Avengers Academy is barely a game, so why can’t I stop playing it?

We all know Freemium city builders are the worst games in the world. They have no real gameplay to speak of, they prey on people’s love of established franchises and they demand vast sums of your money in ways so brazen and frequent that they feel a bit like a front for a debt collector. So I hope you can understand why I’m so mad at myself for getting hooked on one of these accursed games, Avengers Academy, but I don’t know how to stop.

It’s not like I don’t know that these games suck. I tried The Simpsons: Tapped Out when it was released back in 2012. The idea of a “city builder” game for smartphones was intriguing and felt like a natural fit. What I discovered was a game that felt like it respected neither your time nor your bank account, because it asked for great swaths of both in exchange for rewards that could be described as ephemeral at best.

The idea behind games of this type, Avengers Academy included, is that you build a microcosmic city in which any number of known characters can live. These characters can be sent on “missions,” or timed quests, pulled from the Mission Board in the centre of the town. Buildings, cosmetics and even characters can be purchased using the gold generated by completing these missions. Each quest is performed in real time — some characters may only be busy for a few minutes, others could be out of commission for a full eight hours or longer while they get their respective tasks done. That’s really all there is to the game. Send character on mission, wait, receive reward.

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What this means is that the game starts preying on your impatience right away. You are driven to complete these tasks but that damned timer keeps getting in the way. Lucky for you then, there’s a convenient way to speed things up! All you have to do is spend a certain amount of special, rarer currency to finish up at that task right now! The catch: the only way to obtain this rare currency (beyond the pittance you are given with each campus level up) is to buy them with real-world money. And they are expensive. The premium economy in Avengers Academy are Infinity Gem Shards that start at US$1.99 for 100 and go all the way up to US$170 for 7,000. You know what these games look like. Even South Park made an episode about them a few seasons back.

When Avengers Academy first released back in February of this year, I treated it with suspicion. I’d already seen games like Tapped Out and Family Guy: The Quest for Stuff come and go and felt no great desire to ever look at another one. However, because it is alarmingly difficult for me to say no to anything with a Marvel or DC logo on it, I found myself downloading the game within a week of launch to try it out. At first, it wasn’t what I expected.

The art style was clean and modern. The character designs were cool and their models wonderfully expressive. The dialogue the developers had written for the game was genuinely funny, and even the story at the centre of the game — that a mysterious time fog had seemingly caused Earth’s Mightiest Heroes to regress into their high school/early college selves — was dopey, but fun.

As Freemium games went, this one didn’t make me want to throw my phone in the garbage immediately. The game seemed to have a solid balance between the endless grind for gold and its premium economy. Those who wished to spend money were free do so but, those who were dedicated to the Free-to-Play (or F2P) life could still eventually unlock most of the game’s goodies without ever having to spend a cent.

There were a few premium characters — Spider-Woman, War Machine, Vision — that could only be purchased with real money, but none of them gave those who forked out any significant advantage in the game. Hulk was also available right away if you ponied up around $30 of real-world coin — he did provide a significant bonus in that he could clear debris from newly unlocked tracts of Academy land, but it was made clear that he would become available in the game at Level 35 if you were prepared to wait.

When the game introduced its first major event, a Guardians of the Galaxy themed unlock-fest, the cracks began to show. To unlock all of the Guardians required quite a bit of work on the part of the player. Some in the game’s community reported having to set multiple alarms to wake them up throughout the night in order to unlock all five of the Guardians, something that definitely rubbed many the wrong way. Two characters, Yondu and Nebula, were available as premiums and while they were supposed to make it easier to progress in the event, they didn’t ever really feel like they helped that much. Additionally, each unlocked event character had to reach max level before the event’s conclusion or you would have to spend vast sums of gold, or grind hundreds of a singular item, to upgrade them later. To this day, some four months after the event, the only Guardians I’ve managed to max out has been Star-Lord and Drax. Everyone else waits patiently for their upgrade.

Much the same thing happened in the Captain America: Civil War event that followed only a few weeks later. After grinding away for four solid weeks, not only did I miss out on defeating Red Skull, I also blew my shot at getting Winter Soldier. My frustration was growing.

Where things really seemed to go off the rails was in the recent two-month Spider-man mega event. This event has become one of the most widely-derided in the game’s short history due its surprisingly tone-deaf approach to unlockables. A truly expensive prospect for those who were willing to pay, the Spider-man event was next to impossible for F2P devotees to get anything out of. The premium characters were overpowered and overpriced, and if you weren’t forking out for shards then you almost certainly missed out on a number of F2P characters as well — I wasn’t able to recruit Lizard, Green Goblin or Electro during the event because I simply didn’t have the time or the money to work for them.

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When the event’s second episode began and Venom became the new hard-to-get must-have, I began to wonder if it was even possible to recruit him. You had to train certain heroes in order for them to be effective in combat against the symbiote invader. The trouble was, he was far too difficult to whittle down and he was capable of felling even your most powerful characters with a single blow, premium or not. It took almost week for developer TinyCo to nerf him to a point where he was even halfway manageable. I ended up having to spend a small amount of money on shards to push through to the end of the event and actually unlock Venom because I like that stupid character and because I am a sucker.

I saw comments from many in the Avengers Academy community that told similar stories of feeling that the only way to succeed in the event was to pay and that this use of Marvel’s most popular hero as a rather brazen cash grab had turned them off the game. It seemed Avengers Academy had abruptly removed its mask and revealed itself to be as craven as any of its stablemates.

As the Spider-man event concluded, TinyCo announced that the game would receive its first story update since launch, raising the level cap from 34 (conveniently one level shy of being able to recruit Hulk for free) to 40. They also announced that the update would bring a slew of fresh F2P characters to unlock, which was cause for much fan rejoicing.

And for a time, it was good. The game returned to a state of being an innocuous time-sink, an enjoyable way to to kill time on your lunch break. Perhaps as a gesture of goodwill in the face of all the community backlash, TinyCo also opened the gold and XP floodgates and suddenly I was making in-game currency hand-over-fist. I power-leveled my academy to level 36, I upgraded a few characters and buildings, I unlocked Tigra and was well on my way to recruiting Hulk. I couldn’t believe how much more fun the game was when I wasn’t constantly being reminded that I was running out of time and being shaken down for money.

The salad days lasted for two weeks. Two weeks off from the event grind (and even then, TinyCo ran a mini event around classic villain M.O.D.O.K. during this period). The new Daredevil event, timed to tie in with Luke Cage premiering on Netflix in September, began just under a week ago. Once again, I find myself in the same position I always do with these events — a whole roster of characters I love and want to recruit, some of which I would have to pay for, and others that I’ll probably miss out on because I simply can’t spend every waking minute staring at my phone to optimise my doodad drop rates.

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And after three days of grinding hard to unlock Matt Murdock and not really getting anywhere, I find myself wondering “Why do I keep putting myself through this? Why do I keep playing this damned game?” If I took all the time I’ve spent on this game recently and used it on going to the gym instead, I’d be ballerina thin by next Wednesday.

So, after reading all of this, you might wonder what is so special about this game that I don’t just delete it and never think about it again? “David,” I hear you screeching, “all this game wants is to drain your wallet. If you had a friend who asked for you money this regularly, you’d cut them out of your life.” So why the hell do I keep playing?

I don’t really have a good answer to this question. I like the look of the game, I like the vibe (when it isn’t shaking me down for money anyway) and I like being able to collect a whole bunch of my favourite comic book characters. I think it’s this completionist angle that keeps me going back. It feels as though, if you chip away at it, it might be possible to get everything. This is clearly not the case — TinyCo will keep releasing new content and characters from now until the sun dies — but my brain, trained from birth to defeat any game that crosses its path, certainly believes Avengers Academy to be winnable. It is my own personal, much-less-awesome Kobayashi Maru. This must be what people addicted to poker machines feel like.

The fact that they never truly end is what makes these games feel so sinister for players and a delight for publishers. If you can keep squeezing content out, punters will keep paying unlock things and move the interminably long mission timers along forever.

I’ve found myself at a point where it feels like the game is asking an awful lot from me despite not really giving me anything in return beyond watching Captain America dance the Charleston for eight hours (an actual command in the game, and one that rears its head with monotonous regularity). If I want to make any headway in the game, especially during events, then I have to devote a surprising amount of time out of my day to keeping everything on track. That’s not really what anyone wants or needs from a game of this type.

There will come a time, and I feel like it might be in the pretty near future, where I simply have to delete Avengers Academy from my phone and free myself from its clutches. And I swear I’m going to get right on that, just as soon as I get through this Daredevil event, because it has Hellcat and Iron Fist and Luke Cage as unlockables and I need them.