I’m not one for freemium games, but when Outernauts launched last week I couldn’t resist. I mean, a space Pokemon game made by Insomniac? Sign me up, Facebook be damned. Sure, free to play, or freemium or whatever the hell they’re called may not be my thing, but I love Pokemon, I love Insomniac and I’m fond of space in that it is necessary for our survival.
For the past week, I’ve been able to successfully navigate around Outernauts’ weird, free to play restrictions, but all of that has, unfortunately, come to a screeching halt and all over my inability to do two things. Technically that’s not true. I am unwilling to do one thing, well, two really, and that makes me unable to do another thing.
Come with me, to spaaaaaaaaaaaaaaace!
First of all, let me say up front that if Outernauts were a boxed product, I would buy it. Pokemon is popular because it works and the quests built around capturing beasts in Outernauts help make it more than just a Pokemon clone. Go to this planet and fight a certain kind of beast. Then, go to another planet and fight another type. Along the way, expand your home world so that you can build buildings and train your beasts, or have more more beasts in your party or get more resources for the whole battle-capture-train-battle loop. More importantly, if this were a boxed product, I could conceivably play it as much as I wanted, for however long I wanted.
That restriction right there, was my first stumbling block with the game. The game is based on two things, battling beasts and collecting resources. Your outernaut has a handy shovel that she can use to dig up bushes and snowdrifts and junk piles, all of which will give you money, experience, items and sometimes, more energy. Battling beasts costs three energy units. Battling the game’s enemies costs six energy units. If you run out of energy, you can’t do anything else. To get more energy you can either wait or spend star gems, the game’s only resource purchasable with real money. I’m not sure why they limit your energy, but the Dragon Age Facebook game did something similar, so I’m assuming this is a Facebook thing. Or maybe it’s a freemium thing. Or maybe it’s an EA Facebook freemium thing.
I have to admit, that when I started playing the game, and saw that you purchase star gems with real money, I expected to get about a day’s worth of time out of it before I hit a brick wall with my meager starting selection of gems. That’s not the case here. You can actually go pretty far without spending any gems, more if you’re willing to harass people, which I’ll get to in a minute. The other thing that surprised me is how much these star gems are tied into every aspect of playing this game, and not in ways that I necessarily condone.
I’ve played more than my fair share of free to play games on the iPad and usually, spending real money helps you make progress by giving you currency with which to buy better weapons or gear or whatever. You can certainly do that in this game but you can also use star gems to level up your beasts faster, or give your beasts more than the starting slate of four powers. Want to bring more beasts into battle with you? Spend some star gems. Need to revive a downed monster and you don’t have a revive potion? Spend some star gems? Don’t want to fulfill those quest objectives? Spend some star gems.
Maybe my inner old man is taking over, but I find the notion that you can pay your way to quest completion somewhat unsettling. Sure, people are free to play the game however they want, but what does that say about us as a culture that we can’t be bothered to put in the effort in our leisure activities? I could understand if some of these quests were balls out hard, but they’re not. Similarly, there’s something about using money to make the game easier, not just because you have more resources but because your altering the mechanics that doesn’t sit well with me.
Part of the genius of Pokemon is having a hard limit on both the number of beasts you can bring into battle with you and the number of moves you can know at any one time. Neither of those things are new, RPGs have been limiting perks and party members since paper was first put to pen and 20 sided die clattered across basement tables. These limitations force hard choices and foster experimentation. Who works well with who? What powers compliment my team? How much will I use that new power as opposed to one that I know already works? Now, imagine all of those questions and choices upended with the ability to spend more money. That’s basically what happens here. If you don’t like having only four powers to work with, you can buy four more slots. Unlike Pokemon, where you can capture to your heart’s content and are only limited by how many monsters you can carry with you, this game limits how many beasts you can have captured unless you find resources to build new buildings or, you guessed it, buy more slots.
Which brings me to where my game has ended. I need to expand my home world, but to do that, I need pyrite. The only way to get pyrite is to ask for it from friends. I don’t use Facebook to connect with friends. I use Facebook for, well, I’m not really sure. I don’t like it when people ask me for items for their games and I don’t like it when they send me shit. I find the notion of spamming people with item requests completely odious. Hell, my XBox Live friends list is completely full and I think I can count on one hand the number of people I’d accept a chat request from while I’m playing. That’s how little I can stand communicating with other people when playing games.
In Outernauts, you can’t expand unless you have pyrite and you can’t get pyrite unless you ask for it or spend star gems. Unfortunately, I don’t have enough star gems left, having already spent some to avoid asking my friends for other items in previous quests. Without a larger world, I can’t capture any more monsters, I can’t train the ones I have and I can’t complete the three or four quests that all have to do with constructing buildings and pumping out items. I’m essentially stuck. Sure, I could buy some star gems but who knows how long they’d last me? Forty bucks, which is what a Pokemon game usually goes for, would get me 440 star gems. Maybe that would last me until the end of the game, but probably not. Besides, I have no idea if this game can go on endlessly with new content or if there’s a set end point. I know that the map is pretty big and with as much friend pestering as they’ve asked me to do thus far, I can’t imagine that they’ll back down from it.
And so I’m stuck. No expansion for me, and even if I did, one of my current quests, involving the training of beasts, can only be completed if I receive something as a gift, thereby requiring more friend pestering or spending of real life money. My brief tenure as an outernaut ends on my cramped home planet, surrounded by beasts that I can’t train, and longing for more monsters that I can’t capture.
I know that this game fits right into what freemium is supposed to be, so it’s hard to criticize it for staying true to its purpose, but because I enjoy it so much, I really wish it was self contained so that I could continue my adventure and roam the galaxy looking for new monsters. As it stands now though, I have no guarantees that a sizable star gem purchase would allow me to continue to the end game without having to pay more. More importantly, if I pay for something, I want to play it whenever I want to, within the confines of the platform.
Oh well, Outernauts. It was fun while it lasted. We’ll always have that heady week of space madness to look back on fondly. You gave me something to do while on my lunch hour, new beasts to beat into submission and new and exciting shoveling opportunities. More importantly, you gave me something that I thought I had lost, namely a desire to buy Pokemon Black & White 2 when it comes out in October. For that, I’ll always be grateful.