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There's One Major Free-To-Play Problem With Where's My Water? 2

Illustration for article titled Theres One Major Free-To-Play Problem With emWheres My Water? 2/em

During an interview with Where's My Water? creator Tim FitzRandolph last week, I found myself excited over the new direction he was taking with the first numbered sequel in the wildly popular series. Then he said the words "simple energy mechanic," and my heart sank.

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At first the free-to-play sequel FitzRandolph laid out for me sounded a lot like the recently-released Plants Vs. Zombies 2. Instead of a series of disconnected levels, Where's My Water? 2 gives players a sort of overworld map. Once a level is beaten, additional challenges are unlocked, tasking players with completing different goals on the same playfield. The in-app purchases consist largely of optional power-ups and hints — the whole game can be played without paying anything.

"We all jumped on Plants Vs. Zombies 2 as soon as it came out," said FitzRandolph after I pointed out the similarities between the two big-name mobile sequels. "It was kind of weird how many similar conclusions they had come to about how to re-frame their game, what things you could add."

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Illustration for article titled Theres One Major Free-To-Play Problem With emWheres My Water? 2/em

The new game also taps into the social spirit of games like Candy Crush Saga, showing players where their Facebook friends are on the map and how well they've fared on a particular level versus their compatriots. It's a sort of passive competitive aspect that I find quite pleasing.

FitzRandolph laid out the framework of what sounded like an exciting extension of the popular brand. All three "playable" characters — Swampy, Allie and Cranky — mingle in each set of levels rather than being cordoned off, building the character of this strange, underground world. "Duck Rush" levels, in which the screen scrolls and the player has to keep digging the water down the screen, add a welcome bit of urgency to an otherwise thoughtful series.

Where's My Water? 2 sounded like an amazing game that I couldn't wait to play. Thank's to the worst possible feature in a free-to-play game, waiting is exactly what I have to do.

Limiting play time via an arbitrary energy meter is an incredibly player-unfriendly game mechanic. It's like being punished for playing. The better the game, the more frustrating the energy mechanic becomes. Applied to the simple brilliance of a Where's My Water? game, the frustration burns hot and bright.

It really doesn't work with the game structure. Where's My Water? 2 is a puzzle game with a heavy trial-and-error element — part of the joy of the previous games was attempting levels over and over again, trying to collect all of the ducks or finding more efficient means of solving H2o issues. When every attempt brings players closer to a forced stopping point, the game doesn't work.

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There is some relief from the energy issue. Unlocking a new set of puzzles with reward players with an energy refills, as will the initial connection to Facebook. Once connected, players will be able to gift their friends with more energy, so a gregarious social networker might never have to worry about energy much at all.

But fans of the series who just want to immerse themselves in puzzle-after-puzzle until sated will find their progress blocked. Unlike Plants Vs. Zombies 2, which rewards the hardcore with unlimited access, here the hardcore are penalized for their passion.

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I can't imagine how the simple energy mechanic fits with his overall vision for this sequel.

"I think the main thing for us, as we went through every decision of 'should we add something or not' or 'should we change something or not' was continuing to be super clear with ourselves about what we think is fun about our game, and making sure that anything we introduced to the game augmented that and was in concert with that. Our game is about looking at a puzzle, figuring it out, solving it and then seeing what's next. Everything we've added is in line with that."

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Not really, no.

Where's My Water? 2 is available now on iOS, with versions coming to Windows Phone, Windows 8, and the Amazon App Store later today.

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DISCUSSION

This energy mechanic is the thing that keeps mobile gaming from being taken seriously. It's hurting the industry, but it makes them so much money right now they can't see that. Eventually those casual gamers will get fed up with the mechanic and move on to a "real" gaming console (I hope)