There’s a train of logic that says this: if a business does something that makes things worse for consumers than they were before, that business is not long for this world. For the most part I think that holds true, but there does seem to be one notable exception: the videogame industry.
A couple of weeks ago, Angry Birds 2 was released onto iOS and Android. It's a notable release - Angry Birds isn't just a mobile game, it's THE mobile game. A genuine phenomenon, it's been downloaded more than 2 billion times, hatched numerous spin-offs including TV shows, movies, theme parks and toys, and become a household name in the process. Put simply, Angry Birds is a Very Big Deal™.
Which makes Angry Birds 2 a very big deal too. While some would (rightly) point out that this is technically the 15th game in the series, that obnoxiously large number two in the logo is important. It's a statement of intent: this is a step forward for the series, and this will define how developer Rovio guides the series from this point on.
Flying off course
So what has the developer done to signify this bold new era for everyone's favourite bunch of irritable flockers? It's made it free to play - or more accurately 'pay to win'. And in doing so, it's ruined it.
The old Angry Birds was comprised of self-contained little puzzles. You had a set of birds to fling at the scenery, and your job was to work out where to hit for maximum impact. The design is essentially based around trial and error, so it's rather distressing to find out you only get five tries before you have to wait at least half an hour to try again. Or you can pay for more, but even when those extra lives are expended, you'll have to wait or pay again to play.
Even if you could restart ad-infinitum without paying, the satisfying sense of picking apart a puzzle - so crucial for the original - is gone. Instead levels are randomised, offering different materials, and different birds to fling each time you play. That means it's easy to get into a situation where you don't have the right tools to complete the level. But hey - don't worry. You can always pay to try again. Or why not buy an item that basically completes the level for you? All you need to do is dip into your pocket…
It's all so blatantly designed to make you spend money. The net result is that rather than feeling like a fun distraction, Angry Birds 2 feels like nothing more than a brightly-coloured to-do list… and the easiest way to tick things off is to hand over your money. Rather than enjoying yourself, all you're getting is the artificial satisfaction of imaginary progression. That's not what games should be.
Flipping the bird
That's not to say that it's all bad. It's a visual treat - the birds and pigs look better than ever, and the animation is lovely. It also feels a lot more 'crunchy' than previous games, all the various materials you're knocking down feel heavier, and break apart more flashily. It can be genuinely satisfying to topple these towers - there's some real potential here. But everything good is tainted by money-grubbing elements that are at best irritating, and at worst downright disrespectful to the player.
Angry Birds 2 isn't the only game to adopt freemium tactics, but it's the most disappointing one I've seen to date. Partly because it makes a potentially good game a bad one, and also because it's a damning reminder that mobile game players have come to accept this model as standard practice.
Like it or hate it, Angry Birds is the poster child for the whole mobile games market. Part of its success was undoubtedly being in the right place at the right time, but it was also well made, balanced, and unfailingly generous with extra levels and updates. It was that customer-focus that made the original Angry Birds the phenomenon it was.
Angry Birds 2 feels like the antithesis of that approach. It's stingy, constantly begging for more money. All the good stuff - and there is good stuff here - is obscured by randomness, pop-ups and messages encouraging you to pay to progress. In that sense - and I appreciate this may be a tad over-dramatic - it's a betrayal to the fans that took Rovio to success in the first place.
At the time of writing, Angry Birds 2 has been downloaded more than 30 million times, so perhaps I'm a lone voice, an old man railing madly against time and changing attitudes. I hope not - because if this represents the future of mobile gaming, then I find it utterly depressing.