Alphabear is Great, But Its Model Feels Lopsided

Jul 15, 2015 by

Alphabear Share Picture

Clearly a member of House Bolton.

UPDATE 07/18: As of the latest game update, players can now freely select which chapter they want to play. This makes a big difference and Spry Fox clearly listened to players. My one quibble with the select is it tends to drop you back into latest chapter, but it’s easiyl changed.

I’m enjoying Spry Fox’ latest game, Alphabear, which has launched a partial takeover of both my Twitter feed and private messages with friends lately with its sharp, current selfie function when acquiring new bears. Some of your spelled words appear in a preset line or two, Mad Libs style, often leading to amusing results. The game is cute, it’s fun, and several aspects of it both keep some players coming back for more and others taking issue with gameplay and the way the developer monetizes the game.

When you start Alphabear, the tutorial takes you through the word-puzzle game’s basic premise. Pick a board, spend a resource (honey) to play that board, score enough points, win bears that you can use for boosts, and repeat. Some boards are timed, and each chapter allows you to collect certain bears from the currently available collection of 67 . After playing through enough of the daily challenges, you’ll unlock a boss battle. Beat the boss score, win, and move to the next chapter. There is, however, no chapter select, and certain bears can’t be obtained outside their respective chapters. There’s no warning in the tutorial for this, and one belongs there. After the first two chapters, chapter three’s difficulty ramped up by a lot, and I have lingered within it playing and leveling my bears, getting a better win rate but falling short of good bear scores frequently as well. Spry Fox responded to an inquiry about this saying that no chapter select was an oversight and that while there are no plans to include a chapter select, some way to obtain bears you accidentally missed out on will be coming.

The daily challenges aren’t just candy-colored Scrabble either. Several are clever and can affect your strategy. On Sunday, an indicator mentioned the letters W-O-R-and K wouldn’t appear at all. If you’re used to using certain bears that might boost points for specific letters, you’d have to adjust. The bears themselves go to “sleep” for a predetermined amount of time after each use, which ranges from one minute to one day. Getting duplicates of a bear strengthens the bonuses that bear brings to a round.

I’ve seen some complaints about Alphabear’s gating, since honey is restored over time, up to the 120 you would need to play each of the daily boards once each several times a day. You can also watch an ad to get more honey or pay $4.99 to unlock infinite honey, thus letting you play as often as you’d like. Some felt tossed into a paywall early, but I haven’t. My problem with the monetization is that there is no corresponding unlock for the game’s other resource, coins. In order to gain coins, you must play through the game, watch an ad, or purchase a coin bundle. Coins are what you use to wake up a bear early from its slumber, making it usable once again. Infinite honey is a great option, since it lets you play more and thus win more coins, but if you have a limited collection of usable bears for your current chapter (chances of this are current high since there’s no chapter select and it’s easy to miss out on bears early), you’ll have to either wait up to an entire day or use your purchased or earned coins to wake your bears.

Some might argue that an unlock for coins might make the game too easy or lead to an imbalance of sorts, but as a single-player game, having just the one unlock makes the game feel lopsided in that paying for a whole game isn’t an option. I’m sure many of us would, just as I’ve noticed lots of infinite honey players.

Alphabear is still officially in beta, so there will be some changes coming in response to player feedback. Spry Fox is doing a good job listening so far, and fixing other issues promptly. As a side note, I’m happy that Alphabear is on Android and glad to have the option to support games on the platform.

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Rising Above Gatekeeping: Games Belong to All

Apr 28, 2015 by

FemHype Kiva Bay comic

Humans and other animals enjoy play. Let’s focus on humans for the moment, though. “Playing” is not something you grow out of and it’s not something you have to do in a certain way, at a certain time, or to have a certain experience. More people seem to have realized that video games aren’t something one grows up and magically stops liking as if some prerequisite of adulthood. I like to think we’ve made some progress when it comes to our thinking about games, gamers, and how we participate and interact, as well as matters of access to those games, but this isn’t always clear.

It’s a week where some were confused or disappointed by seeing eSports broadcast on ESPN2, but this is only one symbol of change. Yesterday, FemHype published a comic by Kiva Bay (and Sam Slater) about her experiences with homelessness and how the ability to play games occasionally, plus see gaming Let’s Plays, shows, and coverage, helped her get through the days and feel better about life amid those struggles. Yet, the idea of identity came into play, and worries about not being accepted as a gamer since she didn’t have the opportunity or means to play most of the games she came to care about and experience virtually through others. The comic spoke to me since, while I’ve never been homeless, I did grow up poor with my mom, who has MS. We relied on her disability payments, as well as food assistance and even sometimes the church pantry in order to get by. One thing my mom and I shared were video games.

Yes, we had consoles, but they were often a gift from a family member as a combined birthday and Christmas present that required lengthy periods of saving up. When it came to games, we had a couple for each console. Sometimes we borrowed games from my great aunt, who kept an NES for her charges to come play (she was a teacher). My mom and I would browse used games on the shelves at E.B. and sometimes get one if we could afford it that month. Sometimes, Mom would drive us to an arcade and give me eight quarters. Those quarters meant the opportunity to get out there and enjoy some games, often with other kids. That was multiplayer. Other times, we would manage $2-3 for a rental.

When I began writing about games and even getting people to pay me to do that, there was a voice deep inside that peeped at me about my experiences, that my gaming history was “broken” or that my experiences, my insight, were inferior because of rentals not always giving me enough time to finish games, for missing out on games many consider classics, for having holes where other people’s console or PC gaming experiences were. We had consoles that we held onto for a long time since that’s what we could afford. I pushed that nagging little voice down, but it did undermine my confidence for a while.

In addition to humans liking to play, we also generally like to feel like we belong, that we can relate to others in this vast weird experience we call life. A few billion of us share the planet right now. A shared passion is a powerful thing, and when it comes to gaming, that’s true as well. Yet, it pains me that other people sometimes personify that little nagging voice that I’ve had to deal with –except this time, they serve as gatekeepers, as rule makers, or even as the gates themselves. There’s enough room to listen to one another and not disparage what we each like, what we connect with, or how we play. And even if people can’t access the games others play, they can still be passionate about those things. How about we stop looking for ways to disqualify people or to stop attempting to qualify them in the first place? It is tiring and exhausting to see people attempt to police others’ identities, on any front.

Games are something that have been part of my life since I was about three. A friend recently mentioned that she felt it shameful that she had never played games in several popular series. I told her, as we chatted over dinner, that everyone starts somewhere, and that there was no shame in it. I’m glad to see people discover games, whether that’s through active play, video, or even if someone discovered Heroes of the Storm via ESPN2.  People have different experiences, with many aspects of life, and making others believe it’s shameful not to have played something, it’s counterproductive to connection. Connection, including sharing our experiences, it’s one of the things I enjoy most about the power of games. They appeal to our human need to play, and in turn, give us one way to relate, open our eyes, learn, and care.

Connection is what I saw in that comic, and it reminded me of that nagging voice that even pops up still, once in a rare while. However you arrive, your experience is valuable. Welcome.

 

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Assassin’s Creed: Unity Reveals What’s Valuable

Jun 11, 2014 by

Assassin’s Creed: Unity Reveals What’s Valuable

Ubisoft has the work of nine studios behind Assassin’s Creed: Unity, but that isn’t enough to include any female characters. The game is set around the time of the French Revolution, and that period was no stranger to women working to help bring about change and even as famous assassins. The game will also feature co-op multiplayer, but you won’t find women there either.

Personally, artistic vision is something that I respect. So I’m not looking for people to start shoehorning in token women or minorities anywhere. One of the reasons people that care about diversity talk about diversity is for visibility’s sake. If people are visible, and in your everyday life, maybe it won’t take a stretch of the imagination in order to include diverse characters and portrayals from the start by default. For now, engaging in discourse is one tool that technology allows us.

While it is arguably true that games with female protagonists sell fewer copies, they’re also granted less marketing support. So it’s a little bit of a ‘chicken or egg’ scenario. Since a studio must balance profitability with creativity, it’s easier to simply keep pumping out games starring men. Even in the face of approaching gender parity when it comes to gamer demographics and the demographics of game buyers, these things continue to repeat themselves.

What struck me about the Ubisoft position was not that it happened with Assassin’s Creed (it’s nothing new for the franchise), but how insensitive the remark came off in the response. “It was on our feature list until not too long ago, but it’s a question of focus and production,” tech director James Therien told Videogamer “A female character means that you have to redo a lot of animation, a lot of costumes [inaudible]. It would have doubled the work on those things. And I mean it’s something the team really wanted, but we had to make a decision”. The message comes off as ‘men are default – women are part of an optional “feature list”‘.

Therien went on to insist this was not a decision based on “philosophy or choice” and that the team really wanted to include some women. Yes, it’s “a reality of game development” that some features get cut, plots dropped, work trimmed to fit deadlines, and other forms of scaling back. I’m not calling any of this malicious or a deliberately exclusionary decision. It was likely a simple business decision as stated, yet one which shows what is valuable to the studio. Not for the first time and likely not for the last.

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