For the past four-hundred-odd days I’ve been a daily player of Marvel Puzzle Quest, a free-to-play match-3 game featuring Marvel superheroes and villains.
Hear my confession!
This is a great game. It is also a terrible game. It’s addictive (and I’ve been addicted). I’ve also been entertained, and deeply engaged by the game’s many overlapping reward systems. It expanded my interest in Marvel’s characters and storylines and let me have some comics fun when I wasn’t actually reading comics or writing about them. It also took me away from friends and family and shoved other games and even some creative projects to the side.
So, definitely a mixed bag. A game that I recommend, but with reservations.
Marvel Puzzle Quest is a free-to-play game for iOS and Android — there are also versions available on Steam and console. It is a competitive game where you put together groups of characters to battle enemy teams in head-to-head match-3 play. Matching colors powers up your heroes to unleash special attacks, activate defenses, or otherwise affect the game. At its core, matching gems has little to do with superheroics (though the same might be said of shuffling cards, or maneuvering on a chessboard), but the theme of the game shines through when assembling your teams of heroes, building up their power sets, and matching complimentary character abilities to exploit the weaknesses of enemy teams, while guarding against their particular strengths.
It’s very clever, particularly for such a simple game.
But there is a price to pay. At first, it is a price of time and attention.
Later, it is a price of pain.
its price is pain!
The game’s user interface is optimized for experienced players, and it can be daunting for new players to figure out what the heck is going on. You have a group of three characters, and the enemy has a group of three characters, but those groups are often an arbitrary mix of heroes and villains, and you will sometimes see the same character fighting itself. Your guys are on the left of the screen, and the bad guys are on the right, but your characters move and shuffle themselves around a lot, and it can be hard to understand which of your own characters is taking action, or even when the bad guys are making their move. It is ultimately pretty simple — generate enough damage to knock out the other team before all your own characters are downed, and you clear the puzzle. There is a tutorial sequence, and it is adequate, but you should expect to invest a couple hours in learning the ins-and-outs of this thing.
You can watch some intrepid YouTuber play the game here:
Eventually the game will reveal itself to you. You will understand that characters generate different levels of damage based on the colors you match — for example, Hulk smashes great with green gems, while Captain America does great with red. When you make a match, the character on your team that best generates damage using that color will jump to the front of your line … where they will also become the primary target for enemy attacks. Meanwhile, the enemy character in front will be your target — and you can shuffle the order of the enemy to hit the weak link first. You will also learn how matching specific colors gradually powers up the abilities of your characters — each character has three special powers, a mixture of active and passive abilities that you can fire off when you’ve accumulated enough of your target colors. So, to continue our example, Hulk can blast off a shockwave by slapping his hands together when you’ve accumulated enough green power, and Captain America can throw his mighty shield when you’ve banked enough red gems.
Character powers are accompanied by pleasing animations, and for the most part the powers match well with their characters. Captain America stuns with his shield and protects his friends; the Black Widow snaps off precise sniper shots and blazes away with her pistols; Doctor Doom summons demons and progressively builds a master plan that can take down the toughest foe if allowed to come to fruition. Spider-Man … mostly heals people with web-bandages. Hey, you can’t win them all! (And the Marvel Universe really needs more characters with healing powers — who knew?)
(they’re actually very useful)
These three-on-three battles are available in two basic flavors — single-player events, and player-versus-player tournaments.
Single-player events are story-driven, based around the scramble for “Iso-8,” an extraterrestrial mineral that powers-up hero and villain alike and unleashes all manner of mayhem on the world. Through a series of rotating story events, which repeat if you hang around long enough (ahem), you’ll battle Harry Osborn’s Dark Avengers, and get involved in intrigue with Doctor Doom and Magneto as they variously try to capture Iso-8 and manipulate characters to their own ends. Stories are dialogue-driven, and do the job of getting you from one battle to the next … they are generally better-written than they need to be, and they add context to a series of strung-together match-3 puzzles. I did at various times feel like I was battling the Hood’s criminal gang, or fighting Hand ninjas, or trailing a rampaging Hulk around the globe — well done.
at select times in the story, Deadpool goes meta and directly addresses the player … nice touch
Player-vs-player events are identical in terms of gameplay, but the structure is very different (about which much more in a moment). As in player-versus-event mode, you will take your group of three characters up against enemy teams, but instead of progressing through a story, you are competing directly with other players to place well in tournaments and collect game rewards. Play is asynchronous, meaning that you aren’t trading moves one-for-one with other players in realtime — instead, the AI runs the enemy team against you, and informs the owning player if they won or lost when they next log into the game. It works well enough, but the AI is generally terrible … something you appreciate when grinding through the story events, but lament when you realize your team is at the mercy of that same AI to defend against live opponents in player-vs-player mode.
There are sundry lesser systems too — hourly “lightning round” player-versus-player mini-tournaments during weekdays; special story events when Ultron or Galactus attacks the Marvel Universe; story-based character intros for new-to-the-game characters like Ant-Man or the Totally Awesome Hulk; and the very welcome Deadpool’s Daily Quest, which affords players the chance of winning a specific character cover if they can beat that day’s challenge.
rewards, rewards, rewards!
All of these things feed into the heart of the game, which is the reward system — an ingenious chain of overlapping pushes and pulls that really makes Marvel Puzzle Quest more than another matching puzzle clone. The core of the game is characters — the more characters you have, the more you can do in the game. Characters are built from comic covers, which are awarded by progressing through the game, or by draws from blind packs. Covers come in three different colors, corresponding to different powers that character may have. A character can have five covers in any given power, but no more than thirteen total covers, leading to asymmetrical character builds (5-5-3, 5-4-4, etc.). Once you’ve cashed in your covers to earn powers, you level up your character by spending ISO-8, with the maximum possible level driven by a character’s relative rarity, or star level (one- through five-stars).
For example, here is one my fully-leveled three-star characters:
From the above three screens, you can see that my three-star Cyclops is at Level 166, and that he does the most damage by matching red, yellow, and black gems. He has five levels of Optic Blast, four levels of Mutant Revolutionary, and four levels of Full Blast.
And here you see how each of those powers breaks down. My Optic Blasts are at the highest possible level, but because I can only have thirteen total powers per character, if I want to boost (say) Full Blast to level 5, I will have to drop a level of something else (and I won’t be able to do that until I earn, find, or purchase another Full Blast cover).
Once you understand how the reward system works, it quickly becomes the most important part of the game. Your every decision becomes driven by the quest for covers. You will scan the rewards sequence of every story event to see if it is worth grinding for a specific cover reward, and you’ll determine how much time to invest in tournaments based on the covers they (might) award.
nice tournament rewards if you are looking for Luke Cage covers … and you should be!
Because there are dozens of characters at five different star levels to pursue — and because new characters are introduced monthly — the rewards system is overlapping and never-ending. If you get all the covers for a specific character, you may still wish to re-arrange the covers you have (like my desire to improve Cyclops’ Full Blast). Even if you build the perfect three-star version of a character, then there might be a better four-star version out there for your next project. And the way the characters work together becomes important, too — to compliment that Cyclops, you might also want to collect the Scarlet Witch, who hits hardest with the colors of purple, green, and blue. Paired with Cyclops, those two characters cover all the colors of the game’s rainbow … and you still have a third character to add to your team. Will they be a defensive specialist with a game-ending knock-out punch, like Luke Cage? Someone that manipulates the board, like Loki? Maybe an exotic character that drains enemy colors and builds up a damaging special attack over time, like Blade?
Remember that most awards in this game are random. You never know if the next card pull will give you the cover you most desire.
And that’s how you go down the rabbit hole with this thing.
the White Rabbit is NOT part of Marvel Puzzle Quest (yet)
So far, so good … but now we get to the bottom of that rabbit hole. The game’s best rewards come through the player-vs-player system … and that system is patched-together, un-thematic, and deeply flawed. Players join tournaments of a few days’ duration, built around a specific character (often one that has recently been introduced). The feature character fills one of your team’s three spots, and a low-level “loaner” is provided if you don’t yet have that character on your roster. Filling the other two spots is up to you, but you will wish to pick characters that synergize with each other while keeping an eye on who is buffed that particular week. This is a nice touch — by rotating required characters and buffs, the game achieves some variation in tournament teamings, though high-level four- and five-star teams still rule the roost.
Where the system comes apart is in tournament standings. Marvel Puzzle Quest player-vs-player tournaments are basically a greasy pole. There are treasures near the top of the pole, and everyone is trying to climb it at the same time. The only way to rise is to drive someone else down, which means these tournaments are a messy brawl, with everyone bashing everyone else in their attempt to get to the top.
substitute rare cover drops for bicycles, and you’ve pretty much got it
The problem is that you can only attack enemy teams one-by-one, while you are exposed to many more attacks at the same time. This means that you might beat Team A and score 25 points, but in the five minutes it took to beat Team A, you were attacked by Teams B, C, and D, and lost 75 points. Because your team is run by the game’s cruddy AI when it is attacked, it is practically impossible to defend in this game, aside from the intimidation value of having outrageously high-leveled characters. The result is a battle of eggshells armed with hammers, with everyone trying to bash the other guy faster than they are bashed themselves. Add to this that the penalty for losing a match frequently exceeds the benefit for winning and PVP mode quickly become a game of mutually assured destruction.
To solve this the developers have resorted to a patchwork solution — players can spend their high value currency (Hero Points) to erect a “shield” for several hours. While shielded, your team can still be attacked, but you won’t lose any points for a defeat. The winning strategy in PVP mode is thus to build a quick-strike attack team, smash a bunch of high-value targets as fast as you can, and then pop up your shield to avoid retaliation and to better hang onto your precious spot on the pole. Later, after your health packs have regenerated, you drop your shields and repeat, “shield hopping” several times over the course of the tournament to attain the highest possible ranking before time expires. It is a tedious process, and one prone to disappointment — it requires that you play the game at specific times of the day, to properly synchronize your shield hopping, and there’s still no guarantee you won’t get plastered in the minimal time that your shields are down. It is also unthematic — your heroes hide in the shadows, emerge just long enough to beat up someone weaker, and then go back into hiding.
Does that sound like a super-team beatdown tournament to you? Me neither.
MPQ Player vs. Player mode … or maybe In Pictopia, by Alan Moore and Don Simpson
After you’ve built out your three-star roster of characters, you will find that four-star characters are only awarded through these crapshoot player-vs-player tournaments, or through long grinding sessions with single-player story events … and by grinding, I mean playing several hours a day, every day, for the three-to-seven days that most story events require. The virtue of single-player grinding is that rewards are guaranteed — you know that if you play each day’s event three times inside of twenty-four hours, and repeat for most of the week that follows — that you will get whatever card you’re aiming for on the reward schedule. The downside is that your soul will be cauterized by the mindless reputation of mundane actions.
Pretty much all of these criticisms spring from the same source: the monetization methodology of Marvel Puzzle Quest. Before I dive in here, let me go on the record as a player who likes free-to-play games and feels developers should be paid for their efforts. I always buy something if I play one of these games for any substantial length of time. It’s the polite thing to do, and after all, these games are free-to-play, but they’re not free-to-make. And, yes, full disclosure requires that I state I work in the free-to-play games business, but I would have come around to this position sooner or later regardless of my profession. I think people should pay for their entertainment, whether it is a free mobile game, a web comic, or a story on the internet. You’d never walk out of a restaurant without offering a tip. Why not leave a buck for the people who create your entertainment?
here comes the pain
I have no problem with Marvel Puzzle Quest passing the collections plate — I’ve spent somewhere around a hundred bucks on this game in the year-plus that I’ve played it. But I would have spent a lot more if the game didn’t have such a regressive monetization system. In effect, MPQ inflicts pain on players, then expects them to pay to make it stop. They are not alone in this approach — plenty of games are set up the same way — but that doesn’t make it any more palatable, and the inevitable result is a player base bifurcated between payers and non-payers, which isn’t an attractive thing for a game driven by player-vs-player tournaments. And no matter which class you are in, you aren’t likely to feel very positive toward the game. Wouldn’t you rather spend your money on something fun? Who likes to pay money to stop pain?
(The answer to that question: addicts).
And what pain do those addicts pay to avoid?
Primarily the pain of losing what they’ve earned. The goal of the game is to accumulate comics covers, and use them to build characters to take on still greater and greater levels of opposition. These covers can be earned by placing well in player-vs-player tournaments and grinding through the story events. But only a select few of these characters can be retained by the starting player — if you wish a full and versatile stable of characters, you will need to purchase additional character slots with Hero Points, earned (infrequently) from grinding, or purchased with cash. If you fail to purchase needed slots within a few weeks, those covers you earned will expire, and turn into (low-value currency) dust. Want to avoid the pain of sacrificing covers it took you hours to earn? You Must Pay.
There’s also the pain of retaining your position in player-vs-player tournaments. Remember how I described them as a greasy pole? Well, you can kind of hold your position for up to a day by purchasing shields — and again, this will cost you Hero Points, most often acquired with cash. Achieving a Top 50 position in most tournaments will likely require at least one shield purchase. A Top 10 position will require many more. The alternative is to hope you don’t get hit too hard in the closing hours of a tourney by the players coming up behind you. (You can guess how that works out). Want to avoid the pain of sacrificing dozens of ranks in that tournament you’ve been playing for hours? You Must Pay.
the wrong kind of shield, unfortunately
The game does offer fun purchases, but they make for poor value. You can buy individual character covers directly, but it is prohibitively expensive. A three-star cover costs about six bucks in Hero Points, and the first cover in each color must be earned through a game reward or a blind draw, meaning that up to ten covers may be purchased, so a fully-leveled three-star character might cost sixty dollars. The cost of leveling four-star characters is in the hundreds, and five-star characters run into the thousands (!). It is satisfying to buy that last, key cover to complete a character to your specification — dropping prices to allow players to do this more often, and more profitably, might make players feel better about the money they spend on the game.
The game also allows you to purchase packs of cards, of varying rarities, quantity, and content, but given the poor draw rates, this quickly reveals itself as a mug’s game. Such purchases should be a highlight — it’s fun to open packs in Hearthstone, or even something like Star Wars Card Trader — but not so much here. The value of packs also diminish as your roster matures, as the odds of getting covers you can use dwindle, so veteran players (who might otherwise be the most inclined to spend) instead generally ignore pack purchase option. This is another place where I think the game’s very punishing and conservative rewards system is leaving a lot of money on the table for the developers.
But I can see where the developers are trapped — they’ve created a game where the value of their goods is established by the long and painful grinding needed to attain them. To avoid that grind, You Must Pay. If the grind is made less painful and time-consuming, then it undercuts their entire economy. This is the corner you paint yourself into with a pain-based economy. A solution might be allowing players to “power up” their experience for six or twelve hours at a time through cash purchase — pay, say, $1.99 or .99 to earn double or triple rewards during the time their power-up is active. This would keep the fundamental grinding economy in place while allowing players to speed up their progress with select cash purchase, feeling smarter for optimizing their playing time, and sending more cash to the developers by better monetizing a hardcore base of grinders who might never otherwise be convinced to pay. Better than offering sales — which trains players to wait for discounts before paying — this system would allow players to declare “sales” of their own whenever it suited them, and would get them making those small, regular purchases that are the gateway to larger spending. I hope the developers do something like this. It would get me back into the game!
Because I am out, mostly.
we’re free! let’s go!
From being a daily player and sometimes payer, I am down to playing once a week or so, and never paying at all. Having filled out my roster of one-, two-, and three-star characters, it’s just too daunting to make the transition to four-star play. The four-star characters are too difficult to attain, and it is dispiriting to play for hours only to earn duplicate three-star rewards that I end up burning for low-value currency. And with the developers introducing new four-star characters every month, I see the pool of four-star covers expanding and diluting even as my ability to draw from them diminishes, meaning increased chances of my pulling the first cover of a new character I cannot use, rather than the sixth or seventh cover for a character I have long nurtured toward viability. Finally, the recent introduction of five-star characters, like the Silver Surfer and Phoenix, indicates that yet another wave of power escalation is coming, pushing me even further down the pole in competitive play. I can’t even complete the jump to four-star level, and now the goal posts are shifting to the five-star realm?
And so my review of Marvel Puzzle Quest ends on a down note, but it should be a qualified down note. I played this game for well over a year, and had fun with it, most of the time. It was confusing to understand how the reward systems fit together at first, but once I’d tricked out a team of one-star heroes, and started to accumulate two- and three-star covers, the game became a lot of fun. Completing my first few three-star heroes was a great accomplishment, and joining an alliance and experiencing some small success in player-vs-player tournaments was also great fun.It was awesome to finally put together a killer team of Wolverine, Daken, and Hulk to bomb the board with escalating rage bonuses, or to team Professor X, Black Widow, and Scarlet Witch to create match-5 events that unleashed Xavier’s instant-killing psychic attacks. But once I’d exhausted the three-star level of play, it just became too exhausting to play — the time and scheduling demands too onerous, the rewards too infrequent and too scattershot. Add to this the wholesale dilution of the card base by the rapid introduction of new characters, along with the specter of possibly having a critical character “nerfed” because that selfsame rapid pace knocks the meta-game balance out of whack, and it is easy to opt out of the game as an advanced player.
But for a beginning player, or more accurately an intermediate player, this game can be a ton of fun, and I’m glad to have had a year’s worth of joy with it. If you are a new player, I encourage you to jump in … just be prepared to jump out again! And remember that if the game starts to cause you pain, it isn’t a bug. That’s a feature!
And finally … a word about addiction. For a time I was deeply hooked on this game, and the near-four thousand words of this review have been part of breaking free from Marvel Puzzle Quest. Several times over the past year I have scheduled — and then rescinded — this review, which I always figured would be the exclamation point at the end of my experience with the game. It was only in the past month, when I found myself grinding away in a player-vs-player tournament to score a tenth Professor X cover … on freaking Christmas Eve … that I decided enough was enough. Since that time I’ve imposed rules for myself that make the game less available, and broke my many months long consecutive playing streak. It was the right choice, and I’ve already put time that might have gone into Marvel Puzzle Quest into more profitable ventures (like writing this blog!) I do expect to play in bursts from here on out, but the days of playing first thing in the morning, every morning, are gone forever. We geeky folk are prone to all sorts of dorky addictions, but a good match-3 game, with its swirling cloud of slot machine-like enticements, makes for an especially heady brew. With great game comes great responsibility. So if you do elect to play … play responsibly!
(And if you get whacked by LBoxGraveyard in PVP when I was supposed to have quit the game … then spare a prayer for this poor addict!)
NOVEMBER 2016 UPDATE: It’s been awhile since I published this article, and it continues to do well at Longbox Graveyard, so I thought it was worth updating, particularly as Marvel Puzzle Quest has changed and evolved in some key ways since this review first went live.
A key and welcome addition to the game are Champions. As fate would have it, this paradigm-changing addition went live right after I published this article … and, yes, it sucked me back into the game, big-time. Champions allowed players to continue leveling up their heroes after hitting what was the previous maximum limit. Now, instead of selling off excess covers for fully-leveled heroes, you can spend those covers for additional levels. You can also freely change around the cover schemes of your Championed heroes, allowing you to experiment with different character builds and fine-tune your teams on a battle-to-battle basis. This has been a great addition!
Sweeping in with Champions were changes to the game economy that loosened things up and made it easier to transition into those 4- and 5-star hero ranks. Legendary Tokens allow players to draw from packs that contain only 4- and 5-star heroes. The tokens are available for placing well in the game’s various competitions, and are also (cleverly and crucially) awarded by leveling up your Championed heroes. In effect, Legendary Tokens provided a bridge across that gulf I lamented between the 3- and 4-star level of play, and since their introduction I have added several fully-covered 4-star characters to my roster (and, yes, Championed them too!). Along with Command Points — a new high-level currency that let you earn Legendary Tokens on a slow drip — the developers have considerably improved the overall character leveling up flow and substantially increased the lifespan of their game.
New characters have continued to be introduced, of course — this past month saw Doctor Strange come out, in tandem with his movie. There have been a few new story events and boss events. There’s a premium “VIP” system that provides additional awards every day you play. You can now elect to view ads now and then if you want a little rewards boost. The game also introduced SHIELD Clearance Levels, which are effectively reward tiers that players unlock by earning experience points during regular play — they help provide a more guided path for new players as the game unfolds, and theoretically partition players into groups as they compete against each other in the game’s various events.
Unfortunately, the game’s multi-player structure is still as regressive as described above. The developers did tweak the way defensive teams are selected, to close a loophole where alliances were effectively throwing matches to each other to progress in multi-player tournaments, but they offered nothing to replace the very real (and often fun) alliance cooperation that powered that quasi-legal process. Now, PVP is back where it started — you build your team, you climb as high as you can, you get whacked by a wave out of nowhere, and you quit the game in disgust. Whee!
And that brings us up to the moment. Overall, the game has made great strides in the last ten months and continues to improve. If they can finally get PVP dialed in, they will suck me back in! Right now, I only play a little bit. Honest.
(If “every day” can be considered a “little bit.” Grrr!)
NEXT MONTH: #156 Beneath The Longbox Bookshelf