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Jun 6, 2012

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EDITOR’S NOTE: I’m traveling for four weeks, returning in mid-June. During this period, I’m running a series of articles that take another look at some of the bigger releases of 2011, reassessing their impact outside of the release-schedule hype.

Jetpack Joyride is, by now, one of the most popular videogames available for the iPhone. Apple’s GameCenter tells me there are almost 14 million registered players. That is no mean feat for Australia’s Halfbrick Studios, and eclipses the success of their first game, Fruit Ninja.

The reason for this is simple: Jetpack Joyride is excellent. The tightness and elegance of its core design is what makes the game instantly enjoyable, but its tasteful packaging and supplemental design elements is what makes it memorable. Jetpack Joyride is as fun at its initial touch-to-fly moment as it is at its six-hours-in unlockable material. Add to that the recent balanced and interesting—and free—additions, such as gadgets and new vehicles, as well as the addition of Facebook as another platform for the game, and there is little secret to Jetpack Joyride’s success.

What is most interesting about Jetpack Joyride, however, is the elements of the game that have not had an impact. For example, Jetpack Joyride contains a slot machine mini-game. Why this has largely gone unremarked on is a mystery.

It works like this: during the core game, players can collect tokens. An average session might yield three or so tokens. At the conclusion of the run, when the player has been downed by collision or missile, these tokens can be redeemed for spins of a slot machine. The slot machine can award bonus items that can either extend the current, and previously finished run, or enhance the next one. Or, the spin tokens can be forfeited and exchanged for in-game currency.

Several points can be made here. The slot machine does not cost real money to play, and it does not dole out real money for wins. It is used, however, to extend the play of Jetpack Joyride. Instead of cash, Jetpack Joyride’s slot machine accepts gameplay tokens for the chance of gameplay bonuses.

This is a slot machine that is implemented as a hook. It is used to get players to extend their time with Jetpack Joyride, with second chances, more spins, more coins. There is even a GameCenter achievement, “High Roller,” for losing the slot machine one hundred times in total. For losing, not winning. Though money is not involved in the minigame, it is troubling nonetheless.

I do not think that Jetpack Joyride’s design is meant maliciously. The slot machine is a clever addition to a simple formula, using a to-hand symbol to add depth to the game. But there are pernicious associations here, and it is surprising that Halfbrick were not widely challenged on the slot machine’s inclusion.

However wonderful Jetpack Joyride may be, it also consciously uses the language of actual, real-life gambling and the addictive possibilities that go along with it.

In the Australian landscape, our national sporting codes are under mounting pressure to ditch their reliance on gambling advertising. Our state governments simultaneously run extensive problem gambling campaigns and take billions of dollars in revenue from the industry.

Jetpack Joyride, then, fits right in as another uncomfortable mix of everyday life and gambling culture. For what is otherwise a superb game, that is a great pity.

5 comments

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5 thoughts on “Jetpack Joyride Revisited

  1. Dale Leorke

    If I remember correctly, the original Game Boy Pokemon games featured an in-game slot machine for ‘winning’ pokemon, which led to the Classification Board listing ‘Mild Gambling References’ on its packaging. So slot machines in mainstream games is, as others have pointed out, nothing new.

    One thing I think you somewhat overlooked Dan is that, although it’s possible to play the entire game for free, you can actually also purchase coins through the App Store – paying up to $14 for 1,000,000 coins. If you were being cynical, you could read the inclusion of the slot machine as a clever way of exploiting players’ desire to reach the highscore by bypassing the ‘contigency’ of the slot machine by paying real money.

    For instance: the only way to reach a really high score is not through skill, but having lots of revival items and bombs (that blow up your dead character and add a few miles/kilometers onto their score). The slot machine provides the ‘chance’ of scoring these items just when you need them, but you can also buy them in advance using the in-game currency of coins. But realistically, you’re only going to earn enough coins to buy a limited amount of items – so this is where the microtransactions come in. By giving players the sense they’re ‘just’ missing out on crucial items on the slot machine’s game of chance, they can bypass that by paying real money for items. How else do people on GameCenter get massively high scores of 30,000? Not by relying on slot machine luck.

    I think the gambling issue is actually a red herring in this argument: the real concern with games on iPhone and iPad, and indeed any game these days that feature DLC and microtransactions, is the way players willingly allow themselves to be ‘exploited’ (though I use that word cautiously) by game developers who deliberately design games that make it easier to pay real money to bypass work in the game, whether it’s grinding, unlocking special items or reaching the high score. The use of gambling in Jetpack Joyride just happens to be an apt analogy for a widespread practice in contemporary games.

  2. Mr Ak

    Okay, here’s mt two cents: if you take away dopamine injectors, what the hell else is there to the game? I’m generally not into Halfbrick’s style, so maybe I’m missing something. But it seems to me that in Ski Safari and Canabalt, there’s two important elements that Jj just doesn’t have. Firstly, there’s the consistent theme. Can’t make up my mind on how much that matters, but my feeling is… A bit.

    More importantly, though, the player interaction for those two games comes down to tiny decisions, made very quickly. Jump a box, or bleed off speed. Take the yeti for the speed boost, or run some more jumps for the multiplier. Not complex decisions, sure, but made so fast you don’t necessarily realise that’s the process you’re undergoing. in JJ, I don’t think that’s the case. I’d argue, in fact, that the decision implementation is so non-existent that it is, essentially, a pokies machine with an added reaction test.

    I dunno, maybe that’s a bit harsh. But suggesting that the inclusion of an illustration of the underlying interaction is probably too many words to throw together in a sentence, I’m so sorry. But I think my point’s made somewhere in there.

  3. James O'Connor @Jickle

    I hadn’t given this…any thought until I read this post (and neither had many other people, apparently). But now I’m thinking about it, and I think the slot machine really is a convenient metaphor for the reward mechanic more than something that actually evokes a sense of actual gambling. It’s also perhaps worth noting that the ultimate reward for actually hitting something is that you get to *stop* pulling the lever and get back to playing Jetpack Joyride, which is where the real fun is.

    Still, point definitely taken. There’s certainly scope for games to examine gambling in a more realistic way, emphasizing just how unlikely they are to win, although this probably isn’t the game to do so (not that I think that’s what you were suggesting!). Perhaps the substitution of a less sensitive metaphor (say, you can use your tokens to open the ‘Mystery Box’, but there’s only a 1 in 4 chance of there being something inside) would have been less potentially problematic?

  4. Gabriel McGrath

    Hmm, like Brendan I’m a bit torn about this, but I’m going to lean towards ‘not a problem’.

    There’s a long history of ‘slot machine-esque’ bonuses in videogames. Starting with the old “Match the last 2 digits for a free game” on arcade pinball machines – moving onto ‘end of level slot machines for a bonus’ in games like Super Pacman (1982), Chiller (1986), Super Mario Bros 2 (1988) and the giant ‘above the track’ slot machine in the all-conquering Daytona USA (1994). A more recent example would be Bioshock, which features tonnes of working pokies/slots.

    In the case of pinball machines, you’re more likely to win free games by being a skilled player, than hoping for a ‘match’.
    In the case of the videogames mentioned above – it’s always just a little ingame bonus – you don’t win a free game, let alone real money.

    While I’d prefer to live in a world with no poker machines, I see the above examples as fairly harmless riffs on the real thing. Having players – including kids – play a brief ‘poker machine bonus round’ isn’t a big problem to me. I have much more of a problem with REAL gambling-esque games, such as those ‘redemption’ machines in arcades where you put $20 in and possibly get some tickets that might earn you a 50c plastic toy. That’s using real money, where the house always wins and much closer in my mind to real gambling than a brief ‘end of level bonus’ in Jetpack Joyride, or similar.

  5. Brendan Keogh

    Hi Dan,

    It’s a worthy observation to make, and one that certainly seems to have been overlooked.

    My immediate gut reaction is to say “It isn’t a problem!” which, in fact, probably means it is something that is worth discussing and could potentially be a problem!

    So my torn thoughts: On one hand, I think the slot machine is okay because the coins you use for it serve no other purpose but to be put through the slot machine. If you could blow all 20,000 of your ‘normal’ coins on it in the hope of getting more coins, that would be a problem. So, perhaps, I think it is less ‘gambling’ and more getting a randomised prize for your coins.

    But that said, it is indeed using the visual language of a slot machine regardless of that, and the coins you use on it can be traded in for 50 gold coins instead of being used on the slot machine. So, yeah, I guess it *is* gambling, but gambling where you can’t really lose.

    But even that isn’t really a defence, because that is teaching people that your chances of winning while gambling are high. So high, in fact, it is considered an achievement worth rewarding if you lose a lot!

    So while it certainly isn’t malicious, maybe it is problematic, especially given the current climate and conversations surrounding problem gambling in Australia.

    Videogames have used slot machines for a long time, though. Perhaps this just suggests that perhaps slot machines and videogames have more in common than we wish to admit?

    Anyhow, those are my disconnected thoughts! Great and provoking piece!

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