Playing in the “free” games arena:
After I joined Facebook, a number of years ago, some friends invited me to play online games and for about a year I played Farmville. I eventually found that the addictive nature of the game was using up far too much of my time and distracting me from other things, so I deleted my farm and kept away from such games for a while. Now, having retired and being much more confined to home due to health issues, I decided to try a new one called Airport City marketed by Russian company Game Insight. Both of these games fall into an ever expanding genre of games marketed as “free to play”. I am going to use Airport City to illustrate the characteristics of these games, which are common to most of them, and to explore why they can be both pleasurable and painful. I will share some of my experiences and hopefully help some of you avoid the poor strategies I have employed in the past.
Airport City: Free To Fly
I don’t claim to be any kind of gaming expert, rather someone who enjoys doing something relatively mindless in order to relax and unwind, and these games work mainly by mouse clicks or taps on a screen with no complicated set key strokes to remember. People of a “certain age” generally believe that games are aimed at children and young people but, from observation, they are widely played by adults including people like me who didn’t touch a computer until we reached our 40s and 50s.
Disclaimer: I have no connection, or affiliation, with Game Insight other than being a player of Airport City. It is convenient to use this game as an illustrative example because it is the one I am currently playing. In my experience all free to play games employ common techniques to attract new players and keep them interested (hooked!). As they say in TV programmes – “Other games are available folks!”
Platforms, Instructions and Rules
Whilst there were a few of these games available in the pre- iPhone era, it is mobile devices that have sparked the rapid growth in this market. First on Apple products then on Android with many of them having a Facebook integration so you could login and play the game through the social media platform, no matter which device you were using. There is generally no traditional game software to install so you can play anywhere, even in an internet café. The mobile device’s ability to cheaply handle micro payments is another vital component for the industry – “Free to Play” is probably better named “Free but likely to cost” – more about this a bit later. It is always incredibly easy to sign up for a game and get started. All the game controls are generally in view on the main landscape which can be scrolled around using the mouse or touch screen. Airport City follows this pattern with the whole game viewed on one scrollable screen with pop up displays for most functions.
When it comes to instructions and rules, these do not stand out because almost all the games “hold your hand” and guide you through the process, often throughout the whole game – so you don’t need to learn or memorise anything. In fact the first thing you need to know is that you will constantly be “led” into playing the game their way. This brings me to my first TIP – take control of your game as soon as you can and learn the things that you should, or should not, let the game lead you into.
Game Play in Airport City
The basic premise of most games is that you are building something, and earning rewards though gameplay that help you continue to build as well as adding components or features. The “Something” may be an army, a navy, a country, a world or, as in this case an airport alongside the City that it resides in. You will almost always start with some basics already set and you are quickly presented with a series of tasks which help you learn how to erect buildings, obtain aircraft, build runways, roads, houses, and businesses necessary to fuel game play. They don’t give you a blank canvas because they want to introduce the fun elements very quickly and get you involved. I would say that from signing into the game for the first time to launching your first flight, takes only a few minutes.
The next psychological step, which will be after an hour or so of game play, is to motivate you by introducing you to the concept of neighbours and gifting. At first of course it is just you in the game but they will quickly add your first friend/neighbour (synonymous terms in these games) which is a game account they have created, contrived to show just about every building and aeroplane that you can ever obtain. It is colourful and exciting. During the early game play they will have allowed you to progress quite quickly so that this vast city and airport looks as if it will be within your reach. TIP – approach the game realistically and know that you will need to be patient when it comes to developing some aspects of your game.
Currency used in the Game – Earn or Purchase
As well as an initial stock of buildings etc. they will also often start you off with a supply of their trading currency – in this case it is Airport Cash (notes) and Coins. These are earned/collected at vastly different rates through gameplay and can be used to purchase items that are often unique to each currency. Rarely can you exchange currencies and this is the case with airport city. Currencies can also be purchased for for real cash. TIP – Make no mistake you will be encouraged to spend real cash at almost every turn in the game, find the patience to wait to complete building and tasks sometimes over several days.
It is 90% certain that everyone at some time will purchase currency but don’t rush into it, take time to work out the real value of things so that you use it effectively. TIP – where cash is concerned NEVER buy at the normal price – all these games run special offers which rotate fairly often watch the progress of offers to work out the optimum time to make a purchase. In this game a 3 for the price of one offer comes up every few weeks.
Airport City is great fun and a lot of effort goes into developing, not only the basic game, but the constant introduction of new quests and features that helps to keep it fresh and interesting. These purchases are the only income that the developers have so if everyone stuck to playing totally free the genre would die a quick death and we would be back to buying packaged games which these days can cost £80 or even more. Coins are earned at a frequent rate and are the day to day trading currency. Notes are earned very slowly, you are given one each time you level up and very occasionally you will find tasks that reward you with them. Notes on the other hand can be used to purchase additional things, some of which will help you accumulate coins more quickly. TIP – Most users recommend purchasing only notes for real cash as they represent the best value
Although not strictly currency you will also earn experience points, these qualify you to move from one level to the next which gives you game cash and a wider range of features. Stars are also awarded based on the number of times you fly to each destination and give you things like rights to buy different aircraft. Usually there are regular consumables which you get a constant feed of throughout the game – in this case, things such as fuel and passengers. You can often increase the quantity or frequency of these by building special items, such as a fuel depot.
TIP – Don’t let yourself be misled by the pictures you see, as you harvest coins from buildings these animations are designed to make you feel you are collecting a shed load each time you grab some by clicking on a building
Tasks and Quests
During the game, tasks will pop up and then be left in a list until you complete them – this is their major tool for leading you in the direction they want you to take. Sometimes part, or all of a task, will need the next level, a larger plane or a new building to complete it so they act as an incentive towards greater achievement. TIP – Remember that you do not always have to complete tasks. I have about 30 different task buttons in my list at the moment, many of which have been there several weeks, and I may choose never complete them. Think about each task and make a note of the ones that you want to do – check on the rewards offered and on what you need to do to complete them. This may sound logical but, because these form your guided help in the beginning, it is easy to think they must be done. Sometimes they offer special quests that are available to complete for a set number of days – again tackle the ones that interest you but remember, none of them are compulsory. Be aware if you play them that you will need to devote much of your game play to them in order to complete them in the allotted time span.
TIP – don’t rush! The game will constantly offer to speed things up – for a price – they will probably force you to try this with your initial stock of cash – after that wait until the building/flight is complete or you will waste lots of coins / notes for no good purpose
Neighbours and Forums – the social side
When I used to play Farmville I would invite friends to join the game through Facebook, so you pretty much knew who you were playing with. In Airport city they use internal codes and usernames so that you do not, by default, come into direct contact with your neighbours other than through game play. Neighbours form two important resources; firstly you can send each other gifts – you need this because as well as coin payment most buildings require you to also collect a number of items before you can start using the building to earn more coins. You do get items randomly from flights but having neighbours send you gifts is a quicker more reliable method. There is no point in adding hundreds of friends because you can only send a limited number of gifts per day and, if you don’t send gifts out regularly, the inward flow slows down as well. You can also visit a number of neighbour’s games each day and collect coins and passengers from some of their buildings (without affecting their supply) TIP – be selective about neighbours you accept. It is generally best to have people who are around the same level as you, because your needs are more likely to be mutual.
TIP – Joining one of the many online forums or Facebook groups is a great way to find, neighbours, it also makes it easier to find out what items your neighbours are seeking and tell them what you need.
Forums are a good place to start right at the beginning, maybe before you join a game, as they often provide comprehensive guides to features written by members and you are able to gauge what most people like/dislike about any game. As with all forums, those who contribute most get the most out of them and they are usually the place to get help faster than the official support.
It is as true in these games as it is in life generally, that what you get out of them will be directly proportionate to the time and effort you put in. I would recommend that you visit your game, albeit briefly, at least once a day to maximise gifting and special offers. Most people will visit several times a day and others keep the game open much of the day. I have two screens and the game is open in my second screen as I type this. I just pop over to it quickly when I see something needs doing. One of the features is that it will invite you to land guest planes – not only are these a good source of coin income, they also drop extra passengers, extra fuel, and random items that you may be collecting.
Most games have a ticketing system and I imagine a large part of their costs are maintaining worldwide support, but as with almost all support services these days you can expect some variance in quality and I would not normally use them for a minor issue. However, when I lost my entire game (three months worth of game play) due to a PC issue they restored it for me from their backup servers in less than 24 hours. If all you want to do is complain about the gameplay, or the cost of items etc., then I would suggest using the suggestion forums please, as this is something support staff will not be able to help you with. In any event, if you are unhappy then you can vote with your feet anytime – which brings me neatly to the last section
When and How to Extract Yourself from a Game
This game, and others like it, are great fun and quite rewarding, albeit with some occasional optional expense. Unlike the traditional PC games, there is generally no natural end – at least not one that anyone could reach without massive investment of cash. However, there will come a time that you want to leave the game, either because you have found something new or because you (or your family!) are concerned about the time you are spending on it. If you think you are becoming addicted then these are my tips for getting out – Make a clean break, accept it was fun while it lasted, accept you have already recouped any investment in terms of fun, and delete your game completely. That way you will not be tempted back a few weeks later. If you have good will power, or genuinely think you may want to go back sometime then you can usually leave the game inactive and return when ready – you might want to check with their support as to how long they will keep the game inactive (you don’t own the game, they do, and unused games must take up valuable server space. If you have built up a circle of friends/neighbours in the game, let them know you are leaving or taking a break, otherwise they may carry on sending gifts to a non-player.
In an article like this I can only scratch the surface of gameplay. These games can be relaxing and give pleasure but they can also be addictive for some and my experience says that can often cause pain.
Please add any comments, questions and even your own experience in the world of “free to play”.