Is MiniClip’s 8 Ball Pool deliberately broken?

8 Ball Pool, by Miniclip, is a hugely popular game for iPhone and Android, which can also be played in a web browser via Facebook.  When it’s working properly, it’s an entertaining and hugely addictive game, based on American rules Pool.

The casual gamer can pop it open during their lunch break, and play against thousands of people from around the world.  It also has a world league and friends league, which players are incentivised to compete in through in-game purchases of everything from more accurate and decorative cues, to humorous speech bubbles.

In theory, by progressively becoming a better player, the more coins and cash you win, the more you can play on the higher tier tables with higher cash prizes, and more importantly see your name on the leader board.

In practise, however, the only way to unlock higher tier games is to buy large amounts of in-game coins and virtual cash.  And although Miniclip do offer discounts on coin purchases, at £1.49 ($2.26 US) their lowest price coin deal isn’t going to get you very far.  This is not only because you might get randomly picked to play against someone who is simply better at playing the game than you are, but because a series of bugs and software glitches which have remained un-patched for months, make it virtually impossible to win enough coins to stay in the game through competing in honest and fair tournaments against other honest and fair players alone.

Before I explain why I believe this is a deliberate ploy on the part of Miniclip to con players into buying more coins, I should first say that clearly this isn’t a problem for casual gamers, who just want to play a few quick games against their friends during their train ride to work in the morning.  Every 24 hours, the game issues enough free coins to play at least one 1-on-1 game against a random opponent, on one of the lower tier tables.  In that sense, it is a free game, with no ads, which is very pretty to look at and ostensibly works well.

But 8 Ball Pool also appeals to more serious gamers with a competitive streak.  There’s something about the allure of seeing your name at the top of a video game league table, which has driven players around the world to perfect their skills, ever since the late 1970’s, when Space Invaders and Donkey Kong reigned supreme.

The difference between those games, and Miniclip 8 Ball Pool, however, is that the classic arcade machines, which are still competitively played to this day, are not rigged to penalise their players through deliberately engineered software glitches.  If you put a coin into a PacMan machine, and the game doesn’t start, you push a button, your coin pops back out, and you start again.

In Miniclip 8 Ball Pool, things are very different.  Instead of getting your coins back when things go wrong, the only recourse you have is to email Miniclip’s technical support, who might occasionally feel like replying to you, only to insist that the whole thing is your fault in the first place.

The game is rigged

Screenshot_20151215-160450

All of these players have lost their money

The screen-grab opposite is of the waiting screen for players who have won the first of three rounds in the Downtown London Pub tournament.

Once a player from round one wins their game, they wait for the winner of the other game taking place in their group in this holding area.

Every now and then, as the game between both of your potential future opponents progresses, a speech bubble will appear above their avatars telling you how many balls they still have left to pot, and who is currently at the table.

My avatar is the red and white rose icon. My player name is ‘Jim’.  I am signed into the app via my Facebook account.  As you can see, I have played and won against a player with a rating of 7 to my 52.  In the other game from my group, Khiali, rated 12, has just beaten a player with the default anonymous silhouette question-mark avatar, rated at 2.

Therefore, myself and Khiali should now play each other, for a chance to play in the final against Said, rated 50, who has already beaten Basma, rated 33, and another player in his first round game rated at 36.

But myself and Khiali will never get to play against each other, or Said.  This waiting screen will in-fact just hang until, without any of the scheduled games taking place, all three of the remaining players are left with no choice but to exit the tournament, and lose their initial stake of 200 coins.

And here’s why I believe Miniclip are deliberately ignoring this common fault, which is guaranteed to occur at least twice every half hour, and which myself and many other players have been complaining to them about for at least the last 6 months.

All 8 of the first round players had to deposit 200 coins to start the game.  That’s 1600 coins up for grabs to the eventual winner.  But the total prize for winning in the final is just 1000 coins.  This means that Miniclip are up by 600 coins per London Pub tournament that they host.  Unless, that is, they simply take all 1600 coins and never pay anything out to anyone.

The next table in the tournament, Sydney Marina Bar, costs 3000 coins to enter, but the total prize fund is only 18,000 coins.  Which means of the initial 24,000 coins paid into the pot, Miniclip simply keep the remaining 6000 coins to themselves.

If each player in just one round of the Sydney Marina Bar tournament paid £1.49 to add, let’s say, 30,000 coins to their account (the amount of coins you receive per-£1.49 purchase varies, depending on the deal which is currently on offer via the in-game store), that player’s account after one game is now down to 27,000 virtual coins, while Miniclip have made £11 and 92 pence in real world currency from those eight tournament players.

Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 11.32.51.pngThe screenshot opposite shows the version of 8 Ball Pool playable in a web browser, via Facebook.  It was taken randomly on a regular Wednesday morning, at 11am GMT.  It boasts of having 44320 players currently on-line.  If only half of those players paid £1.49 each, that’s over £22,160 straight into the Miniclip coffers.

Let’s half that number again, and say that of those 11,080 players remaining, every third Sydney Marina Bar tournament they enter quits to the waiting area without anyone proceeding to the final, thanks to the “glitch” described earlier.

Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 11.46.45.pngThis screenshot was taken just 45 minutes after the one above.  As you can see there are currently 45534 players currently on-line – and as the time gets closer to 12 o’clock, when lunchtime casual gamers are more likely to log-on, that number is set to increase even further.

On-line gaming is BIG business.  And with traffic numbers like that, it’s easy to imagine how expensive it is for Miniclip to maintain their servers.  It must be a very tough job, and no-one is suggesting Miniclip shouldn’t make money in order to stay competitive.  But doing this by ignoring the complaints of paying customers is just not fair.  It’s understood that game developers need to be profitable, otherwise their apps simply wouldn’t get made.  But passing off their own players with lame excuses, when bugs are reported, is just not on.

I wrote to Miniclip three times, twice via their Facebook page, and once via their support forum, before eventually receiving the following reply.  Bear in mind that in my original messages, I explained that I had already ruled out the possibility of the issue being to do with my internet connection, or my mobile devices, since it occurred on two different broadband connections, three different mobile networks, and four different devices – three Android and one iOS:

We are sorry for the inconvenience.

Please know that we keep a close eye on our server to make sure this kind of issues are kept to a minimum.
Nonetheless it is very difficult to identify the root of the problem in cases like the one you described, as the connection fault may also be on the player side, please bear in mind that the connection problem doesn’t mean necessarily internet problem, can be a conflict in the browser (in case you play in our page) or any problem related to your device.
Please be also aware that as our Terms and Conditions state we are not liable for connectivity issues you may experience.

We credit your account as an exception since we were not able to find any issue in your account of match played.

Thank you for playing and understanding.

For more questions feel free to contact us.

Best regards!
Tiago

Clearly, there is little incentive for Miniclip to fix these glitches and bugs, that have existed for months, when the net affect of these issues is to actually increase the likelihood of competitive players making more in-game purchases.

Of course there could be another explanation for all of this.  Of the 40,000 players which Miniclip boast are on-line at any one time, for example, it’s entirely possible I am the only one who repeatedly suffers “connection problems” or “problems related to my device” which conveniently fall outside of Miniclip’s responsibility.

To that end, I shall be returning my brand new Nexus 6, running the latest release of Android 6.0, with no root access or other non-standard modifications, connected via the fastest fiberoptic broadband internet connection package Virgin Media UK currently provide, to the manufacturer, with a complaint that the only app from hundreds I have installed on it which doesn’t work properly is Miniclip 8 Ball Pool.

What are the odds?  Especially when taking into account I can recreate this bug on my Amazon Kindle Fire HD, on my old HTC One M7, on my iPad, and on my Hudl tablet – all of which have been tested on three different mobile networks, BT, Three Mobile, and O2, and every Wi-Fi hotspot within a 50 mile radius of my home – all of which suffer the exact same issues that apparently have nothing whatsoever to do with Miniclip.

Worse still, the apparently non-existent waiting area bug, which despite being in my imagination warranted a begrudging and measly 12,000 credit from Miniclip, isn’t the only problem with the game which appears to have been deliberately crafted in order to penalise regular paying players.

Denied

Another bug which regularly crops up happens after potting a ball in a game against a player who repeatedly reports a slow connection error.  At the bottom lefthand side of the screen, the message “Waiting for player response” appears after every pot made.  This is presumably done to ensure the data between the two player’s devices are synchronised, so that the player with the slower connection doesn’t lag too far behind.

But a bug with this sync-delay often means that, once you’re given back the cue to play your next shot, your opponent has already been led to believe that you are in-fact the player with a slow connection.  This results in all the pool balls suddenly jumping back to where they were before you successfully potted your last ball, with the cue being handed back to your opponent – missing your turn entirely, even though you’ve already played a successful pot.

A similar synchronisation bug also occurs, however less frequently, in the middle of London Pub and Sydney Bar tournament final rounds — which suddenly throws you out of the game, back to the waiting screen for a moment, before declaring a player you hadn’t played against in earlier rounds as the winner.  A bug which further adds insult to injury by failing to pay back the 200 or 3000 coins paid to play, as would occur under normal gameplay for reaching the final, even if you lose.

These problems, combined with Miniclip’s apparent inability to answer emails, much less read them properly, together with other small frustrating bugs which affect the way the app performs in general – such as interface inconsistencies from device to device, and a dog slow animation frame-rate, which makes the pool balls seem to randomly vanish and reappear somewhere else on the table after a full-power shot — all adds up to make 8 Ball Pool a perfect example of how mobile gamers are taken for mugs by developers like Miniclip.

They know it’s a hassle to contact support, explain your problem, and wait for a reply.  They know the bugs exist, and they know we know why they won’t fix them.  But for as long as there are 40 odd thousand people out there who aren’t aware of these problems, who pay to play their designed to fail games, they’ll continue to behave as if these issues are actually the fault of their own users.  For as long as there’s a buck to be made from releasing buggy software, they’ll keep on deleting messages on their Facebook wall, from paying players who’ve lost real-world money because of those same bugs.

And, when they go to the wall, like so many other games developers before them, whose model was based on profits rather than gamer satisfaction and playability, they’ll have the brass neck to write yet another ‘woe is me’ resignation blog, questioning the future of the mobile gaming industry – blaming everyone other than themselves for the very issues which, had they been addressed quickly, would have differentiated them from the competition in ways that gamers in particular not only notice, but appreciate perhaps more than any other demographic in the broader software market.

These issues, however, have plagued 8 Ball Pool for at least a year – and were actually made worse by an “update” in late Spring / Early Summer 2015 – which not only introduced a nag-banner for coin top-ups, that takes 30 seconds to load, and requires two presses of the X button to close, but also seemed to increase the frequency of the tournament waiting area bug beyond the simply annoying level it was already at – suggesting that in fact this “bug” was deliberately tweaked in the wrong direction.

Should a future update to 8 Ball Pool by Miniclip satisfactorily address these known bugs, I would be happy to update this post accordingly.  But I won’t be holding my breath.