I’ll try to write this in an all-audience accessible manner. Also, watch me fail at this.
The mobile game IDOLM@STER MILLION LIVE: Theater Days (MLTD) is enjoying its 5th year in 2021. For those who are totally unfamiliar, this Japanese-region based game on iOS and Android (its Korean and TW/HK releases are being shut down later in October) is an offshoot of the bigger IDOLM@STER (IM@S) franchise. What this Japanese media-mix franchise–which started as arcade games but branched into console games, anime TV show and films, comics, and many other things–is known for is mixing its vast array of characters in its raising games with live performances of their voice actors on stage events. To keep the franchise moving, each of the sub-brands put out regularly, new singles, albums and performances (in-game and in-person). There are currently 4 active all-female sub-brands (765Pro All Stars, Cinderella Girls, Million Live, and Shiny Colors) and one all-male sub-brand (SideM)
I’m just whining about one specific part of one specific game for one specific sub-branch of a big brand here, although the same probably can be said of most of current games (except the Popm@s game, which is bejeweled; and to an extent also the Shiny Color game which has an entirely different bag of problems as a F2P visual novel)–they are glorified content delivery platforms, with gameplay being secondary to the idea that you are playing a raising game, producing the idols you are in charge of, and watching them perform their work and reach for success.
Given games like these are F2P platform/services, they have to evolve over time. Five years is a relatively long time. The IM@S franchise also is a sizeable thing that’s been around for 16 years. It costs a lot of money to field a large cast and put on extravagant shows. The Cinderella Girls (CG) series is probably the best example, as it has grown from two successful mobile games and build a large and loyal audience, with concerts in baseball domes, with its 10th anniversary coming up this winter.
While CG can rely on its huge, 200-plus-member cast and a regular, top 20 revenue game in the app marketplaces to keep things going fresh, others are more in a bind. In MLTD’s case, the developers have tried spinning the presentation differently–doing an “anime” type sequence using the in-game engine for example. Or, in this case, a new event type called “Platinum Star Leisure” which caps off a new series of an existing event type “Platinum Star Tale” which is just a repurposed “Platinum Star Tour” event with different rewards.
I appreciate the new try, but, this is not a good look.
Platinum Star Leisure events allows you to earn event points and points you can use to unlock rewards for each of the participating idols. There are 13 idols (the 4-4-5 from the last 3 Tales events) and each one has an outfit available to be earned this way, so players had to accumulate a lot of points to unlock all the outfits. Traditionally, obtaining outfits is one of the main goals players have in most if not all IM@S games, and MLTD is no different.
Unlike other events in MLTD, there is also no “oshigoto” option in Platinum Star Leisure event. What makes MLTD a tad different than other IM@S games is that there is a time-based shortcut that let players convert their stamina into event progress, much faster than spending stamina to play the rhythm game. That’s “oshigoto.” In a competitive event most players use this path to make faster progress, in exchange with worse conversion rate between stamina to event points. Given each song takes about 2-3 minutes to clear, including load time, it can take 15-20 minutes to use up a bar of stamina, while “oshigoto” would only take maybe one quarter or one fifth of the time. It is really a quality-of-life benefit for players who might want to use up the stamina before they head out to work in the morning, or right before they go to bed, on top of being the “time-efficient” way to earn points in events.
To understand further, let’s look at an example. Suppose I want to be the top 2500 players to rank in an event, that means in about 7 days, I have to get more points than everyone else except 2499 other people. If I play 3 hours a day, and I can play a song every 3 minutes, that translates to 60 songs a day. If each song uses 30 stamina, that means I use up 1800 stamina per day.
If I use oshigoto, I can do 300 oshigoto a day using the same metric, with 5 oshigoto per song in the same amount of time (this is a very conservative estimate, but close to reality if we factor in the “event song” playtime). If each oshigoto is 20 stamina, that means I use 6000 stamina per day. If the stamina per event point conversion for playing a song is 10 points per stamina, that’s 18000 points. If it is 6 points per stamina for oshigoto, that’s 36000 points.
For those keeping track, that means in 7 days I can score 126000 points with 3 hours of purely playing the rhythm game part, and 252000 points with oshigoto. Of course, if you have time to spare, you can do just as well playing oshigoto, but you need to spend twice the time to get the same result. In a time-limited event, time is going to be a limit you have to play under however. Coincidentally, 250000 points is also enough to achieve 2500 rank in a lot of the recent events.
As you can see, it is time-efficient to do oshigoto, and you may have to if you want to achieve a very high rank, it also makes the game more money as players have to spend, and buy, more stamina to reach the maximum gain rate per unit time. It is also a factor in an equation the developers can adjust to get the desired impact between player competitiveness, fatigue, and dev earning.
The actual math differ from that example in that the game MLTD ultimate wants you to do some of these live peformances, because not only the game concept has to do with players participating (in listening) to the songs the franchise spend a lot of time and money on to produce, but to watch the in-game engine do the song-and-dance, as it has always been a hallmark of the IM@S franchise. It doesn’t make sense to develop a great game system (Unity in MLTD’s case) that runs on a lot of mobiles and showcase these dance choreo if players won’t see it most of the time.
If you have been following what I was saying, you might actually realize a greater truth. Nobody really wants to grind out these games to achieve a high rank, if the point of the game is just to put pretty people in enjoyable songs and dances, wearing neat outfits. Like gacha as a mechanism, competitive ranking based on how much stamina you can use up (either methods are just glorified ways to do so) isn’t really a “gameplay” aspect that is healthy and it requires deep design considerations to integrate well. Maybe for some people, it is fun to play the same songs over and over again. It certainly can be fun to watch the same performances repeatedly. The Platinum Star Leisure event provides a lot of free “autopasses” which let player play the songs without actually playing, which does seem to say they want folks to actually enjoy this aspect of the game. The new songs in the game has interchangeable vocal parts even, which adds a dimension to the game that simply watching the same video on Youtube doesn’t have (I’m looking at you, Shiny Colors).
However, in the end, the carrot and the stick go much farther than these autopasses. More over, they probably screwed up the stamina scaling in this particular event, by making the less stamina play modes more event point-efficient than the more difficult, high stamina play modes. I think that’s an outright mistake, which will likely affect any data the developers are collecting. To that end, right now the developers are offering an in-game user survey, which is both not a surprise and a surprise that they’re so straight about it.
If they want to improve on the Platinum Star Leisure events (as 3 more are likely scheduled in the future), they should obviously fix the point scaling on MM mix and simply reduce the event rewards from playing the final song in the “medley” mechanism at lower stamina levels, OR alternatively, fix the stamina use to be the same no matter what difficulty.
Another common complaint is that players who want to unlock all the outfits have to score, basically, high 100k-ish points. In gameplay terms that’s something like 80-100 plays, and you can see how many hours that is. For players who don’t want to compete, that is a big time sink, uncharacteristic of the game in the past. Given how the game gave out similar outfits using the monthly subscription ($10/month), the cost to obtain the non-ranking event outfits seems high, considering the stamina spent converted to paid currency is a bit close to $10. In the grand scheme of things it was not expensive, but just a troublesome game that took away its one QOL differentiator for this event.
There were some other minor issues to this Platinum Star Leisure event that can be adjusted, to make getting the outfit easier on the players. I think a big issue is the repetitiveness and the forced limitation in general, and those can exasperate the issue. If the game have 100s of songs you can play, it doesn’t make sense to force players to play just the same handful when those are the songs they have to play dozens or hundreds of times. It also seems like a bug or a mistake to not have a feature to adjust the stamina use in the song selection menu. More importantly, when the player doesn’t enjoy the event song, and is forced to play it, developers should make that easy to deal with. This is really ought to be a game and not a burden Producers (fans of the IM@S series) have to bear as a burden to show their dedication.