Attendance: 1

Frisco Del Rosario writes about chess960, women's basketball, minor league baseball, unsupported collectible card games, lettering in comic books, and Golden Age movies

Frisky AI on “South Park: Phone Destroyer” 12/09/2017

imagesIt is most advisable for one dipping into the new mobile game “South Park: Phone Destroyer” to watch “Freemium isn’t Free” (s18e06), an outstanding “South Park” episode in which Stan confronts his genetic disposition to addictive behavior (while dad Randy denies his with high-mindedness), Terence and Philip display integrity and conscience, Satan is shown to be  more helpful and rational than Jesus, and the insidiousness of the “freemium” game model is fully exposed.

Ubisoft/Red Lynx, the games company that partnered with South Park Digital Studios to build “South Park: Mobile Destroyer” was tasked with creating a freemium game that transcends “South Park’s” own satire, and I think they succeeded. “South Park: Phone Destroyer” is brilliant. I enjoy it immensely, and have not spent a dime. (I spent thousands of dollars on the card game NetRunner in the mid-’90s. If I still had that kind of spending money, I’d buy every SPPD upgrade that comes available. Instead, I recognize that building in-game currency without using real-world currency will be an arduous grind, and I choose to stay in.)

The “South Park” franchise has had countless opportunities to screw it all up in the 20-some years the TV show has been on the air, but in my view, they’ve done everything right:

The TV show took a drastic turn about 10 years ago, moving from situation comedy to social commentary, and stayed funny. By itself, that’s amazing.

The movie “South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut” could have gone as wrong as “The Simpsons Movie” or several of the “Star Trek” movies, which came across as padded TV episodes (and not especially good ones). Instead, the SP movie reached for more than the TV show, and delivered a terrific musical that stayed true to the core.

I haven’t been disappointed by any merchandise. I received a gift 6-inch Cartman figurine that perfectly captured Cartman’s essence, and I displayed it too proudly, because it was stolen. I wore out a talking SP greeting card, pushing the button until it died. I wore every shirt until washed beyond recognition.

“South Park” has never let me down, in any form, and the mobile game exceeded my expectations — though I didn’t know what to expect, really. Before “South Park: Phone Destroyer”, the only mobile game to keep my attention for more than a few hours was “Monument Valley”. (It’s most difficult to make a game that I want to play often, because every game that isn’t chess has to compete with chess for my attention.)

“South Park Phone Destroyer” combines three hugely popular things:

The mechanics, fantasy, and strategy-plus-tactics of the collectible card game “Magic: The Gathering”, along with its addiction fuel for acquiring cards and cultivating decks;

The characters, art, narrative framework,  and humor of the long-running animated comedy “South Park”, and;

The around-the-clock availability of oppoments, mobile gaming’s instantly-gratifying trickle of in-game rewards — accompanied by the constant temptation to spend tiny amounts of real money to make it rain. Every promising game inevitably breeds a community of dissatisfied users, dumb multi-player factions, and real and imagined cheaters.

In sum, “South Park Phone Destroyer” compounds one addictive element by another addictive element by one cartoon that’s been codifying tropes and generating memes for almost 20 years (for many, a TV show’s culture is a habit in itself).

For fans of “South Park”, “South Park Phone Destroyer” is a better whole than the product of its factors, because it puts them in the game. “South Park: Phone Destroyer” applies the feel of “Magic: The Gathering” to a mobile game, but instead of dueling wizards, the contestants are characters in the South Park universe.

Players — “New Kid”, we’re called — are introduced to the neighborhood  with a cartoon. The SP kids are in disagreement over which of their many fantasy live-action roleplay scenarios, and they invite the new kid to join them as the team captain, controlling creatures (for instance, Cartman’s identities include “Sheriff Cartman” in the cowboy theme, his own “A.W.E.S.O.M-O” robot in the science fiction mood, Zen Cartman in the mystical setup) and spells.

For each type of imaginary combat the South Park kids play, the “Phone Destroyer”  game provides character cards with familiar abilities: attacking strength, hit point values, plus the special abilities that set one card apart from the others. Because SPPD is meant to stand in for a cosplay in the South Park neighborhood, the mobile player can build theme decks.

I read that SPPD is like “Clash Royale”, but I don’t vouch for that. I think the player vs. player gaming within SPPD is like the still-thriving collectible card game “Magic: The Gathering”. The mechanic is borrowed from “Magic: The Gathering”, where dueling wizards tangle with creatures and invocations, applying their deck of cards’ strategy to tactics dependent on energy available. In the SPPD game, the player’s avatar controls his side with a phone, which makes it a more accurate representation of the real world (in game. since everyone’s on the phone, they trash talk in typical South Park style).

The feel of a collectible card game is imparted by spectacularly-illustrated character cards, with typical icons for casting cost, health and attacking power, plus special ability text. To improve one’s rank, players can upgrade their cards by accumulating theme-based artifact cards and duplicate character cards.

The cards are won from winning duels, or purchased from Butters or Cartman with in-game currency. The in-game currency is gained by cards or by real life, cold, hard cash. The cards even come in foil packs that must be zipped open (“hope I get a rare card, hope I get a rare card, hope I get a rare card”).

An insidious feature is that one free pack is available every four hours, butif you miss two free packs in a row, you don’t get the next. (Crack dealers would love to make themselves invisible to buyers who weren’t buying regularly.) Once you’re logged in, it’s hard not to play. Gain experience points and upgrade artificats. Which improves cards. Which wins more cards.

The duel itself is on a three-minute clock, while each player’s life is segmented into three portions (There’s an unsatisfactory “sudden death” clause: If both players have lost an equal number of portions at the end of regulation, winning the next bar wins — punishing the stronger players over the long run, who stand to lose a greater number of leads in regulation, while risking a loss by a bad draw in a 1-minute OT)  .

The game field generates South Park characters fighting with characteristic war cries, fists, bombs, mind control, dog poop, bags of drugs. The first healer one meets is Stan’s mom Sharon.

Timing is critical. The swift, small assassins (kindergarteners Ike and Sally, swarms of rats) can’t take much punishment, so are best reserved for weary opponents. Tackling Sheriff Cartman requires hitting him before he’s angry, or after he’s been angry.

Advancing through the ranks by defeating real-time opponents or programmatic scenarios figures to be a very long grind for players who don’t want to spend actual money. (I have my heart set on a keen astronaut helmet that cyclically comes available at Butters’ shop for hundreds of  tickets earned by winning duels, so I could be there for a while.)

The in-world beauty of this is that “South Park” the show dealt with this in the episode “Freemium isn’t Free”, where Stan downloads the free Terence and Philip mobile game, finds the first challenge to be stupidly simple (with satiric screens of congratulations), and nothing of note happens until he invests 39 cents for enough game energy to help “rebuild Canada!”. He gets hooked, growing a pay-to-play addiction that’s probably widespread (and profitable for some people who have lots of time on their hands).

I read on the Internet that players are unhappy about cheaters, and the “pay to win” aspect of “Phone Destroyer”. I get the feeling these unhappy customers have wide experience with other mobile games, and were hoping for “Phone Destroyer” to meet those expectations. It seems that Ubisoft’s customers are used to being pissed off — at the least, I would’ve expected better involvement in the community forums (software companies with less money than Ubisoft, I reckon, hire people to do no more than that), while the experienced customers are enraged over the widespread cheating.

“South Park Phone Destroyer” players are cheating by hacker means and in less-sophisticated ways (I’ve encountered three opponents who didnt put up a fight — losing on purpose to sandbag down to lesser opponents; I submitted a feature request for a resign button so those assholes don’t have to waste so much time dying).

I’ve been cheated by a hacker one time that I could identify. It was impressive. While my avatar teetered on the brink of death, the opponent cast a crowd of creatures — enough to finish me off about 50 times — followed by five fireballs for 200 more. People at the higher levels who are taking the game seriously don’t deserve to face cheaters. I’ve played chess online for 20 years; if I’m not cheated once a week, I miss it.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *