Having spent the better part of the last month railing against exploitative progression systems in games, I thought I’d take a moment to talk about a game that does progression well. A mobile collectathon. Please don’t run. A mobile collectathon with energy, timers, and premium currency. No, seriously, hear me out.
Gumballs & Dungeons kept being recommmended in my Play Store, and the cutesy name and graphic style kept scaring me off. Too Candy Crush. Having finally tried it a few months ago, I’m glad I did, as I still play it daily. First and foremost, G&D is a competent roguelite dungeoncrawler. Each maze (as the game calls them) level is a 6×5 grid hiding monsters, loot, and the way down. As you progress further, monsters get tougher and bosses appear. There’s equipment, spell scrolls, and xp, which is spent on a branching skill tree. It’s all comfortably familiar.
For each run, you pick a character, one of the titular gumballs. Each gumball has a unique talent, and belongs to one of three types which determine its starting stats and the skill tree it uses: melee, magic, or venture. As you progress through the, essentially, extended tutorial stages of the game, you unlock the ability to “soul-link” a second and then a third gumball, letting you use their talents and skill trees. Except you can only soul-link with gumballs of the same faction, of which there are four. With almost 200 gumballs to choose from, and new ones added frequently, there’s plenty of combinations to try.
Mazes have not just their own monsters and bosses, but sets of achievements and unique mechanics as well. There’s a gumball associated with each maze that you get for beating its “story mode” – several short runs you do at the start; and a second hidden gumball you have to somehow earn inside the maze.
That’s the basics. G&D passes the first test that so many mobile games fail – it is actually a game. Picking a combination of gumballs you haven’t tried yet and seeing how far you can go or what achivements you can get is fun. What about the second test, how exploitative is its progression system?
It’ll take years to Get All The Things – and that’s the one and only objective in this game. And yes, it’s possible to instead pay a silly amount of money to, essentially, avoid playing the game, the paradox of microtransactions is fully applicable. The game, however, claims you don’t have to spend money to enjoy it, and it’s mostly true. The “buy-in”, which unocks what I’d consider the intended experience, is 10 USD. That’s the somewhat standardised value of a package awarding premium currency (gems) every day for a month. Even here, G&D has a twist. You can save up and pay gems to upgrade the item producing gems twice, slightly increasing the gems it gives, and prolonging its lifespan for up to a year. Quirky? That’s G&D in a nutshell. And $10 for a year of gaming is not too bad. This “buy-in” approximately doubles the amount of gems you get daily, and there’s plenty of things to spend gems on.
Another very important factor: whatever you pay for, you won’t have wasted your precious gems. All upgrades are permanent. Even the random gumball fragments you get from pots are not worthless. Unlike in many similar games, upgrading gumballs is not destructive – you don’t have to sacrifice a bunch of lower-tier gumballs to advance the chosen gumball to a higher tier, or any such nonsense. Neither are your rewards ever held hostage by limited inventory space or some other threat of missing out if you don’t pay up. Everything you get is yours to keep, and there’s a finite, quite reachable point where a given gumball is maxed out. And once it’s maxed out, there’s a way to prevent its fragments from appearing in pots again.
The game provides an actual reason to want to collect and max out every gumball that goes beyond the exploitative Gotta Catch Them All. It’s an approach I haven’t seen before: each gumball has not just a unique combat talent, but a passive buff as well. These differ significantly: some increase the stats of some or all other gumballs, others buff spells and items, or improve the functionality of the game itself.
Take alliance missions, for instance (of course there are alliances). They refresh every 12 hours, with each mission taking 5 minutes to complete – a simple timer. These grant varying amounts of alliance coins (of course there’s a separate currency), from 120 to 30. Meaning it’s good to do the few best-paying missions, and the rest are a less significant bonus. Still, sounds a bit tedious, doesn’t it? However! One of the first things you should spend these alliance coins on are fragments for the Nelson gumball, whose passive decreases the mission timer. When fully maxed out, and that does take a while, missions are completed instantaneously with a press of a button. Yes, the game created an obstacle and then made me work to gradually remove it. But I’ll be damned if it doesn’t feel good to press that button. That’s progression systems for you.
Sky combat, yet another subsystem (are you noticing a pattern yet?), provides another reason to collect the gumballs: you put a bunch of them on an airship, which gains stats depending on their star level, and bonuses for combinations of different gumballs present. There’re, naturally, a bunch of different airships you can gather fragments for, which improve their passive bonuses and guns that can be mounted on any airship. Sky exploration is its own minigame, with elements of Choose Your Own Adventure, that mostly grants its own set of resources which are used to progress further in it. Which isn’t that different from the core game, really. Unfortunately, sky exploration is the weakest part of the game, with very little interesting decisions you get to make, and I would love to see an overhaul. Still, you do get severall gumballs from it, and in a few mazes you can even call your airship to assist you.
As a result, you always feel like you’re progressing, even if it slows down to a crawl after a while. You’re never waiting for a lucky drop that may come tomorrow or next year – slow and steady accumulation of gumball fragments and other resources is inevitable. You will get every thing, if you’re patient enough. And meanwhile, with each gumball you acquire the rest grow a bit stronger. Next time you’ll get further in sky exploration, delve deeper in a maze.
Gradually, the game becomes more of a management sim than a dungeoncrawler. You “raid” mazes to spend the energy, and even automatically complete the daily quests in the maxed out mazes you raid. Check the shops when they refresh, explore the sky when the sky energy is full, do the alliance missions. It’s busywork, but it’s busywork that’s earned its right to exist. The game isn’t a new hotness for me anymore, and I’m glad I have a way to progress in it without engaging with the main, time-consuming component that frequently. And I’m equally glad the game gives me reasons to actually play by having regular mini-maze events and occasionally releasing new mazes.
G&D is full of gradually unveiling subsystems, some seemingly there just so that you’d have more things to master. It is full of not-at-all subtle cultural references – Zerg Queen gumball comes to mind. Its interface is a mess, and the game could use a bunch of quality-of-life polish. It is brimming with charm and easter eggs. Most importantly, Gumballs & Dungeons is an example of a progression system done right: it takes many of the established addictive progression techinques of free-to-play mobile quasi-games, but uses an actual game as a foundation. The progression system is used to enhance and prolong the experience of playing the game, not to hide its absence.