The shadow of “Candy Crush Saga” looms large in the recent rash of mobile game sequels. For the longest time, the typical trajectory of successful mobile games has been to release a new title at a reasonable price -- perhaps alongside a free demo version – then to offer free updates as a thanks to those who bought the game (and further enticement to those who haven’t). Slowly but surely, this model is phasing out in favor of a new model: free-to-play.
The philosophy is this: You don’t have to pay anything, but it could sure make life easier if you do.
At first glance, “Where’s My Water? 2” (iPhone; Free; Rated 4+) plays almost exactly like the original. You use a finger to carve a path through dirt so that the water on the top of the level can travel down to Swampy the Alligator, who is waiting patiently on the bottom of the level.
There are a couple of new game modes that separate “Where’s My Water? 2” from its predecessors. The “duck rush” mode asks the player to keep the water on the screen while the level scrolls downward. In addition, a number of new challenges play with the rules of levels that have already been beaten. There’s a fair amount of imagination in the extra bits, though for the most part, it all looks and feels like the “Where’s My Water?” we have come to love.
What really separates it from the original, however, is “energy.” Playing a level saps your energy. When your energy goes down to zero, you’re done playing – forced to either wait to recharge, pester someone on Facebook for an energy boost, or pay some money to keep playing. You can pay money to increase your energy bar, or you can pay some money for power-ups. There are many, many ways to pay money to the game. Anyone who gets some momentum going, only to have that momentum stopped by an arbitrary energy mechanic, is going to be either very angry or very tempted to pay.
‘Plants Vs. Zombies 2’
“Plants vs. Zombies 2” (iPhone; Free; Rated 9+) is a little more graceful about the way it goes about the free-to-play business model, as it rarely feels as though paying is a requirement to enjoying the game. While it is frustrating that, after finishing one world, you have to either pay money or collect stars by replaying levels, collecting stars never really feels like that much of a chore. This is largely in part to another challenge system. Rather than simply doing what you’ve already done, you get variations on the levels with new requirements.
It’s a good thing they took the approach of offering variations on the levels, too, because the core play style of “Plants Vs. Zombies 2” hasn’t changed a bit. Each level still takes a solid three to five minutes to play, depending on the number of ambling zombies that happen to be attacking your collection of projectile-firing, lawn-defending plants. Repeating levels of that length over and over could get terribly tedious, but the challenge system makes the experience enjoyable instead.
Aside from the free-to-play approach, “Plants Vs. Zombies 2” also offers new zombies thanks to its time travel theme – zombie pirates were, of course, an inevitability for this series – and new plants with which to combat them. The electric plant is particularly useful for its power and range, but really, the balance of the plants is just as skillfully tuned here as in the first game. “Plants Vs. Zombies 2” can easily eat hours out of your day, if it doesn’t eat your brains first.
There’s a number of different approaches to free-to-play, and developers are always coming up with new ways to turn a profit at the app store. These two examples may be some of the most recent, but are by no means alone. The flood of free-to-play apps is only beginning to arrive.
New This Week: Game releases don’t get much bigger than “Grand Theft Auto V” (PS3, X360). Gamers have been setting aside their vacation time (and detractors their pitchforks) for months now, and its release has been predictably well-received and rife with controversy. Meanwhile, “The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker” (Wii U) is back in re-released form on Nintendo’s latest console, complete with higher resolutions for its beautiful visual style.