As part of the research, I did for my upcoming book “Game Design Deep Dive F2P”, it meant playing a lot of mobile games. For today’s post, I’m going to talk about some of the more interesting ones, how F2P friendly they are, and if there’s something here for someone looking for a different kind of mobile game.
Grading the Games
For this post, I’m going to separate the games into three categories: casual, core, and hardcore. Casual games are those that require very little direct interaction by the player, and once you get into the groove of the daily loop, you can do it all within 30–45 minutes.
Core games are those that require a bit more strategy and thinking. You can still rely on auto-play, but the systems of progression and planning are a bit deeper. The daily loop should take about 40 minutes to an hour.
Hardcore games are those that require a lot of interaction by the player, you cannot rely on just getting good gacha rolls, but they will help. These are the ones that I would define as “third-generation mobile games” or those doing something unique in the space. The daily loop play is longer, as you’re going to be interacting with it the entire time. Please note, these categories do not represent the fairness of the games in terms of F2P, and I’ll be talking about each game specifically.
Cookie Run Kingdom
A game that combines the building aspect of Farmville, the combat of a party RPG, and of course, running with cookies. I really love the aesthetic of this game, and the developers earn extra style points for the fact that every cookie above “epic” rating gets its own introduction cutscene when you pull them.
The loop is about managing your kingdom and building structures and constructing resources for quests and progression. The gacha rates are on the lower side, but the game at the start gives you a good amount. There is a lot of content to the game thanks to the combination of story, arena, and kingdom growth play.
My two problems with this one are that the kingdom management falls back on the annoying trends of Farmville and that you have to babysit it. The game also really relies on “pay or wait” with every in-game timer given the option to speed up with premium gems. Unlike the other games where combat is the focus, this is more about the kingdom rather than sending your cookies out to fight. You can only level up characters based on the overall level of your kingdom, and the actual combat doesn’t really connect back to the kingdom-building gameplay. I can already see the kingdom side becoming a pain and a grind to deal with, which also knocks the game down a few points.
Princess Connect Re: Dive
A somewhat long-running mobile game that went global last year. Princess Connect: Re Dive is another party-based RPG. It features a variety of characters and the means to build different parties. Just like the last game, the actual gameplay is light, with the player having no real control during combat.
There is a lot of grinding in this one, with the main limitation being energy. In order to upgrade characters, you need shards and resources to create new gear. These require you to grind levels with the chance of them dropping being random. Due to the amount of grinding and the very hands-off nature of it, the game was a bit too simple to hold my attention.
Unlike the last game, the gacha rewards are full characters, but it can be hard to get the character you need. The game also likes to have annual and seasonal banners for its best characters, only giving you one chance a year to get them. All-in-all, I would say this is a good casual game if you’re looking for a time killer, but if you’re really interested in character collecting or gameplay, it was a bit basic.
I really do like games that have a different aesthetic compared to their peers, and Figure Fantasy is up there with Cookie Kingdom Run in that respect. The game is basically if “Toy Story” was about anime figures fighting each other. Story-wise, I think it’s the most forgettable of the ones I played, but it does feature a lot of story-driven events.
As with the previous games, this one is about you setting up your team, hitting “go”, and then watch things happen. There is a decent variety of figures that belong to different factions and have different abilities. Of the games on this list, it is the second friendliest when it comes to gacha pulls and currencies. However, there is an annoying reason for this.
Unlike the other games mentioned here, the game has a condition for leveling up your characters. Your five highest-leveled characters once set in your “otaku zone” will raise the levels of every other figure placed there. In order to raise the level cap, you need to promote figurines using duplicate ones as sacrifices. This means that your progression is very much limited by your gacha pulls, and why they’re so generous in terms of them. Where I’m at right now is I have my team I want to use, but I’m completely stuck at the moment because I don’t have enough characters at the right promotion level to raise them up.
Of the casual games listed in this section, Figure Fantasy has the best daily loop play in my opinion. Because it is an idle game, resources are collected while you’re not playing it, meaning that you’re not required to babysit it as much. This is a game that you can play once a day, do all your dailies, make some progress, and then go do something else if you want.
The game just came out and is doing well, and I’m curious to see how/if they’ll expand on the content beyond their story missions. As of right now, the game is quite limited in terms of its content, the time-limited story events are okay, but there’s nothing really beyond that for players other than to keep grinding. I hope this game does see some growth in terms of character designs and content, as the setting is certainly ripe for growing.
Probably one of the more recognizable mobile games thanks to its concept and the anime. This is also known as the ship girl game, with every WW2 ship represented by a different anime girl. There is a lot of grinding in this game, especially if you want to get the mission-locked ships, but the game can be set up to auto play itself.
While you can take control for combat, at the end of the day, no matter amount of player intervention will save your fleet from dozens of projectiles being flung at them at once. I do like the game’s late-game content in the form of Operation Siren, and the title has multiple progressions that are unlocked the more you play. The middle of the grind is the slowest I feel, and it took me what felt like forever to get to the later content and operation siren. Of the games I’m talking about here, this one is technically the oldest, and it does show with some rougher UI design that has some UX problems. Figuring out what gear is best for each ship can be a pain, as well as dealing with the limitations of your dock.
Of all the mobile games I played for my book, Azur Lane is perhaps the most generous one for free players on the market. You are constantly given gacha currency each day you play, and I own 2 of the 4 UR (ultra-rare) ships, and the only reason I don’t have them all is I wasn’t playing when they were featured. With that said, the game is incredibly stingy in terms of its premium currency and makes the bulk of its sales I’m sure on the very risqué skins for the ships. Combat is so-so, there is a strategy picking your six-ship fleets, but don’t be expecting the same character diversity compared to other games out there. If you don’t mind the over-the-top character designs, Azur Lane is a great game with just enough gameplay to hold interest, but not be overly demanding.
Depending on your social circles, you may have no idea about World Flipper, but this is a pinball/RPG gacha game. Your different characters are the “balls” you use your flippers to send around the board. Each character has a different elemental affinity and a super move they can use when their meter is full. The gacha was okay, but also on the harder side to get the currencies for a 10 pull. Progression is about finding better gear to equip characters and improving each one’s perk tree. I do like the charm of the pixel graphics for the general play.
Similar to Azur Lane, the different characters are nice, but they’re not changing the basic structure of the game all that much. If you’re hoping for something that is focused on pinball and pinball physics, World Flipper does not go that far. If you’re looking for a mobile game that is entirely original and on the easier side to play, I would say at least give World Flipper a check.
One of the newer ones for this list, Revived Witch had some of the best aesthetics of a lot of the mobile games I’ve played. The 16-bit pixel art looks fantastic, and the game features a diverse group of characters to collect. Here, we have a party-based RPG where parties are made up of three characters apiece and you take two groups in per quest. Characters belong to different rarities and classes that affect their style of play. This is another one that is fair-ish in terms of its gacha currency, but it can still be hard to get that UR you’re looking for.
The general gameplay is exploring areas and solving puzzles while getting into fights with the various enemies. There are additional modes, a basic PvP, and lots of things to grind, maybe too many things. Not only will you need to grind resources for upgrading characters, but there are also skill upgrades, gear upgrades, experience currency, and more that must be done constantly. Like Princess Connect Re: Dive, a lot of your resource drain is going to come from not having the energy to keep progressing your characters.
The one major issue that stopped me from playing the game was that I felt that the party composition design was too basic. With only a max of three fighters per group, I kept feeling that I was just one or two characters from having an amazing team or coming up with interesting synergies. For other players, however, this means you’re not as held to collecting characters unless you go for the late-game challenges that require more teams. I would say with the interesting story and challenges, this is one to at least check out if you are a fan of RPGs.
Punishing Gray Raven
Action-focused mobile games are rare, especially ones that focus on the action as opposed to character collecting. In this area, the two competing games are Honkai Impact 3rd and Punishing Gray Raven. I found Honkai a bit chaotic to jump into in terms of its systems, but I do want to go into it more at some point. With PGR this is a full-on action game: where timing dodges and using your special moves is more important than just having good gear.
The gacha is focused on collecting characters and their respective best weapons, but because of the action focus, character collecting helps but isn’t required. While not the easiest game to collect gacha currencies, it is still on the easier side compared to some of the other games for pulling on banners. Grinding once again falls on collecting materials needed to power up characters and a secondary progression around attaching passive characters that provide buffs when they’re in a set. Like the next game, PGR’s story is on the darker side and is different from the other games out there.
Unfortunately, the global launch of the game had some issues in terms of content and UX. It was very annoying to have to constantly grind maps literally doing the same things over again. There was no real late-game content in the global version, and the developers had at least two years’ worth of content lined up. However, in the market today, you need to keep people interested from the start or they’re going to get fed up and stop playing. I might return to the game again just to see how things are doing as there have been reports of improvements to the quality of life since then.
If you’re looking for a legitimate action game on mobile, again, your choices are going to be either PGR or Honkai as they are the biggest in terms of systems and content.
When it comes to showing off unique gameplay in the mobile/F2P space, Arknights is one of the best. The combination of tower defense with a variety of units stands out among its peers. The story and aesthetics are also a departure from the usual gacha games we see out of the market. Of all the mobile games I tried, this one had the gameplay that made me want to keep playing it.
While you will be doing plenty of grinding, your goal is to clear a map perfectly one time, and then the game can be set to replay itself as many times as you have the energy to keep getting those resources. There is a lot of diversity in terms of characters, and the special powers of the five and six-star units really do stand out and incentivize you to get them.
However, and it’s a big, however, I find its monetization to be annoying and restrictive. Because you are doing gacha pulls effectively for new towers, it means your progression is entirely RNG-based. For me, I can’t seem to stop pulling melee characters, when I desperately need higher-ranked magic and range ones. That means on maps that are more ranged-dependent, it’s a lot harder to come up with a proper strategy. Because of how key the characters are to the gameplay and experience, tying that to a gacha really brings things down. Of the games I tried, it is the second hardest for new players in terms of getting gacha currency, especially when compared to a game like Azur Lane. Through play, you can increase the amount of gacha currency you earn for free weekly, but that requires getting good enough at the game to complete specific challenges.
While Punishing Grey Raven can be hard to get currency for free players, you’re not held as much to needing new characters due to the action gameplay. On top of that, there are “layers” of grinding to do for every system and form of progression. From a UX perspective, the game really hasn’t seen much in terms of upgrades between replaying it again now and when I first tried it in 2020.
Because of the skill involved in playing it, it is very possible for players to get far simply on using lower-ranked characters, but that requires more grinding resources and maps. Eventually, every account is going to hit that wall in terms of progress when the enemies are too numerous, their stats are too high, and you must have great characters to keep going. In a way, Arknights reminds me of the very same problems I had with Defense Grid 2 that changed its progression to RNG compared to fixed rewards. Even when the game gives you free rewards and currency, it’s not helping me when I’m still at the mercy of RNG. This is also like when I tried to play Card Hunter, that everyone I knew had an easy time and enjoyed themselves playing it. For me, because I got unlucky when it came to rewards, it ruined the entire experience for me.
This is a tough one to grade, as there is genuine gameplay and challenge with Arknights: no matter how much money you spend in the game, it will not take the place of good planning and understanding. However, all that gameplay is still filtered through a gacha and monetization system that can see new players hurting their long-term accounts if they spend their money in the wrong places.
Maybe I’ll keep playing this one and hope I get lucky, but it is an important example of the risks of implementing randomization to progression.
Another newer game on the list, Alchemy Stars is another example of mobile developers looking at other popular games and designs and going “can we make a F2P mobile game out of it?” To wit, this is to the game Grindstone what Arknights is to tower defense. Your party is made up characters from different factions and elemental alignments. As you move around the board, the colored tiles you land on will affect who attacks and what special abilities are activated.
Long-term progression is once again centered around getting five and six-star units, and ranking them up to get new powers and stats. Like Arknights there is depth here in terms of how you’re building your teams in terms of alignment and their unique abilities. Of the mobile games I covered in this section, Alchemy Stars is the closest to Arknights in terms of a fleshed-out story, depth to the mechanics, gacha design, and lots of progression.
With that said, my main problem with Alchemy Stars is a simple one: I just don’t like this gameplay, much like how I didn’t fall in love with Grindstone. I’m not a fan of the “puzzle action” genre as I find the pacing just doesn’t gel with me. Similar to the other games mentioned in this section, if you enjoy the general gameplay and don’t mind the gacha, then I would recommend Alchemy Stars.
For the final game on the list, it should come as to no surprise considering it is the top gacha game in the world at this time. Genshin Impact is the largest in terms of gameplay scale that I’ve seen in the mobile space, and the comparisons to Breath of the Wild are certainly apt. This is one of a few larger-styled mobile games that just has space for the player to explore, and the only open-world mobile game that isn’t a MMOG. The amount of things in the world is on par with AAA open-world games, and the game has seen multiple updates and expansions since its release two years ago.
The gacha here is tied to new characters and weapons. Similar to Arknights, characters are categorized into basic types, here, based on their element and their weapon. Elements react to each other and the world around them in different ways, and if you want to explore everywhere you’re going to need make use of it all.
With that said, Genshin Impact for this list has the worst gacha rates at .6% for a five-star pull. There are people who have literally spent thousands of dollars on a single banner to try and get the character/weapon they want.
Due to the complexity of the world and the elements, newer players are a bit more hamstrung by the characters they get compared to Arknights, especially if you’re trying to do the late-game challenges. If you’re looking for a mobile/F2P game that is massively single player focused, and aren’t annoyed by the gacha, this is currently the big dog, or whale, in town.
For more about F2P/mobile design, be sure to check out my book “Game Design Deep Dive: F2P” due out later in 2022.
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