Opinions on the 'South Park Phone Destroyer' early access build

Posted by Daeity On Tuesday, June 20, 2017

I've been playing the 'Phone Destroyer' game on-and-off for the past several days, and I thought I would write about it given that most websites just contain regurgitated press release statements.

It's a perfect time to release franchise games during their TV show hiatus since all of the fans are desperately clawing for any new content. Fans have just been watching the same gameplay videos of 'Phone Destroyer' and 'The Fractured But Whole' over and over just to satisfy their cravings until new episodes come out. The same is happening with 'Rick & Morty', where any fan-made videos become instant viral hits.

Before I write any further, I wanted to remind everyone of what Matt Stone & Trey Parker actually think of Freemium games.


Matt & Trey found it offensive that shortly after playing the game, they were asked to spend $100 on tokens. And, they had ethical problems with freemium games built like slot machines or contained intentional frustrations programmed into the game in order to force the player to buy something. They also mentioned how "fucked up" it was to prey on psychology weaknesses and create an addiction machine.

The audio and visuals for South Park Phone Destroyer are awesome of course, which is to be expected when working with the teams from SP Studios. However, after playing the game for a long time, it's obvious that Ubisoft must have spent a lot of time planning their game design strategies around neuroscience practices and also spending a lot of time deciding how they were going to pitch the game idea to Matt & Trey. I honestly believe that Ubisoft must have sent a highly skilled salesperson to convince them that this game was different than other exploitative games.

Here are some of my various observations:

  • Whoever designed the card-opening mechanic was brilliant. All of the card packs are essentially pinned to a corkboard. They swing back and forth based on feedback from your motion sensor, giving it a great feel. After you select a card pack, you rip open the top and the cards spill out. It's a really great alternative to the classic tap-to-open-treasure-chest mechanic. A nice feature, like the Fallout Shelter 3D effect when turning the phone, that I'm sure certain other games will copy.
  • PVE and PVP gameplay is really fun, but it will take you a while to learn which combinations of players to use, and when to use them.
  • The game requires a persistent online connection. This has both it's pros and cons. It's helpful in mitigating certain types of cheating, but if you have weak connectivity, you're going to have a very bad time.
  • The game has a great start but I was hoping for more story development and South Park videos as the game progressed (ie, a reward system as you progress to different stages.) However, it appears that they blew their load on the new user onboarding experience instead of lengthening the foreplay.
  • The story writers put in very little effort. The startup South Park video you see is the only one, there aren't any more after that. So, the rest of the game will be fairly disappointing. I was expecting video sequences after each zone. There's nothing really too funny after the first 30 minutes of the game, there's no story development, all characters are pretty much the same... and, when you finally reach the end and beat level 60, the South Park characters criticize you for not spending enough real money, brag about how they took advantage of you, and beg you to spend real money on the game. I suppose it was meant to be funny, but it really wasn't. I was expecting a really great ending, and they just kick you when you're down.
  • I've never played a mobile Ubisoft game, but I always suspected that they were extremely bloated based on my experience with their PC offerings. Even on a high-end Android device, I endured very frequent and long loading times, graphical slowdowns, and many crashes. Especially during any loading screens: if you lose connectivity, or even just a minor traffic bump, expect the game to hang indefinitely.
  • The game will frequently freeze during PVP matches, and I'm assuming that opponent bandwidth is also a requirement to have a positive experience. If they lock up, you'll probably crash too. During any online matches, also make sure not to switch windows or you'll return to a black window unable to target anything while your opponent pummels you. If you won the game, but the proceeding loading screen hangs for any reason (which is often), you'll lose your win.
  • If the opponent leaves the game, or swipes to another screen, while you are waiting searching for an opponent or "Waiting for the Opponent..", it will cause your game to crash as well. It will hang indefinitely until you restart. If the game starts acting buggy after multiple restarts, you'll need to reboot your phone to correct South Park.
  • 'Phone Destroyer' is an apt name. It's a huge memory & CPU hog, and it can drain my batteries faster than any other app I've ever used. I'm not even mad, it was amazing to watch.
  • The PVP matchmaking system is very fast (ie, less than 2 minutes), but it's also very unfair. Be prepared to fight players several levels above or below you. I feel bad for those who will be joining on the official release day, they are going to be viciously steamrolled by players who have been levelling their characters during early access. It's extremely unbalanced leaving most new players with a sense of unfair treatment.
  • After seeing how the matchmaking and PVP ranking systems work, however, I'm sure this is all likely intentional and very little changes will be made in the future. Being steamrolled by another player certainly gives you an incentive to purchase all of the P2W microtransactions that are available in-game.
  • Almost no effort went into the achievement system, demonstrating a complete lack of understanding of what they're attempting to achieve. It seemed like a rushed afterthought, and they threw it in merely to mimic other competitors. So, after your hard work collecting achievements, you'll be rewarded with some incredibly unrewarding rewards. They essentially made the achievement system the opposite of what it was intended for.
  • The achievement system was also designed very poorly, likely because of it's hasty implementation. It will break if you get too many achievements too soon. For example, say you receive an achievement for killing 10 rats, then 50 rats, and then 100 rats. If you killed 100 rats, but didn't claim for your achievements each time, it will freeze on 0/50 rats and you can't claim any rewards at all or increase the number after that. The "claim" button just disappears.
  • And, there was very little wisdom and inspiration invested in the notification system. I was really curious if Ubisoft would finally get mobile notifications correct this time by ensuring that notifications only arrived during normal human operating hours. But, I was unpleasantly surprised when I started receiving IAP reminders at 12AM, 3AM, etc. Even _after_ I turned off notifications in-game.
  • During PVE missions, if any asset or NPC is slightly off-screen to the right, you can target them with direct damage spells, but they will actually be immune to damage. Random damage immunity of this nature often occurs in PVP as well.
  • The game has an automated Cloud Save feature that you can't exactly control, and linked directly to your Google Play account. As far as I know, there's currently no way in-game to delete your character and create a new one. So, I'm stuck with the same player I created on day one. What's cool though is that the cloud save will carry through to any other devices that you install the game on. So, you can play it on your desktop (via Android emulator), and continue playing on your mobile device when travelling.
  • Due to the online nature of the game, changing money variables will be impossible. But I'm not sure if everything is governed server side. There has been some evidence of speed and health hackers during PVP matches, and I would imagine the game could be botted quite easily as well. Even an AutoIT script (through an emulator) can run nonstop PVP matches for you. There is also a modded APK available for rooted devices which makes the game region-free, however it requires the hacked version of the Google Store as a prerequisite.
Minor Notes:
  • The screen focus handling is a little different than other games I've tested, likely due to some responsive resolution code they have in the game for multiple screen sizes and devices. So, it may mess with your swipe controls or go to a black screen when switch back-and-forth.
  • During a couple of my PVP battles, I noticed that the sprite frames of custom characters were glitchy. I'm surprised this was missed in QA.
  • Notifications will happen at inconvenient times, I would recommend turning them off from your O/S settings. You can turn off notifications within the game settings menu, however they may randomly turn back on.
  • The Bandito Sally (kindergartner Sally Bands) character was renamed to Kenny's Sister. So, when you see the Kenny's Sister card - that's not actually what she looks like.
  • There is Character Art used in various menus, Environment Art, and then Combat Art used during the battle sequences. The developers took some of the Environment art and tried to recycle it for Combat Art, resulting in very blurry and improperly scaled images. The Holy Water asset is a good example. Same with the Character Art, if you jump through the various zone selection menus, the characters appear crisp and clean, but one of the Cartman images is all blurred out and scaled wrong. The Cartman character with the staff is the wrong asset, but the one with the phone in hand is the correct one.
  • In-game interfaces that require scrolling are very sluggish, and randomly unresponsive. It doesn't feel smooth when scrolling. This is due to the bloatyness of the game unfortunately. And likely the reason why they have the Deck Builder menu built the way it currently is: I suspect that scrolling horizontally was very frustrating in earlier testing.
Levelling your characters or cards in the game can be very confusing. There are many Upgrade Items, that only work with certain themed cards, and also require a combination of other duplicate cards, and vast injections of cash/points.

You will also be very confused about what they mean by a "Stage". For example, right now when you receive in-game ads ("NEWS"), Early Access users are notified that they will be rewarded greatly for "Destroying the Indian Fortress in Stage 10". However, what the hell is "Stage 10"? There are neighbourhood stages that represent Card Themes, and each neighbourhood has a Stage, however each of those Stages also has up to 15 replayable stages. There are also different Episodes with their own Stage numbers too. For example, you can be in "Stage 3 of Stage 25 in Episode 5 of Stage 5". No, I'm not joking.

The freemium game that Matt & Trey described could might as well be 'Phone Destroyer'. In the beginning, you'll collect a lot of money points and upgrade items. However, the difficulty curve quickly goes from easy to cruel. Moreso than most other similar games. Shortly after you're able to construct your first deck, it becomes extremely difficult to progress in PVE or PVP. In PVP, you never go down in ranks, and the rewards for winning are met with quite unfair diminishing returns. In PVE, as you progress through the different zones, the difficulty suddenly curves up as well and you're forced to replay old zones to collect upgrades. However, since you move up in ranks as you replay old zones as well, so you get quickly locked out of those in terms of difficulty.

In a nutshell, here's how the game works (and please note that it happens very quickly):

You play through the Story PVE stages. You hit a road block. You switch to PVP. Rankings significantly diminish rewards. You switch back to PVE. Even more diminishing returns, making the climb very difficult until you hit a road block. You're forced to replay older PVE zones, but you can only play each once or twice, since they _also_ ramp up in Stages, becoming exponentially difficult. Then, you hit an obstacle where you can't progress at all unless you buy packs and upgrades. This can all happen in one or two days of playing.

The art and sound effects are great, but other than that, it's hot garbage. The game will crash on you very frequently. And it won't give you any error codes to research, it will just simply freeze up on you indefinitely.

Now you could wait for the free pack every 4 hours and collect unpredictable cards over several days to overcome the obstacle, but the road blocks happens exponentially faster each time. Or, you can take the easy path that all human beings are wired for, and visit the IAP store to keep up with the Joneses.

Since everything in the game uses a specifically crafted ranking system with exponentially diminishing returns, the entire game very tightly squeezes you from every single side, and the only way out of it are making payments to Ubisoft. I'm feeling claustrophobic by just writing about my experiences. But, this is how they hide everything that's going on behind the scenes. They cover the game in glitter, bright lights, several varieties of "upgrade items", too many different point systems, and rewards. All of these keep you distracted from how the game is influencing your behavior.

But in the end, I think Ubisoft is going to make a ton money from this game. They are using some very classic and highly manipulative successful casino game design strategies that work very well on addicts players.

I have to wonder if Ubisoft managed to convince Matt & Trey by telling them that they would give players free card packs on a regular schedule. To the inexperienced, this sounds like a altruistic gesture. But heroin dealers have a common term for it.. it's just "a taste."

IAP sales from the game should impact their stock price positively, especially with fears of a take-over attempt looming.