’ve played yet… but I’m still not finding myself wanting to play for extended windows of time, after I deal with the task of building a small, safe hut.
Land’s End demonstrates how a game can be made that’s fully immersive and requires nothing more than your gaze to control. It is a great starter experience for VR and gaming newcomers, because you don’t have to shove a controller into their hand or ask them to tap the side of the headset.
Anshar Wars 2 was initially quite hard to get used to, but now that I have a better sense of how the ships control, I’ve wound up enjoying this quite a bit more than the more technically impressive Eve: Gunjack. As I noted last week, it’s a better Starfox game than Nintendo’s own Starfox Zero.
Smash Hit is very impressive visually and easy to pick up and play. It’s all abstract – you’re being propelled forward at a constant rate, throwing metal balls at obstacles as you go. The game is level-based and very visceral.
Herobound Gladiators is an interesting multiplayer battle arena game. Co-op, 4-player. It’s pretty limited mechanically, but it’s fun to level up a cartoon goon and see how long he can fare against rounds of goblin enemies.
Sky Fighter: Training Day impressed me a great deal at the start. It lets you fly around like Iron Man, in first person. But the more I played, the less balanced it felt. It was also weirdly disconnecting to turn 360 degrees and see a big, black cone behind me. I understand that the game does not require you to look backwards, but still, you lose immersion big time when you choose not to render that space. By contrast, Temple Run VR is a lot more frightening than the original because you can look behind you and see the gigantic beast on your tail.
Dream Flight is a charming free game that requires no controller or button input, and gives you the impression of soaring through the sky on an origami bird.
I know that even brief descriptions of games for a platform as specific as Gear VR will not be of great interest to those who don’t have the tech. With this in mind, I am probably going to spin that chat off into a separate series of weekly updates, dedicated to the platform.
- Dead Secret (Gear VR): $9.99
- Metaknight (amiibo): $14.19
YTD Total: $1,258.18
- Minecraft VR (Gear VR): 3h 42m
- Anshar Wars 2 (Gear VR): 2h 28m
- Top Racer (Amazon Underground): 1h 21m
- Gunjack: EVE (Gear VR): 1h 12m
- Land’s End (Gear VR): 1h 8m
- Evil Robot Traffic Jam (Gear VR): 1h 6m
- Dead Secret (Gear VR): 1h 2m
- Smash Hit (Gear VR): 56m
- Sky Fighter: Training Day (Gear VR): 48m
- Temple Run VR (Gear VR): 24m
- Dream Flight (Gear VR): 22m
- Affected 2: The Mansion (Gear VR): 18m
- VR Karts (Gear VR): 22m
- Herobound Gladiators (Gear VR): 17m
- Action Bowling (Gear VR): 16m
- Deer Hunter (Gear VR): 15m