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Adding yet another title to the ever-expanding catalogue of pay-to-win mobile cash cows, WWE recently elbow dropped their take of the popular “match three”, Candy Crush game formula in the middle of the mobile squared circle. Chalk full of good design choices and never-ending solicitation of money, WWE Champions lets you live out your gem-crushing fantasies by force-feeding you a roster of wrestlers you probably boo each week, making you question why you even watch Raw and Smackdown in the first place.

WWE’s stale product aside, Champions is built well and a good time waster, but does so much wrong that you swear WWE Creative was punishing you with a terrible gimmick. The WWE takes its fan base for granted on a weekly basis, so why wouldn’t they pull a Repo Man (God bless Barry Darsow) and dig deep into the Universe’s pockets for a little extra cash to fuel their mega-powered, sports entertainment, muscle machine?

Life is so unfair, isn’t it? All one can do is complain about it… or hack the game because cheating would actually make it more enjoyable. I can’t hack, so I have to default back to complaining. The game’s numerous and unfair shortfalls make it as frustrating as seeing John Cena kick out of 40 finishers to win the world title yet again. So unlike Cena, I’m going to turn heel for a moment in order to open your eyes to the tricks developers are pulling to further line the McMahon Empire’s overflowing pockets. Let’s have a look at our first exhibit.

Exhibit A: Gem placement is unfair

Bookers have the tendency to always book themselves as the champs, making themselves the focus of every top storyline. Since the game itself is the booker, you’re basically at its whim and nowhere is this more obvious than when you’re trying to find your next move on the gem board.

Each wrestler has an affinity for three gem colours. Breaking these gems lets your wrestler hit harder and charges your wrestler’s finisher and signature attacks that deal decent damage or affect the board in some way. The problem is the board is almost always populated with gems you don’t need, suspiciously holding them back to artificially increase the difficulty or to prevent progress.

It may just be paranoia, but have you ever played a game like Monopoly against a computer-controlled player and watched the bastard roll the perfect numbers to avoid all of your hotels? This feels the same way. Sure, it could very well be my imagination, but why wouldn’t you think there’s something fishy programmed in the backend especially when the game is free and begs for your money?

Exhibit B: The board reshuffles a lot…like a lot, a lot

The frequency of shuffling is, in my opinion, clear evidence that proves the possibility of unfair gem placement. When there are no more moves to be made on the board it will reshuffle everything to create new moves. In a game like Bejeweled (the original king of match three games), this wouldn’t happen all that often even when Bejeweled games last longer than a typical Champions game does. In Champions, it feels like the board is shuffled at least once every match. I’ve had the board shuffle three times once and the average game length seems to be around 15 to 25 moves. That’s a terrible ratio and smells awfully fishy.

Exhibit C: Bonus loot boxes are a joke

When you win, you’re given free loot boxes, which when matched give you paltry sums of money to level up your wrestlers. You’re given these boxes equal to the amount of health you have left over after the match, which are then placed randomly on the board. You can’t interact with them at this point, so it’s luck of the draw whether they make a match or not.

In theory, this is a great way to incentivize having a good match against your opponent. In practice, it’s actually a massive tease. I’ve left loot boxes all over the board knowing that I would get 10 free boxes. Even with the board covered in these things they might only make a single match of three boxes. Keep in mind that you have no control over where the boxes go and you can’t move them to make a match.

I suspect there’s nothing random about this at all, just like the gem placement. I believe it’s designed to place just enough boxes around other boxes to randomly make a match every so often.  In the hours that I’ve spent playing Champions, I’m almost positive this is by design. I don’t expect a big payout raining from the heavens every time, but it happens too infrequently for something that’s supposedly random.

Exhibit D: Cascades are hard to come by

This one is a bit of stretch because of the lack of proof, but not out of the realms of possibility. I’ve seen my opponent pull off amazing cascades, where a match will drop gems above it down to make another match which goes into another match and so on. Cascades lead to big numbers, so it’s obvious why you would want them to happen.

I feel that the game prevents cascades from happening just like it rigs the gem placement. Again, I only have my powers of observation as evidence, but when your opponent is frequently getting cascades at the most opportune moments to make a complete comeback, why wouldn’t I be suspicious?

Exhibit E: Progression is blatantly prevented

This reason is the very heart of why these games just can’t keep me from putting it down. The bread and butter of most free-to-play titles are giving the player enough crumbs to get them to buy the whole loaf… well, pieces of the loaf since you can’t actually buy the whole thing outright. I think that’s fair for free though, agreed?

The issue comes in when the game is designed to gate your experience; essentially creating a barrier that forces you to spend a bit of money then a little more tomorrow and the next day. All the reasons I’ve mentioned above are attempts at slowing down your progress within a match, but the gating that I’m talking about happens because you have very little control over the meta aspects of the game.

The game gives you specific wrestlers to use right from the start – they’re not random unless you buy packs from the store or miraculously win them through briefcases. This control gives the developer the power to dictate when and where you need to use a certain wrestler in “Story Mode”, which is one of the main sources of resources needed to progress.

If you invest all your money into one wrestler you will soon come across a match that requires a different wrestler (or even two for a tag team match) that you’ve never touched, forcing you to grind out coins to level them up. Sadly, the reward you get from beating a level is a one-time thing and you’re forced to progress in other modes, such as PVP and daily events that become impossible to complete. The difficulty of these modes rapidly ramp up as you’re quickly outclassed by your opponents, namely in PVP.

At this point, you have two options: You quit and play again tomorrow when everything resets or you spend some money to get to that next level where you can compete again. Which leads to…

Exhibit F: The invisible glass ceiling

Developers want us to spend money on their game… fine, but what does that get me? Will it sustain me for another hour or two and then my head kisses the glass again? I don’t mind throwing some money at a game if it’s entertaining and being open about where the money takes me. If I dump $20 now, will it take me all the way to the end game or will it get me another three hours of play?  I would spend money on a game that I knew I was investing in. However, I’m certainly not going to if there’s the possibility of my experience being cut short.

So in the name of scientific research, I’ve spent $7 on WWE Champions and my mileage has been good. I wanted to see how far I could go before I hit another ceiling and, yes, I have hit it. That $7 got me about 5 hours of play, which isn’t bad at all when you look at it as $1.40 per hour. I can only assume that I’ll have to spend exponentially more money as I progress since levelling will become quite costly.

Closing argument

Free-to-play mobile gaming is the modern day arcade where we’ve traded quarters for credit cards and Paypal accounts. A lot of arcade games of old were designed to never be beaten, often so hard that you probably could have bought a game for your console as opposed to wasting it all on one machine. That same business model makes the mobile gaming industry a lucrative one. In fact, free mobile games that have micro-transactions have shown to make as much revenue as any pay-to-play PC or console title. That’s a crazy stat.

As a gamer of nearly three decades, I prefer to stay away from mobile games in general because of their lack of depth, but there are times when a junkie needs their fix and having a smartphone on your hip makes it all too convenient to shoot up. That’s where a game like Champions comes in. Although, every time I play it, I wish I could hack it to make it more enjoyable. Truthfully, I’m expecting too much for free. So the bottom line asks, “Is it fun?” It can be. “Will the fun last?” Definitely not. Thankfully, there are millions of other Bejeweled knock offs that you can move to right after.

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