It was going so well for Real Racing 3. Prime time at last year's iPhone 5 keynote. A massive injection of events (900!), cars (45!) and visual splendour. The inspired addition of time-shifted multiplayer. Unfortunately, for developer Firemonkeys and publisher EA, the story has been all about the poorly-executed freemium model.
The most recent criticism doing the rounds is that Firemonkeys has tweaked the wait times for oil changes and repairs, which you can pay to shorten, though it appears the latter change was temporary.
According to the company's Twitter account, the limited release in Australia, New Zealand and Canada is part of a "soft launch" to pave the way for a "smooth global rollout". It's quite possible that part of this trial is to get the balance between wait times, spend and gameplay right for the more important markets of the United States and Europe, which will get the game on February 28.
There's nothing particularly unusual about this. In fact, it's intelligent use of EA's distributed corporate entities, located in various regions, to create a "beta" environment within the constraints of Apple's publishing platform.
The bad news is, the internet does not adhere to the same boundaries. The bigger mobile sites such as TouchArcade and PocketGamer are reporting on this experiment, despite the game not being available to large segments of their readers. The alterations to the wait timers are being described as "stealth[y]" and "silent", with all the negative connotations such words carry... especially to gamers who thrive on trashing mobile games, regardless of their innovations or pedigree.
And it's not just the media that's having a go — users have not been kind rating the title on the App Store. The game currently sits with a 3/5 on the Australian store, with reviews calling the game "a disaster", "unplayable", "a pathetic corruption" and "an exercise in frustration". On the other hand, others praise the "ghost racing concept" (time shifted multiplayer), downplay the annoyance factor of waiting times and marvel at the excellent visuals.
But, overall, the reception pales in comparison to Real Racing 2 or SPY mouse. Even the freemium-orientated Flight Control Rocket was better received, though it can be argued the game's audience is more accustomed to micro-transactions.
So, how did Firemint — now Firemonkeys along with Dead Space iOS developer Iron Monkeys — go from the elegant simplicity of Flight Control to the polarising freemium construct that is Real Racing 3? You could heap the blame on EA, sure, but I feel that's a cop-out. Ultimately, it comes down to the implementers. If there was pressure from above to make freemium work for what has always been one of the most hardcore titles available on iOS, there has to be a compromise between business and design. Anything else is irresponsible to your players, for which the designer must always be an advocate.
I'm not ready to give up on Firemonkeys or Real Racing 3 just yet. The developer has time to get the formula right for the international release later this month, even if it costs local goodwill in the meantime. That said, it'll likely deploy the freemium bomb more cautiously next time.
And yes, before you ask, that is Donald Faison of Scrubs fame playing the game on iPad. Count me jealous.