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The Real Price of Free
by Mickey Blumental on 03/31/13 07:45:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Nothing is free. 

Said someone. 

At some point. 

I’m pretty sure.

Except for hugs and freemium games, right? They’re free.

Well, no. If there’s anything we can learn from freemium games is that there is more than one form of currency: there’s cash, coins, diamonds, donuts, pearls, snoopy dollars, gems and what have you. Just because you’re not paying money doesn’t mean you’re not paying. This is even with ignoring the fact that the game is going to try its best to make you pay a lot of hard earned cash, more than you would pay on average on traditional “paid games”.

And I’m not singling out free games. There are plenty of cheapium $1-$3 games that for all intents and purposes in terms of their design and monetization structures are freemium.

So here’s the ways in which you, as a gamer, pay for playing freemium games:

1. Your Time

I don’t know about you, but my free time is valuable and limited. I don’t have enough hours in the day to consume all the tv shows, movies, books, comicbooks and videogames I would like to.

So I have to be very picky. I would rather pay a few dollars and play a game that grabs me by the throat and doesn’t let go than play something that’s only mildly more interactive than popping zits (and not nearly as satisfying).


Farmville is a free game. Also known as Watchingpaintdryville. Best use of your time?

2. Game Pacing

Pacing a game is an artform. How often do you encounter new enemy types? How fast do you unlock new weapons and abilities? Get it right and the players can’t tear themselves away from your game. Get it wrong and the players either get bored or overwhelmed.

With Freemium games the pacing of absolutely everything is slowed down to irritating levels, trying to bully the player into spending money to accelerate the pace: earn currencies faster, unlock levels and abilities sooner. With a deep rooted IAP system in place, any careful planning of game progression is thrown out the window. 

In most cases a freemium game is an intentionally tedious chore you pay to skip. That makes about as much sense as going to McDonalds and paying them twice as much so you won’t have to eat there.


The free clone Ninja Fishing is a tedious grind, while the $3 Ridiculous Fishing is a masterclass in pacing.

3. Broken Difficulty

Another balancing act that falls apart in freemium games is to do with the difficulty.

With players being able to buy consumable power ups and permanent boosts the whole difficulty curve turns into a difficulty knot. It’s especially true for unique super boosts that can be bought only for cash (pay to win) and seem to be designed purely to break the game by giving you the upper hand, upper torso and upper leg. 

Back in the good old days, we could use free cheat codes to empower ourselves as gamers, but even back then, once the novelty wore off after five seconds we’d realize that we just ruined the game for ourselves.

It’s like buying a second hand Sudoku book with all the answers written in by someone else and then feeling good about the“accomplishment”.

Kingdom Rush's over-powered consumable powerups stain an otherwise fantastic tower defence game.

4. Virtual Panhandling

Don’t you just love it when the same guy asks you for money every time you pass him on that same street corner, even if (or especially because) you already gave him some money in the past?  

So here you get to be harassed in the privacy of your own gaming experience. FUN.

Sonic Dash and Sonic Jump didn't kill the franchise, they just made out with its corpse.

5. Ads

Yeah, I don’t like ads.

I don’t like ad banners and I don’t like pop up ads: especially the type of pop up ads that ninja sneak on you and appear just as you’re about to tap something else and you end up being sent to the app store or another website. It's like a free secret mini-game!

No.

Just no.

A screenshot from the game... Huh... Whichever one is behind the ad. Who cares?

6. Design Compromise

I really liked Jetpack Joyride. And One Epic Knight. Also Punch Quest and Zombie Tsunami. Great free games. 

All endless runners.

Some game genres fit with the model, but most don’t. So if you go with the freemium/ cheapium model, relying on income from in app purchases, you either limit yourself to specific game genres that work, or you’re going to eviscerate a beloved game genre and shove the bloodied parts into the freemium mold. 



Real Racing 3 offers some of the most realistic waiting in any racing game to date.

7. Bottomless Pit

You can never fully own the game. You might spend a $100 and still have a lot more to spend money on. Especially since many consumables need to be purchased every single time you want to use them.

A lot of defenders of freemium like to compare the model to arcade machines. There is one big problem with that: there is a physical reason you need to keep feeding coins to an arcade machine. When you have a personal copy of a game on your own device it stops making sense.



MOAR DIAMONDS! 3750 diamonds for $99.99 is a steal! No, seriously, it is.


These are examples of what freemium games cost you as a gamer. As a developer (assuming you are interested in making great games rather than just profit) it only costs you a small fraction of your soul.

Plants vs Zombies vs Freemium

As I was writing this post I came up with an amazing example that shows just how the freemium model can take one of my all-time favourite games and prove every single one of the points I was making.

Plants vs Zombies is an amazing game. It’s the only non-puzzle game that my husband has ever played (and finished). I completed it several times on my PC, X-Box 360, iPhone and iPad. My son was obsessed with the Zombies On Your Lawn music video. I stood in many lines at PAX Prime to pick up several plushy toys, hats and fridge magnets. Guess what calendar is hanging in my kitchen? Huge fan here. I look forward to Plants vs Zombies 2 more than I did Bioshock Infinite. A lot more.

I found out about Plants vs Zombies Adventures for Facebook a couple of days ago and my heart sank reading about it. I then tried out the Beta and my fears were confirmed. My heart sank further down until I pooped it. So much bad in one game.

First they abandoned the five lanes layout in favour of a more generic isometric 3d view that brings to mind games like Clash of Clans and Farmville, which also incidentally completely change the iconic gameplay. It’s now yet another tower defence game where you place your units along multiple paths.

The graphics make-over robs the game of its charm and also takes too long to load.

There are multiple confusing currencies and consumable power ups that dramatically break the game’s difficulty balancing.

Many actions in the game, from growing your plants Farmville style to attacking your friends' homes, require lengthy cooldowns that can be skipped for pay.

Shall I go on?

It’s a heartbreaking clusterduck. George Fan must be rolling in his bed.

I read in an interview that the team worked through eleven prototypes before they ended up with the current version that they are happy with and I find it hard to believe that there are eleven versions that are less fun to play than this piece of drek.

Hopefully the release of Plants vs Zombies 2 later this year will cleanse my brain (if that game is also crap there will be serious flipping out).

Yes! Yes! Yes!

 

Oh hell no.

EA and PvZ aren’t the only culprits in license abuse. The Sims (both the iOS and Facebook versions), Sonic Dash and Real Racing are other examples for unpleasant attempts to shoehorn existing game franchises into the free to play structure.

It’s kinda depressing, because early attempts were much more successful with efforts like Bejeweled Blitz and Zuma Blitz.

This doesn’t mean I don’t like freemium games, many of them are actually pretty good. Well, maybe not many, but some. OK, just a few. On the other hand I never spent a penny on a freemium game, so maybe I’m not their ideal target audience. 

(Actually there was this one time I spent $7 on Smurfs Village, but I don't like to talk about it)

I also don’t rule out using this structure for developing a game. Most revenue on the App Store comes from in app purchases and not all developers can afford to dismiss it. As long as players pay for IAP they are ultimately responsible for the success of that revenue model.

It’s just that when you consider the freemium structure you must first fully consider the costs.

It sure ain’t free.



--Mickey 


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