Those who have played the Trials series in the past can attest to how addictive it is.
Genius in their simplicity, previous Trials games challenged you to make your way across an increasingly perilous sequence of 2D-rendered-in-3D courses, and then challenged you again to beat your best times and those set by your friends. Easy to understand but difficult to master controls made for games that anyone could become competitive at with a bit of practice, and each game's ease of restarting a level to try again made them into experiences that you'd fire up for a quick race, then look up and realize that several hours had passed.
This sort of simplistic but addictive experience is, you might think, ideal for mobile platforms. After all, a lot of mobile games take heavy inspiration from the inherent (and often necessary) simplicity of Flash games, and the Trials series itself began life as a Flash game, too, much as it would seemingly like to forget its heritage. So it was not altogether surprising to hear Ubisoft announce recently that the Trials series would indeed be coming to mobile platforms -- specifically, both iOS and Android -- in the form of Trials Frontier.
It was, unfortunately, even less surprising to hear that it would be a free-to-play title and, after reviewing some further information posted over at Digital Spy earlier today, depressingly familiar to discover that Trials Frontier seemingly consults the playlist of Annoying Things Mobile Games Do and then checks every single entry off one by one.
Don't believe me? Let's run through all the irritants this game has to offer one at a time.
It has an energy system.
By far the absolute worst "innovation" in modern social and mobile gaming is the energy system. If you've never had the misfortune of coming across one of these, it's known in industry circles as a "progress-throttling" system, because that's exactly what it does: it literally prevents you from progressing any further in the game unless you either wait -- usually for several hours -- or pay up.
Apologists for this type of mechanic are usually quick to point out that it's little problem to simply turn off your phone, put it in your pocket and go and do something else for a few hours until your energy (or, in Trials Frontier's case, "fuel") replenishes. And while that may be true, what happened to playing for as long as you, the player, want? It's obtrusive, it pulls the player out of the experience and it destroys the pacing of the game.
This is a particularly bad fit for Trials, because as mentioned above, one of the great things about previous installments in the series is that they're so addictive -- games that can easily devour a few hours of enjoyment without you realizing. With an energy system in place, this simply isn't possible unless you repeatedly pay up for energy refills -- and if you do that, you're rewarding the implementation of a seriously spiteful, player-unfriendly business model.
If you want to know more, Simon Parkin has a particularly elegant takedown of the entire model over on Hookshot, Inc., describing it as a "black spot on the heart of contemporary game design." I concur 100 per cent.
It uses Skinner Box mechanics.
If you're unfamiliar with the concept of a Skinner Box, the idea is fairly simple: it's a system used to condition people (or, originally, animals) to exhibit certain behaviors in response to specific stimuli. Skinner Boxes reinforce "correct" behavior through the use of rewards and incentives and, in some cases, punish "incorrect" behavior.
In video games, Skinner Box-like mechanics are used in order to manipulate players and keep them artificially addicted to a game -- not because, in most cases, the game is actually any good, but because they want to receive their next reward. Addicted players can then be manipulated into spending money, either in order to keep playing or to make achieving that next reward a little bit easier.
The most common implementation of Skinner Box mechanics in games is via an RPG-style levelling system. Completing levels and challenges -- or just by clicking on things if you're playing a Zynga game -- rewards you with experience, which brings you closer to levelling up. Levelling up provides you with rewards such as new items, a "free" energy refill and, in some cases, additional in-game currency -- though rarely quite enough to actually afford anything good.
Trials doesn't need a progression system like this. The reward in previous Trials games was simply completing a course and getting on to the next level -- and that was enough.
It undermines its own gameplay with an upgrade system.
You'll often hear apologists for manipulative free-to-play games note that "it's possible to play the whole game without paying a cent" and while indeed in many cases this is true, it's not something that would, in most cases, be a particularly enjoyable experience. Playing through a social or mobile game without paying usually involves playing the same content over and over again -- while contending with the energy system and its downtime, of course -- in order to grind out enough "soft currency," as it's called, to afford the upgrades you need to progress.
In the case of Trials Frontier, you're saving up for bike upgrades that improve your ride's performance. Leaving aside the fact that the very presence of an upgrade system completely destroys another one of earlier Trials games' core appeal elements -- the fact that everyone is on a level playing field, and consequently topping the leaderboards is based on pure skill and nothing else -- this also paves the way for another type of paywall in the game: the difficulty spike.
Difficulty spikes in free-to-play mobile and social games come when there is, as you might expect, a sudden jump in difficulty rather than a gradual increase. Such spikes are usually put into these game after long enough for the player to start feeling like they're enjoying the experience, and usually make it all but impossible to progress without upgrades. Theoretically, in many cases you can get past these spikes without upgrading or without paying, but the former often requires either a huge amount of skill or knowledge of game glitches, and the latter usually requires a significant amount of "grinding" content you've already completed to earn the soft currency required for the upgrade.
Past Trials games were difficult, but this made you want to get better. With the addition of an upgrade system, all you need to do is either grind or pay your way to a better bike in order to effectively "skip" earlier challenges that you're finding too difficult.
Speaking of which...
It uses a hard currency to break its own progression.
Enter the "hard currency," usually depicted as some sort of valuable material -- diamonds, in Trials Frontier's case. Hard currency is an in-game currency that you can only purchase using real money, and its exact implementation varies from game to game. Some games offer exclusive items that can only be purchased using hard currency; others provide two prices for each item -- a soft currency price, and a hard currency price which usually "appears" to be a fraction of the soft currency price.
Hard currency is a clever and unscrupulous psychological trick on players: once they've purchased a bundle of hard currency with real money, it simply becomes another in-game resource, and it doesn't feel like spending real money any more. The trick, then, is getting players over that initial bump and into the ranks of paying players -- a process known as "conversion" -- because once they've bought that "truckload of diamonds" or whatever it's depicted as in the game, they're probably going to spend them fairly haphazardly. And you can bet that the prices of things will be deliberately designed so that they don't match up nicely with the bundles of hard currency available to purchase.
My primary issue with hard currency is that it is usually a sign the developer has deliberately broken their own game somehow, and is offering players the opportunity to pay up to fix it. In extreme examples, it can become a "pay to win" currency, though it does at least sound as if Trials Frontier will make everything accessible through both hard and soft currency, meaning paying players will simply progress more quickly if they pay up. That in itself is a problem, however, because although it's not possible to pay for a completely game-breaking advantage, the leaderboards will still be dominated by those who have paid up to upgrade their bike early.
Free-to-play doesn't have to be a bad model. In fact, despite the fact that I noted publicly a while back that I didn't want to support Plants vs. Zombies 2's unnecessary use of the model, most people I know who are playing it have found that game's use of microtransactions to be fairly unobtrusive. Similarly, the PC is full of free-to-play titles whose microtransactions don't break the game and instead simply allow people a greater degree of customization and self-expression -- or simply to show their support for a game they like. Both a far cry from being shaken down after a short play session by an energy system.
Trials Frontier, though? It does all the things that have probably pissed most of you off about mobile games at one point or another in the past. Had the game been a paid-for title with no microtransactions and none of the unnecessary free-to-play fluff, I might have checked it out -- unfortunately, that was never going to happen. Pay up-front titles are becoming increasingly rare on mobile platforms as "free" games are too powerful an incentive to people "window shopping" in the platforms' respective app stores; perceived as "risk-free" by consumers, they make use of all the tricks outlined above to ensnare their customers and make their money, and the quality of games suffers as a result.
Trials Frontier will release on iOS and Android next year, to be followed thereafter by PC and console game Trials Fusion. There's still time for RedLynx and Ubisoft to rethink all of the above irritants with Frontier -- and I sincerely hope they do -- but in the meantime, let's just hope Fusion doesn't fall into the same obnoxious traps as its mobile stablemate, otherwise I think we can bid a fond farewell to the Trials series as we once knew it.