First Touch Soccer gets everything wrong with free-to-play monetisation

How modern football sails with investments

The mobile games industry is gearing towards free to play models big time. The same way the App Store gold rush attracted a lot of developers dreaming of becoming millionaires overnight, in the current state of gaming everyone wants to be the next Clash of Clans or Candy Crush Saga. This is not only for the Mr. unknown developer or the studio churning Facebook games: even the mammoth EA has turned respected premium titles to the model with a level of success — see Plants vs Zombies 2 or Real Racing 3. Now that FIFA 14 is going to be free and Gameloft's football simulator has already tested the waters for two seasons, what will First Touch Soccer do?

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If the name doesn't ring a bell, First Touch is the developer previous successful football games (or soccer depending on your side of the Atlantic), turning a bit more casual in recent years with titles like Score! In the middle of the typical discussion about FIFA and PES, the original First Touch Soccer really gave everything the hardcore player wanted on iOS: true control over the player, usable touch controls, incredibly decent 3D graphics and a back door to mod everything in the game, from rosters to team shields or kits. Why do I know this? Because after two years people are still reading and watching the video tutorial to customise kits.

Let's dive in the new season with First Touch Soccer 14, which I discovered when I saw it topping the free iPad free charts. Now, this is a surprise. The game had been popular among the kind of people spending hours and hours on Sega's Football Manager, not the The Simpsons Tapped Out! Back when the original was a paid game, other franchises with names of console and PC versions use to sell more. So I went and download it.

A confusing start

The first launch of FTS14 is a master class in free to play engineering. The game holds your hand and walks you through what could a travelling funfair, showing you things you might find entertaining but asking you for some money first. This is used as a tutorial. While most games would throw you to a quick match to learn the basic control methods available, FTS14 has this option locked from the start, only allowing you to go on the pitch and see if your device can handle the 3D action after a long set of menus. To continue with the funfair analogy, this would be equivalent to visiting all the attractions before queuing for the main ride, which is what you came for in the first place.

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Once you start the game in career mode — the only option available for free when you begin — you can choose from a dozen of clubs that have made you an offer. There is no Manchester United or Real Madrid there as you can imagine. In order to move up the career ladder you will need to succeed first at your current role, which makes sense, but also invest in staff that will look for interesting contracts for you. These guys will cost in-game currency.

When you decide to pick one of the second tier teams willing to give you an opportunity, there are a number of tasks to complete first. Part of the initial objectives involves signing new players thanks to a very comfortable budget. Note how buying players with high wages, which you cannot negotiate, will increase the salary expenditure and make more difficult to break even by the end of the month. One of the tasks to complete on of the initial objectives is to invest in the club. Every 'gold' unit of soft currency equals to money used in the game to run the club. Now you can see how you can pour real money into the game like a Russian owner. Unfortunately, this feels more like a requirement and not an option to advance faster, which would be completely fine.

The honest way to earn your credits

First Touch Soccer 14 gives you plenty of chances to earn gold coins organically. Your performance in matches is awarded with prizes, for example, earning more gold for every goal scored. There's a coin doubler option that can be of interest called VIP pass, which among other things will give you and extra 100% of what you earn organically in the game.

There are also less subtle ways to earn currency though. After every match you are prompted — every single time — to watch a short video typically advertising another free-to-play game. I watched four of a zoo simulator and one for Clash of Clans. I say watched but I was really checking Twitter on my phone while the ad rolled. Just for watching the video you earn 30 coins, which is ten times the typical amount obtained in a match and translated to FTS14 money it could pay for a player's wages.

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Even less subtle are the iAd and other third-party banners displayed during the game cut scenes. Those moments are where sports simulators want to show off: they showcase how well rendered the players are, see aerial views of the stadium and reactions from the referee as Beethoven's 5th symphony plays in the background — no Champions League tune there of course. The menus to make tactical changes and substitutions during the game also display these ads, at times hiding part of the user interface elements.

You can play the career mode until you earn 4,000 gold coins or speed up the process and use the in-app-purchase. There is no straightforward way of unlocking game features, as all you're doing is to buy gold coins that can be used to unlock new game modes. The option to customise the game with your own kits, for instance, is only available with 4,000 gold coins for £3. A decent amount to pay for a game of this calibre. What is not clear is what you actually get with this unlock. Nothing mentions the option to remove the ads or the prompt to watch the videos.

At this point I cannot help but think of other free-to-play games I like and don't make me feel I'm being marketed at every occasion. They do exist and are as good as most premium, if not better in cases like Real Racing or Plants vs Zombies. The main issue here is that First Touch Soccer is combining several monetisation models without much respect to the final experience. No game should have parts of the interface with advertising banners. Every opportunity to skip an issue by paying should have a free option to wait.

In the end, playing First Touch Soccer 14 makes you question everything you're doing, from wining to easily against a Champions League rival to a penalty the referee didn't see. It turns what could be a fun football simulator with a strong management side into a hide and seek game to avoid spending real money. The continuous sales effort is so evident that at no point you feel you are a football manager. There's no way to get really immersed in the game.