Free-to-play games often look appealing, but it’s difficult to know at a glance whether the business model is insidious and fun ruining, or reasonable and worth pumping a few bucks into. With Freemium Field Test, we’ll take a recent free-to-play iOS game, put it through its paces, and let you know if it’s really worth your time (and money).
I don’t know what to think of Jurassic World (the film) quite yet—though I’m sure I’ll have a better idea this weekend. On one hand, I want to feel that amazing sense of wonder imparted by the original film, which I first saw as a kid. On the other hand, the wooden acting, rough CG, and trained velociraptors of the trailer raise red flags—and I can’t forget the crummy Jurassic Park III. I’m hopeful, but admittedly not that optimistic.
At least I know what I think about Jurassic World: The Game, Ludia’s free-to-play iOS tie-in. It’s perhaps the most aggressively monetized freemium experience I’ve ever bothered to spend weeks playing, yet it’s curiously generous, proving incentive to tolerate the frequent spending prompts. That’s a weird balance, but it sort of works here.
However, Jurassic World sadly isn’t much of a game. This park-builder had the potential to be an addictive, Zoo Tycoon-esque affair that let you oversee your very own dino-destination. Instead it’s a rote resource grind punctuated not by creativity or park-management elements, but rather dull dinosaur fights. In other words, it’s the Jurassic Park III of free-to-play Jurassic Park games. Which might be fine for some, but it’s not terribly inspiring.
Building out a Jurassic World of your own is about as ideal a premise as is possible for this franchise, and it’s an approach that fits well with typical free-to-play game design. You’ll start with the basic structure of the park, but then you’ll need to fill it with various dinosaurs and other structures as you aim to start completing missions and generating income.
Ideally, this is the point where you’d have to start overseeing attendee metrics, balancing income and expenses, upgrading structures, setting prices, and doing all of the gleefully geeky stuff that makes amusement park simulators so engrossing. Instead, Jurassic World keeps things incredibly simple: You’ll never worry about customers. They’re mentioned in dialogue bubbles, but they’re not key to your success. In fact, the idea of being successful barely even registers.
That’s because Jurassic World taps into a reliable loop of earning coins and then spending them, which is more or less the entire core of the experience. The more stuff you have in your park, the more coins you passively accumulate. Leveling up your dinosaurs also generates more coins, which means spending the coins you have to create food and then feeding them. It’s all terribly mundane and handled via menus and button taps, so there’s no real thrill to “raising” your dinosaurs.
That original Jurassic Park sense of wonder I mentioned earlier? It’s nowhere to be found here. Jurassic World: The Game looks great, and the dinosaur models are impressive—but admiring them doesn’t earn you coins or complete the little objectives that pop up. Instead, you’ll send them into battle, where they bite and swipe at other dinosaurs in ferocious, turn-based competition.
It’s grisly and weird; if this is what the new film is focused on, then I think I’ll pass. But it’s a core part of the game, and at some point it will probably hold you back from leveling up your park and unlocking more missions. Of course, you can always spend money to speed things along.
Frankly, I’m amazed at how brash Jurassic World is with its monetization. The game has no less than four individual currency/resource systems to wrap your head around: Coins (earned and awarded regularly), cash (for park upgrades and speeding up timers), food (it’s what dinosaurs eat to become big and strong), and DNA (used to hatch new dinosaurs).
In-game cash can be purchased with real money and used to buy coins or food outright, while you’ll earn DNA by selling off dinosaurs or watching video ads. You can also get cash by completing special offers through Tapjoy—like filling out a Burger King survey or getting an auto insurance quote, which is one of the most unsettling transactions I can imagine. Then again, getting 1299 Dino bucks does sound pretty sweet.
And that’s not even the most aggressive part of the freemium design. Jurassic World also offers card packs, which allow you to pick up chunks of currency, bonus missions, and rare dinosaur species all at once. You get one free “Mystery” pack every six hours, which is surprisingly generous and can help you play for a long time—slowly, but surely—without spending. In return, you’ll deal with frequent prompts to buy the pricier packs, which range in price from $5 to $50.
Can you imagine spending $5 of real money on something called a “Common” pack? Jurassic World can’t even muster up the enthusiasm to name its in-app purchases in an enticing, satisfying manner. Intrigued, I splashed $10 to buy a “Rare” pack… and found the contents were barely better than the free packs I’d been opening up for days. The only thing different was the appearance of a less-common dinosaur, the Koolasuchus (Cool-asaurus?), which hardly seems worth 10 bucks on its own.
I also spent $7 along the way on cash packs to help expand my park and level up my dinosaurs in a hurry. The battles start easy enough, but quickly became intensely difficult around level eight. At that point, you’d potentially need to spend weeks earning enough free currency to evolve and level up your dinosaurs enough to stand a chance—otherwise you can start pumping in money to unlock rare beasts and bulk them up in a hurry. Neither option really seems worth it.
Leaning heavily on in-app purchases and sleazy special offers is off-putting, but it’s not the biggest disappointment in Jurassic World: The Game—that honor goes to the total lack of depth to the park-building elements, and the wasted focus put on bland fights instead.
Giving you the reins to make a Jurassic Park of your own is such a natural fit that maximizes the franchise’s appeal, but Jurassic World punts it, simply using the premise to fuel another repetitive world-building grind. All told, I spent about as much as a movie ticket to try and pump some life into the game—and failed. Hopefully theatergoers end up with a more exciting experience than this one.
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Freemium Field Test
Andrew Hayward is a Chicago-based games, apps, and gadgets writer whose work has been featured in more than 70 publications. He's also a work-at-home dad to an unruly four-year-old.