Pokémon Picross is Nintendo’s latest free to play puzzle game. I’ve been enjoying playing it over the Christmas-New Years break while travelling through southern Western Australia. My review could be simply ‘it’s picross, with Pokémon and free to play,’ but I’m going to write a little more explaining what picross is for those unfamiliar and detail my frustrations with the free to play economics of this particular title.
Picross puzzles, also known as nonograms, are grids with numbers along the x and y axes hinting at how many squares along the corresponding row or column need to be filled in and the order in which each group of squares appears. Rows with more squares needing to be filled have fewer possible combinations, including some squares that must be filled in. From there, logical deduction will see the player work across the grid and slowly fill out a picture. The deduction is mentally stimulating and completion of a puzzle is very satisfying. Pokémon Picross is doubly satisfying because the completed picture is of a Pokémon, a reward in itself! Once you’ve completed a Pokémon’s portrait, you can then use their abilities to help you with subsequent puzzles. Abilities include revealing random squares, highlighting rows which have squares that can filled in and automatically correcting a limited number of mistakes (ridiculously helpful).
The solid puzzle underpinnings of picross, developer Jupitor Corp’s experience in the genre and Nintendo’s flair for presentation makes Pokémon Picross a very solid, content rich puzzle game. Unfortunately, much of that content is essentially walled off to most gamers due to Nintendo’s unconventional approach to free-to-play.
The traditional free to play economics, established in other games, is that the vast majority of players pay nothing, or very little, because their experience is subsidised by a small percentage of players who pay a lot. It’s like progressive taxation except instead of the rich paying the most, it’s those who are easily psychologically exploited, gambling addicts and children with access to their parent’s credit cards. Nintendo’s approach, which they’ve used in a number of games now and call ‘free-to-start’, staggers the pay walls in such a way that, beyond a certain point, all players will essentially have to pay to continue but that the total amount that could be spent on the game is capped at a sensible amount. This is arguably a more ethical, less exploitative, set of economics – Nintendo ask more players to pay, but they pay less.
The problem with Nintendo’s free to start approach in the case of Pokémon Picross is that instead of simply purchasing additional puzzles, you purchase an in-game currency called ‘Picrites’. Right now in the game I have completed up to Area 05, roughly 25 puzzles or so, and have 32 Picrites. To unlock Area 06 I have to spend 90 Picrites. Area 07 costs 100 picrites. Unlocking alternative challenges on the puzzles I’ve completed so far costs 300 Picrites and buying a mega evolution wand, which would currently allow me access to a single additional puzzle, costs a ridiculous 500 Picrites. Picrites are earned through completing puzzles under certain conditions, in-game achievements and through daily tutorial stages. Because there are legitimate, challenging ways to earn Picrites, buying Picrites feels like cheating. I don’t want to feel like I’ve cheated to unlock further puzzles, I want to unlock them through mastery of the puzzles. And no, playing the daily tutorials to earn a measly seven Picrites a day, everyday for a week, just to unlock another four puzzles isn’t a viable way to keep my attention. Putting alternative and bonus levels behind a paywall, while allowing free progression, would feel fairer. Also fairer would be straight up saying “thank you for playing Pokémon Picross, to access the next 25 puzzles, please pay $3.50.” If you asked me that the answer would be “sure.”
All that said, I have enjoyed this title so much that when I get back home and no longer live off café WIFI, I’ll probably buy a few thousand Picrites to continue. I encourage any 3DS owner looking for some puzzle games to download Pokémon Picross as there is enough content to check out before you’re forced to pay to make up your own mind about whether you’ll continue. I just wish there was a stupid parent who had given their 8 year old free reign over a credit account to subsidise my gaming though.