Wednesday, October 16, 2013

This is why EA sucks

Electronic Arts has the dubious distinction of being named the Worst Company in America for two years running by The Consumerist. The company, as The Consumerist notes on the page announcing the award, is known for "treating [their] customers like human piggy banks" and "[putting] out so many incomplete and/or broken games with the intent of getting [their] customers to pay extra for what they should have received in the first place." Their response, titled "We Can Do Better", doesn't really sound like they're terribly apologetic or inclined to change, let alone that they resort to blaming their award at least in part on anti-gay protests against their homosexual-gamer-friendly stance (simple things like allowing players to choose their gender and the gender of their in-game romantic interest). Indeed, they're still going down the same old familiar road of treating customers like piggy banks and releasing buggy code.

I've been playing their free-to-play game on my Windows Phone called Tetris Blitz. It is, quite simply, Tetris, turned into a game that is a little more touch-friendly, with some gameplay mechanics that encourage speed. You are given two minutes to play a round, with the goal of trying to attain the highest score possible in that time limit.

In order to make it work well on a touch screen and not have to precisely hit a virtual control pad to place blocks, Tetris Blitz simplifies things a bit by giving you a choice of final positions for your block. You simply tap the position where you want the block to rest, and the game does the work of sliding it down and rotating as necessary. It feels just a little cheap, as if they've "dumbed down" Tetris, but it does help enforce the idea of speed. There are ways to override the position — you can tap the "Cycle" button to show a different selection of landing positions, or you can tap and drag to move the white outline to a new position — but neither of these are terribly helpful when you're trying to race against the clock — there's no way to tell how many taps of "Cycle" will be required to get what you want, and it seems to take a bit to acknowledge that you are dragging and not just tapping for an abnormally long time.

During the game, if you clear a number of lines in quick succession, the game will start adding rows of bricks from the bottom of the screen, with one piece missing. During this "Frenzy mode", you can drop pieces into these missing holes to clear even more lines. Frenzy mode continues as long as you can keep clearing lines, giving you a chance to get some extra points. At the end of the time limit, a "Last Hurrah" play drops all bricks into any open holes on the screen, usually clearing another few lines. The game also adds power-ups to make things more interesting. Some power-ups will give you a score boost, and some will create or destroy blocks in different ways. Finishers are special abilities you can select that will automatically play when the game ends, giving you the potential to clear some extra lines or otherwise boost your score. Power-ups and Finishers are purchased using "coins", fairly standard in-game currency that you earn by playing or can purchase using real-world dollars, like most free-to-play games.

But the cost of these items are a little ridiculous.

A single game typically earns you less than 1,000 coins, depending on your score. (I usually get somewhere between 400 and 700 on the scores I get without using any power-ups or finishers.) Experience points can earn you levels, and each level can give you a coin bonus roughly, though not exactly, 100 times the level (I think I earned around 1,750 coins upon reaching level 18). A "Press Your Luck" style board (though with only prizes, no Whammies), for which you can earn a spin 4 hours after you've used them up, can earn you some extra coins as well (usually one or two thousand, though 25-, 50-, and 100-thousand scores are possible). However, a single use of a finisher (such as the one pictured to the right) can cost between 20,000 and 40,000 coins! To entice you to spend more coins, using finishers multiple games in a row gets you a discount (usually down to around 14,000 coins), but it's very easy to run out of coins if you're not paying attention. A potential hazard to this is how the buttons happen to be positioned. Again, if you look at the picture, you can see there isn't a whole lot of distance between the "Deploy" and "No Thanks" buttons, and the negative button is also substantially smaller than the positive. To the game's credit, it hasn't mistaken my tapping on "No Thanks" as a tap on the other button, and I haven't been particularly careful about it either.

Shown at the right is the store, where you can see the real craziness. The top of the list, "Bundles", are packs that contain batches of coins and a few uses of different power-ups and finishers. Then you have "Coins", containing bunches of coins from a modest $2 to a ridiculous $100. (I have to wonder how many of these large batches of currency sold for $50 and up are purchased on purpose, as opposed to an accidental tap or an errant click from a child — fortunately, on Windows Phone, purchases can be locked behind a wallet password.) Then come the "Upgrades". By default, in Tetris Blitz, you can "hold" one tetromino to play later instead of being forced to play them as they are dealt, and you get to see what the very next piece is. Here, in the store, you can alter that just a bit by buying the ability to hold up to 2 pieces, and to look ahead and see what the next 3 pieces are. They aren't major game changers, but considering the first costs $6 and the second $4, you could easily spend what I would consider more than fair price for the game just on these two little tweaks. (At least, I certainly wouldn't pay ten bucks for Tetris on the phone.) "Bonus Spins" just give you extra chances at the spin board (pictured left) without having to wait 4 hours per spin. (Each time you spin, that space is removed from the board, which resets every 48 hours; so 20 spins would guarantee you winning one of every prize on the board.) "Power-Ups" is where it gets really ridiculous. Each one costs an insane $6, except for one that is on sale for the week for half price. (Note that, for some reason, the "Sale" label is not on the power-up that is actually on sale — in the store picture, "Lucky Seven" is the one with the reduced price, even though it says "Multiplier" is on sale. A minor display glitch, I suppose.) For all ten power-ups, that would end up costing SIXTY DOLLARS. (If each power-up manages to go on sale, you could knock that down to a mere $30, spreading payment out over 10 weeks.) $60, for power-ups. And I'm not entirely sure you get to keep them. Tapping the "Power-Up of the Week" shows the screen pictured to the right, which includes the text "Add it to your collection now and use it FREE for the rest of the week!" I want to believe it means, when you buy it with cash, you don't have to use in-game coins to activate it that week, but you may have to use coins to activate it beyond that (even then, it doesn't seem like the cash purchase is all that useful, unless you really like playing that power up a lot); the cynical side of me thinks you only get to use it that week and have to pay cash again.

The final two entries are one to remove ads for only $5 (I guess ad revenue isn't worth that much to them, especially compared to the other prices listed), and an option to "Restore Previous Purchases", which, without any description available, I guess would make sure you got things you once paid for, if you had to reinstall or switch phones or something.

As far as bugs, the major one I found is that the game freezes quite often, anywhere from 2 to 15 seconds at a time, and occasionally freezing completely (and, on one occasion, freezing up the whole phone to where I had to pull the battery). I'm guessing it might have something to do with failing to tolerate network instability, as it happens much less when I'm connected to my home Wi-Fi compared to just running on the cellular network. The worst part about the freezing is, when the game recovers, the time spent frozen is deducted off the clock. Since each game is only 2 minutes long, you could easily be cheated out of a tenth of the game time. It's especially annoying when you get to the final few seconds and are trying to score points as quickly as possible, only to have the game freeze with those final seconds on the clock, and come back reading "0:00". When your game is based on time and speed, and your code is badly written to the point it takes time away in typical operating conditions, you've done something wrong.

[UPDATE 28 Oct] — A title update was published just this past weekend, and the freezing issues when running on Wi-Fi seem to have been fixed. The "macro-transactions" remain as costly as ever, though.

As-is, Tetris Blitz just proves what The Consumerist said about them: they squeeze their customers for every penny they can get, and the code isn't always worth it.

I will give Tetris Blitz some credit, though. As long as you ignore the pleas for spending money, and don't stress the inability to get the highest possible score thanks to losing out on several seconds of the timed game, it's not that bad. There are certainly worse ways to waste time on the phone. Plus, it's free, and since it's an Xbox Live game, it has achievements, almost all of them attainable fairly quickly and without an unreasonable level of effort.

[UPDATE 26 Nov] — a couple weeks ago, they updated it yet again, it looks like to fix some issues with some of the featured power ups. But the game is even more unstable than before, taking several attempts just to launch the thing, occasionally crashing on its own. Definitely not worth the download at this point. The only reason I'm keeping it around is that last stupid grinding achievement.