Double Fine stumbles with Middle Manager of Justice, a free-to-play game that uses time against you
The iOS free-to-play title Middle Manager of Justice may turn into a fun game at some point, but my early hours with the title were spent bashing my head against the limitations imposed by its free-to-play nature. It’s hard to know when you’ve played enough of a game to talk about it with any authority, but in this case I simply wasn’t having fun when I played. There is nothing here that felt satisfying, or addictive.
A good idea
The game is based on a clever premise. You control an office filled with superheroes, and you need to manage things to turn a profit and take down the supervillains. You hire heroes, keep them happy, tell them to rest to get their powers back, and go on missions where you battle thugs and bad guys via a rudimentary battle system. You’ve played free-to-play titles like this before: You click on things, wait a bit, watch a number go up, and carry on.
The problem is that the game is bent by its need to make money. Free-to-play games require that some aspect of their economy is unsatisfying; that lack of satisfaction should compel you to get your wallet and pay some real money to fix the issue. In games like Tribes: Ascend you become bored with the free classes, so you pay money to unlock new characters and weapons. In MechWarrior Online you pay for new Mechs and upgrades. Both of those games can provide hours of genuine fun before you start adding in money.
Everything you do in Middle Manager of Justice is timed. So if you tell your hero to work out to increase a stat, it takes time. Resting to heal takes time. Talking to your manager to improve morale takes time. You also have to deal with a map that gives you missions for your heroes, and as time counts down for each mission the satisfaction of each area goes down, and that impacts the amount of coins you make. So you begin to juggle everything.
The game is a never-ending run of trade-offs. Do I have time to work out before my next mission? Is it okay to keep my morale low and instead sleep to regain health? Oh shit, I waited too long to tackle those thugs and now people are unhappy! You don’t really have time to think. It’s a constant race to make sure you’re taking on enough missions, resting, talking to your manager, and upgrading. You always feel like you don’t have enough time to get everything done.
Of course, that’s the point. You don’t have enough time to get everything done. The idea is that if you buy “Superium,” you can spend it to “rush” activities. Suddenly you can work out instantly! Or gain your morale back in no time! Heck, for just $2 you can double the amount of Superium you earn in the game, or purchase it whenever you need it. Superium also allows you to buy coins to spend on upgrades to your base and items to take with you into combat, but its most important use is to give you the time you need to get everything done. Why sit and watch a timer counting down when you’re upgrading our intelligence when you can simply pay a little money to make it an instant process?
The result is a game that’s just not fun. It’s tuned so that you you never have quite enough time to do things well, or even to think about your moves, so you have to buy Superium to keep your head above water. Contrast this with a free-to-play game like Highgrounds, which Sophie and I have been quite enjoying. I played for hours before I began to feel like I wanted to pay money for new characters, and by that time I was having so much fun I was willing to put in a few bucks to play with the deck building system. The game built up goodwill by allowing me to slow down, play at my own pace, and give me hours of enjoyment before I began to feel unsatisfied.
Middle Manager of Justice seems tuned to create frustration at the lack of time you have available to upgrade your base and characters and still do your superhero duties, and the result is a game that feels like it has its hand out before it gives you a reason to want to pay. The game is described as a “time management” title, but that management isn’t based on cleverness; you can either always feel like you’re falling behind, or you can pay money to speed your progress along. Neither state is enjoyable.
The game was created by Double Fine, which is a developer that is almost beyond description in the market. They began the Kickstarter gold rush, created wonderful “hardcore” games like Iron Brigade as well as enjoyable games for families such as Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster. Double Fine Action Theater is now being used to help treat special needs children.
Double Fine recently livestreamed a number of fascinatingly diverse game prototypes, many of which looked more interesting than most games on the market. It’s hard to know what the company will do next, but Middle Manager of Justice lacks that spark that makes Double Fine games so exhilarating. When a studio seems to have an inexhaustible supply of interesting ideas, seeing them release a free-to-play game that feels this exploitative is disappointing.