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.