Free-to-play games often look appealing, but it's difficult to know at a glance whether the business model is insidious and fun ruining, or reasonable and worth pumping a few bucks into. With Freemium Field Test, we'll take a recent free-to-play iOS game, put it through its paces, and let you know if it's really worth your time (and money). 

During the Super Bowl last week, viewers were treated to a live-action ad for free-to-play hit Game of War: Fire Age starring famed model Kate Upton. It depicts her as a ruler--initially seen bathing (sex appeal!), but then charging into battle--who challenges you to join her by downloading the game in question. The fantasy setting isn't very distinctive or interesting: you won't mistake it for Game of Thrones, that's for sure. But at least the commercial has a smidgen of spirit. 

That's more than I can say for the game it advertised. Upon seeing the spot, I grabbed my iPhone, opened up the game I'd been poking away at for two weeks at that point, and realized that I still had no idea what I was playing for. There's no evident storyline, no clear enemy or overarching objective in sight, and none of the very light personality depicted in a commercial seen on TV's biggest stage. It's not even a particularly attractive game, full of menus and ancient-looking artwork.

Developer Machine Zone surely spent millions to air that single ad, and it is the crown jewel of a reported $40 million campaign with Upton as its star. I'm sure it's been beneficial: Game of War has hovered near the apex of the Top Grossing apps list in recent weeks, and the more people that play, the more can be tempted to splash a little cash to speed up timers as they expand their cities and alliances.

But from my experience, there's nothing to strive for in this rote kingdom-building affair--no incentive to play, and even less to speed money. So what's the appeal?

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The pitch

Upton provides her likeness to Athena, an illustrated guide whose image appears from time to time, but if the commercials hint at a storyline or grand struggle driving the action, it didn't reveal itself in my time with the game. Instead, Game of War: Fire Age winds up being one heck of a menu-navigating simulation.

Starting with a mostly empty chunk of land, you'll tap buttons through drab menus to generate and upgrade buildings: farms, logging camps, quarries, and mines to start. And then within your city walls, also barracks, villas, hospitals, and eventually structures like an embassy or prison. Each takes time to build and takes longer to upgrade as you increase each building's capabilities, letting it produce more resources for... well, that part wasn't always entirely clear.

Tired of just building stuff? Your cartoonish hero and any trained troops can be sent out on quests--but all that means is tapping a button in a menu and waiting for a timer to tick down so you can collect a reward. Seriously. You don't even get a simple animation or filler dialogue: just a timer and some stats. This all continues on for hours and hours as you're prompted to build something new, take on more quests, and repeat ad nauseam. Your character and buildings grow more powerful, so it claims, but the game doesn't blossom into an interesting experience as a result. 

Where Fire Age seems to provide its pull for some is with alliances. Joining one lets you tap into a private chat room and combine resources for a greater cause. Some of the members in the alliance I joined were die-hards: discussing what to do about rivals that had "scouted" our locations, pointing out areas where we could go take resources from, and deciding the future course of the group. It felt like they were playing an entirely different game from me, because something had clearly grabbed them. They were invested, and with more than just money and time. 

Here and there, I'd see people being more personal with their conversations: talking about home life, military service, ailments, and more. There's a clear social hook to the alliances, and Fire Age has something of an MMO-lite feel to it. The game even translates written languages on the fly so worldwide players can all coexist on the same servers. Seeing people connect like that over a game that I found so banal and half-hearted challenged me to rethink the value of freemium titles like this... 

The catch 

...But only to a small extent, admittedly. I can understand the appeal for certain folks, but I still think the biggest catch is that Fire Age tries to convince players that an eventual "point" will emerge when there really is none. You're amassing power and resources, but to what end? Where's the motivation? And why would I spend money if still I don't see an objective after two weeks of steady play?

Of course, you'll have plenty of opportunities to invest real cash: Game of War may be the most aggressively monetized free-to-play game I've ever played. Each session begins with a full-screen splash ad that tempts you to buy into some limited-time promotional bundle: $5 or $20 gets you a stack of gold and a slew of other resources and items that you can use to speed up timers or enhance your alliance. In one recurring case, the "X" to close the ad was obscured by its graphical design. I don't believe it was a coincidence. 

Even when you exit the ads, the push to spend is ever apparent--there's a distracting, impossible-to-ignore, animated "SALE!" banner that takes up a chunk of real estate on the main city screen, not to mention a slot machine that tempts you into spending premium currency. Game of War tries so hard to sell you its digital currency and other perks that it smacks of desperation, and the business model driving the experience reveals itself as the core design element, rather than the thin gameplay draped atop it.

Just to be thorough, I eventually spent $5 to take advantage of a Super Bowl-themed bundle: "Super Sunday SUPER SALE: Kick Off to VICTORY!" (This deal still appeared the following Monday, by the way.) That earned me a stack of gold and an array of other items for use in expanding and protecting my kingdom, but I really didn't see the point. At least not when the entirety of the game in front of me focused on tapping buttons every so often to make numbers grow larger. 

While writing this up, I noticed one of my advanced alliance mates saying he had 38 days left on his current research timer. More than a month to wait for something to activate, because there's no such thing as instant gratification in free-to-play games--not without immense cost, at least. He seemed to be taking it in stride, however. "I have nothing but time," he said. You've also got so many more options beyond this bland freemium grind. Explore them, please. 

The verdict 

Game of War: Fire Age seems to pull people in with its social features and promise of greater things, but as far as I can tell, there's nothing much to find beyond timers, buttons, and admittedly lively and amusing chat rooms. It's monetized to a distracting, overwhelming degree, but I didn't find much value in spending money instead of just waiting for timers to run out. After all, there aren't any timers or restrictions on the conversation and camaraderie. 

My biggest complaint isn't about the timers or spending prompts, but rather the lack of any meaningful reason to deal with either. Fire Age doesn't bother with interesting gameplay or any semblance of storyline--it's all "build this" and "train them," but the reward is simply more and more busywork. Millions of players are feeding into this cycle, for some reason, but all they're buying themselves is more drudgery. And perhaps a chance to see Kate Upton on national television.