Welcome to this week’s first gaming edition of iPhone Gems, which unlike most of our past Gems columns is a summary article of three separate reviews published today. Inside, we look briefly at three games from Ngmoco, a talented iPhone and iPod touch developer that released some of the best App Store games in 2008 and 2009, but has radically changed its pricing model for all games to be released in 2010. The new “freemium” system uses a business model whereby all three games are distributed for free, but offer numerous in-game purchases, dependent upon Internet connections – plus the continued existence and stability of Ngmoco servers – to allow players to continue playing.
First up is Eliminate: CO-OP, the updated version of last year’s first-person shooter Eliminate Pro, which we held off on reviewing up until now because of its unusual pricing structure. Second is Godfinger, an evolutionary clone of the popular entertainment-slash-mini game Pocket God, and third is We Rule, a medieval-themed kingdom-building game. We look at each game separately below, with full reviews linked in the individual sections. None received our general or high recommendation.
Eliminate: CO-OP (full review here) is a “free” first-person shooter, built primarily upon a deathmatch theme. Rather than going on missions with A to B objectives, you’re dropped into a series of arenas with a gun and armor to “test” against opponents who are either computer or human controlled. While you can switch guns in the middle of a deathmatch or cooperative encounter against robot drones, the game is structured to be more action-intense than strategic, and offers very limited access to additional weapons, armor, and other items unless you invest considerable time or money to unlock them. You’re able to play online, with or against friends using a straightforward matchmaking and hosting service, but can only do so for abbreviated periods before having to pay for extra “energy” or wait 30 minutes for free energy recharges. Otherwise, you’re stuck in a practice mode where you earn no credits and can’t unlock additional content.
Ngmoco’s work on Eliminate: CO-OP demonstrates a more impressive devotion to the game’s backend features—matchmaking, transactions, and recruiting rewards—than the aesthetics, as the title is several steps backwards from Gameloft first-person shooters N.O.V.A. and Modern Combat: Sandstorm in everything from graphics engine and map design to music and sound effects. It’s akin to strapping a sub-par multiplayer version of Rare’s Nintendo 64 game Perfect Dark onto an ATM machine, and then charging up to $33 a pop for limited-use power packs to unlock its features. Some players may be willing to embrace it by buying in; all we can say at this point is that we’re unenthusiastic about the concept, and unlike Rolando and its sequel, wouldn’t pay anything to support it in its current form. A deeper, better game on top of an optional In-App purchasing model might be a different story. iLounge Rating: B-.
Released worldwide this past weekend, Ngmoco’s We Rule (full review here) is an empire-building game in a medieval setting where players focus on managing and expanding their own small kingdoms. You start with a fort on a small parcel of land and build farms, housing and businesses that generate gold, which can in turn be spent to construct more buildings and further expand your kingdom. Over time, you can upgrade your fort to increase your available land, and an experience point system lets players automatically level up as they progress through the game, unlocking additional buildings and upgrades. Like Eliminate, We Rule uses the “freemium” system to slow down players who don’t cough up real-world cash to earn in-game credits; events such as growing crops take real-world hours, but you can earn or buy “mojo” to make things happen faster. Ngmoco’s In-App transaction system offers mojo in “5 mojo” vials for $1, or “800 vintage mojo” packs for $50. The graphics and sound are nothing particularly special, but they’re good enough for a game of this genre; a forced 45-degree isometric perspective shows a segment of your kingdom at a given moment, with a zoomed out view when necessary, and basic sound effects are offered alongside chip-based music.
Unlike Eliminate Pro, We Rule demands an active network connection with Ngmoco’s Plus+ network to play—if the servers are down, you won’t be able to access your kingdom, and in fact all of your saved game data appears to actually be stored on Ngmoco’s servers. This is a major problem for those who don’t want to go online to enjoy the game, but it does enable a social network that allows players to communicate and share with one another. One benefit of the We Rule design is that there’s enough here to give something to a patient player who wants to treat his kingdom like a Tamagotchi pet—growing it slowly over days or weeks—without having to spend an additional penny. But most players will likely get limited enjoyment out of the game in this manner, since they’ll only be in the game for five or ten minutes per day to harvest crops and build new structures; Ngmoco’s mojo system keeps the game brisk only for those who spend a lot of money on transactions. Our advice: If you’re a player with an addictive personality, we’d recommend that you avoid this game altogether; it’s hard to say with a straight face that any iPhone game would be worth coughing up $50 for the 800-pack of mojo to continue playing over time. That said, if you’re really hoping to play We Rule for a while, making a big investment up front makes more sense than losing your money dollar by dollar for smaller top-ups. Our strong belief is that Ngmoco should offer the unlocked game at a fair price to everyone who’s interested in it, a much better deal for both developers and users than preying on some people in order to subsidize free play for others. iLounge Rating: B-.
Presently released only in Canada with a near-term release planned for the rest of the world, Godfinger (full review here) is the latest entry in Ngmoco’s freemium game arsenal, given away as a free download with an incentive system in place to make subsequent purchases. In Godfinger, the player is given a small planet to grow and rule with godlike powers. You start Godfinger with a single person on a very small planet and must convert that person to become a follower by impressing him with wonders; this task is then repeated en masse to lure additional followers. Initial wonders include basics such as rain and sun; more advanced wonders such as lightning and floods become available as you progress through the game. Planets and characters are presented as cartoony two-dimensional art, effectively flat people and the cross-section of a roundish planet that can be panned and zoomed using normal touchscreen controls. No background music is included during the game, but simple sound effects are included in the form of ambient background sounds, and noises from your followers.
As with We Rule, you generate more experience while you play, which lets you level up, opening more buildings and wonders for your use, collectively allowing you to expand your planet, terraform it, and create ponds and lakes that your people can fish in. Over time, zombies appear, and you must defend your people against them by using your divine powers. The major challenge in increasing your footprint is that gold and mana require time to generate, and Godfinger runs on Ngmoco’s servers even when you’re away from the game, using push notifications to bring you back to the game to handle events that are transpiring in real time. For whatever reason—perhaps too much time spent on trying to figure out the pricing model rather than fine-tuning the gameplay—Godfinger doesn’t feel as if it’s paced quite right: it’s neither fast enough to play in one sitting, nor slow enough to walk away from for any extended period of time. It also has a very limited social system, designed to get you to bring more people into the game in order to earn rewards for yourself.
Ultimately, Godfinger feels like an expansion of the popular Pocket God novelty app, minus the warmth; Ngmoco even includes a feature that lets you toss your followers around the planet to compete for distance on a Plus+ network leaderboard, highly similar to a feature included in Pocket God. The company once again uses the “freemium” model to aid impatient players who want to advance more quickly through the game, issuing small amounts of a secondary currency called “awe” as you level up, with larger amounts available via In-App purchases, ranging from 35 awe points for $3 to 750 awe points for $30. You can accomplish tasks in the game if you’re willing to wait enough time, but awe allows them to be completed almost instantaneously in exchange for real-world money, a system that we found to be less addicting than in We Rule, revealing the game’s somewhat cynical delay-or-pay pricing system for what it is. By comparison with We Rule, which received our limited recommendation as it provides a compelling game for those who are willing to spend the time or money on it, Godfinger falls into our “okay” rating category as it’s far less engaging with more awkward pacing. Most users would be much better off checking out Pocket God with its considerably more open-ended play model; it’s easier on your iTunes Store account, and the pace of its updates has demonstrated the developer’s devotion to pleasing users—at no charge. Godfinger will be hard-pressed given its “freemium” pricing to ever match up. iLounge Rating: C.
Additional writing and testing for this edition of iPhone Gems was provided by Jesse David Hollington.