Possibly the most successful mobile app to date is Angry Birds. No one was surprised when they decided to make a direct sequel. Here I hope to walk readers through what this game does well, what I imagine the designers’ intentions were, and what it does poorly.
What’s the gameplay like?
For the three of you out there who haven’t played Angry Birds 2 the premise is simple: slingshot your birds in attempts to kill all the pigs, via crushing them with debris, popping them with birds, or simply knocking them off the cliff. Each bird has a unique power and are perfectly suited for specific situations. For example, Chuck, the yellow bird is excellent at breaking through wooden structures. The player has a deck of cards, each representing a bird. Three cards are drawn to a player’s hand. The player can now use any of these three birds. When they use one, another card is drawn, unless the deck is empty. When a player destroys enough structures, a card which they have used is returned to their deck (Or their hand, if they have less than 3 cards)
The core gameplay is still solid. The concept of slingshotting a bird into a structure is simple to control and easy to follow. When aiming a bird, a little arcing reticule appears to help the player aim. The sound effects are charming, the boss battles are rewarding (This is primarily due to how frustrating they are to finally defeat), and the small touches add a lot to the game to make it all the more lovable.
Players have five lives which replenish over time (by time I mean they get one life every 30 min or so). When a player loses the level by running out of bird cards, they lose a life. Additionally, upon losing, the players can purchase three more birds and continue. They can also purchase power ups for real cash which will give them an additional card which will pretty much destroy the entire stage for them.
In Angry Birds 1, players were given specific birds for each level. For example, level 4-21 the player is given six yellow birds to defeat the level. This never changes and allows the player to strategize.
Side note: This is a screen shot of level 4-21 in Angry Birds 1. The player needs to hit the structure at the marked spot at least three times to knock it over, using the yellow bird. Upon examining the aiming reticule, we can see that the birds cannot be thrown over to hit the piggies. Whenever a player enters 4-21 it will look like this, allowing for experimentation and strategy.
In Angry Birds 2, the players get a random hand of three cards, each representing a different bird. Typically, what I’ve seen has been the player gets one of each bird card in their deck. Then of the deck of cards, three are drawn. The rest sit in the deck and are unusable until they player uses a bird and draws another. Normally this wouldn’t be too big of a problem, except there are a few other things Angry Birds does that magnifies the issue.
The randomly generated stages compound the issue. While this sounds like a great idea in concept because it makes for infinite replayability, when players don’t have the correct birds to defeat the section it makes the players feel incredibly frustrated. This is due to knowing that, due to luck, they have no chance to succeed. On top of that if the player loses or leaves the level, when they return it will look completely different, preventing them from experimenting with different methods on how to defeat a stage.
It doesn’t help that each level now has multiple stages within it. This makes burning currently useless bird cards a terrible option. Because players only have a limited amount of cards, it creates pressure to make every bird count. Unfortunately, as the bird cards are randomly drawn, the player might be forced into using extra birds early on, only to run out before the final stage. Additionally, the player cannot see what is in the future stages so it is impossible to strategize before arriving to them. In later stages the player just has to get really lucky or they wont have the ability to beat it.
Possibly the most frustrating thing in Angry Birds 2 is coming into a stage and realizing your cards are going to be useless. Much like this situation I was in. I entered with three birds and was able to destroy two of the structures. But my third bird was the wrong type for this stage and I was doomed. But this problem could also be to my poor skill, so it is not as frustrating as when it happens to me in the first stage of the level.
These issues combined make for an incredibly frustrating experience. It really feels like each of these mechanics were developed independently and then thrown together. Each of these on their own could make for a really cool experience, but combined together make for a frustrating one.
Side note: How I would change this is make it so the player can see the future stages within the level once the first is generated & choose from any bird they have in their deck. This will allow players to truly strategize and be prepared for what is coming. Additionally, if they are going to watch an ad video or pay for additional birds, I’d let them choose which birds they want. While this may not seem like the best idea for monetization, it will make the players much more likely to spend those extra couple bucks for the additional birds. Because they won’t feel like they are being screwed by getting random birds despite spending money. I cannot express how frustrating it is when you spend money on the game and it randomly picks the three birds you can’t win with.
Here’s another example: Let’s take a look at the above level. This is stage one of this level, it doesn’t seem so hard. Until you look at the birds. The red bird is good at knocking over thin structures, but this structure looks pretty solid. The yellow bird is good at destroying wood, he’s pretty much useless here. The white bird drops a bomb which might be able to kill all of the piggies. It will be very difficult though to get the timing perfect as the player will have to tap the screen as the bird is flying to drop the bomb at the right place. The white bird is best used when bombing a piggy where the other birds can’t get the correct angle to hit it. (The black or blue birds would have destroyed this section easily, but they are in my deck at this time. Blue bird wreaks blue platforms and black birds explode.) So the player is doomed to most likely have to use at least two birds here. Additionally, due to this stage lacking enough destroyable debris, the player will not get enough points to obtain another bird. Even after this stage I have three more stages in this level. So before I have even fired my first bird, there is a very good chance I wont be able to beat this level.
Let’s quickly review the the biggest complaint, the upsells/ads:
- After the player plays X levels, they are forced to watch a video ad
- When a player runs out of lives, they are upsold more
- When a player runs out of lives, they can voluntarily watch a video to gain an additional life (max 3 times)
- When a player loses a level, they are upsold 3 more birds
- When a player loses a level, they can voluntarily watch a video to get one more random bird (max 1 time)
- Players are upsold power ups at the beginning of a level
Contrary to what some of the comments say, there is nothing wrong with the number of upsells. It seems like this frustration stems from a lack of information/resources. Then when they cannot beat a level and are asked if they wish to purchase more birds for gems, bought with real money, they begin to feel like buying the birds are the only way to beat it. This is when players get mad and start to feel like they are being cheated.
While the words “Free-to-play” will cause some people to grab their pitch forks and call for the developers’ heads, it’s not a bad thing. At least when done correctly. We can learn from the mistakes of Angry Birds 2, and make sure the mechanics don’t cause impossible situations. The randomization of stages, the withholding cards from players, and the multipart levels, all make for an interesting experience. But when used together, these mechanics make the game feel too random, causing players to become frustrated and leave poor reviews. It also sows seeds of distrust with Rovio, making people more hesitant to spend money on their games. Hopefully they will learn from their mistakes and Angry Birds 3 wont have this kind of backlash.
Thank you for sticking around through this post. I hope you learned something or at least I got you to think about how your mechanics combined with free-to-play can effect the player’s perception of your game and company.
I’ll see you guys next week,
More posts like this one can be found on Scott's Blog/Portfolio www.ScottFineGameDesign.com.