Ridiculous Fishing, The Tribez, and thoughts on single-player endgames / by Alec Kubas-Meyer

Ridiculous Fishing

I have a tendency to start off articles with uncontroversial statements. I’m only realizing this now, but it’s important to let people know where you’re coming from. And sometimes I have to start off with controversial statements or I’m making controversial claims. (And by controversial, I mean something irrelevant like “This popular movie is silly!” and not like “Censorship is awesome!” But I digress.)

I like Ridiculous Fishing.

I am a bit late to this party (another tendency of mine), but it’s an important statement, because on the whole I’m not a particular fan of mobile games. It’s not a matter of casual or hardcore or anything; it’s simply what I use my phone for. I could count on one hand the number of games I have played since getting a smartphone: Angry Birds, Angry Birds Space, Flow, and Ridiculous Fishing. (A couple could be added counting things I have played on a tablet, but even that doesn’t go beyond a second hand; although there are a couple of games I probably would have picked up (Year Walk) if I used iOS devices.) Those first two back at the height of their popularity, and I haven’t picked them up since switching phones about a year and a half ago. Flow I saw a friend playing and thought was cool because I like puzzle-ish games. I got it on my tablet, and eventually my phone. Since that phone broke a few months ago and I got it replaced, I haven’t reinstalled it and had actually forgotten about it until just now.

I use my phone for five things (in order of importance): reading the news, emailing, texting, as a reference tool, and making phone calls. I don’t really need anything more than that, so the fact that I have a relatively old phone (a Droid Razr Maxx) doesn’t matter much to me. (Though the fact that the phone’s OS is barely functional for reasons I do not understand does; I will be glad to be rid of it.)

Ridiculous Fishing made a lot of End-of-Year lists for 2013, which meant that I would at the very least try it. I’m generally loathe to pay for apps, but when I remembered that I still had some credit left over from the $25 of Google Play money that came with every new Nexus 7 back in the day, I figured this was as good a place to spend it.

But that doesn’t matter.

What does matter, and it has taken me way too long to get to, may be slightly (though only slightly) more controversial:

By the end of the week, I will likely have put down Ridiculous Fishing for good.

While interning at The Daily Beast, I was assigned an article about The Tribez, an extremely successful mobile game put out by extremely successful mobile game producer GameInsight. In preparation for the story, I played the game daily (hourly, more like) for about two weeks. I had never played a game like it before, and I will never play one again. But in the few days after the article was done, I kept playing. I didn’t really know why, but I did.

(Maybe Tim Rogers can explain.)

But then I stopped. It was partially because I wasn’t actually enjoying it in any meaningful way, but it was mostly because I had hit a roadblock. At that point, things had just gotten too expensive. Everything that I had the patience to buy in the game I had bought. The next area was so much more expensive that I would have had to put up with at least a month of money-grinding (ha) or pay real money (haha!). The moment I realized that, I uninstalled the game and never looked back.

(Interestingly, last night I received an email announcing a sequel to The Tribez, which I would probably have the exact same two-week reasonably enjoyable fling with before uninstalling and completely forgetting about it… were I to download it, which I won’t.)

What does that have to do with Ridiculous Fishing, a game that is radically unlike a microtransaction-laden free-to-play game like The Tribez? Because I recently had that same realization, that I had nowhere left to go without investing a stupid amount of time into it.

There are four areas in Ridiculous Fishing. The final area, “The Maelstrom,” is randomly generated and infinitely long. Because it’s randomly generated, it is theoretically infinitely replayable as well. And that will be true for a certain type of person. The basic mechanics of the game, which are reasonably enjoyable, will keep some players coming back again and again and again, ad infinitum (a phrase that I had to look up to make sure I was using correctly, which I was/am). But reasonably enjoyable mechanics can only hold a game up so much.

Up until recently, the game has been an unlock-fest. Every four or five sessions (at most), I would have something new in the store that I could buy, if not half a dozen things. I now have only one thing left in the store to buy: a paper hat. It costs $80,000 in game, and I currently have around $11,000. I have fully upgraded everything to the point where I get usually get about $10,000 per fishing session (is that the right word? probably not). In a couple more days of waiting in line at the grocery store or standing awkwardly in a bathroom somewhere, I will have undoubtedly reached that goal and purchased the paper hat. At that point, I will look at the game and think, “Well… I guess that’s it.”

And it’s not it, actually. There are still 12 more types of fish for me to catch before I’ve filled the little species book. By the time I’ve purchased the paper hat, maybe that number will have gone down by one or two, but I’m not sure. And the reason I’m not sure is simple:

I’m not getting better at Ridiculous Fishing.

This almost surely says something about me and nothing about Ridiculous Fishing, but the reality is that the last 20 sessions I’ve played, I’ve made no real progress in adding to my best depth. Currently, it sits somewhere in the 800 meter range. In general, my depth (the ones that make me $10,000) is closer to the 700 range. It’s good that I got the infinity reel, but it hasn’t helped me all that much.

And this is unfortunate, because in all of those sessions, I have only seen two new species. Generally speaking, it’s the same several dozen fish that I have seen over and over and over again. And that’s all well and good, but it has gotten dull. I like many of those fish, but I want to see new things. I want this randomly generated level to randomly generate some new fish at higher depths. It makes sense mechanically not to do it, but it’s been so long since I’ve seen a new fish that I now realize I’ve run into a wall.

And walls are frustrating.

The mechanics of the game are interesting but aren’t really the pull. The pull is the ridiculousness of the whole thing. I actively dislike the raising portion and wish I could go immediately from descending to blowing up fish with a bazooka. That makes no sense in the context of the game, but those are the two parts of the experience that I enjoy. So it makes it all the more frustrating that I need to go deeper and deeper in order to see and catch those extra fish, because it means I have to spend more time rising up. Catching those spiny fish speeds you up (which I appreciate sometimes and hate others), but then sometimes that makes you grab a terrible horrible clone jellyfish and then you want to throw your phone out a goddamn window because the clone jellyfish in Ridiculous Fishing are among the seven worst things in existence.

Hyperbole?

Hardly.

So, it’s a question of an endgame. Most single player games don’t even have them. They have content and content and content and then it’s over and that’s the end. Maybe there are leaderboards or times or multiplayer-ish features that keep a certain type of person going back. Maybe there’s just the desire for perfection. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the games that really are won-and-done (like how I appropriated the “one-and-done” concept? no? eh, I tried). There’s really no reason to go back. The Stanley Parable HD gives you incentive to put it down, essentially for good: there is an achievement for not playing the game for five full years. That’s a lot of years, in game terms. That used to be the length of a console cycle.

(Multiplayer games don’t count. (Or, good ones with vibrant communities anyway. Poor ones are usually single player games as well, and more often than not lack an endgame.))

Ridiculous Fishing’s endgame is The Maelstrom, always and forever. It just keeps going and going and going (theoretically, anyway).

But what is interesting to consider, in the context of the rise of free-to-play games that want you to play for as long as possible, is the fact that it totally doesn’t matter. The realization that:

Ridiculous Fishing doesn’t care if I put it down.

The Tribez didn’t really care that I put it down. I wrote about it for an audience of literally millions (although not even close to that many read it). If you search “The Tribez” on Google, my article is one of the top search results, ahead of even the iTunes App Store’s page for it. That article is worth far more to them than any amount of money I could have put in without bankrupting myself and everyone I know and love. But if I were just player 4,382,756, The Tribez would be unhappy that I put it down. It wants me to keep playing. (I interviewed the game’s director by email for that article, and he was proud that there are some players who have been around since the game’s launch and still play it regularly.) It matters to them because those people give it money, or at the very least give it promotion.

The reason the article was assigned to me in the first place was because my editor wanted to know what it was that kept trending in his Twitter feed, and I was the guy who wrote things about video games. It gives in-game rewards for out-of-game tweets and Facebook posts. It’s a fascinating(ly lucrative) system, but a horrible one (and essentially identical to the one used in The Sims Social, explored in that Action Button Dot Net review I linked to earlier (and will link to again, for the sake of convenience).

I refused to participate in that system, so beyond the article, GameInsight would get nothing from me. For that additional reason, it did not matter to them that I stopped playing. They got everything they needed from me and a whole lot more.

But Ridiculous Fishing doesn’t need me. Vlambeer got my (well… Google’s) money and that’s all that really matters at some point. I’ve become another statistic in their impressive consumer base. Not being some horrible corporate entity, I’m sure they’re happy that I got some enjoyment from the game while I stuck with it, but it doesn’t really matter. And now I’m writing about them, though this time it’s for an audience of dozens (at best).

But how sad is it that the only games that really care about your continued participation are the ones that try to nickel-and-dime you? Especially in a digital age, where there’s no worry about used sales. EA and co. don’t really care if you stop playing their game; they only care if you decide to trade the game back. You can buy it and never open it and it doesn’t really matter to them (unless you’re the type to buy lots and lots of DLC). In fact, if you buy it and never open it but don’t trade it in, it’s better for them (at least in the case of multiplayer games, because there’s no added server cost). (Obviously if everyone did that it would be a failure in some sense, but if the price of the thankfully-mostly-dead online pass is to be believed (It’s not), each individual costs the company a whole lot of money.)

The fact that Ridiculous Fishing has no long-term monetization model (something I appreciate, let’s be clear) means that if I played it for five minutes or five hundred, it’s basically all the same to the developers. And each of those numbers will add something to the whole mess of statistics that I’m sure they’re keeping track of. That five minute person is not really important, but their playtime is important. The reason for their stopping is important. It’s data that can be used for the future. It’s not focus testing, because focus testing is terrible. It’s broader and more meaningful than that. Statistics usually deal with samples, but with digital games developers can keep track of entire populations. They will know how many people played the game for five minutes and then never played it again. And they will know how many people unlocked everything and then never played it again.

For $3, I enjoyed my time with Ridiculous Fishing, and I think it deserves the praise it’s gotten, although I’m a bit less enamored of the mechanics than others seem to be. I also like the fact that it has The Maelstrom, a level that is infinitely playable for that certain type of person who is better at the game than I am. (And, honestly, complaining about a lack of content in a $3 game for mobile devices is kind of unfair (although Alan Wake was $3 in the last Steam sale, so the quality/content vs. price metric has skewed greatly in recent years), but that’s not really the point of this).

The point is that the nature of item unlocks/purchases has changed the way I view games. The unlocks have become the game. And once everything has been unlocked? What you’re left with is less than what you’d had before. Sure, you’ve got more “things” becomes you’ve unlocked/bought them all, but the driving force is gone. It’s just you, fishing for all of eternity.