As publishers push for ever more free-to-play titles, Marvel Snap serves as a new ideal that should be emulated across the industry.
Much like all ideas within the games industry, free-to-play titles are perfectly good on paper, but a combination of oversaturation and greedy business models has given them a less than flattering reputation.
And yet they still turn enough of a profit to justify their continued existence. For all the complaints of it being pay-to-win, Diablo Immortal was estimated to have made more than $20 million in its first two weeks.
Clearly, these games are still massively popular and yet any new free-to-play game announcement tends to be met with extreme pessimism by most non-casual gamers, with the immediate assumption it exists solely to drain money from players’ bank accounts – with no possibility that it could have any creative value. But Marvel Snap proves that’s not always the case.
In case you’ve somehow not heard of it on social media, word of mouth, or local billboards, Marvel Snap is a simple card game, not dissimilar to Hearthstone, where the goal is to earn more points than your opponent across three randomly selected locations.
You can find a more detailed description in our most recent mobile game review round-up (where it scored a 9/10), but the point is that the developers at Second Dinner have made a strong first impression.
At no point does Marvel Snap ever come across like it’s attempting to nickel and dime you. There are no annoying ads you need to click through every time you complete a match, it’s never nudging you into visiting its in-game store, and progressing through its season pass or raising your collection level isn’t a tedious grind that can be sped up by pumping in money.
We started playing partway through the game’s first season and despite being latecomers we made fair progress through the season pass by completing daily challenges and specific season pass goals. Sure, we failed to unlock everything, but reaching at least level 50 (there are more levels but all the ‘important’ rewards can be acquired by level 50) still felt feasible with enough time and dedication.
Granted, as a free-to-play game, Marvel Snap needs to make its money somehow. Gold, and the paid season pass, exist so you can acquire new cards faster or obtain exclusive cards not otherwise available. For example, the season pass for season one included a Miles Morales card that, from what we can tell, won’t be available as a free unlock until a later date.
In one of those bad alternate timelines that comic books love to feature, Marvel Snap would make a card like Miles Morales extremely powerful; something that would be considered mandatory for any player’s deck if they want a chance at surviving online.
That is not the case. Admittedly, we’ve probably not even scratched the surface of how many cards are in the game, but we’ve yet to see any one card that can be considered broken. The Miles Morales one certainly isn’t; it costs four energy (which is quite a bit for this sort of game) to play but that cost goes down to one if you moved a card from one location to another on your previous turn.
A decent ability to be sure, but not one that’s going to make every player drop £8.99 on the season pass just to get it.
There is only one reason you would ever spend money on this game and it’s to get a card for a character you particularly like. Each card comes with different variants too, depicting characters in different art styles, but they don’t get additional effects. Anyone who’s spent money on a baby variant of Deadpool has only done so because they like the art.
There’s an argument to be had on whether gating cosmetics behind paywalls is any better, but it’s definitely the lesser of two evils given its lack of an impact on the gameplay.
Ironically, by not needling players into spending money, Marvel Snap makes you feel much more amenable to spending a bit of cash here or there, if it’s just to get one or two cards of your favourite characters. The fact that the core gameplay is solid fun and very moreish, with matches taking only a few minutes, helps a lot.
Plus, Second Dinner has proven to be a good listener. During the game’s beta testing, Marvel Snap originally had Nexus Events, which were just loot boxes by another name. These proved so unpopular with players that Second Dinner scrapped them altogether and the final game doesn’t have them at all.
More recently, it announced that it’s removing card boosters (which are used to upgrade a card’s visuals) from the collector caches and will instead add tokens that can be spent on acquiring new cards, which is a preferable reward for collector types.
Other free-to-play titles, not just ones on mobile, could stand to learn a lot from how Marvel Snap approaches its monetisation and how it distributes its content to both paying and non-paying customers. Especially as it’s secret sauce doesn’t amount to anything other than being honest and fair to its players.
It’s too often obvious that these games are only interested in you spending money on them. Overwatch 2, for example, traded loot boxes for season passes, but has been criticised for requiring enormous amounts of of grinding to unlock in-game items, as well as for how much you need to pay for certain skins.
Its Defenders of the Castle bundle for Halloween, which came with four skins, amounts to almost £34, which is almost as much as the price of the first Overwatch at launch.
The aforementioned Diablo Immortal, meanwhile, strongly encourages you into spending money on its legendary gems to better upgrade your equipment. Since that game also offers PvP, it basically means the best players are likely only there because they had cash to burn – not because they’re more skilled.
Then there are games like Pokémon Unite which overwhelm and confuse players with their multiple in-game currencies, which can only be spent on specific unlocks and at least one of these currencies can only be acquired with real money. Unite does a particuarly good job obfuscating how much you’re spending since there’s no direct way of just buying items you want.
Marvel Snap is somewhat guilty of that last one sin, since you can buy gold outright and some cards cost as much as 1,200 gold (roughly £16) but gold can also be earned in-game very easily.
An overreliance on microtransactions (especially for luck-based loot boxes and gacha mechanics) can quickly sour players on a game even if its core gameplay loop is fun. It’s why we’ve started to see them less and less in single-player games; companies tried it, and they soon became so toxic that not including them can now be presented as a selling point.
This isn’t so much the case for multiplayer centric games such as Destiny or the upcoming The Last Of Us spin-off. Admittedly, there’s little in the way of official info on the latter, but Naughty Dog recently hired Fortnite’s monetisation director, strongly suggesting that it has microtransactions at the very least.
However, microtransactions in multiplayer games comes with a different problem. At least in a single-player game, you’re not competing against anyone else. Multiplayer games put you up against other people, meaning it’s incredibly easy for latecomers to be overwhelmed by the high skill level of long-time players and be more easily swayed into spending money on whatever microtransactions are on offer just to catch up. They spend money out of what feels like necessity.
Free-to-play, for as unpopular as it may be, generates a lot of money (just look at FIFA’s Ultimate Team mode). However, the model has become too reliant on strong arming customers and preying on those with addictive compulsions. There’s a reason some countries treat loot boxes as a form of gambling.
Marvel Snap is a welcome exception to the rule, showing it’s possible to make a free-to-play game with an unobtrusive monetisation model that doesn’t dissuade people from playing or skew the playing field. Maybe there’s some twisted reverse psychology going on here but people who are spending money on Marvel Snap are largely doing so out of goodwill, because the game and developer have earned their money. If you’re having a really good time with a product, do those who made it not deserve compensation?
In its first week of launch, Marvel Snap generated $2 million (just under £1.7 million), according to Mobilegamer.biz. Not a bad turnout but considerably less than the $11.9 million that Diablo Immortal made in its first week, which won’t be enough to get other publishers ringing up, asking to copy Second Dinner’s homework. The positive buzz surrounding the game could get some individuals’ attention, but the Sonys and Activisions of the industry will be more concerned with its profits than anything else.
Marvel Snap also isn’t safe from living long enough to become the villain. At any point, it could start raising prices or introduce new, less desirable ways to make money. It’s unlikely given the direction Second Dinner has taken so far, but not an impossibility.
At the very least, Marvel Snap has proven that it’s possible to make a free-to-play game that avoids all the negative stereotypes associated with the model. Even if publishers don’t try to emulate it, it will hopefully encourage more people to demand better from similar titles, ideally by keeping their wallets shut.
Marvel Snap is available for iOS and Android. A PC version is also available in early access.
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