Viridi Does Free-to-Play Right

Viridi is a relaxing free-to-play plant simulator brought to you by the same people who made Eidolon. It’s a game with a lot of sensitivity. Players can play soft music to help their plants grow. It knows how to delight, how to encourage gentleness, and how to teach love.

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Ice Water Games’ Viridi

And like Eidolon, it’s as beautiful as it is ruthless.

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Eidolon

The survival of the plants is in the player’s hands, and if they are overwatered or go without for a while, they die. The player must then purchase new seedlings. Viridi does microtransactions extremely well, however. Videogame critic Daniel Floyd has long championed for the positive potential of free-to-play gaming. He argues that if developers start treating players with respect and using microtransactions to improve enjoyment rather than hold gameplay at ransom, the free-to-play model can even save the industry from another collapse. On one hand we’ve been screwed over so many times that I feel Floyd is perhaps over-optimistic on this subject, but on the other he seems to have a point.

Playfish’s Pet Society was an accessible Animal Crossing clone for the PC. It was released in 2008, just before predatory companies such as EA and Zynga realized they could exploit the free-to-play model for easy profit.

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Pet Society

And boy, did it do microtransactions right. Most items could be earned by playing mini-games, or interacting with the characters and game environment. A few others items required microtransactions to unlock, but cash tokens could slowly be earned in-game so players could save up. Pet Society could be enjoyed to its fullest even by players who did not want, or couldn’t, invest the cash. Like Viridi, it was fun, it was relaxing, and its purchases felt right.

Then EA bought Playfish in early 2010. Everything went downhill. Suddenly, most items could only be unlocked with microtransaction payments. Items started having purchase deadlines on them, too, so a player could no longer save up over a period of time. Players left the game in droves, leaving only the high-paying rich kids with more money than sense (EA calls them “whales”). When they milked out all they could from the community, EA fired the Playfish staff and shut down the servers. Players’ pleas were never aknowledged. From then on, the free-to-play model became synonymous with this kind of corporativism and lack of ethics.

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Viridi looks something like a trend reversal. It’s Pet Society before Playfish was bought by EA. It’s Floyd’s prophesied messiah. Seedlings are cheap, completely optional, and the game gives players one free each week. Players can gift each other purchased and earned seedlings through Steam. They make excellent small meaningful presents.

I’m not without criticism for the game, however. If the player does not visit the game for more than half a week, the plants wither and die. There’s no pause function in the game yet. Though I’m sure this was not intended to be manipulative, I fear it could be interpreted as so. Zynga’s Farmville relied on the same model: Make players aware that if they do not visit the game often, their crops die and all their hard work will be for nothing.

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Farmville

This creates compulsion, which in turn makes players more likely to perform a microtransaction. The problem could easily be fixed if Ice Water Games introduced a pause function. When paused, plants would not die, but neither would they grow. But this is where the criticism ends. The game has been updated with a “vacation” pause mode now included.

Viridi is a gem of a game, and I recommend it to anyone. Its gentle non-violence that doesn’t go without a hint of challenge is refreshing. All it demands of the player is patience and nurture, virtues that are not often part of conventional gameplay mechanics.

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