Holedown isn’t free, but that’s partly why it’s fun

Martin Jonasson, the creator of the popular ricochet game Holedown, says that the usual business of “freemium” games like cooldowns and consumables rubs him the wrong way. He acknowledges that some games implement free-to-play monetization systems well, but he’s turned off by how they force him to serve “multiple masters.”

“You can’t only focus on making the player’s experience positive [under that model]; you have to ensure there’s some money trickling in as well,” he tells me. “That’s a concern I’m happy to avoid.”

Focusing on the experience alone has paid off. Holedown only costs $3.99, but it’s simple and endlessly entertaining. It isn’t hard: Its main challenges deal with learning how to aim and collecting enough crystals to shoot more balls at once and move on to even deeper planets. It’s a “delightful spectacle of bouncing,” in Jonasson’s own words, and I see no reason to dispute them. It relaxes more than it frustrates, in large part because there’s rarely any question that your failures spring from your own mistakes rather than resisting subtle pushes to cash shops.

And we can partially thank the App Store for that. Jonasson tells me he was happy when the App Store came along letting him charge a handful a bucks for his small games, as it allowed him to focus on making a better experience rather than worrying about monetizing the game. He’d made Flash games before, but back then he disliked the common practice of including strips of ads inside free games (which was probably most recognizable in the brief sensation Flappy Bird).

“It always seemed so backwards for me to spend days upon days crafting a visually coherent experience just to get it run over by an ad,” he says.

I came to Holedown with a particular sensitivity to this. Inspired by a tweet from SungWon Cho, I’d just spent the days before playing through Peggle Blast,  the 2014 game that’s also about bumping blocks with balls, but it gets everything wrong that Holedown gets right. That wasn’t always the case, as Peggle launched in 2007 without any kind of microtransactions. Instead, like Holedown, it was just challenging enough to convince yourself that you were smart for finishing it. 

Peggle Blast, though, kills the fun only a few levels in, pushing you to spend money for new balls or access to additional powerups. It’s distracting and ultimately tiring.

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