Recent(ish) Work: Selling Candy to Babies

Disney's 'shop window' on the App Store.
Disney’s ‘shop window’ on the App Store.

For the time being at least, I’m no longer a freelancer. Instead I’m working on a book, due to be published in Spring next year, on the history of games. Don’t get excited: in all honesty it’s something that’s probably destined for The Works.

My life as a games journalist began on Edge magazine, where I was lucky enough to work with a great team of people producing something that felt valuable. Every month there would be late nights and a bit of a crunch come deadline, but that feeling when the magazine itself – the object – came back from the printers was pure magic. I still remember the first issue I worked on, and the then-editor Margaret Robertson handing me a copy and saying ‘congratulations, you made a magazine.’

So I liked the idea of working on something that felt a little more permanent. I’ve been writing almost exclusively online for five or six years now, and sometimes this feels like throwing work into the void – here today, gone tomorrow, and you can’t even wrap your chips in it. I’ll write more about what I’m hoping to do with the book soon (promises promises).

One of the last major pieces I worked on was for Polygon, and it focused on the free-to-play business model as it is currently being used in children’s games. I’d been thinking about the topic for a while, and in my opinion Polygon is the best outlet around for serious longform stuff, so it was a good match.

It was also an enormous privilege to work with the Polygon features team, Russ Pitts and Matt Leone, because they edited the hell out of that piece. One of the things about writing online is that few outlets do any kind of editing at all – which, as a writer who wants to get better all the time, is an awful state of affairs. Not here. The finished article is ten times better than the first version, and it’s all thanks to those chaps and others putting me through the wringer.

Here’s the piece. Fair warning: it’s a long one!

Selling Candy to Babies

Selling Candy to Babies

Selling and possible mis-selling to children is an emotive topic in any sphere, but in a nascent industry like ours it has the potential to be explosive. In the days after the piece went live I ended up in several twitter conversations with people who were clearly enraged at my treatment of the topic. I remember one guy in particular who was furious I had given Disney and Nickelodeon no right of reply. In fact, as the article states clearly, I contacted both several times to ask for interviews and / or comment, but received neither.

But in the weeks and months since, something worth noting has happened. One of the games I covered was Disney’s Frozen Free Fall, which is basically a Candy Crush-alike with the movie’s visuals. The reason I was interested in this game is that my four year-old niece was into it – because it had the Frozen characters and she adores the movie. The piece goes into detail on exactly how this game operates, but in summary it’s one of those that starts easy, then has a sudden difficulty spike, and offers IAP power-ups.

It's no Bejewelled Blitz, but then what is?
It’s no Bejewelled Blitz, but then what is?

Even though Disney wouldn’t speak to me about Frozen Free Fall and their other games (of which there are an enormous number), since the piece went live the game has been updated several times – and it has all of a sudden become much nicer to its players.

The update that added 'free' power-ups
The update that added ‘free’ power-ups

Not only does the game now let you earn free power-ups, but yesterday my niece was round again and – to my delight – when she started up the app it asked for the player’s age before continuing.

There used to be a standard pop-up window about IAPs, but this is the new starting screen.
There used to be a standard pop-up window about IAPs, but this is the new starting screen.

This is good to see, because the audience for the game is extremely young children. Who knows if the article had anything to do with these changes, but whatever the reason I’m very glad they’re in place. I’d wager that the developers behind Frozen Free Fall feel a little better about themselves too, but perhaps I’m projecting.

Things like this are, of course, a bit of a band-aid on a problem that the wider industry seems circumspect about addressing – though Apple and Google recently seem to have become much more serious, and that’s fantastic to see. The best option for the industry, by far, is self-regulation of IAPs, and hopefully that’s where we’ll end up.

It was great to work for Polygon, and I’m super proud of how the piece turned out – I hope you enjoy it. I’ll do more of a whirlwind round-up of other (more lighthearted!) stuff in the next few days, and go into detail on the book. Cheers for reading!

Happy ending! XD
Happy ending! 😄
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