Free-to-play games often look appealing, but it's difficult to know at a glance whether the business model is insidious and fun ruining, or reasonable and worth pumping a few bucks into. With Freemium Field Test, we'll take a recent free-to-play iOS game, put it through its paces, and let you know if it's really worth your time (and money).
Rovio, once the king of iOS gaming and the creative force behind millions of licensed Angry Birds shirts and doodads, is on a serious downswing right now. The studio reported a 73-percent drop in profits last year, due to a number of reasons: Its flagship brand is losing steam, the merchandise isn't selling, and its free-to-play efforts simply aren't competing with current App Store heavyweights.
Candy Crush Saga and Clash of Clans reportedly pulled in at least $1 billion apiece last year, yet attempts to bring Angry Birds into the free-to-play space haven't been able to recreate the success of earlier paid entries. Angry Birds Stella Pop is the latest attempt, and it shows that Rovio's strategy at this point is more or less, "If you can't beat 'em, clone 'em" — Stella Pop is not only a spinoff of a spinoff (of last fall's Angry Birds Stella), but also a copy of a copy.
This bubble-popping affair is built in the mold of arcade classic Bust-a-Move (a.k.a. Puzzle Bobble), but really, it's a near-identical copy of Bubble Witch 2 Saga — from the interface to the power-ups, map screen, and more. Sad of a statement as it is about the series' current mindset, Angry Birds Stella Pop remains an enjoyable freemium game, besting its rival on production values while delivering amusing gameplay — but also difficulty spikes and arbitrary waiting periods.
Angry Birds Stella Pop replicates the core design of Taito's excellent Bust-a-Move, seen on numerous platforms over the last two decades — including an aging paid version and a current free-to-play iteration on iOS. Using a bubble launcher at the bottom of the screen, you'll shoot the spheres upwards in the hopes to matching at least three like-colored bubbles together on the screen. Generally, the goal is to clear the board using a limited number of bubbles.
Candy Crush maker King copied that design for the Bubble Witch Saga series, and it's last summer's fluffier-looking sequel that Angry Birds Stella Pop uses for its template. It's uncanny: aside from the license swap, the game and interface are identical. The game screen looks the same, down to the power-up placement (and the power-ups themselves), the win conditions and various level objectives are all very familiar, and even the map screen is carbon-copied here. And in a twist that's likely coincidental, yet still mind-boggling, the heroine of Bubble Witch 2 Saga is named Stella. Seriously.
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