Marvel Puzzle Quest And Me

Today, I have been playing Marvel Puzzle Quest for two years.

And by "for two years", I don't mean on and off. I don't mean playing it a bit on release, then dipping my toe in once in a while when new stuff shows up. I mean for two years. I mean that every single day for the past two years, I have played at least one match. Usually more. I know i haven't missed a day, because the game knows I haven't missed a day. Which is kind of insane.

I play it a lot. I play it on the bus, I play it while I'm watching TV, I play it before bed. Which is kind of insane.

This sounds like a confessional, an admission of guilt, the start to a 12-step meeting, because it kind of is. One of the reasons I haven't written about MPQ despite it being such a huge part of my gaming life is that, well, the game forces me to confront some fairly heavy issues regarding the definition of "game" and "enjoyment". Because clearly, I enjoy playing MPQ. Sometimes I enjoy it more than others, but on average, I wouldn't be doing it if I didn't enjoy it. But why do I enjoy it? And is it worthy of my love?

Marvel Puzzle Quest is a freemium match-3 RPG for mobile. A lot of that description should be, frankly, an automatic disqualifier. But I was hooked on the original Puzzle Quest back in the day, so much so that I tried to play Puzzle Quest Galactrix and Puzzle Quest 2 even though they kind of sucked. If you don't know what a Match 3 RPG is, think of it as Bejeweled with a point. It's a matching puzzle game with an opponent, where your matches generate the resources you need to do the kinds of things you'd do in a role-playing game - use powers and abilities, or gain currency, or experience, or otherwise progress. Here, you have Marvel heroes and villains and their superpowers, all adapted to the idea of making rows of three or more of seven different colored icons.

But it's also a freemium game, which, again, if you don't know, a game that you don't pay for, but is built in such a way that spending money on stuff gives you an advantage that you'd otherwise have to get through playing the game over and over and over again. Freemium games have their own econommies of time, fake currency, and real currency, and one of my disgusting personal habits is trying to "beat" a freemium economy by analyzing its weaknesses and exploiting it optimally.

Marvel Puzzle Quest started off with one economy two years ago. Perfectly acceptable one. Not too cruel to the free player. Then it shifted to a different system that was just wrong in every way, and I actually removed the game from my iPad. And then I heard they changed it again, reinstalled, tried it out, and haven't stopped since. Whether it's a good idea or not.

The trick with a game like this is figuring out what's enjoyment, what's fun, what's obligation, and what's an acceptable level of addiction. I have a love of the grind. I have loot receptors deep in my brain. It's no shock that two of the three games I've played most in my life are MPQ and the Borderlands games, especially Borderlands 2. (The third is Rock Band, which is different). I know this has roots in basic stimulus-response and reward psychology, and I'm mostly OK with that, but all the reticence and qualifiers you're reading now are me constantly checking in on myself to be sure my addiction levels are acceptable.

Some of my frequent rationalizations, which I call rationalizations regardless of how accurate or appropriate they are, are that I can truly multitask most of the time I'm playing the game, because the game doesn't engage the verbal portion of my brain and my play is ingrained enough that I rarely have to put deep thought into what I'm doing. So I can play it on the bus while listening to a podcast and not miss any of the podcast. Similarly, listening to a TV show without a strong visual component. I can play while getting through Daily Show and NIghtly Show, or a boring or predictable bit of wrestling. So the couple hours a day I put into it isn't 100% lost time.

I also rationalize the money I've spent. I've spent some. I've spent it retroactively, as a reward for the fun-to-date the game has given me. I've spent less than a third what a comparable World of Warcraft addiction would have caused me over the same period. Less than I've spent on either Borderlands 2 or Rock Band. And I've spent it on my terms, not because the game "made me" spend money in order to accomplish things.

And of course, I know other people who play. Mostly online friends from the tiny game forum I started over a decade ago. You don't know it. It's very niche. But they all play, some play as much as I do, and none of them seem to be questioning their life choices as much as I am, so I'm probably OK.

The game is not always deserving of my love, of course. The developers need to crank out a certain amount of new content to keep people grinding for it. Mostly, this is new characters. The game has no real score or progression, so I decided early on that collecting and maxing as many characters as I can would be my own personal play goal. So every couple of weeks, a new character comes out, and first I have to do what I need to do to get it, and then I need to do what I need to do to earn the covers to upgrade it, and then the in-game currency to level it up. Plus I need to consistently earn the premium currency so that I can have more characters in my roster. To that end is the grind.

Sometimes there are new game modes or events. Not very often, but sometimes. Many of these new events are fraught with fuckuppery, like the recent Galactus battle that was designed by someone who didn't understand multiplication and was justified by telling players they were supposed to lose. But then they adjusted it and it was fun the next time they ran it. That goes on a lot. Mistakes, followed by justification, followed by adjustment.

Here's the paragraph that will impress you if you're at all familiar with the game. Today, thanks to the ultra-rare Silver Surfer the game gave me for playing for two years, I have all 84 characters released in the game since it began. 48 of those characters are done. They've got all their powers where I want them and all their levels. I have all the one-star covers I want, all the two-star covers I want, and all but two of the three-star covers I want. I'm working on my four-star roster now. All without really spending much of anything on anything of significance.

Why do I play? Well, first, obviously, I find the core match-3 RPG mechanics. Have ever since the original Puzzle Quest. Because of my progress in the game, probably 70% of the time I'm playing, I'm just going through the motions, with victory assured, and only a small amount of strategy is required to make sure I properly manage the metagame aspects - making sure I can keep key characters healthy, deciding when to climb the tournament ladder, etc.

But I even like the mindless parts of the game. I would never claim to be on the spectrum, but I don't think you have to be to necessarily take comfort in repetition. And the repetition brings rewards. Mostly meaningless rewards, rewards that will never end because they will keep making new things for me to grind for, but still. It helps keep me from feeling like I'm wasting my time. And for the most part, I don't feel like the game is wasting my time. And when it is, well, I bow out of the bit that's wasting my time until they fix it. I watched players more hardcore than I throw their 20-person Alliances against the shitty Galactus design out of sheer obligation and obstinacy, hating every second of it. I don't wanna be that guy. So that's why, when I talk about MPQ, I do so with such reticence.

Would I recommend it? I'm not sure. I'm so far removed from the new player experience, and the game has changed so much since I was doing the early grinding, that I don't know how fun the game is or attainable its goals are, for someone who's starting out. But I do play it. A lot. And I'm sure I could stop any time I wanted to.


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My sudoku game does not tell me how many days I have been playing, so I do not know how long it took me to get there, but it does log the time spent actually playing. Three seconds with a calculator tells me that is 27 1/2 days. If my sudoku habit were played out continuously, I'd be finishing up lunch, with the start of my fifth week looming. A little more calculator, and having once walked a 5k in 38:00 tells me that, if I walked it continuously at that pace, I'd be at about 5228km, or about 3250mi, and due for an oil change, if I were a car.

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