In any puzzle-like game the hints or helpful bonuses must doled out on a timer or players are likely to abuse the system. In mobile games, the hints are usually placed behind 30 second advertisements, using our natural hatred of advertising as a safeguard against abuse. It’s a natural fit.
Even a natural fit like this can be ruined by overzealousness, though. Too many ads punish a player who’s already stuck and frustrated. Yet as with everything in life, there’s a way to do it wrong and a way to do it right. It all comes down to presentation and pacing.
The Quest Keeper
The Quest Keeper is a kind-of-sort-of endless runner through a dungeon-style obstacle course filled with spikes, trap doors, locked gates, buzzsaws, moats, flamethrowers, and more. Throughout the course, there are treasure chests filled with gold, and you can use that gold to upgrade your equipment, each of which gives you a new ability or affords new protections:.A new staff might automatically lower gates, a new shirt could protect against blades, new shoes will let you jump, etc. That gold can also be used to unlock more levels, which are always themed around a new sort of danger (spiders, skeletons, and so on).
It’s a fun game, but the important takeaway from this description is that there’s a lot to buy. Naturally, you can spend real money to get a boatload of extra gold, but I’m not interested in microtransactions, I’m interested in the advertisements. Watching an ad nets you 50 gold, which isn’t much, but it’s nothing to scoff at either. Some early equipment costs just 150 gold. That’s three commercials, 90 seconds of your life at most. It’s fast and easy money, but it’s also only available as a quick shortcut, and never forced on the player.
The “ad for gold” button only appears when looking at an item that you can’t afford. If you can afford an item, its price in shown in gold and that’s the only option. The game thus only promotes its advertisement-shortcuts when they’re needed, and it never forces you to watch anything. It presents its ads as a choice, always optional and never intrusive.
The game doesn’t limit how many ads you can watch, so you could, if you really wanted to, watch multiple ads until you can afford the most expensive item. However, at that point the shortcut button disappears. This is how the game preserves its economy:.You can shortcut your way to the top, but you can’t become obscenely rich though those shortcuts. They exist to give you a quick boost in gold, a fast means of grabbing those 30 coins you need to buy that new staff, but they don’t exist to give you an unfair advantage in the game’s economy.
The game trusts that players will use this feature sparingly. It allows for abusive behavior, simply watching ads and buying items without ever playing the game proper, but it certainly doesn’t encourage this. And who in their right mind would play like that anyways? We hate advertisements.
The economy of the The Quest Keeper banks on this fact.
Bonza is a crossword jigsaw puzzle. You’re presented with a completed crossword puzzle, but the tiles are cut up and scrambled. It’s your job to reassemble the crossword based on a clue.
It’s the kind of game where you can stare at the screen for several minutes at a time, waiting for inspiration to strike. Hints are therefore a lifesaver. Each hint will reveal one word of the puzzle, sometimes this can provide the push that helps you solve the whole thing, and sometimes you feel back at square one, starting at the jumble hoping for it to assemble itself.
Of course there’s, again, an in-game economy of coins. You earn five coins for every completed puzzle, but a hint costs 35 coins. Hints are thus a major purchase, not something you can splurge on at a whim. If this were the only way to get a hint they would be prohibitively expensive, and you’d run the risk of getting stuck in a spiral of defeat: I’ve spent all my coins, but I can’t guess this puzzle, so either I go online for the answer or I just give up and play another game.
Bonza’s solution is to offer you free hint, placed behind an ad and a timer*. It seems to me that you’re given about 2-3 hints per puzzle on a cooldown timer of a couple minutes, but once you burn through that lot, you have to pay some coins. This allows us to be stingy with our coins at the cost of our time, but also prevents us from abusing the system. The game wants to help you, but it doesn’t want you to get complacent. It still wants you to think about each puzzle, and would prefer if you found the solution for yourself. The hint is a necessary concession (some of the word puzzles revolve around esoteric subjects, consisting of words I’d never think to put together), and the ads are meant to dissuade the use of such hints use.
The ad and hint becomes a strategic choice for help now at the possible expense of help later. It’s no longer an interruption. It’s a tool used to progress.
(Note: Between the time that I originally wrote this and the time of it’s posting, Bonza had an update that essentially removes the cooldown timer for hints. I think this is a bad design choice. You can now watch one ad after another with no wait in between, and ,thus, there’s no incentive to actually struggle with the puzzle. Abuse is easy. I think it’s still worth praising the game for the balance that it struck before the update, but now it has become an example of what not to do, an overzealousness for the sake of simplicity and ease.)
Both of these games (at one point in time) turn their ads into tools for progress, then limit their use to prevent us from abusing that progression. They embrace this necessity of mobile gaming by treating it like any other shortcut tool that we’d have at our disposal in any other game. They’re tied to bonuses to make us want them, then limited to prevent abuse.
Ads can be helpful when they’re treated like a limited resource.