Choices, Episode

There are several thriving brands of inteThe_Freshman,_Book_1ractive fiction on mobile that tend not to get a huge amount of coverage in the traditional IF community, despite their large player base. They’re placing well on the app store, though, and GDC talks increasingly cover them — so I went and had a look at a couple of the main contenders.

I should preface further discussion by saying that I have occasionally worked with mobile IF companies that might be considered to be competitors in this space. I did not spend any money on either of these games, though this does not mean I had review copies: they’re free to play with pay-to-unlock options in some places (and I’ll come back to that later).

Choices, from Pixelberry Studios, is a library app containing a bunch of different stories aimed at teenage girls. The top promoted story is The Freshman, and details the main character’s dating options in college.

IMG_0308It’s immensely trope-y stuff, especially if you got your tropes from 1955: running into a boy and having your luggage pop open, revealing (gasp) a bra! Exploring your suite, meeting suite-mates, and deciding whether to wear a bikini in your first encounter with your classmates. Playing getting-to-know-you games, deciding whether to drink or not. At least in the first few chapters, it’s an entirely social and low-friction vision of what college might be like, without the intellectual challenge, the self-discovery of being away from home and family, or the stickier kinds of interpersonal conflict.  (Perhaps it gets more complex later — I only played the first few chapters.)

Gender roles are stereotypical, and although I was able to choose a black protagonist, it looked as though the character art still featured her mom as a middle-class white lady at one point — which is of course possible, but it didn’t feel like an intentional storytelling choice at the time.

crownflameVanilla college is not the only option. Choices also offers several other books. There’s Rules of Engagement, in which the protagonists are aboard a cruise ship and forced to try to find love there thanks to the terms of a wealthy grandmother’s will. While that sounds pretty silly, I’m not sure it’s really a lot more ridiculous than many a romance novel I’ve encountered.

The Crown and the Flame is a fantasy story of a dispossessed princess and the male sidekick who remains loyal to her: there are still some romance choices, but also strands of combat, espionage, and political alliance. I managed to get myself killed a couple of times, but the game allows you to rewind instantly to the last choice point and pick another direction, so my political bumbling didn’t cost me too dearly.

The gameplay is reminiscent of a visual novel. Each area has its own background illustration; in-game text mostly takes the form of short pieces of dialogue from the various characters, shown in a box with the character’s face and expression visible as well. And, as in a dating-focused VN, the games take a lot of their initial startup time on introducing the cast of characters. On the other hand, the Choices stories felt comparatively linear, and they’re broken up into short chapters — targeted to the kind of constrained attention span one often has when interacting with a mobile device. And, unsurprisingly, the gameplay in The Crown and the Flame is nowhere near as complicated as in something like Long Live the Queen: the player isn’t necessarily expected to replay, let alone replay multiple times to find a survival strategy.

Then there’s the monetization.

I mentioned these are free to play, but you have to watch an ad (usually user acquisition for some other app) before each new chapter. Then there’s the in-game currency: some choices unlock only if you have “diamonds,” which you can buy at £1.99 for a pack of 20. You can also earn diamonds one at a time by completing chapters of the story, but you’ll accrue these so slowly that it becomes frustrating; and aggravation is of course the primary driver of a free-to-play mechanic.

Choices uses its monetization to get out of having to balance the gameplay (or, perhaps, as a form of balance). Often there’s one option that’s clearly the best tactically or the most interesting for your character, and it costs money:

(Yes, that means it costs £1.99 to get it on with Chris. I assume. I haven’t played that branch, so maybe you just go back to your room and look at etchings.)

IMG_0324

Different stories use this feature in different ways. In The Freshman, your diamond unlocks tend to be for things that make your character behave in (mildly) sexually adventurous ways: wearing a bikini! Going upstairs with Chris! In Rules of Engagement, at least for the first few chapters, they’re more about getting your character to speak her mind to the ex who cheated on her and other unpleasant characters.

In The Crown and the Flame, diamond unlocks buy you new weapons, give you ally and combat advantages, and allow you to spare another character from being killed. If you choose not to pay real-world currency to save his life, you get a couple of beats of his begging for mercy and tragic unhappiness before you move on with the story.

I half-expected to be given an “are you really sure you want to leave Prince Tevan to his death? 40 diamonds to change your mind!!” option, but the game doesn’t do that; instead, it just sets you up with this memory of guilt so that, presumably, the next time you’re asked to pony up for an NPC’s life, you’ll do so.

But, in general, spending real world money substitutes in for the reasons why we might not take the best or most outspoken strategy in real life: we’re afraid we might get killed in the process of trying to save Prince Tevan. We feel too inhibited to tell our cheating ex how we really feel. We’re not sure yet whether we trust Chris enough to take the relationship to the next level. IF can do this with in-game resources as well, of course, but being asked for actual currency adds a stinger.

I’m not sure whether to be amused or faintly appalled by this strategy. It makes things a lot easier from an authoring perspective, because finding ways to make all the options equally appealing can be a lot of work in some scenarios. Not all games or brands bother with perfect balance every time, of course: while Choice of Games is committed to balanced gameplay and edits rigorously to achieve it, Failbetter has been known to play with egregiously unfair choices as a storytelling feature: see the entire Mr Eaten storyline. And Failbetter does also have premium choices in some storylines, though those are typically about opening up whole additional chunks of content.

EpisodeEpisode, from PocketGems, occupies a similar space to Choices. The art, at least in the featured stories, is more animated, but the quality is not as good overall. The writing varies quite a lot, and I typically found it less engaging than the writing in Choices chapters. There aren’t pre-episode ads, but you do get offers in many episodes to share an image from the game on your Twitter or Instagram account.

On the other hand, some of the stories play on established IP, such as Pretty Little Liars or Mean GirlsEpisode operates on a more-is-more principle:

There have been over 2.5 billion episodes viewed on Episode so far, which adds up to over 47,000 years of combined viewing time! We’ve also opened up our storytelling platform and have the world’s largest community of interactive stories and storytellers, with over 5.5 million registered creators and 45,000 stories.

Like Choices, they monetize individual options. Do you want to “get styled” before meeting up with other girls in Pretty Little Liars? They’ll like you better if you do! 10 diamonds!

Perhaps it’s true to the subject matter of these particular stories, but I found myself noting that, in the pieces I played, Episode‘s monetized options often basically invited the player to pay money in exchange for attractiveness and popularity — a message young women already encounter quite often.

12 thoughts on “Choices, Episode

  1. A key thing to note here is that Choices and Episode each make zillions of dollars a year. https://www.appannie.com/apps/ios/top/ says that Episode is the 23rd top-grossing app across all of the apps in the iOS Store (games and otherwise), and Choices is ranked 42nd. They’re both reliably ranked in the top 50 grossing. I don’t know exactly how much each of them makes, but I’m pretty sure they each make more in a year than Infocom made in its entire lifetime.

    Another thing to note is that it’s quite common to find that a story in Choices or Episodes has only one ending. (I think they don’t ALL have just one ending, but most do.) The level of branching is way lower than what you see even in most dating-based visual novels.

    At GDC 2016, PocketGems Creative Manager Cass Phillipps presented her data showing that players basically don’t replay their games and “retain” (continue to play) just as much without branching the story. http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1023072/All-Choice-No-Consequence-Efficiently

    The whole business makes me want to give Elaine Welteroth, editor of Teen Vogue, a budget to go do the same thing, but, ah, better.

  2. It may be interesting to check out “City of Love: Paris”. I don’t know if I’d say it’s SUPER different from Choices/Episodes, other than having surprisingly high production values, but its monetization strategy is really interesting. It’s based on super-aggressive energy timers that recharge daily, rather than premium choices. Being a free-to-play player means only getting to play for 2-3 minutes per day, which is a really interesting design move.

  3. I feel like there’s not much of a interest from IF because the lack of creative writing or gameplay from Choices/Episodes styled mobile titles. Also there’s the iAP component which would lock out players with more limited means and general audience.

  4. I half-expected to be given an “are you really sure you want to leave Prince Tevan to his death? 40 diamonds to change your mind!!” option, but the game doesn’t do that; instead, it just sets you up with this memory of guilt so that, presumably, the next time you’re asked to pony up for an NPC’s life, you’ll do so.

    I’m not sure whether to be amused or faintly appalled by this strategy.

    I’m reminded of a virtual-pet game for kids (I will leave it unnamed) where several weeks in, quite intentionally, the game would make the pet sick. The pet would die without medicine. Of course, the medicine cost real-life money.

    I’m going to go with “appalled”. This is Black Mirror-level exploitation of people (probably a lot of them minors) for money.

    • Wow, that virtual pet example is pretty disturbing.

      Personally I’m ambivalent about the original example Emily describes – it’s not an approach I’d take, but I’d file it under crude and cheesy more than outright appalling. Most players presumably aren’t unduly attached to the character, and the subsequent guilt-tripping sounds more like an annoyance than anything else.

      The virtual pet one though, that definitely crosses a line for me as a developer. Manipulating kids in that fashion is way beyond the pale.

  5. While I generally hate F2P games, something interesting happens in Choices because of this model. I refuse to pay real money for diamonds (the in game currency). The average price of a special option is 15-20 diamonds. So, I have to read 20 new chapters to earn 20 diamonds, which takes weeks. It makes me really weigh which extra bit of story I want to read. In regular CYOA, I could just go back and choose every option, making every option the same value. I suppose it’s not much different than a longer story like Choice of Games writes, where choosing a different option late in the game requires completely replaying the story (rather than finger-cheating in a CYOA book), but that would still just take a couple hours instead of weeks.

    Unfortunately, none of the characters or story options in Choices really compelled me and made me regret the road not taken. The characters all seem to be very simple and generic, and the options don’t actually branch the story significantly, as you observed.

    I do like their art and interface production values, though. I think we could use a bit more of that. I also like that they are Visual Novels (basically) which DON’T try to emulate VN’s Japanese roots.

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  9. I think appalled is the only reaction to this strategy, IMO. Irrespective of the quality (or lack of) in the title, this is pretty obvious cold-blooded dopamine-based manipulation of the players for the purpose of maximizing profit from a minority of users. It seems right out of the freemium playbook (of which I’ve read unfortunately all too much).

    I am not a fan of the way Fallen London is monetized (although I’m a big fan of the game), but for all that I don’t like it, I don’t think Failbetter crosses that line into the unethical world where game development essentially becomes a drug-peddling business.

    Sadly, even if one launched a product that was better in writing and production values than something like Choices, it would stand no chance of eclipsing it without resorting to similarly addiction-based strategies.

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