Pokemon Cafe Mix launched on June 24th 2020. By mid-afternoon on June 25th 2020, I had completed the game without spending a penny.
This probably needs a bit more context. In Pokemon Cafe Mix, you progress by completing puzzles, and each one you complete moves you closer to unlocking a new recipe, piece of decoration, or even a new section of your cafe.
Each of these upgrades either introduces new gameplay mechanics or a new Pokemon to play with and potentially recruit to your team. You get one of these upgrades every four or five levels, which keeps things pretty interesting as each new mechanic is chucked in with the others to create new, harder puzzles.
And let me add that the game is really fun to play. Upgrades genuinely feel like a substantial addition each time they come around, and the growing list of Pokemon encourages you to keep playing and recruiting due to the random nature with which they arrive for a tasty treat.
But hit level 96, and the game informs you that there are simply no more upgrades to unlock. No new mechanics, no extra Pokemon. There may be more to come in a week or two, but there's no indication of when this next update may drop.
Plan for the worst
I've definitely heard it said before that free-to-play puzzle game designers need to plan for this kind of player - the type who absolutely refuses to put down your creation and blasts through hundreds of levels in a matter of hours. It happens. I'm living proof of it.
So it seems wild that The Pokemon Company, home to one of the biggest franchises in the world, wouldn't plan for this eventuality, no matter what audience they were targeting in their initial design.
You can, as it happens, keep playing. More levels are available, and completing those will level up your relationship with the Pokemon and help you recruit ones you haven't yet bagged.
You also unlock Master Cafe Mode after finishing level 100, a mode designed to entertain those who rush through content until new upgrades are available, with "master points" available which, at the moment, do absolutely nothing.
But small, incremental levels of growth aren't enough to keep me interested. I was hoping for a near-endless stream of new items, gameplay mechanics, or at least new Pokemon to keep me coming back. There's certainly plenty to choose from when adding the little critters to the game.
Time and rhythm
So, what's gone wrong here? I can think of two pretty simple sticking points - either the rate of upgrades was too quick, or there just wasn't enough content in the tank. And, honestly, both of those could be true.
If that upgrade cadence now started to slow down, it would be incredibly noticeable.
There's no way to know why the upgrades are capped at level 96 right now. Perhaps the team ran out of time to implement more content before the game launched, possibly as a result of Covid-19 wrecking production schedules. Or, heaven forbid, they really didn't think a superfan like myself would eat through all the levels in a matter of hours.
There's only one solution for having more content, and that's having more time. But once someone higher up decided it was time to announce the game at a Pokemon Presents event, that's the fate of the game sealed. Get out what you've got, and make sure your update schedule is in place.
Given that Cafe Mix wasn't even teased ahead of its reveal, it's not as though there was an audience waiting with bated breath for its release. Could The Pokemon Company have held off on its launch while it built up a bigger buffer of content? It's certainly a possibility.
Slow it down
The other issue is the rate at which upgrades are unlocked. As noted above, you get a new menu item or piece of decor every four or five levels. That's a pretty steady stream, and if you're halfway decent at the game, it means you score a new upgrade once every twenty minutes or so.
But it also sets an expectation later down the line. If that upgrade cadence now started to slow down, it would be incredibly noticeable. The developers have shot themselves in the foot in that way, and now need to make sure the cadence sticks to what's been established.
Could the upgrade cadence have been slower initially? Potentially. The puzzles in Cafe Mix are, as previously stated, good fun to play. They could easily have carried the game under their own weight, even if the upgrade cadence was doubled in length.
The speed at which a player can get through all the levels means there's less reason for them to put money down
However, decreasing the number of upgrades you unlock also increases the time you can spend leveling up your relationship with Pokemon. Complete enough orders for a specific creature and not only will they join your crew, but they can also level up and earn more time making decisions in the puzzle stages.
The right balance
That's certainly a tricky balancing act, though it's somewhat undermined when you consider that once you hit the upgrade cap you can now grind as long as you like to catch 'em all and make life much easier when the new upgrades do come around.
And, for one final point, the speed at which a player can get through all the levels means there's less reason for them to put money down. But monetisation is a whole separate matter, and I'll leave that to our IAP Inspector to discuss more thoroughly.
Overall, it comes down to what feels like a lack of preparation. Pokemon may be a child-friendly franchise, but that doesn't mean children are the only ones who will play. And with nothing to encourage me to go back, I may never return, even when new upgrades do come to the game.