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 have a four-year-old son who happily flips out every time we see a Walt Disney World commercial on TV, so I’ve spent the last year grimacing at the thought of how much money we’ll have to shell out to bring him there. It’s mind-numbing, but I know it’ll be worth it.
Truth be told, you could probably spend as much money seeking happiness within Disney Magic Kingdoms, Gameloft’s free-to-play park-builder based on the theme park, but I sincerely doubt you’ll find it here. Magic Kingdoms has a cavalcade of classic characters and an eye-catching cartoonish look, but it’s built on an obnoxious formula: not only is it slow and boring, but pumping in money also doesn’t do nearly enough to help that.
Disney World is a pretty perfect inspiration for a building game, and Magic Kingdoms lets you construct your own colorful theme park based on sights from various Disney and Pixar films and cartoons. Massive castle? Check. Gargantuan roller coaster? Yup. Al’s Toy Barn from Toy Story 2? You got it.
Disney Magic Kingdoms picks up shortly after Maleficent casts an evil haze upon the area, stripping away the magic and fun and replacing it all with fog and crows. Not the most inviting place anymore, eh? Well, that’s Mickey’s job to fix, and he’ll do so by recruiting friends, establishing buildings and rides, and pleasing kids along the way. It’s all rather charming and well-intentioned, naturally.
But it’s a very gradual process filled with lots of waiting and busywork. For example, you’ll have a task to complete: like, telling the hard-working Woody from Toy Story to take a breather, which would take six hours to complete. He deserves a break, right? Problem is, Woody can’t take a break until I have Jessie’s Snack Roundup on the map. And Jessie’s Snack Roundup can only be built if Jessie is at character level two.
Fair enough. But I need a handful of items to upgrade Jessie, so I send Mickey and Goofy out on other tasks to find those. Finally, I have everything, so I upgrade Jessie… and wait for the timer to tick down. At last, I can build the Snack Roundup, right? Wait, I don’t have enough Magic power now that I spent a chunk on upgrading her. So now I have to focus on that, and poor Woody must be as exhausted as I am at this point. And the saddest thing is, all I did during that runaround was tap buttons and navigate menus: there’s almost zero active gameplay here.
Long story short, a seemingly simple task will often take hours, if not days of middling runarounds meant to draw out the game—and potentially push you towards spending money on magic and gems to speed up those pesky timers and skip the item requirements.
Magic is pumped out gradually by the buildings and attractions in your park, so it pays not only to build more and more, but also to check back regularly. Gems, meanwhile, are the premium currency, and you’ll only get one or two at a time for larger accomplishments. Gems are sold in bundles ranging in price from $2 (40 gems) to $100 (3,000 gems), and then they can be converted to magic: trading 40 gems nets you 400 magic, for example.
With gems and magic, you can quickly skip timers on tasks and construction, which can stretch on for hours, as well as buy new characters outright, pay for items needed for upgrades, and purchase attractions, concessions, and decorations. Essentially, it’s the FastPass+ of Magic Kingdoms, letting you skip queues and access extra perks, only the costs greatly outweigh the benefits in this case.
I dropped $10 to grab 240 gems, most of which I then converted into magic—but magic really doesn’t go very far in the game. Clearing the fog away from one area of the map required 1,850 magic pretty early in the game, and that’s several dollars’ worth if you buy the gems outright and convert them.
Essentially, it’s seven or eight bucks just to add a little extra useable space to your map. It’s not only expensive, but it feels unnecessary: a day of waiting and completing smaller tasks at that point in the game would probably net you the same amount of magic.
Elsewhere, I was tempted into spending $4 on a special promotion for the Pluto Pack, which immediately unlocked the iconic dog as a character and granted me 60 gems, to boot. When the billing came through, it was listed as a “Phenomenal Bundle Pack”—surely one of the most delusional things I’ve ever seen in a freemium game.
Disney World might be a ideal setting for this kind of game, but so was Jurassic World. Just like that tepid tie-in from a couple years back, Disney Magic Kingdoms is too mired in the slow-paced monotony of a free-to-play business model, and overly focused on selling in-app purchases to “help” players overcome its own artificial restrictions.
It’s a shame, because Gameloft’s effort here is cute and whimsical, and delivers a nice sense of the characters and source material. With the right tweaks to cut down on the runarounds and better reward players for their time, it could prove worthwhile. Then again, it’s hard to have much faith in a developer that deems a bundle pack with a digital dog and a handful of gems a “phenomenal” value at any price.
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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.