Who is the target market for Beeline Interactive’s Ghostbusters Puzzle Fighter?
I’m not being facetious or rhetorical; I’m genuinely curious. Ghostbusters Puzzle Fighter is a by-the-books match-3 puzzler that aims to rope players into spending more money on unnecessary, fleeting bonuses to a mediocre game. It’s textbook free-to-play.
It has you lead a team of three Ghostbusters to fight a team of three monsters. Everything is a reference to the Ghostbusters universe. A lot of the little elements and jokes are ripped straight from the movies. As such, attacks, spells, and pieces all do specific things relevant to each character.
On paper, it sounds like a great game. It matches players against AI or other players. It establishes a touch-friendly and clear interface. It rewards aggressiveness and careful planning alike. It allows you to collect cards, level-up your characters, and build new powerups. It forces you to invest in your cards. And while its story is a bit schlocky, it’s not unbearable; it’s not meant to be poignant or thought provoking. It’s meant to be just fun.
But the problem with Ghostbusters Puzzle Fighter is one that nagged me from beginning to end. Who’s the audience?
Is it for Ghostbusters fans? Hardly. It’s a mishmash of cameos and in-universe schlock villains stringing us from one inconvenience to another. There’s references everywhere, but it’s a shallow, sterile mirror of what fans may want. It adds nothing new or interesting to the canon.
Is it for the free-to-play fans? Hardly. Marvel Puzzle Quest takes a similar approach and runs with a much smoother interface. It runs a more realistic difficulty curve. It has less obnoxious in-app purchases.
Is it for match-three puzzler fans? Hardly. In fact, that’s the least believable. Ghostbusters Puzzle Fighter fails to implement the skinner-box feedback match-3 puzzlers depend upon. It’s an asymmetrical design, focusing on increasingly unfair stages and generators. This means that each level doesn’t give you a cleverer, smarter AI. In fact, it gives you a more aggressive AI. It gives you a luckier AI.
The problem with Ghostbusters Puzzle Fighter is that it tries to have its cake and eat it. It tries to eschew the standard match-3 stage-based formula, but at the same time expects to bilk the player out of their money. It tries to craft exciting dialogue between the various characters that dot its universe, but at the same time winks at us with misplaced smarmy charm, telling us we shouldn’t take it seriously. And worst of all, most important of all, it underestimates the complexity of the skinner box. Ghostbusters Puzzle Fighter is trying to make money by having you buy in-app purchases. There’s nothing innately wrong with that. If you find it worth your time and money to buy those things, you’re free to do so.
There’s a problem.
In the first place, it’s not addicting. Ghostbusters Puzzle Fighter is a bold, brash, confident, lively, colourful, eclectic, sterile, poorly constructed feedback machine that fails at getting your money. The game doesn’t substitute AI cleverness or effectiveness with strategy, but luck. The game doesn’t wean you by stroking your ego; it starts unfair and expects you to enjoy it. The AI has more information, more resources, and more insight on the playing field than you. The AI will asspull multiple chains, gain much more meter for its supers, and isn’t limited to in-app purchases for assists. While the game starts off with a ‘weak’ AI, the veil soon vanishes. Levels of increasing difficulty don’t feel fair because they aren’t fair. The AI isn’t getting smarter or more precise with its movements. It still goes for 4 in a row from the first match. Instead, the pieces it gets are better than yours, and the higher your level, the higher the chances. The game isn’t giving me a stronger opponent – it’s giving the opponent better pieces. I can go entire matches with one or two swipes because the AI will get a lucky streak and wipe out my team. I can’t plan for that; I can’t plan against that.
It’s artificial difficulty. It’s tedious difficulty. The battle depends on a random shape generator.
On each level, the “random” becomes more biased. It forces you to grind time and time again versus an enemy that doesn’t reward cleverness or planning. All I can do is grind. It’s unfun.
This is asymmetrical design. Asymmetrical design is when a game has a tendency to favour one player over another. Instead of the AI adapting to the player, the AI just succeeds more than the player. You can find this in games where luck is a huge element.
While match-3 puzzlers have a major random element to their design, they aren’t that asymmetrical. Successful match three puzzlers use stopgaps to prevent players from being incessantly and permanently stuck at strange intervals.
The most famous is Candy Crush. The stages are stopgaps that funnel specific designs and shapes into choke points. By using these choke points, an observant player notices that shapes and positions have greater strategic value than others. Instead of your piece moving down, it can move to the side, allowing you to chain diangonally as well as horizontally and vertically.
By employing in-game stopgaps, you hint to a player that the level is beatable. It eggs you on.
Ghostbusters Puzzle Fighter is hyper-aggressive. It’s too gungho for your money. It starts off with a nondescript (and if you haven’t watched the movies, downright alienating) story that doesn’t tie into the gameplay. From there, it introduces the basic elements of the game, its style, its focus of play. It starts off making sense, it starts off fun.
But it never becomes addictive. It’s just annoying.
Since it relies on in-app purchases, the game will always remind you. Even when I did not request notifications, it’ll send me notifications. The assists are based on coins that prefer real cash. The packs get you more characters that need more slots. You can buy slots with real cash.
You can buy items with real cash. You can buy health with real cash. You can buy slots, setups, and ways to beat levels with real cash. I have to tap 5 times to skip menus that want you to set up things that the game recommends you to get…with real cash.
And that’s a fatal flaw in Ghostbusters Puzzle Fighter. I’m not a big fan of games trying to bilk me out of my hard-earned cash, but I can respect good design. I can respect the trickery that comes with enjoyment. A game that’s trying to take your money by being addictive is still a well-designed game. It’s succeeding at what it’s trying to do, what it’s meant to do.
Ghostbusters Puzzle Fighter never succeeds at that. Its stories are too short to become emotionally invested, instead choosing witticism and snark over real character development.
Its AI is far too lucky, not clever. Its myriad of touted features become increasingly sparse, despite the game’s slavish insistence that you’ll need them. It’s too fixated on trying to get your money. It’s too blatant. It sells a mediocre product and expects people to come back, frothing at the mouths to play more and more.