A Christmas miracle
Sometime back in the 1990s, some idiot somewhere decided that games should stop being fun, and become more like work. That is, having paid (at that time) £40+ for a shiny new game, you were only allowed to play a tiny fraction of it until the developers felt you'd "earned" the right to "unlock" bits of it that for no good reason you weren't allowed to access from the off.
(Never mind that you'd already "earned" that right by GOING OUT AND DOING A REAL JOB TO MAKE THE MONEY YOU BOUGHT THE BASTARD THING WITH IN THE FIRST PLACE.)
Fortunately, somewhere around 2001 everyone got completely sick of the idea of being made to plough through hours of gruelling, joyless slog in order to be allowed to enjoy the games they'd bought, all those developers were happily beaten to death with jagged rocks, and the ugly blight of "unlocking" was banished forever amid scenes of great celebration across the land.
Unfortunately, the videogames business being what it is (a collection of useless morons with the memory span of a brain-damaged fruit fly), some detestable pisswit soon stopped drooling down his bib for just long enough to go "DURRR WAAHH WHY NOT MAKE GAMERS HAVE TO WORK LIKE MISERABLE SLAVES FOR PLAY GAME AGAIN?" before cpiously soiling himself, and soon everything was ruined once more.
Which brings us neatly to the initially tragic but ultimately heartwarming tale of Time Geeks: Find All!
Now, we all love eBoy graphics, right? Nothing says "21st century" more than those lovely neo-retro isometric pixel landscapes, so what could be more welcome than a game that involved simply having to pore at length over a bunch of them? (Indeed, it's an idea that someone's already had on the App Store, with a different slant, as it were.)
Time Geeks, which came out in November, was just such a game – a fairly standard object-spotter with numerous modes, united by the common link of finding various things in a gorgeous eBoy-style picture. The problem, as alert viewers may already have guessed, is that most of those modes were spitefully hidden away behind locked doors.
And what that meant was that instead of the main game being an enjoyable thing to play, it became work. So History Mode – the central hub, and the only bit the game deigned to let you into when you bought it – was instantly transformed from being a pleasurable experience to enjoy, into an obligation and an obstacle which had to be be resentfully overcome just to feel as if you actually owned the whole game, rather than a piddly fraction of it.
You couldn't just enjoy its 100 challenges (spread across eight pictures) on their own merits, or replay them for maximum stars, because you knew you'd got to work through them all before the game would let you get near any of the other five modes. And of course, once you've finally done it, you no longer want to go back and replay them because you've already been through every scene nine or ten times and you're sick of the sight of them.
(Which was really sad, because they're all very well done – beautifully drawn, just the right size, with just the right amount of things interfering with your view and well-judged time limits for the three star ratings.)
The game grudgingly unlocked something every 10 challenges or so, and when you were hoping it was going to be Arcade mode or one of the seven slight-but-addictive minigames, but instead you got a new set of items for the poxy toybox (with which you can build your own little island, to no purpose whatsoever – had you been able to turn it into a level for other people to play it could have been fantastic), it was all you could do not to hurl your iPod against the wall, far less face being forced through another 10 levels with no idea if they'd unlock anything good or not.
Had Time Geeks been a game where you could just dip into any level you felt like, play them in any order to avoid getting bored of looking at the same picture a dozen times in a row, break off for some minigame fun or play with your pixel Lego set whenever you wanted, we'd have been looking at something as hugely likeable as 1000 – Find 'Em All! and a hearty recommendation.
But what developer Ivanovich Games had managed to do instead was take that big package of gaming fun, lock it in a cupboard like a bitter, angry stepdad and and turn it into a series of strictly-regimented chores, as if the gamer wasn't someone who'd given them money in order to be entertained but a hapless lab rat trudging through maze after maze for the occasional tiny food pellet.
"You are idiots, Ivanovich Games, and I would never tire of kicking you in the groin", said all intelligent people. (While, of course, most iOS gaming sites went "OOH THE GRAFIX IZ CUTE SCORE IS 99%")
BUT! It is Christmas, and so this story has a fairytale ending. Because the world of gaming in 2010, due to the sparkly magic that is digital distribution, is a far better place than the world of gaming pre-2006 or so. (And perhaps a far better place than it'll be by 2012, when the slack-jawed penny-pinchers of the industry will probably have found a way to wreck it all by charging per play or making downloaded games expire after a month or something.)
On hearing the reaction of the intelligent people, the game's creator Ivan Cascales bravely engaged them in discussion, and concluded they had a point. He went back and tweaked the game to unlock most of the modes from the start, and because we live in the twinkly fUtUReWoRLd, everyone's copy of the game miraculously transformed into the new improved one the next time they logged into iTunes, at no extra cost.
The normal levels were no longer a chore to be resentfully struggled past in order to access the other stuff, but a pleasing diversion you could dip in and out of whenever you like, breaking them up with a minigame, a few rounds of Arcade mode, or a simple relaxing stroll around the game’s idyllic locations whenever you fancied a change of pace.
Like in all the best teen movies (not THOSE kinds of teen movies, madam!), the nerdy, socially-dysfunctional geek had suddenly blossomed into a beautiful swan. Is that right? It doesn’t sound right. But the zany thing is, the swan keeps getting more beautiful all the time.
As well as fixing design flaws, Time Geeks has also had updates adding whole new levels, and yet more are promised. And now, because it's Christmas, you can even buy that increasingly beautiful swan (and its bigger, even-prettier iPad-swan sister) for the reduced price of just 59p. And neverending free improvements, price reductions and expansions are the norm on the App Store, not the exception.
And that, chums, is why 2010 has been the year of sub-£2 gaming. Because 2010 was when the App Store really went crazy, and the year Xbox Indie Games adopted the same sort of impulse-pricing levels and saw sales rocket, and the year you could even occasionally pick up some pretty top-quality professional XBLA games for substantially less money than it cost to buy a Spectrum budget title in 1986.
It's the reason I've spent almost £400 buying iOS games since getting my first iPod in 2009 (and bear in mind that I also watch the freebie lists like a hawk and have snagged hundreds of games for nothing that I might well otherwise have paid for). I'm pretty certain that's the highest amount of my own money I've ever spent on games for a single format in my life, with the possible exception of the aforementioned Speccy.
The videogaming price wars have been long and savage. 2010 might just have been the year the tide turned.