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).
Rovio, once the king of iOS gaming and the creative force behind millions of licensed Angry Birds shirts and doodads, is on a serious downswing right now. The studio reported a 73-percent drop in profits last year, due to a number of reasons: Its flagship brand is losing steam, the merchandise isn't selling, and its free-to-play efforts simply aren't competing with current App Store heavyweights.
Candy Crush Saga and Clash of Clans reportedly pulled in at least $1 billion apiece last year, yet attempts to bring Angry Birds into the free-to-play space haven't been able to recreate the success of earlier paid entries. Angry Birds Stella Pop is the latest attempt, and it shows that Rovio's strategy at this point is more or less, "If you can't beat 'em, clone 'em"—Stella Pop is not only a spinoff of a spinoff (of last fall's Angry Birds Stella), but also a copy of a copy.
This bubble-popping affair is built in the mold of arcade classic Bust-a-Move (a.k.a. Puzzle Bobble), but really, it's a near-identical copy of Bubble Witch 2 Saga—from the interface to the power-ups, map screen, and more. Sad of a statement as it is about the series' current mindset, Angry Birds Stella Pop remains an enjoyable freemium game, besting its rival on production values while delivering amusing gameplay—but also difficulty spikes and arbitrary waiting periods.
Angry Birds Stella Pop replicates the core design of Taito's excellent Bust-a-Move, seen on numerous platforms over the last two decades—including an aging paid version and a current free-to-play iteration on iOS. Using a bubble launcher at the bottom of the screen, you'll shoot the spheres upwards in the hopes to matching at least three like-colored bubbles together on the screen. Generally, the goal is to clear the board using a limited number of bubbles.
Candy Crush maker King copied that design for the Bubble Witch Saga series, and it's last summer's fluffier-looking sequel that Angry Birds Stella Pop uses for its template. It's uncanny: aside from the license swap, the game and interface are identical. The game screen looks the same, down to the power-up placement (and the power-ups themselves), the win conditions and various level objectives are all very familiar, and even the map screen is carbon-copied here. And in a twist that's likely coincidental, yet still mind-boggling, the heroine of Bubble Witch 2 Saga is named Stella. Seriously.
If you didn't know better, you might think that King was contracted to make an Angry Birds version of its very popular bubble-popper. In fact, I fully expected the birds to be dressed up like wizards, with the pigs patterned as fantasy ogres. No such luck. Still, if I had to pick between the two games based on App Store listings, I'd take Stella Pop in a heartbeat. King's generic aesthetic is handily topped by Rovio's boldly colored and lavishly animated offering.
And despite its questionable origins, Angry Birds Stella Pop is an enjoyable bubble-popper. There's nice variety in the level objectives—clear the screen with limited bubbles, race a timer to the top, smash a pig-centric puzzle that spins with each hit, etc.—and the controls feel more responsive than in Bubble Witch. And it doesn't come off as mindless, either: There's skill required to get through many of these stages. Well, right up until the point in which freemium balancing butts its head.
The free-to-play model at work in Angry Birds Stella Pop is a very familiar one, reminiscent of those seen in games like Candy Crush Soda Saga and Peggle Blast. It hangs in the background for a while, letting you play a solid opening stretch of the game, right up until the point where you struggle. And it's then that you realize that the odds aren't tuned in your favor. Which is neither surprising nor even particularly devious: It's just the nature of many free-to-play games.
Stella Pop's energy system gives you five hearts to work with, which take 30 minutes apiece to regenerate. Lose a few level attempts in a short span of time and you'll be waiting to play, bugging Facebook friends for free lives, or spending premium in-game coins to carry on. That's pretty typical. Also typical (and frustrating) are the difficulty spikes—the levels that seem like they can only be cleared with the perfect lineup of colored bubbles, which rarely pans out. Maybe they're not impossible, but they stick out like sore thumbs and seem expertly crafted to drive you crazy.
So what do you do, aside from bashing your head against the virtual wall over and over again? Well, you spend precious coins to purchase a few extra bubbles, an additional stretch of time, or special power-up bubbles. Do so and you can push ahead. But there's a cost, of course: Coin bundles range from $1 to $35, and the "popular" $3 bundle gives you about four continues worth, or the ability to fully refill your lives five times.
Stella Pop also makes you wait for 24 hours to access a new world of levels, unless you annoy your Facebook buds or spend coins. Ultimately, I spent about $9 on coins, and used those to continue on in various ways: bash the barriers, get an extra few shots at finishing a stage, or continue on when my lives were tapped. I was happy to no longer be stuck, but there's little satisfaction in paying your way out of problems—particularly when they feel so contrived.
If I weren't testing out the in-app purchases for this article, I'm certain that I wouldn't spend a penny on Angry Birds Stella Pop. That's not to say that it's a bad game, but it doesn't have that rousing appeal or addictive clinch that can make me pull out my wallet.
Enjoyed solely as a free game, it's a worthwhile diversion: Play a few rounds here and there and soak in the light puzzle gameplay and stellar production values. But when a barrier presents itself, it's best to take the time to do something else. Rovio may not have made an original game here by any stretch of the imagination, but at least it made an enjoyable one. It's just not quite gripping enough to warrant paying past the prompts.