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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 Gamasutraís 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!


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.


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Chris Clogg
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Oh man this was a good read! I got nothing to add other than, "yepppp".

Maximinus Romain
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Smart and funny. I feel just like you, that this scheme does not make for fun games. However, there are a few games that manage to keep the fun despite their IAPs. I enjoyed Major Mayhem.

Robert Green
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I've let the developer know you said so. Though it might be worth noting in this discussion that Major Mayhem, like Jetpack Joyride, was originally a paid title, and like that often-cited example of freemium done right, started with a solid title and a decent amount of content before charging for anything else.
It also wasn't as profitable as a paid game, which is a problem that's not going away any time soon.

Joe Rheaume
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Great article! Also, I love it when people slip "drek" into their prose.

Thomas Engelbert
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Well spoken!

Muhannad Taslaq
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Wow , i so many people were with the free model , most of the people advise to have free and paid versions but how can measure the conversion rate in that? also if i may ask , what is your view on free game dev tools ?

Mickey Blumental
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Free game dev tools are great if it suits your development needs. It'll be interesting to see what a freemium IAP type dev tools package would look like. :-)

Muhannad Taslaq
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Wow , i so many people were with the free model , most of the people advise to have free and paid versions but how can measure the conversion rate in that? also if i may ask , what is your view on free game dev tools ?

Kujel Selsuru
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I refuse to support this business model (as a consumer and a developer) because it's too easy for it to fall victim to corruption! If someone can somehow figure out away to ensure only the good implementations of this model survive I will consider supporting it but that day is more then a ways off still.

Ramin Shokrizade
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It is not the tool or model per se that is broken. From my experience the problem is that 99+% of the people using it just don't understand the interactions between the model and the consumer well enough to effectively deploy it. If it is any consolation to you, I am currently working with two AAA studios that have decided to go F2P but without making the mistakes that EA and others did. Imagine 8 and 9 digit budget games that are F2P and contain none (zero) of the flaws described in this article.

John Flush
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Kingdom Rush didn't have the power-ups when I originally played it. I went back later to find that I could explode my way through just about every level now without actually having to get any good at it... I haven't even touched the latest new levels because of said feature.

As for Ads. I will actually pay $.99 to get rid of them on games I like. If they still have ads after I get done paying for the game I flip the bird to the developer / publisher and move on never to return.

Design Compromise - Real Racing 3 = EA... why do people keep playing EA's shit? really people find any game out there that does the same thing that isn't made/published by this company. They exist and they don't say EA on them.

Plants vs Zombies... again EA here. I think I see a problem you missed with Freemium.

Mickey Blumental
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EA is hardly the only company that makes bad IAP games.

Plants vs Zombies came out before EA bought Popcap, but I must admit I am a tiny bit worried about Plants vs Zombies 2...

John Flush
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That is true EA isn't the only company that makes them, but they are the only mega publisher I know that says that all the games they publish will have these sorts of design decisions (that I'm aware of). This leads one into understanding that if they hate any of these "design choices" as others are calling them, every EA game has a high probability of ticking you off in some regard. I think it is time people realize this and choose accordingly - try everything else out before you try that EA published game.

David Ngo
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Unfortunately I have read this type of article time and time again, and there's one major flaw to this perspective. You are just pointing out bad game design. It has nothing to do with the monetization model. None of these things HAVE to exist in a free-to-play game. It's just that most of the games you've tried employ these bad design techniques.

Also, if you just hate waiting in games or hate the idea of IAP, then that game just isn't for you. The fact that the Top-Grossing games on IOS are always F2P games should tell you that there is an audience for these types of games. And if it's not you, that's fine. Not everyone likes Diner Dash or Indie Games or Call of Duty. Doesn't mean they are inherently bad games just because you don't enjoy them.

And one last thing to note, the mobile gaming industry is just starting. There is a lot of development and evolution that must occur before it matures. And that goes for game design in general. Keep pointing out bad game design, but don't associate it with a monetization model. Otherwise, you create a false dichotomy that puts us Game Designers in a terrible position. "Make a paid game that won't support me, or make a crappy F2P game that will make me a living." Because if that's the truth, we either will continue making shitty games, or will end up never making any games and get a job elsewhere.

The real perspective to progress this industry is that F2P games currently have a lot of bad game design. But there is a good F2P that can be achieved. Let's support those games and continue to make them better.

Dave Long
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Aye - but the problem is a lot of these games relying on taking advantage of what would be seen in other circumstances as emotional character flaws. In effect, when F2P games succeed in making money, they are succeeding in emotionally manipulating their audience. Slot machines make a lot of money from consumers as well, and gross very well, but their game design is dead-set lousy - they just rely on taking advantage of a particular emotional frailty to milk someone for as much money as they can.

Of course, advertising of paid-for games also involves manipulation, but at the end of the day, games where you pay up-front live or die on their game design. F2P games generally live or die on taking advantage of people that are easily manipulated. I know which of the two business models I'd rather be involved with.

That's not to say there aren't good F2P games, and not to say there aren't F2P games that aren't more ethically sound, but these F2P games don't require any money to enjoy (I really enjoy Jetpack Joyride, and I haven't spent a cent on it - I'm going to soon, because it's fun and I want to support the developer, but I feel no need to beyond an ethical imperative) - and that's hardly a great business model either.

Mickey Blumental
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I suspect you were in a hurry to write this emotional reply before you read my entire post. I do actually acknowledge the fact that IAP is a profitable model:

"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."

Obviously I am stating my personal opinion and my personal taste in games. I am saying that even if you don't pay money you are paying in other ways - and it's fine if you're OK with it. If you don't mind waiting or spamming your Facebook game and you think that the game is worth the hassle, more power to you.

If I found out that the only future for games is in IAP heavy manipulative junk, I would change a career in the blink of an eye.

Lance Trahan
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David Ngo has it right. It's a matter of bad design and which audience is being targeted. I've played games like Tiny Tower and never bought a thing. I'm a tough customer when it comes to F2P purchases, but games like League of Legends blew about $200 out of my pocket because they targeted something I loved in the way of selling me access to champions and custom champion skins. I think the biggest drain for me was custom skins, though many times I waited for the ones I wanted to go on a 50% off sale.

Games where you pay for time never really do it for me, but games with pay for customization will get me almost every time. It's a matter of taste and preference.

@Mickey I wouldn't call people out about constructing an emotional reply when your "article" is nothing more than a bitch-fest harking the evils of F2P with a quick cover-up of "but hey, people are stupid enough to pay, so whatevs" at the end.

A more constructive article would outline these problems and offer up some potential solutions or show some examples of F2P that is done right as counterpoint.

Robert Lever
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how could I forget...

Mr Blumental - are you aware of the development costs of some of the cited titles (PVZ Adventures, Real Racing, Hay Day etc)? These games aren't made by 5 people working for nothing trying to get their first hit - They are made by large teams of experienced game developers, QA, product managers et al...

"Freemium" is effectively the only route to VIABILITY for teams of this size. It isn't a conspiracy to rort people of cash, it's a conspiracy to keep people employed. No matter how you cut it, people won't play, let alone spend money on, a product that they don't enjoy!!!

Mickey Blumental
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Of course I am aware of that. It's the second time I need to point out that this is already addressed in the main article:

"I also donít 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."

Joshua Dallman
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Consider the player costs of an iOS F2P download:

- Player must spend time to discover the app (most expensive part of transaction)
- Player must spend admin time typing in their password to download
- Player must spend 3G or WiFi bandwidth to download the app
- Player must spend time waiting for app to download
- Player must spend time hunting down the new icon on their device then open it
- Player must wait for the app to load, and any realtime content to download and update
- Player must sometimes spend admin time to create a game specific userid/password for social play
- Player must spend time reviewing the tutorial and game rules
- Player must spend energy in reading and comprehending the rules
- Player must enable push notifications for time-based re-engagement to work properly
- Player must spend time reading/responding to push notifications sent by game
- Player must have and maintain enough space on the device to keep playing
- Player must spend the opportunity cost of not installing other games/music/media in that drive space
- Player must update the app via app updates, password entry, download wait to keep playing game
- Player must wait for game to load and update content at every new game session
- Player must spend mental space to either actively ignore the app until deleted, or actively engage in
- Player must respond to friend social requests in game from strangers or friends
- Player must continue to learn and progress through the game, spending time and mental space ongoing
- Player must dismiss any ads in the game
- Player must dismiss any cross-promotions to other games in the game
- Player must dismiss any requests to purchase currency packages in the game
- Player must spend time playing game at opportunity cost of not playing other games with higher reward, more instant gratification, more friends playing, more social rewards

Those are just some of the up-front and immediate play costs a "free" player pays a company and a game by playing their game. Free players ARE the "content" for paying players (social games need players), so it's important games treat free players with respect, and not as players that should simply be grateful for a "free" game. There's no such thing as a free game or a free lunch.

Chad Gonzales
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Consider the costs of writing that reply. Dam yo

Lance Trahan
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Only about 5 of those apply to F2P games in particular. The rest apply to every iOS game you get for free or purchase. >_>

Emppu Nurminen
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Christian Primozich
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Am I the only one who finds it ironic that a consultant wrote this. David Ngo has it right.

Mickey Blumental
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I actually design games hands on if that makes my opinion any more legitimate. :-)

Gord Cooper
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"Do you need someone to help you with user retention and monetization for your new media product?"


Mickey Blumental
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"I also donít 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."

- This post. :-)

Francisco Valdenebro
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Really funny post. Loved it.

To add to the discussion, I would just say that the difference between good and evil F2P is like the
one between coin-ops and slot machines.

Coin-ops are FUN to play.
Slot machines are ADDICTIVE to play.

So they both charge for playing, but the results are not quite the same.

Francisco Valdenebro