Phoenix HD cashes in; I sign out

, | Games

Phoenix HD is a really good shmup on the iPad partly for how it’s built from the ground up instead of ported over. I really like it.

After the jump, today’s update changes all that.

The update looks great at first. There’s a new ship for sale, which is exciting enough. I’ve died many times trying to steal a glance at my health bar along the top of the screen, so it’s nice that the color bleeds out of the graphics (pictured) as I take damage. So far, so cool.

But then they reworked the leaderboards, which are maintained by Phoenix HD’s developers instead of the incompetents at Apple’s Gamecenter who blithely ignore hacked scores. Phoenix HD high scores are arranged by location, and now they’re displayed on a map.

As you can see, I’m the lord of the foothills north of Los Angeles by virtue of no one else up here having a high score. Let’s zoom in downtown.

Look at all those slackers playing Phoenix HD instead of doing whatever work they’re supposed to be doing in their office buildings.

It used to be that you had to pay 99 cents to be a part of the leaderboards. Not anymore. So does that mean Phoenix HD developer Firi Games is just making money selling extra ships for this otherwise free shmup? Hold that thought.

Another new addition is coins which drop out of enemy ships as you shoot the ships. You pick up coins and can then use them to buy powerups before a game. Let’s have a look at what you can buy.

You can substantially affect the game’s difficulty level by spending the coins you’ve earned. For instance, that defense drone makes a dramatic difference in terms of how long you stay alive, and therefore how many points you get. And extra life is invaluable for basically letting you play two games as if they were one. Let’s scroll down the list and see what else you can buy with coins.

Ah, look at that. Coin packs for sale. Now you can buy defense drones for a quarter and extra lives for fifty cents. Basically, you can now buy your way up the leaderboards, which means these are leaderboards I care even less about than the ones Apple can’t be arsed to maintain. Which is too bad, because none of this changes the fact that Phoenix HD is a good game. But like many otherwise good games, it’s now a victim of its own business model.

UPDATE: I just received the following thoughtful response from Tijmen Roberti at Firi Games, which I asked him to let me post here. He graciously agreed.

A fundamental issue with a highscore-based game is that beating your own highscore gets harder and harder as you go. This is pretty obvious, but it does pose a problem, as players will start to become less inclined to play because they know the odds of beating their high score is small and they don’t have any other goals left. This is where the coins come in: During each game, the player will always get plenty coins, which should be enough to afford one or more boosts. These boosts in turn provide more variation in a playthrough and help *improve* a player’s odds of beating his own high score. Now, note that I said that the boosts improves a player’s odds, not determines. I feel that the perceived powerfulness of the boosts in this article grossly overstated the reality.

The boosts do provide an edge, but are in no way a replacement for individual player skill. Let me illustrate this by responding to the two boosts mentioned in the article. First is the Point Defense Drone. Yes, it is particular effective at the start of the game, but later, when the bullet patterns become (much) denser, it will quickly become overwhelmed. It can occassionally open up a path through some patterns, which wouldn’t be there without the drone, but the player still has to see it and navigate through them himself. Not coincidentally, this is just the type of variation in gameplay that we were looking for when creating these boosts.

Second up is the revive. Now I am going to spoil a secret here: Although it might *seem* that it provides a twice as long game, this is actually not true. This is because the difficulty in Phoenix HD always steadily increases. So if you get defeated around your natural skill limit, the revive does grant you an additional chance but the game will be just as difficult! In practice you might survive for a few encounters more if you are lucky, but you will certainly not get a score that is twice as high! The revive is more like a single-use insurance against a silly mistake half-way, so you can keep going and not have to start over.

So the boosts in our game are not nearly as strong as this articles makes them seem. Also, unlike most other games, coins in Phoenix HD drop plentiful. Just by regularly playing the game you will be easily able to purchase and enjoy the boosts. It is not that they are only available for a select few who spend money.

Finally, I regret that this issue overshadows some of the other great features in this update, such as the grey-scale vision mode when the player gets on low health. Or the new ship Trinity which, through a unique combination of time slowdown and teleportation, provides a completely new gameplay experience. There is a lot of cool stuff in this update, and I would encourage everyone just to play a few games and see for themselves.

Co-founder and Programmer, Firi Games