This week at Casual Connect in Seattle, the movers and shakers of the casual gaming world will get to play a collection of six indie titles, chosen as part of the conference’s Innovation Showcase. And I can’t think of a more relevant entry than Johnny Upgrade from Gameshot.Org. It’s a really cruel parody of free-to-play mechanics, in which the titular hero has to overcome a 2D scrolling landscape filled with traps and jumps. The only problem is, he starts out absolutely incapable of doing anything – after running for three seconds it’s game over.
However, on each go Johnny collects gold coins which, after a few restarts, open up an Upgrade menu, offering a more generous timer, higher jumps and faster running, as well as a bunch of other boosts – all available via the in-game currency. In short, you have to continually re-start the action, earning upgrades and selecting the most useful purchases to get you that bit further.
It’s repetitive and skinner box-like, but that’s the whole point. This isn’t a game so much as a satire on the sorts of FTP titles that exist purely to push you toward the next purchase. The design is clever, with the sort of cartoon-style cuddly visuals we expect from jovial smartphone titles, and the Upgrade menu, with its ultra-on-message 8bit fonts and cool little sprite icons couldn’t be more accurate.
As the game’s coder explains in his Innovation Showcase blurb, “I didn’t like upgrade games at all and thought it was a cheap way to stretch a short game. Funny enough, I found myself playing some of these more and more and even got a bit addicted. I thought it would be fun to take the upgrade theme to a plat former where you even have to upgrade basic things like running speed”.
And Johnny Upgrade is strangely compelling, its rhythm of death and upgrade curiously hypnotic. As such it asks really interesting questions about the mechanics and psychology of the freemium business. Have a play. Just don’t prove Johnny Upgrade’s point by getting addicted.