App Review: Condor Country

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When I first saw the advertisement announcing the upcoming release of Condor Country – a game packaged as an app for public consumption about wildlife conservation – I was understandably hooked. As a wildlife biologist by day, why wouldn’t I want to play a game featuring myself struggling to help the infamous California condor recover from extinction? Yes, please, take my money.

But there was no need – the app was a free download – so download it I did and rolled up my sleeves in preparation for the hard work ahead saving the world. Secretly, as I waited for the game to launch, I hoped against all hopes that it wouldn’t be *too* much like real life. I mean, who wants to play a game where you sit behind a desk and file paperwork and write reports as penance for those few exceptional field days (and some more mediocre ones) each year; let’s be honest, not every day in the life of a wildlife biologist is Planet Earth-worthy. (That doesn’t keep us from dreaming, though.) Little did I know…

As the game kicked off, I found myself with four condors that had reached adulthood and were ready to be released. The walk-thru fasttracked you through tagging ($200) and releasing each bird into the wilds of the Grand Canyon. But four birds do not a healthy population make. So my next stop was the captive flight pen, where I paired and mated ($200+) two captive adults in the hopes of an egg to hatch out. Like any captive breeding program, these things cost money. Radar units, captive pens, incubators, food, and – if there’s any money left – wages for the poor biologists doing all that dirty work (that, let’s be honest, would doubtless be donating their time anyway if the funding didn’t come through). Never fear, the public loves a spectacle – I could fundraise by turning on my radar unit to track the whereabouts of each tagged bird I had just released. For every bird I clicked on during the 15 seconds my radar unit worked (a little too close to home?), I raised $200 from eager funders. And I would need that cash since, by the end of the walk-thru, I was as good as broke.

It was at this point, too, that the game devolved from a learning tool carefully packaged as a game into a marathon of suffering through in-app ads to reset the 15-minute recharge on the radar unit, which is the ATM machine that greases the palms of this entire game. The more birds there were to track, the more money I could earn. But to raise more birds, I’d need to keep those incubators purring. And there’s a cost behind every egg I incubate ($200+) and tag ($200). And so to earn that cash, I’d have to keep tracking birds. See the vicious cycle? Knowing that the fate of a species rests in my capable hands meant I’d be watching plenty of ads to keep the radar unit’s batteries charged.

Extinction?!? Not on my watch, I reasoned as I settled in to watch an ad or too. But I soon realized that the only thing shorter than my patience during the 15 minutes it took to recharge the radar unit was the 15 seconds of radar run-time the “telemetry mini-game” allowed me to clumsily drag-scroll through the wilderness looking for – and then clicking on – constantly moving birds. Keeping the radar churning 24-7 to activate the 15-second mini-game and keep the funds rolling in meant binge-watching ads like back-to-back episodes of Battlestar Galactica. Except one of those experiences is fun.

In too many unfortunate ways, the game mechanics are not unlike real life – beggering yourself to keep your study going and keep enough public interest that the checks roll in. Except my guess is that the original intent of the game was to highlight the titillating conservation aspect of wildlife biology (“Track a bird!” “Hatch a baby condor!”), not the drudgery of fundraising and administrative work that goes on behind the scenes.

Although the press release offers that “Players are also able to earn special golden feathers to speed up game play by opting to learn more about condor conservation,” the only way I could find to earn such golden feathers was to watch more commercials about diabetes or online casino sims (“Few Feathers” [=10] per ad watched) or to purchase these gilded quills in the game’s “shop” at standard in-app purchase prices (=highway robbery). Granted, the press release also assures that proceeds from the optional in-game purchases will be used to support the Santa Barbara Zoo’s ongoing conservation and education programs, but I’d rather support the zoo by paying for the app outright than getting nickel-and-dimed on gold coins or, as the case may be, horse feathers.

Unfortunately, my suffering didn’t end there. It was only a matter of time before my funding had run dry and I couldn’t respawn an ad to recharge the radar if my life (or a condor’s) depended on it – a connection error or something, the not-so-helpful biologist explained. Now I had to sit out the 15 minute clock until my radar unit recharged. Without something better to do, I admit it was only a matter of seconds before I quit out of the game to try a new app I had also just downloaded that allowed me to trade in my biologist’s boots to become instead Ookujira, a sperm whale-like cetacean spy-hopping from rooftop-to-rooftop crushing alien ships on a “giant whale rampage” and having decidedly more fun while my batteries recharged.

In time, the connection error righted itself and the alien attack had been thwarted, so I left the radioactive waters of Ookujira-ravished Japan to rush through another bender of ads about Fantasy Football, credit scores, more Las Vegas slots, and Vaseline. As the funds rolled in once again, I nursed my captive breeding program along, fledging chicks one ad binge-fest at a time. But another glitch soon arose. For whatever reason, I had one hatchling that I couldn’t fledge no matter where I tapped plus two eggs in my incubator ready to hatch, but – according to the prompt that popped up every time I clicked on the well-done eggs – there were no open nest boxes (I had to unlock one or wait until one was finished) even though my captive pen – the one I had just expanded at the cost of several thousand ad-earned dollars (or golden feathers – by this point, who was keeping track – I had whored myself to earn either one) – appeared to have two move-in ready nest boxes, one apiece. 

I had just been flock-blocked.

And just like that, I had the scary realization how fragile such recovery programs really are and how precarious the plight of the California condor might be if the funding ever dried up, and not just in the game I was playing. Except I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the sobering message the designers had hoped to instill when they sat down at the drawing board.

Looking back now over what I’ve just panned penned, I can hear my mother reminding me, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Well, if that was the case, no one would bother writing reviews. But there are good things about Condor Country that give me hope. True, the coding may still be buggy (the text in the “Learn More About Condors” section is a jumbled mess, and the swipe controls are all janky between the captive flight pen [swipe right, move right] and outdoors [swipe right, move left]), but the graphics and soundtrack are top-notch. The game’s blend of realism and cartoony art make the gameplay easy on the eyes and appealing to children and adults, and the condors themselves are animated with enough life-like gestures to make them pop off the screen as they flap, preen, and primp.

Is there a way around the down time and in-app purchases? I certainly think so. Imagine that instead of watching advertisements, players could take an active role in driving home the conservation theme by patrolling the landscape as a ranger (while the various timers counted down in the background) in search of outdoor recreationists. If, say, a hunter appeared in the woods, by clicking on them the player would initiate one of several canned-but-not-too-preachy dialogue boxes where the ranger educated the hunter about the secondary consequences lead bullets have on wildlife (lead poisoning). For every ten hunters you talk to, one of them becomes a benefactor and donates $1,000 to the cause. Likewise, if you encountered a camper or backcountry hiker tossing trash on the ground, clicking on the garbage and then on the litterbug would prompt the the warden to talk to them about keeping our open spaces clean. For every five recreationalists you talk to, one of them donates $300 to the cause. It’s not sexy, but nor are ads about diabetes.

From what I’ve read, I would eventually have unlocked other mini games if only I had stuck it out, like being able to collect microtrash to keep the preserve clean. But I didn’t. I quit, extinction be damned. I had reached my ad tolerance threshold. After being violated by Madison Avenue one too many times,  I had a sudden need for some Vaseline – and, once again, Japan needed saving. 

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