The Platform is the Playstyle: Missions and Monetization

A while back, I got Jumping Joe & Friends for free on Switch - one of many free games I’ve gotten from being in QubicGames' ecosystem. It’s a simple reflex-testing runner-like game (though you jump vertically rather than run horizontally) that you can get into a good rhythm with, so I felt like it would be a better fit for mobile, and of course it actually is a port of mobile freemium title Jumping Joe! I picked that version up, and while the gameplay is indeed well-suited to the sort of casual kill-a-few-minutes experience that mobile enables, it’s both better and worse as a mobile game. Worse for the standard freemium reasons, but better because it has missions - side objectives to complete during runs that provide extra variety and depth to play.

Missions are great for this sort of game. They’re what elevated Jetpack Joyride from good to great. They add another layer to gameplay that keeps things fresh far longer. I don’t understand why the Switch port of Jumping Joe doesn’t have them. Why are they mobile-only? Why can you only get them if you also get the scummy monetization? As is, I find the Switch port dulls quickly and the mobile version feels obnoxious and greedy, and I stopped playing the game pretty quickly.

A bit later, I finally tried Mario Kart Tour, which I’ve complained about before. (Don’t judge me; it was for the mission to get the stupid Mario pins that ran out of stock in five seconds anyway.) And I found that in adapting the experience to mobile, Mario Kart had made several changes that felt like straight-up improvements.

In the past several Mario Karts, if you’re playing solo the natural goal is to get the top trophies on all the cups. A cup consists of four races, each of which is three laps, and you need to end the final lap of each race in first place despite any setbacks along the way. This includes not making mistakes and also recovering from unavoidable attacks (such as, of course, the dreaded blue shell). A skilled player can avoid mistakes, avoid some attacks, and recover from attacks - but recovering takes some time, and the game’s rubberbanding means you are always vulnerable to attacks and being overtaken. Sometimes you will be the victim of an unavoidable attack right before the finish line of the final lap, and even the most skilled player in the world cannot possibly recover in time.

When I played Mario Kart 7 and was going through earning the top trophies, once I got to 150cc there were almost always multiple blue shells in the third lap. It felt like a coin flip for whether I would have time to recover and win the race, or whether I’d be forced out of first place at the end. Even playing very well, the odds of getting first on four races in a row was obnoxiously low, with a single poorly-timed blue shell in the last lap of the last race rendering the entire cup wasted due to pure luck.

This is why I stopped playing Mario Kart 7. I no longer enjoyed the progression toward the goal due to how frustratingly random and effectively grindy it was. Technically each time I attempted a cup, I got to practice those tracks - but practice didn’t make me more likely to win because the thing that caused my loss was random.

My sense is that Mario Kart 8 was a little gentler with the blue shells, but I still had plenty of unlucky cup-wasting losses due to a single blue shell at the wrong time, and I stopped playing that too.

Enter Mario Kart Tour.

There is still rubberbanding and there are still blue shells and you can still easily lose a race due to luck, especially on higher cc’s. But there are several other changes that make this far less of a problem, all of which seem to come from the game being adapted to be a freemium mobile experience.

First, each race is two laps instead of three, so they go faster. Plus, while there are still four-race (or four-event, anyway) cups, each race’s results are tracked separately. It’s no longer the case that a loss in the fourth race means having to redo all four races. Together, this means that if you get an unlucky blue shell in the final lap and lose, you have to redo two laps, not twelve.

Second, even if you lose a race, you are still rewarded for playing - your driver, kart, glider, and race tier all get XP and you keep whatever coins you picked up on the course for use in the in-game shop. Plus, the score system is partially separate from the placement system - you can still get a high score and good rewards without getting first place. Getting first place does get you a higher score and more XP, but you still get some if you place lower. Together, this means that your time is never wasted. It doesn’t get invalidated by a random blue shell at the end.

These factors mean that when I lose a race in Mario Kart Tour, even for reasons of pure luck, I’m not mad about it the way I sometimes was in Mario Kart 7 and Mario Kart 8. I still got some progression, and it’s quick and easy to replay the particular race for the better result (and more progression). It doesn’t make me want to walk away - it makes me want to immediately try the race again. It makes me want to keep playing. I often get into a “one more race…” mode, far more than I ever did with MK7 or MK8.

And on top of this, the game has missions! And of course racing the same tracks over and over is much more engaging when you have rotating varied goals to accomplish along the way.

So again, I’m left lamenting the fact that the game experience that is in many ways superior is tied to the mobile platform (they did a decent job with the controls, but you can only do so much with a touchscreen and it’s absolutely not as deep as controller-based Mario Kart) and the obnoxious freemium monetization (though to be fair Mario Kart Tour is less obnoxious about it than many and I’ve had a good time without spending a cent, but to be fair about that it’s worth pointing out that I’ve developed resistance to a lot of the shady freemium tactics and I’d expect someone for whom this was their first freemium title to have a lot more trouble resisting).

I want a console Mario Kart that’s a single premium purchase but takes some design cues from Mario Kart Tour and provides a more satisfying and engaging progression. I don’t know if I’ll ever get one.