Time and Money: My visit to DragonVale

I'm going to sound a little naive in this post. I'll make observations that might be obvious to anyone who's played Pokemon or FarmVille. I've avoided the genre until now. I had some experience playing an old SNES game called Harvest Moon, which could be considered a great grandparent of the new crop.

Right, I started playing DragonVale as research for Dung & Dragons. They seemed to have very similar themes, but totally different formats, so any insights I could glean from the app might be usable for a board game with some adaptation.

So here's how DragonVale works: Time and Money. You start with an untamed island, a small plot of cleared land, a nursery, and a portal through which visitors arrive on your island to tour. You're guided to buy your first egg, wait a few minutes for it to hatch or spend a gem to hatch it immediately. Once it hatches, you build it a habitat.

Your first two dragons are a plant dragon and an earth dragon. I named mine Celery and Clump, respectively. They are cute, make cute dragon sounds, and you name them, which pretty much means you'll imprint on them if you're susceptible to that kind of thing. Even if not, you'll pay attention to how much cash each dragon produces.

Celery produces almost 30 coins per minute. Clump produces only about 5. Naturally, feed Celery so he grows to produce even more money. Sorry, Clump, but you eat as much as Celery without producing nearly as quickly. Here's the next obstacle: Regardless of what the dragons produce, their habitats have a maximum capacity. Celery produces fast, but his habitat has a tiny capacity. It's the opposite for Clump.

So, next step is to upgrade Celery's habitat, which will take three hours. Three hours! Of course, you can spend a gem to speed things up. Ah, gems. Opiate of the impatient. As far as I can see, there is no in-game way to earn gems. The only way is to spend real money. Thus, like MMOs, an artificial delay becomes the primary way the game is profitable for it's creators. If you're impatient and have an extra buck, you can do well in this game. For everyone else, it'll take some time.

I'm still playing, but I don't know for how long. The lack of a foreseeable endgame is what turns me off. Even so, I am learning something about how to design around resource management, even if those two resources are just Time and Money.


  1. My main concern with this type of game (which I believe also includes Tiny Tower, but should not include Pokemon) is that the obstacle does not challenge the player in a way that makes for interesting play. Perhaps more precisely, the "wait" mechanic isn't paired with other, more involving mechanics to create interesting play. As the sole obstacle, it seems to exist primarily to put pressure on the player to pay for obstacle mitigation so they can experience advanced content they would otherwise have to wait for.

    In a game with limited moves, the challenge of play is maximizing the effectiveness or results from those moves. In a game with limited time, the challenge of play is similarly to maximize the effectiveness of the moves one can make in that span. In a game like DragonVale, the obstacle is that moves take a long time unless you pay the developer money. You would think that this would put pressure on the player to refine their strategy to avoid wrong moves. This is definitely true in Neptune's Pride where it will take twelve hours for a fleet to reach any one of five planets, but deciding which planet to target is based on a handful of statistical and social strategies. That pressure isn't present in games like DragonVale and Tiny Tower because, in most of them, the difference between a good move and a bad move is minimal. The choices you make in the game are usually extremely easy, as in your dragon example. You will always pick the highest earner to pour resources into. You will always pick the best upgrade available for your money, and it will be rare that the best upgrade won't be obvious.

    You bring up the example of MMOs, where it's true there are often artificial delays or grinding, but there are also more options about how you spend your time. It's hard for me to imagine that it is as gratifying to push the "feed dragon" button as it is to utilize in-game skills to eliminate mobs, loot them, and craft new items, all while chatting and emoting with friends.

    In the case of these simpler time-sink games games, the only obstacle to advancement seems to be time, and the player is presented with little to do but repeat simple actions and wait...or pay money. I don't really object to the choice of obstacle; long moves serve a game like Neptune's Pride very well. I am annoyed by what I perceive as a blandness of implementation, a shamelessness in monetization, and a lack of discernment in the huge customer base. :D

  2. Jim and I have been discussing this, as I've been playing other waiting games on the android, and the PT is playing DragonVale on his iPod. We disagree (although see each others' POV) on the pricing of things. I like that the game is free and you can choose to pay for things - or not pay for things - within the game (MMOs like WoW don't work that way, but Guild Wars does- I'll introduce you to a friend who got a digital pet within Guild Wars for her birthday and was delighted) - he doesn't like that you can't get the full game experience without paying out extra. I understand that with the free waiting game, you can pay HUNDREDS of dollars if you aren't disciplined or really want in-game goodies, which is very sleazy. Why not be able to pay $10 for all the goodies?

    The thing about the waiting game is that it appeals to everyone. you don't have to have any sort of skill to get to the higher levels; just need to have patience (or gems). You don't need to worry that the boss will prevent you from progressing, or you'll run up against a puzzle you just can't solve. It's the ultimate dopamine hit without doing ANYTHING. Not saying it's good, but it appeals. Much like Twilight.

  3. If you give me a dollar, I'll let you clap faster.


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