With hundreds of mobile games released each month, when a game arrives on the App Store with a totally unique concept as Skyjacker – We Own the Skies has done, it’s something you really hope you’ll like. Marrying airplane tracking, simulation and augmented reality, there truly is nothing out there like Skyjacker. However, a great concept doesn’t always lead to a great game and unless you’re an avid plane-spotter this seems to be the case here.
Hopefully, Skyjacker will be able to make serious inroads into the plane spotting community because it’ll likely thrive in this niche. When it comes to attracting and retaining a larger or more mainstream audience, unfortunately that’ll likely be an uphill battle.
Admittedly, the idea of inviting players to take the role of a skyjacker involves a delicate balance. The long history of criminal skyjacking that reached its pinnacle in the 1950s and 1960s has been all but forgotten in the public imagination as a result of the rise of politically-motivated (terrorist) hijackings. Especially with the augmented-reality component of the game, the developers had to be careful not to alienate potential players by putting them mentally in the mental space of someone roundly seen as a terrorist scooping planes out of the sky at their local airport – planes that could very well contain family, friends and colleagues.
The result of this balancing act is an incredibly tame simulation experience. It’s just too bad that the same thing that makes the concept widely palatable robs the game of the level of engagement needed to retain interest.
Gameplay itself is very straightforward. If playing on iPad or iPhone, you turn the device sideways to switch into binocular mode. Then move the device around to locate plans using the radar. Alternatively, if using your device in portrait mode (applies for the iPod touch) you pick planes near you off the radar screen. To jack, regardless of whether in binoculars or radar mode just touch a ‘scheduled’ (green) plane. From there you choose whether to keep the plane on course to its scheduled destination or divert it to another airport (including some air force bases) within the fuel range.
Honestly, its in diverting flights where most of the fun of this game lies, particularly for the more sadistic among us. Sending flock after flock of innocent fictional people to Timmins (Canada) or Buffalo (United States) with no clear way home is cruel yet cheekily enjoyable. If you rent teammates using diamonds, it’s possible to jack more than one flight simultaneously. If you’re looking to take control of the leaderboard as well as the skies this is essential.
As the execution of the game’s concept, the gameplay simply doesn’t do enough to hold attention. There’s no challenge to seizing or diverting aircraft. There are no failed jacking attempts. There is no competition with other players over the crafts.
Diamonds are very rarely acquired in-game and quickly spent on limited-use assistants, which after your initial burst means the pace of the game (if you’re playing well) becomes excruciatingly slow as you wait out the long-haul flight you’ve taken over. The longer the flight, the bigger the reward, but the less time you get to spend with the game. and the harder it is to motivate yourself to come back. Indeed, without notifications it’s all to easy to forget to come back to collect your rewards and take control of your next flight.
Alongside the gameplay, there are a couple of other issues that are likely making it harder for Skyjacker to capture and retain a large audience. There seems to be a bug with iPad and, potentially iPhone, where planes can’t be jacked from radar mode (no issue with binoculars mode). Touching the screen just zooms in, over and over, rather than selecting the plane.
There’s also the matter of, with Skyjacker being a location-based game, the extent to which you can engage is determined by how close you live to an airport or flight path. If you’re in or near a major city – great! There will be lots of options, including long-haul flights. Conversely, if you live outside of key flight paths or away from the airport, your options will likely be limited and often unappealing.
Even still, for all of its flaws all hope is not lost with Skyjacker. There are ways that it could be made more engaging. Future updates will be the key to this. The radar bug can be fixed easily enough. Gameplay could be made more engaging by allowing players to cash in some of that reward money to operate out of another city for a little while and seize crafts from other skyjackers in some way.
Most importantly, if the goal is to build and retain an audience, there needs to be a fairer diamond rewards system. As much as the in-app purchase revenue generation model as opposed to an ad-based one will be warmly welcomed by a few players, with diamonds being so essential to engagement (more folks on your team means more planes you can take, therefore more time in-game), for engagement’s sake the current model needs a little rejigging.
Currently it costs $13.99 to hire one 20-day and one 7-day freelance skyjacker. It’s hard to stay engaged with less than five or six planes in the air at the same time (a few long-haul, two short-haul for quick points and visits). Thus, realistically you’re looking at about $40 a month to keep the game interesting. Any way you slice it, that’s too steep to retain any sizeable audience.
Increasing the in-game diamond rewards for successful long-haul flights, the size of the reward for playing consecutive days (from one diamond per day to ten), allowing players to buy diamonds with coins, obtain diamonds for watching ads and/or the number of diamonds in the value packs could all make a huge difference here. If the game could get to the point where players are able to realistically have ten planes in the air at a time, it might be able to hold attention well enough to grow the player base. A larger player base leads to a more enjoyable game for players and a more successful game for the development team.