Barrage: Casual Games can be Hardcore, Too

Imagine cancer in video game form. I mean it – a malignant tumor in the shape of a PC or iOS game which spreads its festering tendrils through the rest of the industry. I’m RocketEthereal and this is Barrage.

If I had to pick one game that best exemplified the idea and characteristics of cancer, it would be Subway Surfers – because I haven’t played Candy Crush Saga and I never ever will.

Subway Surfers bears all the hallmarks of cancerous game design. It’s a free infinite runner on iPhones and iPads in which you must swipe left and right to switch lanes in order to dodge obstacles and collect coins and powerups, swipe up to jump, and swipe down to slide. Bumping into an obstacle will set you in a “vulnerable” state for a few seconds, during which bumping into something again will result in the “save me” phase. I’ll explain that in a moment. Should you run face-first into an obstacle, you will immediately enter the “save me” phase.

Before we move on, the “save me” phase is a way to stave off death. You’re given a short timer and prompted to save your endlessly running protagonist by spending premium currency – this allows you to continue your run where you left off, thus saving your score and continuing to build on it. Every successive decision to save the player character doubles the cost of doing so, so it gets expensive rather quickly.

There’s two currencies, like most F2P games: Coins, which are everywhere and easily ammassed over time, and Keys, which are the currency used for the “save me” phase and which are rarely awarded for performance or randomly found on the subway tracks.

You with me? This game is casual cancer – but it’s also extremely hardcore. We’re not talking “Dark Souls” or “Super Meat Boy” hardcore, either. This level of hardcore requires obsession.

How can that possibly be? Well, it’s actually quite simple. Subway Surfers has a two characteristics that can turn it into bloodthirsty competition.

Massive popularity. TouchArcade claimed just a couple months ago that Subway Surfers has been downloaded over ONE BILLION times across all platforms. That is, iOS, PC, and Android. This makes it the fourth most-downloaded game in history.
A knowledge of how to abuse that popularity.

Subway Surfers is designed around keeping the casual player playing, sure – but its emphasis on growth and competition is the core source of player investment. It’s got multiple mechanics in place that encourage players to develop ridiculous amounts of mastery, even though the game itself is relatively easy:

Persistent score multiplier growth. In other words, people who have been playing for longer will get higher scores for each second they’re playing, period. This is accomplished through “mission sets.” A mission set contains three fixed missions such as picking up 5 of a certain powerup, dodging 12 of a certain barrier, or scoring 40,000 points in one run. That sort of thing. Completing a mission set will permanently raise your score multiplier by one… and I’m not sure what the ceiling is, just that the mission sets gradually take longer to complete as you progress through the multiplier levels.
Live “chase counter” high score tracking. When you’re approaching the score of one of your Facebook friends, or someone in your “Top Run” group (I’ll explain that in a moment), their portrait appears to the side with the score difference between you and their high score. This is a powerful motivator to push as hard as you can and break your friends’ scores.
The “Top Run” system puts you in a pool of a few players who will compete over the course of a week to get a better high score for that week than each other. A live scoreboard parses this pool of players out into tiers based on their numbers – Diamond, Gold, Silver, Bronze, and… an unnamed tier for those who are either truly awful or do not care. I’m not particularly sure if there’s any sort of reward for ending the week in a high tier, but it gives you an opportunity to prove yourself against other skilled and not-so-skilled players in a limited environment.

When you combine the sheer number of people going for high scores in Subway Surfers with constant high score comparison, the result is that you have insanely dedicated players scoring in the billions – someone on my friends list, the person at the top of my high score board, has scored 25.6 billion points. Compare that to how I’m doing in this video. I don’t even want to think about how long I would have to maintain one run for in order to score that high.

The fact is, the mere presence of such heavy competition arguably makes Subway Surfers a more difficult game to succeed in than a lot of difficult single- and multiplayer games. I’m pretty sure that when measured up against their respective player bases, I am better at Counter-Strike than I am at Subway Surfers – though maybe I just haven’t leveled my multiplier up enough yet. If you disagree with me, I invite you to add me on Game Center if you’re on iOS – search for “Ethereal –” and we’ll see just how hardcore you are. This has been Barrage.

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