Pokemon Shuffle is a Bad Microtransaction Game, But Not for the Reasons You Think
There was quite a bit of noise when Nintendo announced that Pokemon Shuffle would be free to download, but would include microtransactions. Some said the game "follows in the very worst traditions of manipulative, microtransaction-obsessed smartphone games". Others went for the more evocative: "there is nothing about this game that does not make it resemble a shady trench-coated fellow standing in a corner and whispering for you to come on over and check out his wares".
Want to see my jewels?
Pokemon Shuffle microtransactions allow you to buy jewels, which can then be traded for in-game currency or hearts. Game currency allows you to buy powerups to help you beat a particular match, such as disrupting a Pokemon's attack or giving you additional moves. Hearts are consumed when you start a match, so getting additional hearts allows you to play more. Hearts regenerate at a rate of one every twenty minutes or so, or you can convert one jewel for five hearts.
In my region a jewel costs $1.30 so the math works out like this:
$1.30 = 1 jewel = 5 hearts = 5 game matches = approx. 5 minutes of gameplay
That seems quite... steep. So it was with a bit of trepidation that I downloaded Pokemon Shuffle the other week. I've dabbled with the Candy Crush Sagas, but I've never found them engaging enough to play for more than a few weeks at a time. And certainly never thrilling enough to drop money on. But I'd just finished HuniePop and there was a match-three strategy-shaped hole in my life. Would I get sucked into the gotta-catch-'em-all mentality of Pokemon Shuffle and spend all my hard earned cash on adorable but pointless pixels?
Round head, big eyes, it's like it was made to be irresistibly cute!
Short answer: No.
Long answer: No, I haven't felt compelled to drop any cash on this game. Here's the reasons why.
Pokemon Shuffle is really easy
This is a seriously easy match-three game. You make matches by switching tiles from anywhere on the game board, not just adjacent tiles or ones in the same column/row. So the majority of the time you can make at least two matches at once by carefully picking your tiles. Since the majority of the games are untimed, you have all the time in the world to pick the best tiles to swap for maximum points. With this slow and unrestricted style of matching tiles, it’s really easy to do some serious damage to your opponent. Sometimes I'd knock an opponent pokemon's health in half with just one move.
Gotta match 'em all.
If you’re not sure what would be the best move, the game always suggests a pretty decent match for you. Pokemon Shuffle uses the now-familiar Pokemon types and their relative power in battles, but gone are the days when I used to carry around a printed pokemon attack effectiveness chart (don't judge me).
At the start of each stage just hit the 'Optimize' button and the game will select the most powerful of your Pokemon for that particular opponent. It wasn’t long before I had enough Pokemon to choose from that most stages could be fought with a super effective Pokemon (and some had up to three). Not long into the game, almost all matches I made were super effective, and I was finishing games with half my available moves still left.
Pokemon Shuffle also only uses four tiles per game, compared to the six standard tiles in Candy Crush Saga (from this point when I mention Candy Crush Saga I’m referring to it and all its clones, rather than just the game itself). This means there's more tiles of the same kind on the board, making matches easier and increasing the chance that newly fallen tiles with be the same as those already on the board and match themselves.
Combos like this would be more amazing if they didn't happen all the time.
I found the ease of the game means that you don't feel that compelled to keep playing. There's no one stage that keeps you stumped for hours (or days). Sure, you don't catch your Pokemon opponent every time, but the game lets you progress regardless. Candy Crush Saga has a carefully structured difficulty curve that lures you in with some easy wins and only tries to make you weep in frustration when you're well and truly hooked. Pokemon Shuffle just... lets you play. It’s a much more forgiving game.
More luck than skill
While simultaneously being easy to play, Pokemon Shuffle involves a big dollop of luck in its gameplay. The tile layouts for each stage are mostly randomly generated, so there's not the same strategic approach as in many Candy Crush Saga levels. I tried to play some games badly to trigger a 'buy more moves with a jewel' screen for this review, but I never managed to. Even when I played badly, I won. Hell, on some stages I even accidentally made a high score while playing badly. This is all due to luck and combos -- actual strategy plays very little part in this game.
Even when you do win a stage, whether you capture the opponent Pokemon is down to chance. Sure, finishing the stage with more moves improves your chance, as does using a great ball, but it's still all luck. Coming back with some different Pokemon can be more helpful in catching an opponent, rather than repeatedly playing the same stage.
While this need to capture new Pokemon might incite some people to buy jewels so they can play for longer, it's a long term strategy that's very different from the 'I almost got it, just one more try' mentality of Candy Crush Saga.
Those are some pretty good odds.
No impulse buying
Sure, Pokemon Shuffle asks if you would like to use a jewel to get some extra moves when you don't win a stage. Or if you try to play a stage when you have no hearts left, it'll ask you the same question. But there's no instant purchase involved, not like an Android device. You have to tap yes, that you would like to buy a jewel, then tap on what jewel purchase you would like to make, then tap yes again, and then your 3DS connects to the internet, signs in to the Nintendo Network, and loads the store.
This all takes time. In my case it takes about 45 seconds (my 3DS and router have a very antagonistic relationship). That's a pretty long cooldown period when stages themselves are 90 seconds or less. And at this point, you can only buy jewels if you already have credit on your Nintendo Network ID. If you don't, then expect to spend another few minutes tapping in credit card numbers and tapping 'agree' a lot.
This is a very, very big difference from the almost seamless in-app purchasing available through Google Play (my only other experience with microtransactions). There's a lot of time there for the adrenaline and the desire to keep playing to fade away. You could've even booted up another 3DS game in the time it took you to contemplate continuing with Pokemon Shuffle...
One other thing I’ve noticed is that the jewel purchase screen shows your current Nintendo Network balance, which introduces yet another point to make you stop and consider your purchase. Do you really need to buy a jewel if you only have a few dollars on your account? This is microtransactions in a very safe, hand-holding Nintendo way, much like their approach to in-game communication with other players or their heavily moderated Miiverse forums.
Good game, bad money-maker
I think Pokemon Shuffle is a decent match-three game which involves some nice strategy. But as a money-maker, it’s a bit of a dud. There’s very little in the gameplay to prompt you to fork out money, and even if you do get the urge, the purchasing system is so cumbersome that I can’t see many people going through with it. I’d be very surprised to hear of kids (or adults) racking up hundreds or thousands of dollars playing Pokemon Shuffle, because the game is clearly engineered to prevent that happening.
I don’t believe this trend will hold as Nintendo ventures into the world of freemium mobile games, but for now your dollars are relatively safe. So go catch ‘em all.