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Posted on June 18, 2017 by RevStu

There's nothing about Ramboat (Genera, free, iOS and Android) that isn't interesting. The game itself is a short, punchy and fun pure arcade shooter that most obviously channels Metal Slug and Irem's much-underrated In The Hunt. Indeed, it's basically a very clever adaptation of the latter game for one-thumb control, but presented with all the beautifully-detailed character of the former.

But this isn't the article I've been meaning to write for years about the fascinating and often incredibly elegant and even revolutionary ways that developers have rejigged every traditional game genre for touchscreen devices in order to avoid going down the horribly unsatisfactory route of the "virtual d-pad".

Because the other most intriguing aspect of modern gaming*, particularly on mobile formats, is the monetisation of it. And in the case of Ramboat, the opportunity for an experiment presented itself.

At the same time as I downloaded the iOS version, I also stumbled across a modded Android one complete with all IAPs and infinite amounts of in-game currency. And I soon got to wondering how much difference a bottomless wallet would make to the experience, and the answer was surprising.

First, we should quantify exactly what that means, so let's get the calculator out. The instant notional value of the Android mod was £17 in straight-up IAPs – stuff you can normally ONLY buy with real cash – plus 228,000 of the first in-game currency (gold coins) and 1610 of the second in-game currency (gems).

At the game's best-value prices, buying the latter two comes to an eye-watering £100 of real-world money for the gems and £59 for the coins, making the total all-in cost of the fully-upgraded game a few pennies shy of – erk – £176.

(Strictly speaking the value of the mod is even higher than that, because with extra gems you can also skip in-game tasks to raise your rank and buy infinite continues. However, since infinite continues actually break the game – when you reach 99,999 points it simply hangs and your score isn't recorded – we won't count those.)

But what I found was that the purchases were basically worthless. Over a two-week period I played the mod and "clean" versions roughly equally, and found that within a couple of days – which is how long it takes to build up your starting character's four-weapon arsenal to full power – my base score was essentially the same in both. 

I say "base" score because every time you buy a new vehicle you get a permanent and cumulative score increment, whether you're using that vehicle or not, of between 5% and 50%. By the time you own the full garage of craft with their accompanying increments, your score will be getting multiplied up to the maximum 300% of what you've actually earned.

But you'll still only be getting the same distance into the game's 10 stages, and since score is basically (maybe even entirely, it's hard to be certain) a function of surviving, rather than destroying enemies. So your vast armoury of power-ups won't actually be helping you play any better, live any longer or have any more fun, you'll simply have bought an artificial score boost for the online leaderboards.

After two weeks of fairly heavy play I'd actually collected enough game currency for everything except the cash-only IAPs anyway, so my £160 would only have saved me a bit of time, at the cost of ruining the sense of achievement of earning all of them.

(Of the four cash-only IAPs the only two that make any difference to gameplay are the two extra "gadget" slots – £3 and £5 respectively – and even those don't add up to much: the best of the gadgets that you won't otherwise have slots for are measly 20% boosts to either ammo, fire rate or firepower, which you'll barely notice.)

And the weird thing is that I can't decide whether all this is good or bad. Ramboat is enjoyable from the off, and the process of earning upgrades (that is to say, playing the game) is fun. You don't need to spend a penny on it to see everything it has to offer. It's free entertainment, of high quality, accessible to anyone who can cobble together the modest price of a pretty low-level Android phone or tablet.

Yet at the same time its constant ham-fisted attempts to pester you into spending real money are so petty and ill-judged as to make the player feel sour and resentful and disinclined to hand over cash they wouldn't otherwise begrudge.

The ranking tasks, for example (four per rank, and ranking up earns you more coins), are occasionally jarringly infiltrated with ones that you can't buy your way out of with gems, and which insist that you play at least once with a particular expensive upgrade before you can progress, which is a cheap trick. And the accumulation rate of coins is initially so dismal (even with the absurdly overpriced £5 doubler IAP) that you'll soon be pig-sick of watching the same handful of bloated 30-second ads for unimaginably awful casino and match-three games over and over again to boost your coffers after every play, especially the times when it clumsily tries to show two overlapping ads at once, crashes, and robs you of several hundred hard-earned coins.

(While we're here, there's basically no excuse for a mobile game advert ever being 30 seconds long. People take information in fast these days, and anything you haven't said in the first 15 seconds probably isn't worth saying at all. Cut them all down to that length and people might actually watch them instead of looking at something else while they're on.)

We've arrived at a very curious place in the way we get people to pay for videogames. As has been the case throughout the history of the industry the model has been blighted by short-sighted greed, yet at the same time if you can put up with some stupidly and needlessly irritating nagging you can get loads of great games completely (and legally) free, paid for by large companies and rich idiots. It's the unlikeliest manifestation of socialist wealth redistribution ever.

Ramboat is fab and you should play it because it's fun and I need some competition on my Friends leaderboard. I should have just said that in the first place, really. 

 

*(There is, in truth, almost nothing remotely interesting about traditional console or PC gaming these days. There are vast oceans of good and great games around, but their tropes haven't been refreshed in about 20 years now. Racers, first-person shooters and sports games are pretty much your lot on consoles in particular, and the range of viable genres has if anything narrowed even since the last generation, despite the much lower overheads of online distribution.)

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