Posted by James at 13:27

Pokémon Shuffle is an interesting release. Not only is it a high profile F2P (free-to-play) game on the 3DS, but it utilises modern business models. So there's quite a lot of insight to be had behind how developer Genius Sonority has designed the game, and the implications in how it plays as a result.

Surprisingly, this isn't a retooled version of last year's Pokémon Link Battle, a slightly inventive take on the match-three puzzler. Gone is the Link box, a playing field of Pokémon-themed blocks spanning both screens. The finite nature of the puzzle blocks in Link Battle encouraged you to clear the lot by smartly rearranging them on the fly. Pokémon Shuffle instead assigns the playing field to a single screen, the field itself now being infinite, every cleared chain being replaced by more blocks from above.

At its core, Pokémon Shuffle revolves around matching similar-type blocks to weaken an encountered Pokémon, all done within a strict move limit. Each match of three-or-more blocks deals damage to the opposing critter, depending on type matchups and your party's level.

With a set number of moves to finish each stage, there's now a big emphasis on utilising combos for big damage dealing. You'll be partly relying on luck to achieve this, though, since the playing field hides away all those blocks above -- blocks that fall down when you make a combo -- when you make your move.

This isn't necessarily bad, but it makes for a more boring and less engaging game than its predecessor, one that's also less satisfying to master. Even when it extends the formula to include cool things like garbage and ice blocks, your overall success will still largely be determined by luck or whether you've amassed the right set of Pokémon (more on that later). Shuffle's move limit means you're forced to wait and watch mid-combo, rather than slide a few blocks here and there to keep things going, Panel de Pon style.

What, then, of its monetisation and in-game purchases?

Pokémon Shuffle employs a common trick, that of the premium currency. These have the effect of reducing the number of psychological barriers between the purchase and the player. What has more weight to you: using up one gem to continue past the game over screen, or paying its equivalent value of Ł0.89/$0.99?

Your gems can then be used to purchase even more abstract currency, such as hearts or coins. Hearts are used as energy to attempt each stage, and coins buy powerups and help items, which have a distinct air of 'Pay-to-Win' about them.

Meanwhile, the game will dispense a small amount of currency your way for free. Gems are awarded at key progress points. Hearts regenerate over time, one every thirty minutes. And you'll get a 100 coins for clearing stages as a general rule of thumb.

Energy systems and wait timers in stage-based games are generally okay, since the game has to be upfront about what you're getting into, whereas pay-to-win items have all sorts of implications on not only whether the game's one of skill, but how the game tries to nudge you towards using the items in the first place.

Sadly, Pokémon Shuffle is great at implementing both in smart ways, even if the overall result is still far from the worst examples in the F2P space.

Want to simply plough through the game? If you don't mind putting the game down for the odd hour here and there, you'll probably be alright in the long run. Each stage costs you one heart, and every five stages (which soon becomes every ten) you're rewarded with a gem that can be converted into five hearts. Progress is fairly speedy this way, and you'll probably end up thanking the energy timers for letting you put the game down.

The problems emerge if you want to excel at the game or get everything. If you're the sort of player who cares about catching every Pokémon, or turning up to each battle with a smartly chosen party, then you'll probably feel more pressured to top up your gem balance.

There's a theory within the field of behavioural economics called loss aversion, which refers to how humans value potential losses more than gains.Pokémon Shuffle is pretty adept at exploiting that.

Picture this: every time you weaken a Pokémon and clear a stage, its capture isn't guaranteed, and you only have one Pokéball. So if you wanted that Togepi which is super effective against Absol, you've got one chance to capture it. Your odds of success are partly determined by how well you do, so scraping by with the minimum of combos or few remaining moves yields low chances. Fail to catch the Pokémon and you're offered a Great Ball, doubling your chances of success.

Here's where the loss aversion comes in. This level attempt just cost you one heart and 30 minutes' waiting time, as well as what you could have been doing with the currency -- you might have wanted to play a different stage instead. If you fail to catch the Pokémon, you've not only got to wait 30 minutes to try again if that was your last heart, but you've got to clear that stage once more, and even then you might not succeed. Suddenly that Great Ball at 2500 coins seems a bit more tempting, and Pokémon Shuffle just managed to turn those previously unobtrusive wait timers into a liability.

You're likely to come across situations like this a fair few times, and if you value the freedom to play when you want, the easiest way around it all is to just shell out some money in return for some gems to convert back to hearts and/or coins. But doing this sometimes leaves a game which feels awkward to excel at, especially when your enemy tends to be the unpredictability of luck.

Sure, you could go out and purchase that 75 gem pack for around the same price as a retail Nintendo title, and have a stress-free experience. In fact, Serebii's website owner has been doing just that, and has been able to conquer a fair portion of the game already.

But Pokémon Shuffle doesn't exist in a vaccuum. Its fellow eShop puzzler, Pokémon Link Battle is a one off purchase and does nearly everything better -- you don't get the same feeling that the game and its mechanics have been designed around that currency system.

So there's Pokémon Shuffle. It's a mechanically solid puzzle game, let down by awkward balancing that opens up a rift between different types of players. Those who want to catch every critter or play the game in more exacting ways are being nudged towards buying up currency far more than the players who aren't overly fussed about that sort of thing.
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