Dr. Mario World and the Exploitative Nature of Free-to-Play Games

Dr. Mario World plays a cruel game of rope-a-dope with its players. Many of the levels can be beaten within reason. Be that as it may, the buzzsaw is as brutal as it is inevitable.

The last level of every world jacks up the difficulty considerably. You seemingly have to play a perfect game to make it through, though sometimes it feels impossible. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if it actually was impossible…unless you spent money.

At the start and end of each level, you have the opportunity to buy power-ups to make the level a bit easier. The end-of-level screen is particularly cruel. Just before you’re forced to restart the level, you’re given the opportunity to spend money on diamonds, which in turn can be used to buy the last few pills you need to beat a level.

Rarely saw this screen during most stages, but without fail, I’d see it for days straight when I’d get stuck on those final levels. For the first few final levels, I only got through because absolutely everything broke right for me. On level 200 (the game’s final level at the time of writing), I was lucky to score some free diamonds from an event. Spending them seemed like the only way to pass that level once and for all. Without knowing it was the final level, I spent those free diamonds and saw the current ending screen.

Having difficulty spikes in a game is one thing. Heck, in a game with no microtransactions and recontextualized as some sort of boss fight, the uptick might even be acceptable. But as a player, I feel gross knowing that in this exact moment, the encounter is strategically designed in such a way to make me lose and inspire me to spend money.

It’s not the first time video game design has been influenced by the business model behind it. From quarter-munching arcade machines, to beefier experiences for home platforms, to subscription plans for upcoming streaming platforms like Google Stadia, monetization has always factored into a game’s design. I just don’t like this particular monetization scheme for how it systematically preys on me at my most vulnerable. The discussion gets even messier when we go down the rabbit hole of Gatcha mechanics and exploiting our penchant for gambling (which this game also has).

Strictly speaking to its gameplay, I love Dr. Mario World. It’s a dramatic step forward for a puzzle game that hasn’t evolved in decades, while also being tailored for play on mobile devices. I want to share my gratitude by giving the developers a bit of money, as I would with other creators whose work I’ve consumed. However, I want to do it in a positive context. I want to give you money because I’m happy with what I’m getting in the exchange. I’m not happy when I’m paying you money to buy items for a level that’s been artificially stacked me.

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