Published: 30 January 2012
“Free to play” games don’t usually strike my interest. That particular business model, which prices the base game at little to no cost and then offers upgrades or time savers for additional fare, has been embraced by almost every modern MMORPG along with the more recent DOTA-style competitive experiences. The rationale seems sound when applied to customization; cosmetic accessories are mostly inconsequential to gameplay and don't serve to diminish the experience of another. The free to play model starts to slide into a moral grey area when it offers quick access to items that would otherwise require hours grinding. That particular method could be employed purely to exploit players by creating unrealistic goals only possible through needless tedium, but good games often err on the side of catering this method to the casual or lazy and, thus, gaining acceptability.
Run Roo Run!, 5th Cell's first ground-up iOS offering, is where I'd like to draw the line. I bought Run Roo Run! based on 5th Cell's stellar work on the iOS version of Scribblenauts, along with a general interest in creative director Jeremiah Slaczka's approach to game design (gained via a handful of interviews and features at Gametrailers). Run Roo Run! is an adorable one button, single screen platformer. Roo runs automatically, and you tap anywhere on the screen to make her jump over a myriad obstacles. The game's breadth content, a total of 420 levels spread across twenty segmented worlds, is staggering. The first fifteen stages in each world are relatively simple and serve to introduce players to a new mechanic while the last six, which are completely unnecessary for progression, are incredibly difficult and make full use of every skill learned up to that point.
If you hit a wall, there are two options for assistance. First is a gadget that slows down time, making precise jumps over moving obstacles much easier, and there other is an unabashed level skip. You begin Run Roo Run! with two of each of these and, to the best of my abilities (through world 10 presently), I have found no way to earn more in the game. Instead, after you fail a couple times, a corner of the screen with a shopping cart icon makes a noise and flashes. Tapping that takes you to another screen where you're encouraged to buy timers in quantities of ten or sixty for .99 and $4.99, respectively. If you're really having a tough time, you can also opt to purchase ten or one hundred full level skips for $1.99 or $9.99, respectively. Run Roo Run!, on its own, is only a .99 cent game.
Worse, Roo seems to be constantly pushing the player to engage either of these options. Gold medals can only be earned by completing a level in one shot. Skipping a level with the bus pass defaults the player to a silver medal (which is probably fair). This only seems nefarious when one considers the only obstacle in separating a one-shot gold run from the lower tiers of medals is a reset button; when you fail, the level will either reset itself, keeping the timer going, or you can opt to push a button and start fresh. When one takes into account the frequency at which the game prompts you to buy help, the brevity of levels (most are only two seconds), and the annoyance at having to push a button at every failure, well, it sure as hell seems like 5th Cell put careful hooks in place to transform Run Roo Run! into a money generating machine.
That's 5th Cell's right as a developer and certainly in their best interests as a business, but I can't shake the nagging suspicion that Run Roo Run!, an otherwise innocent delight with an infectious aesthetic, is little more than a money printing machine designed to take advantage of those who choose to play it. The normal levels are pathetically easy, and the challenging 120, the only point where the game becomes demanding enough to occasionally require assistance, are sure to only be engaged by those who legitimately enjoy the game. It makes me think of how much better Run Roo Run! could have been if the current business model favored feature-complete games for $5 that everyone pays rather than glorified starter packs with outrageously priced additional content burdened to the select few whom actually like playing it. In any case, it's all a little uncomfortable, and a sad state of affairs if good ideas are being corrupted for a cash grab.