Opinion: CSR Racing's success demonstrates sophisticated monetisation but where's the gameplay?
With 11 million downloads of its equine nurturing game My Horse, it's now switched its attention to boys, at least boy racers, with new release CSR Racing.
Demonstrating the company's close links with Apple, it was the only game to be showcased in the WWDC 2012 keynote and builds on NaturalMotion's mission of pushing highly accessible gameplay with console-quality graphics.
Developer Boss Alien consists of ex-Black Rock Studios staff. The Disney-owned UK outfit, behind games such as Split Second and Pure, was closed down in the summer of 2011 and it's clear this start up team knows all about creating very shiny, very realistic cars.
More significant, however, is that given its experience with My Horse, NaturalMotion now knows all about monetising users.
Tap Tap Revenge
Indeed, it could be argued that despite its overt theme CSR Racing is more a rhythm action game than a racer.
In terms of gameplay, all you're required to do is tap on the screen a number of times per race to manually change the gears on your souped up car at precisely the right time, also tapping your nitro button to trigger that boost.
There's no driving - steering etc - per se in this drag race environment that has you racing against one AI opponent. You even view the action side-on.
Brain science it ain't and more worryingly, little skill or skill improvement is required or encouraged to progress through the game's various modes.
What is encouraged is spending cash.
Of course, plenty of games take a similar approach, but few have so many monetisation methods so deeply integrated.
The most obvious option is that once you get your first car, you have seven different parts - engine, turbo, intake, nitrous, wheels, body etc - which need to be upgraded multiple times before your car is totally maxxed out and you can start to win those all important 'hard' races.
The earliest waves of upgrades can easily be earned using the soft currency you get from winning easier races, but as you get higher up the customisation tree, you're either heavily grinding or spending hard currency.
There's also a beautiful twist that when you purchase 'import' parts, you have to wait for them to 'arrive' - again something you can speed up with hard currency.
Then there's the customisation menu, where you can add decals and a customised number plate - the majority of which require hard currency - although you gain additional soft currency through these when you win races thanks to the decal bonus.
So far, so fair. This is pretty much how all free-to-play games monetise - restricting high value items and using time as a barrier to force players to make a decision about immediate small microtransactions or long duration gameplay.
What's really interesting about CSR Racing is that it doubles up on these, employing another barrier in terms of restricting game session length i.e. your ability to earn soft currency, something already eroded by the lack of skill progression.
It does this via access to petrol. You have a limited amount, some of which is used every time you race, and which slowly regenerates over time.
At the start of the game - Tier 1 of 5 - you use one petrol unit per race - giving you about 10 races (each race take about 15 seconds ) so couple of minutes of game time per full tank. As you get further into the game, races use up more petrol.
Of course, once your petrol is used up, you have to wait tens of minutes for it to totally recharge, or buy more with hard currency.
Throw in various other restrictions such as the ability to get your car tuned up for a limited number of races using hard currency, boss cars which you have to beat multiple times but which will upgrade themselves through that process, and the usual temptation of getting a top of the range set of wheels that's only available in hard currency (a BMW Z4 GT3 for 100 gold or $10 for example), and it's not surprising that CSR Racing is sitting pretty in the #1 top grossing spot in the all-important US App Store.
And with over one million players connected via Game Center, and an iTunes rating of 4.5 stars from around 110,000 reviews, it's clear that this type of hardball isn't putting off punters - at least petrolheads - despite some one star reviews complaining about such hardball tactics.
Perhaps more significantly is that at the moment, there's very little social interaction other than Facebook Connect and Game Center leaderboards to drive repeat play. Presumably some sort of multiplayer modes - perhaps with soft currency or pink slip wagering - will be rolled out in updates.
Certainly, it will be fascinating to see how other social/mobile and freemium companies react to its success, as well as how NaturalMotion tweaks the experience over time, and feeds these learnings into its forthcoming games - due soon.
Let's just hope there's as much focus on gameplay as monetisation next time around.