The Endless Shopper: Burning Money in Temple Run 2, Candy Crush Saga, and Little Inferno

Tomorrow Corporation Little Inferno

Perhaps the endless runner is the video-game genre for our times. We have to run just to keep up. We don’t know what we’re running toward, or from — we only know we are running. Genre classics like Canabalt and Jetpack Joyride and Punch Quest, with their jumping, jetting, and punching, actually suggest that it’s not the act of running onscreen that justifies the name. Running is the word for that continuous motion through an endless series of obstacles. It’s not just that you move, as you do in nearly every game; it’s how the world pushes and pulls the whole time, always threatening to outrun you.

This world is constantly rejiggered so it can’t be memorized. There is no level design as we usually think of it. No pausing to explore suspicious scenery or just to take in the sights. There is only forward momentum along a path littered with snares that exist for one purpose: to end your run.

Well, this is not entirely true. You do slow down between runs to shop. Which power-up would you like? Which character will you unlock next? In which outfit? How many coins have you collected? Would you like more? I said: Would you like more? This is where the real running begins.

Temple Run is not the first endless runner, but it sometimes feels like it. By shifting to a first-person orientation, if not the full-blown point of view, it seems to occupy the genre more definitively than its many side-scrolling brethren with their roots in the venerable platformer. In Temple Run those familiar arcs are insignificant; yes, you still have to jump, but there’s nothing more to it than reacting in time. The focus is not on liftoff or landing but on keeping on keeping on. And in this way, the first(-ish)-person variety of the endless runner feels more like its own genre, the racer with no physics.

Of course, Temple Run 2 was inevitable given the success of the original. And perhaps it was also inevitable that what made the first so financially successful — the move to the free-to-play model with in-game purchases — would receive a proper doubling down as well. I happened to play both for the first time within weeks of each other, and I immediately noticed how many more things there were to buy in the sequel and how less inclined I was to buy them. The first game had already taught me well: Optimize your runs. Shoot for multiple objectives, up your multiplier, focus on coin doubling and tripling. Make it all more worth your while. But the sequel asked me to slow down, start over, relearn the ropes.

This is to acknowledge that playing an endless runner for its own sake is a fool’s errand. At best, Temple Run could lull you into a trance, especially when taking its treacherous corners at high speeds. Its simplicity allowed you to feel a little closer to your tablet, even if you never actually got much better. Your score and coin totals improved nonetheless; the game made sure of that. Ending with a particularly good run might ward off that raggedy, hollow feeling you got while playing. But you probably didn’t end there. You probably ran again. You were feeling lucky.

Temple Run 2 doesn’t hypnotize nearly as often. Part of the problem is visual clutter. The path to run now curves, which is a nice enough effect, albeit a purely cosmetic one. But as your mind untangles the gussied-up scenery from the actual straight lines of peril, player immersion lags ever so slightly. To compensate, the game feels slower, or at least your top speed plateaus sooner and the corners are kept farther apart. This makes for a more measured pace and, along with the new streamlined mine carts, an easier, gentler run.

Temple Run 2

This doesn’t, however, make the runs feel any more successful. They exist in an economy that’s now more unbalanced than its predecessor’s. Amassing coinage proceeds too slowly in Temple Run 2, especially in light of all that must be bought to properly optimize a run. Continues are offered at the moment of death, for gems that can of course be bought with real money, tempting you to test the endlessness of the genre every time. It never tires of asking “How far are you willing to go?”

With this financial connection made clearer, and earlier, the pointlessness of it all sets in much sooner. Even the objectives that would compel you on have been redesigned as a series of bottlenecks, three at a time instead of the original’s sprawling list of potential achievements. It’s as if the designers are betting that you’ll go on and buy optimizers to make the run rewarding enough rather than abandon it altogether. And even in these early freemium years, that’s quite a gamble.

As of this writing, just two months after its release, Temple Run 2 ranks 17th among the most popular free games. But among the top grossing? 119th. What sits near the top of both charts? What is the second-most popular and second-highest grossing iPad game right now? The conniving and insidious, the malignant and cloying, the cynical, soul-killing, and just plain evil Candy Crush Saga.

It’s a far, far worse experience than Temple Run 2 because the game itself is not only more compelling but also, and I hate to admit this, half-interesting. It looks like nothing more than a saccharine version of a familiar match-three puzzler. But unlike the timed, score-chasing variety, like Bejeweled Blitz, Candy Crush Saga forces the player to become keenly aware of the entire game space. It does have the occasional level where quick matching is required, but it mostly asks you to connect candies across specific squares on the board or shift fruit from top to bottom within a limited number of moves. Later levels have you freeing imprisoned candies, stopping the spread of surprisingly gross chocolate infections, and grappling with everyone’s favorite space-bender, the portal. As you learn to patiently line up four and five-candy matches and work the hardest corners first, your sense of the familiar grid contorts into more interesting shapes, rendering the traditional timed variants outright boring by comparison.

If only this were a normal game and the paragraph above could give a rough idea of what it’s like to play Candy Crush Saga. The actual experience is maddeningly uneven. On one level you will accidentally annihilate the three-star score requirement, and on the next you will be stuck for days. Why days? Because, and this is the kicker, you cannot play whenever you want. You have a maximum of five lives and it takes 30 minutes to regenerate one. On the harder boards (the dreaded Level 35 was the first to really test me), you will easily burn through all your lives before earning back even one more. There’s something crazy-making about having a game on your iPad that you cannot play. It’s like being a kid with an arcade machine at home that still requires quarters.

This, however, is only the beginning of your misery. When you run out of lives, the game cheerfully asks if you’d like to buy more. If not buy, how about asking your friends on Facebook? We’re all advertisers now, right? Or did you need just a few more moves to complete the level? You can buy that too. Along with an assortment of helpful power candies. Want to make a longer-term investment? For $16.99, the Charm of Life will not let you play whenever you want, but it will raise your maximum lives from five to eight. And for $39.99, the Charm of Stripes will let you supercharge one candy per game.

Candy Crush Saga

What does it do to your experience of a game to know that $40 will give you a potentially game-breaking power? Actually, it’s worse than that, because it only appears this way during the early difficulty spikes. One supercandy will hardly make a dent in the later levels. And good luck if you spent $24.99 for the charm that freezes the timed boards; you’ll find there are only nine such levels within the first 95. Candy Crush Saga relies on obscuring essential facts, so that even if you are tempted to buy, you cannot make an informed decision. Once I hit the first gated content (directly after the dreaded Level 35, no less), I had no idea what another dollar would buy me. Fifteen levels, as it turns out, and I ended up spending four bucks total to unlock 60 more but not a penny on anything else. Not because I wasn’t addicted for a while (I was) and not because I have any special amount of willpower (I don’t), but because I’m an ornery gamer. And because a $40 power-up is offensive.

Even if you avoid the outrageous purchases, and even if you improve your skills, there is a final obstacle to enjoying Candy Crush Saga: luck. I do value the thoughtful use of chance and randomization in games; Spelunky and The Binding of Isaac were two of my favorites last year. But the kind of overbearing luck that undercuts your victories and ensures consistent losses begins to feel like something else entirely. And it is here that the game reveals its true effect on the player. Candy Crush Saga is ultimately a gumball slot machine, and once you play long enough, you too will pray for the right combinations to fall, for the candies to align. You’ll see conspiracy when they don’t. You will know the desperation of the gambler.

This combination of uncertainty and luck and relentless selling yields a complete lack of trust in the game. I stopped believing anything Candy Crush Saga told me, even the free advice it offered when I hesitated to make a match. I gave over to full-blown gamer paranoia and second-guessed every new level. I stopped believing I was improving, and I assigned diabolical motives to any easy victories. Everything became suspect, and I wanted access to the code to check for true randomness. I sensed predation at every turn.

And this was all for a player who bought only a few level-packs. But according to the charts, plenty are paying much more. Some argue that most of the buying is optional and the basic game is free anyway, so what’s the fuss? But there is no separating Candy Crush Saga, the game I sometimes enjoyed, from the in-game purchases around which it is designed. Even further, the very presence of these purchases has a profound effect on your experience of the game, even if you never buy them. They tempt and repel and erode all trust so that even momentary pleasures seem treacherous. You finally stop playing and yet the feeling lingers that the whole blasted world has been rigged.

Tomorrow Corporation’s Little Inferno is fortunately a game you can trust. It offers no addled runs, no devious micro-transactions. It reminds you again and again: “There are no points. There is no score. You are not being timed. Just make a nice fire and stay warm in the glow of your high definition entertainment product! But you can’t do that forever! There is bound to be an end!” It’s the opposite of the endless runner — the bounded sitter. It’s also a first-person fireplace simulator.

What’s perhaps most surprising is just how compelling this virtual fireplace ends up being. Sitting near a real fire has been relegated to campsites and seduction for most. It’s no longer the flickering light we gather around for stories and intimacy. But staring into a domesticated fire does continue to possess a strange allure. And when you feed that fire and watch solid objects disintegrate, their ephemeral nature laid bare, it recalls a natural childhood fascination with destruction. The fireplace becomes like a time machine stuck in fast-forward, a revelation of implacable ends, and the observer is fixed in place by the force of its drama.

Given its real-life analogue, it’s not so surprising that the flickering lights of Little Inferno resonate. Before the end, you will feed its fire, well, everything. Corncobs, mustaches, rabid stuffed bunnies, e-mail, the moon. You order from in-game catalogues with in-game money, and there is no way, or need, to spend beyond the game’s original price. It’s a sealed economic universe with a familiar logic: buy something, burn it, take coins from the ashes. Except you get more money out than you put in. So the only way to earn more is to feed the consuming flames.

The critique in Little Inferno is hard to miss. Spend much time with the puckish metagames of its first-person shopper catalogue and the whole thing will practically interpret itself. But Little Inferno resonates as more than just a satire of our relationship to games and in-game economies. It connects them to our broader experiences of shopping and consumption and even mortality. It makes you wait a bit for your packages to arrive; it makes you watch them burn. It makes you dwell, not run, and thus face just what you’re doing with your time, and with the toys you love.

Even if Little Inferno can tend towards the didactic and moralistic, like so much satire, it also offers a strangely tender, loony vision of the world. And if its ending is not exactly a revelation, at least it has one. There will be no new items to buy and burn. Its universe is bounded and complete. And for the few hours you’ll spend with your fireplace and your in-game pen pal (and endearingly emotive speller) Sugar Plumps, it is never less than compelling and utterly memorable.

Little Inferno

As video games move to incorporate micro-transactions more extensively and behave like services instead of stand-alone products, they become more like little economies rather than worlds or stories or simulations or experiences. As such, they encourage in the player constant financial calculation and assessment of worth. The goal is no less than corralling video games into one super genre to rule them all: the endless shopper.

Discussions of these new pricing models tend to draw out all the armchair MBAs who love to drop truth bombs about how companies exist to make money. Even prominent figures in the industry like Cliff Bleszinski choose to trade in this kind of easy wisdom, seeking to explain and reinforce existing financial realities rather than question them. He writes: “The video game industry is just that. An industry.” He chastises the vocal minority who rail against micro-transactions and invokes instead the mythical average bro gamer who “has no problem throwing a few bucks more at a game because, hey, why not?”

Bleszinski’s blithe endorsement of market forces follows the same kind of logic that developers use when trying to explain why games with female protagonists can’t get made — because they just don’t sell. Sorry, they say, that’s just the way it is, nothing personal. But they don’t ask us to only accept these “truths,” they ask that we also “understand” them and thereby absolve them of responsibility. As a player, though, I don’t have to care how games are made. We don’t ask a reader to understand the monumental endurance it takes to write a novel or the many pressures faced by publishers. Like readers and moviegoers and music fans, gamers get to call developers and apologists on their bullshit.

Some defenders of the industry even try to appeal to our democratic instincts, claiming that because players have different goals and skill levels, why should it matter if some choose to buy their way ahead? But who does this kind of thinking serve? We want and need more diversity across games, not within every single one. It clearly profits a company to expand its customer base, but it has nothing to do with egalitarianism. (What if you are both new to gaming and poor? Guess you’ll just have to work harder.)

It’s also not true that the presence of extensive, non-cosmetic micro-transactions don’t affect the gamers who choose not to shop (that is, if it’s still possible not to shop). They contribute powerfully to a game’s tone and establish the very rules and expectations that will structure the player’s experience. They transact and thus define the contract between the game and player, one that requires trust to have any longevity. Without trust, why keep gaming? Why seek deeper engagement with the medium? Mobile games seem to be reaching more players than ever, but hits like Candy Crush Saga threaten to sour gamers new and old to the whole business.

Without trust, gaming models become unsustainable. This question of trust is one we naturally ask of any medium we engage with long-term. Which video games have earned my trust lately? (Demon’s Souls, Minecraft, Kentucky Route Zero.) Which genres have lost it? (First-person shooters, AAA adventures, role-playing games.) Do I trust the Tomb Raider reboot? (With its snuff-film deaths for Lara and leering camera, no.) And do I trust a game that relentlessly tries to sell me things, that runs me ragged, that refuses to end? I do not. To such games we must say, unambiguously: Enough.

Tevis Thompson (@tevisthompson) writes video game essays and fiction. You can read more of his work here.

Filed Under: Mobile Games of the Month