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LONG BLOG

Sonic Runners: How Unpopular Monetizing Kills a Fun F2P Game

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Sonic Runners was one of my favorite free-to-play mobile games for a long while. It definitely had some large problems holding it back, ranging from long load times to a slew of glitches. I was a much less experienced mobile gamer in those days, and I might have viewed the game in a lighter view than I should have. But as far as I saw it, Sonic Runners as a whole was an enjoyable, fun game that deserved to succeed. Whenever I was running and jumping through its procedurally generated endless running stages, I was hooked and glad about it. I enjoyed constantly challenging my own high scores, honing my reflexes and memory of stage pieces to achieve higher and higher results. The game just felt like a lot of fun to play, with solid jumping physics, reflex-based gameplay, and the arcade-like draw of an endless score attack. I wanted more of that game. And I never wanted to spend a penny on it. Many people shared that last thought, given Sonic Runners’ closure in July last year. I might have liked Sonic Runners back then almost as much as I like Fire Emblem Heroes today, which I gladly purchased Orbs in, and I still never bought Red Star Rings in Sonic Runners. Reflecting back between those two games made me ask myself... why would I be so much more willing to spend money on one game than another, if I played and enjoyed both roughly the same?

Put bluntly, Sonic Runners' premium currency was more frustrating than fun to spend.

Sonic Runners title card featuring Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, and some Buddies.

The Premium Economy

Sonic Runners used Red Star Rings as its premium currency. They could be exchanged for Lives (aka energy) or normal Rings (basic currency), but they had one primary use most players would save them for; spins at the Premium Roulette wheel. These special rings could have been obtained for free in a number of ways. Firstly, clearing Story episodes gave a few of them, which started out quick and generous, but gradually ramped up to a slow grind by the end of the story (which did loop and provide infinite currency, but only at extremely long intervals). Secondly, they had a chance to appear when attacking Eggman at the bonus segments between stage segments; a very low chance, so much so that you’d be lucky to get even one in a single Life. Thirdly, weekly rankings awarded them for placing within the top players of your current League, with increasingly higher payouts as you reach higher Leagues, but only the most dedicated players would have earned them in large quantities. Fourthly, you could have gotten 3 or more of them from spending normal Rings at the Standard Roulette… for a very low chance, once per day. Finally, limited events every few months had special stages you could play and win progressively grander prizes from, including Red Star Rings.

The Premium Roulette required 50 rings to get one spin. This could have landed you one of three results in increasing rarity; R Buddies, SR Buddies, and Characters. Buddies acted like equipment in the shape of companions flying next to you while you run through stages, like Chao or a monster or a mini Shahra or other miscellaneous items and creatures. They gave a lot of different effects that catered to different playstyles or stage layouts. Characters, of course, were Sonic’s various furry friends throughout the series, from Cream to Blaze to Shadow and so on. Their controls only depended on their Types--Speed, Fly, or Power--which all players were guaranteed to have since they got Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles for free. Instead of changing how they played, different characters gained different score bonuses from doing different things, like destroying enemies or running longer distances or banking more normal Rings. During a single Life, you could bring 2 Buddies with you, and play as only one Character, or two Characters with a certain consumable item.

App Store screenshot showing Buddies, character stats, and weekly rankings.

The Problems

On paper, this formula seems extremely similar to that used by popular games such as Puzzle and Dragons, Granblue Fantasy, and Fire Emblem Heroes. You save up in-game currency or spend real money for a chance to pull, cross your fingers, and hope you get something really rare and cool. It’s very mechanically similar to buying trading card booster packs. And yet, Sonic Runners’ playerbase shared one common, vocal frustration with the Roulette; everybody wanted Characters, and nobody wanted Buddies. It’s a given that the rarest results in a gacha game are going to be the most desired, and there will always be those cruddy results nobody would be happy with, but the line between what the community considered trash pulls and acceptable results in Sonic Runners was much wider. The best comparison to come to mind is the system in Granblue Fantasy, where you primarily draw equipment from the gacha… with the hopes of receiving character weapons that come with a free new character for your parties. Effectively, Granblue players always have characters on the mind when they use the Premium Draw, never weapons.

Sonic Runners had a similar parallel, just replace the weapons with Buddies. Granblue’s gacha also has much more going for it to make lower rarity pulls more satisfying. Character weapons in GBF came in all Premium Draw rarities, meaning you could still possibly get rewarded with a new character even from the lowest rarity results. In Sonic Runners, you either got that 5% Character Egg or no character for you. GBF’s weapons, even those that you’d never use, could still be spent to upgrade other weapons by raising their experience and skill levels. Runners’ Buddies couldn’t have been fused or anything with each other, meaning you either get a Buddy you plan to actually use or you gain nothing from the pull. Also, this might be a more subjective and petty complaint, but many Buddies had lazy and uninspired designs. Sure, the Hero Chaos Chao or Mini Death Egg is cool, but would you get excited about being accompanied on a high speed chase by a piggy bank? Or an RC spring? Or a star-shaped “missle”? A party size of only 2 Buddies and Characters max did the system no favors, giving you little room to mix and match your prized pulls. Because Buddies had so much limited use if you didn’t want a specific one for your team, they became a stigma to the Roulette. Receiving one from a spin--especially if you could see the wheel’s arrow just a few pixels away from a Character slot--became more frustrating than rewarding. It might be like a gamble, but at least gamblers (think they) have a chance to make back their lost money. Nobody wants to spend money for digital content if they know they’re more likely to feel frustrated than pleased with their purchase.

A results screen of a decent run with no Red Star Rings earned.

Like the ultra-rare pulls in any gacha game, Characters were not just the rarest result, but several times more rare than anything else. One spin only had a 5% chance to obtain a Character, if even that high. Red Star Rings required constant grinding to earn the required 50 for a single spin; I was only able to get one Premium Roulette spin every day or a few, and I was a very addicted player. From my experience, it felt like the same amount of grinding would earn me about four pulls in Granblue Fantasy or Final Fantasy Brave Exvius. When you combine the scarcity of premium currency with an extremely low chance to get something that you even vaguely want from your spending? Premium Roulette spins became less like opening trading card booster packs and more like gambling ventures that are almost destined to fail. Oh, and you know how every Buddy in the game is available from a single large pool in the Roulette? Despite the game having about a dozen Characters, old Characters were swapped out on a monthly basis from new ones so that the Premium Roulette never had more than 2 to 4 Characters at a time. That’s right. If you didn’t play and save up enough Red Star Rings to go to town on the wheel at just the right time for your favorite character’s addition to the game, you had literally no chance to get them again unless Chaos, the God of Destruction had pity and decided to rerun an old character on the Roulette. Oh, and if you by chance spun a Character Egg and got the exact same Character you already had, you get a refund of your Red Star Rings to spin again… even if there’s other Characters on the wheel you still didn’t have. So you were rewarded by your good luck with nothing but another chance to get an RC Spring for a Buddy instead.

A good gacha system can make even low-rarity pulls feel kinda sortof worth it. That’s what stops you from being completely frustrated with a common pull; even if you don’t get what you actually wanted, you can at least get something of use out of it, if just the tiniest bit. Perhaps you might find yourself more thankful for your pull than you first were. Sonic Runners had no such system. With so many obstacles to make it hard to achieve the mainly desired result of Premium Roulette spins, and so little to do about less desired results, it handled the gacha system in such a way that made players more inclined to look for ways to cheese it than support it financially.

Also, Lives were extremely sparse and generated very slowly over time. I remember only being able to play for 15 to 25 minutes in a single session starting at max Lives, which was much more limiting than most other energy systems. It’s so self-explanatory that there’s no nitty-gritty for me to over-explain like I do with everything else, but it was the other big thing everybody disliked about the game. That didn’t do the game’s reputation any favors either, which only made everyone even more hesitant to pay for it in the first place.

A running segment with Sonic sprinting downhill against a background of a cloudy night sky.

The Downfall

Drastic changes were made to the Roulette along with other additions in a large patch months into the game’s lifespan. The drop rate of Characters increased, and all basic characters became available in a single pool of random draws, rather than just two or so available at any given time. Lives also became somewhat more plentiful and faster to generate. Rolling copies of Characters also gave you a big stat bonus to that character instead of a refund for a reroll. This addressed some of the gripes with the system, but the core issues remained. Premium Roulette spins were still a lengthy grind to earn, and spins were very likely to feel unrewarding. Most importantly, the damage was done to the game’s reputation. Nothing less than a complete overhaul could have saved it. That’s probably why Sonic Runners Adventure was released just this June, a year after the original game’s closure. Adventure carries the same basic gameplay as its predecessor (even Buddies!) with a single $5 price tag instead of microtransactions. I’ve not played it, so I can’t remark on whether it’s an objectively better game or not, but it seems to have been received much more welcomely by its critics and vocal players. Yet the fact that I’ve heard nothing about this three-month old game before now doesn’t convince me that it’s much more popular than its predecessor, or that Sega has the confidence to push it in advertising, if only for the stigma sticking from the first game.

I have more of a preference for gacha games than most people, and I could tell that the original Sonic Runners wasn’t making a compelling use of the system. The Sonic series is (in/)famous for its plethora of characters. Runners even demonstrated a willingness to stretch out its roster with alternate costumes and variants of existing characters, like Classic Sonic or Christmas Tails. For the dozens of things Sonic Chronicles did drastically worse than this game, that game at least had a right idea in making use of the hedgehog's expansive character lineup in playable and supporting roles. If Runners’ team minimized their focus on developing Buddies and instead focused on delivering more characters the series was iconic for, this game could maybe have drawn in an audience willing to pay for Premium spins. Though, part of me also wonders if that would be enough to make a procedurally generated endless runner mesh well with a gatchapon monetizing strategy. After all, we’re talking about a game based on Sega’s running platformer series, not their RPG series. For how valuable they were, Characters did very little different other than look different and provide different Score bonuses in random maps that provided next to no room for pre-planning. A game with Sonic Runners’ foundation couldn’t easily support the driving appeal of gacha games; composing a variety of unique teams/loadouts through progressively more challenging content. More focus on Characters for the Premium Roulette would have pushed more players to accept it instead of drawing mines of salt, but a game needs to be more than acceptable to keep sustaining itself in the competitive F2P market. Perhaps Sonic Runners was doomed from conception? I’ve not played any other F2P endless runner games with gacha-based monetization, so at this point my experience and reflections are replaced with my speculation and assumptions. If you’ve played any other such games, I’d love to hear what you thought of them, good or bad or anywhere in between.

Tails attempting to collect Rings dropped by Eggman. From this shot, he doesn't look especially successful.

The F2P space has a bad rap for the worst of its kind, but it has the potential to be used for good. They widen their potential audiences from “people with money, time, and interest” to “people with time and interest”, and give players the option to invest themselves however much the players want to… quite literally. In exchange for continued support from the overall playerbase, the game continues to update and expand for all, regardless of whether you bought anything yourself. Subscription based MMOs and trading card games don’t have such a strong stigma, despite being built on similar principles. A game shouldn’t be automatically condemned for asking you for $5 if you played it for free in the first place. If you paid full retail price for the game and then the game keeps asking you to buy microtransactions, then you should be extremely wary (looking at you, Destiny 2 lootboxes). If the game is free but that $5 is traded for an unsatisfying prize, or if that game isn’t satisfying at all unless you make a few dozen payments of $5, then a game should definitely be condemned. Unfortunately, Sonic Runners’ dollars went towards unsatisfying prizes. A part of me misses that game for the fun it gave me for free, but another part of me is thankful that it left behind a legacy teaching those that followed what not to do. I hope for this industry’s future that through examples like this game, exploitative F2P games will be weeded out to be replaced with fair and enjoyably priced F2P games.

- Thanks for reading, and don't implode!


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About Chris Hovermaleone of us since 8:03 PM on 07.31.2017

I'm a Contributor who used to go by the screen name Cedi! Obligatory disclosure; I backed Kirbopher/Chris Niosi's TOME RPG on Kickstarter.

My favorite games are Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, Rayman Legends, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Bayonetta 2, Jamestown+, Phantasy Star Portable 2, Hyrule Warriors, Hollow Knight, and Guacamelee: STCE.

I’m a longtime gamer who enjoys to write, to entertain, to inform, and to overanalyze the little things. Transparency and honesty are my foremost virtues in anything I do. I joined the Destructoid team to do something even cooler with the skills I love to practice and the hobby I love to explore.

As far as social media is concerned, you can find me on my personal Twitter account! Fair advice, you can expect to see a lot more of the big blue character in my banner if you check that out. Whether that's a recommendation or a warning depends. By the way, that banner is a commission by Twitter user @kaizer33226.