Alto’s Journey, Infinite Runners, and Free to Play

The prevailing argument when free to play first came out was that it created an egalitarian player decision to continue playing and purchasing the game at every point during the game, instead of the previous dynamic which was *massive marketing blitz* to try to get you to spend $60 up front and then experience the joy of the game being good or the agony of the game being awful.

As one of my primary goals is to create games that promote tactile feel, support business models that are player friendly, and ultimately add joy and pleasure to the world instead of creating money extraction algorithms.  I certainly have a specific viewpoint on this.  But right now my goal isn’t to define which is “good” and which is “bad”, but to understand how those decisions ultimately impact the game play.

I wanted to focus on infinite runners to start because it’s such a simple interaction concept.  They involve the player controlling a character moving through space with one (sometimes more) controls for the player to avoid obstacles as they appear.  With the announcement of Alto’s Odyssey I wanted to dig further into what’s really a delightful little game.

 

The comparison game I’m going to use is Jetpack Joyride.  Both of these games are critically acclaimed within the genre but made very different decisions which led them down different paths in the structure and shape of the play experience.

Similarities

  • Both games rely on a single tap (or tapping and holding) to control the character.
  • Both games have players trying to collect coins
  • Both games have 3 “quests” for players to complete during/across runs
  • Both games have power ups that changes how the players interact with the game
  • Both games have a “crashing” end condition of each run.

Differences

  • Alto rewards you for completing flips by speeding you up and increasing the size of your scarf.
  • Alto makes it impossible to collect all of the coins and provides little visual reward for doing so.
  • Jetpack provides strong visual cues for capturing coins and generates them in difficult to collect places.
  • Alto’s quests are difficult to achieve because the set-up to get there is challenging.
  • Jetpack’s quests are difficult to achieve because the raw numbers are very high and they require “grinding” or repetitive games to “hit” on the correct combination to satisfy the quest.
  • The two “loudest” visual moments in Jetpack Joyride are the explosion when you start running away, and the death moment when you see how far you slide.
  • Jetpack speeds the game up over time making you less likely to react in time, whereas Alto actually slows you down, making it harder for you to complete the necessary jumps you need to execute to keep boarding.

What does this mean?

What I would contend here is that these divergent paths are caused by different monetization decisions in the respective games.  Jetpack Joyride monetizes based on repeated purchases by the user of digital content, so it creates an environment that encourages repeated playthroughs and creates situations where players want to upgrade their gear, achieve objectives faster, move through the reward loop quicker.  Grabbing a power up, like a dragon or a mech, or a motorcycle is incredibly splashy (and feels good) and leads to some of the more diverse gameplay moments, where you have to change your strategy in order to continue playing the game.

On the other hand, Alto asks for all the money up front, and tries to give you the type of gameplay experience that you might share with friends, that will last a fair bit of time and make you feel as though the (relatively) “large” purchase was worthwhile.  The beginning and the end of each run aren’t quite so special in the sense that each time you crash, the screen stops running and you are prompted to continue the game.  Instead, the game rewards you with visuals each time you land a trick or a jump, by adding points to your score very visibly in the top right corner, or by extending your scarf (a representation that you are going faster in the game).  The game also asks more of you in terms of gameplay competency.  There are some jumps across cliffs that at first you are completely unable to make, until you realize that you have to be continually building speed throughout the game.

The cynical view would be to say Jetpack Joyride is simply more focused on “monetization” in that its gameplay exists to get you to buy more coins, characters, add-ons etc.  And that might be true, but I’ve spent a fair amount of time playing it without spending a dime, just because of the excitement it’s able to generate in such a small span of time.  Alto on the other hand is the opposite.  It asks for your money up front and rewards you with a more subtle experience that isn’t quite as conducive to a “Free to Play” model as other genres would be.  The collection and quest aspects aren’t as compelling as the exploration of new mechanics and the joy of landing a difficult series of jumps.

What Alto makes me think of is a game like Journey, a game where the overall number of “player options” is relatively low, but the importance, responsiveness and intent that is crafted around every player action creates an incredibly beautiful experience that defies many of the conventions of the genre.  (Also the gd scarves if we’re being honest.)  Journey made a non-standard decision (removing arms from players because players only use them to hit each other) and the ramifications for the game were immense.  Similarly, Alto’s decision to monetize in a single payment instead of over time, changes how players interact with the game space, and open up a very different relationship to the game over time.

Conclusion

Decisions like how to monetize a game have real in-game impacts that can affect even the most simple of game archetypes.  Upon further inspection I was surprised to find such mechanical differences potentially caused by this difference within a single archetype (it’s worth noting here that infinite runners are typically free to play games), and that the decision to be “Free to Play” doesn’t necessarily have to be defined between archetypes but can actually impact games within a single archetype.

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