N4L: The Freemium Conundrum

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candy-crushWith the explosive popularity in smartphones a new arena was born for gaming to spread out onto and show new innovations in areas such as play-style, look, and most disturbingly, new pay models.  While you can still just buy a game right out and play until it’s done, that seems to be the shrinking minority of how publishers are deciding to release their mobile games.  More often these days a game is released in 2 variations, a paid-version which is just the usual method of play.  Buy, play and that is about it, or you can download a free version that is riddled with pop-up ads or or few things that cripple the game such as a slower means of advancing or a limit on advancement.  More like an extended demo then a free version with ads.  The other, more disheartening means of getting a game is called “Freemium” and you essentially get the game for free.  No ads and it’s the full game, most the time there isn’t even any other means of having the game, it’s Freemium or nothing and this is a huge problem that I believe is hurting the very foundation of gaming.


Getting a full game for free with no advertisements probably doesn’t sound bad at all.  Hell, I love free.  Me and “Free” are homies, we kick it all the time.  But it’s not the same as “freemium.”  Let me explain.  Typically free is either striped down and simple because it’s free, or it is something that was meant to be sold, meaning it was originally made at a cost to someone else in hopes of getting what they put into it repaid through sales.  Offering it for free usually means it’s too old, too successful, or badly made and now it just has to be given away.  “Freemium” from the very start is created to be given away with other means of recouping their losses of making it built into the game in the form of micro-transactions.  Now, Micro-transactions are little purchases you can make in the game with real life money.  usually ranging from 99 cents up to hundreds of dollars.  No really, some games have items in their games that cost hundreds–of–dollars.  Clearly this isn’t where they are hoping to get their money back and I understand that.  This is just a cheap form of marketing because every site and tech blog will go off condemning this move of offering a multi-hundred dollar item.  BOOM, free advertising for their game.

“So, what’s the big deal?”

Here is my issue.  When games are built in this fashion they are structured for maximum profit and not for its initial sale.  Games that cost money outright and budgeted, created with that budget in mind in order to be able to sell it at whatever price-point they are shooting for, and that is that.  They build the game around being FUN from beginning to end.  Games built on the freemium model do not have the foundation of “FUN” as it’s first step because that isn’t the end goal of the design.  a paid game is required to be fun in order to get people to want to buy it to make up their cost.  a Freemium game is required to get that money back however possible from the start.  Can it be fun? sure, but that really isn’t the first thing they go for.  It’s going to be made to push you to buy stuff in game to make their money back.  A paid game already got your money so everything after that is because the designers want you to have fun and tell your friends.  A Freemium is going to make the next level just harder enough that you want to buy that in-game item to make it easier, or invite your friends for in-game cash…so you can then buy that item to get further.  See how this is working?

Candy Crush Saga:

40 f*$@ing dollars?!
40 f*[email protected] dollars?!

This game really is the epitome of why I hate the freemium pay model.  It’s exploitation of behavioral momentum, lack of patience on the players part, and the way in which the games difficulty progresses are so geared toward pushing you, the player, to spend money just to keep going it’s a little sickening.

Here is a typical game.  You start playing, the first couple levels are extremely easy yet the game praises you as if you’ve just successfully performed neuro-surgery in complete darkness.  Lots of flashy graphics happen which furthers your feeling of accomplishment.  Then you hit a speed bump and lose a few hearts.  No big deal right?  for the first 10+ levels it’s not, it becomes a problem when you are out of hearts on a level that requires near perfect luck in order to pass and you have to wait 30-minutes in order to gain 1 heart just to play one more time, why?  Because fuck you, that’s why…  OR…you could just drop a buck or so and buy more hearts.  Again, the game is structured in such a way that you always lose by “THAT MUCH” which makes you want to try again because, man, you were so close.  But you are now out of hearts meaning you have to wait.  This exploits behavioral momentum.  It forces you to wait or buy to continue.  Something else it does is almost flat out deceitful.  You sometimes “unlock” special items that allow you to do special things, except when you tap on these “unlocked” items, where it actually says you’ve unlocked it, you are asked to pay for the item with real money.  How could I have unlocked it if I still have to pay?  Where is the logic in that.  Every step of this games progression skews deeper and deeper into “pay us now” and less into “have fun, on us!” but it’s done in such a way that it keeps pushing you to play by triggering basic human desire for pattern recognition without allowing you to continue or even finish the process without shelling out money.  The cherry on top of all this was a friend’s Facebook post stating how sad it was, her being a Wells Fargo Customer Care Rep, to see so money overdrafts because of Candy Crush Saga microtransactions.  This is effectively gambling.  This game uses all the same triggers that gambling does without actually getting a payout.  All you get is to keep playing.  It’s gross, is what it is.

The Cheap Freemium:

More like "Cashphalt" emiright?!
More like “Cashphalt” emiright?!

Another pay model coming from all this, which is a growing favorite of Gameloft, is the cheap freemium.  Franchises that used to sell at a premium price such as Asphalt, where it would be $4.99 on Android and iOS, are now sold at just $0.99.  Why?  Did they optimize their creation process to the point that making these games costs them close to nothing?  of course not.  The biggest difference is the structure in which the games play out.  In Asphalt 5 or even 6 you gain stars and depending on your amount of stars you unlock more tracks and races until you eventually finish the game.  In each race you also get cash which you can use to buy cars and parts.  That’s really the extent of it.  You can’t use real money to buy cars or tracks.  You just progress naturally, there are no car requirements, just star amounts.  But with Asphalt 8, not only are stars required to unlock new tracks, but every track requires a certain “Class” of car, and on top of that, each car is rated.  If you have a car rated too low there is no way you are going to win the race and you’ll have to buy a new one or upgrade.  Several races REQUIRE specific cars to even race and some even require multiple cars to get all the stars.  Did I mention buying some of the higher tier cars is ludicrously expensive to the point of feeling hopeless that you will ever earn enough during each race?, and not just for the later tournaments, but races in the very early levels require cars that cost such an exuberant amount that it feels like a dick move on their part for even making such a requirement.  BUT… you can always just buy that car with real money, or should I say the pack that that car resides in, which is likely $19.99, or just splurge and get all the cars for a cool $99.99.  That’s right, you can buy all the cars for $100.  And that is the exact issue.  When you buy a game for more than a dollar it feels like more of an investment, there by triggering you to feel as if you are getting a complete package.  But if they only charge  $.99 or nothing at all then the possible profits are kind of endless.  They can charge any amount for any item, structure the game to push you into feeling like you have to pay to advance and before you know it you’ve spent more than you would have if they just charge $5 for the game from the start.  They can’t charge $5 and then charge for content because you will feel betrayed for having spent money just to spend more.  From a business standpoint why bother charging anything when they could get you to spend a little every once in a while that equals more than $5?

I’m just using Asphalt as an example, many game companies are doing this.  Where there once was a natural and flowing progression with a steady increase in difficulty is now replaced with roadblocks that require massive grinding to advance or a “paygate” in order to quickly keep going on that natural, flowing path.

Not Just for Mobile:

If all this simply stayed in the mobile market it might not be such a big issue, right?  The problem is that these models are being picked up by major console publishers such as EA.  Dead Space 3 had micro-transactions shoe horned into its gameplay for no other reason then “the player expects them,” which is a terrible excuse.  Microtransactions was NEVER our choice so saying we expect them is like an abusive boyfriend/girlfriend saying they hit you because your father did and you expect it now, so why not keep hitting you, right?  How about that I paid $60 to play a game and adding in micro-transactions, which requires it’s own game-play structure in order to be effective for them, changes how I can play the game.  Now it’s not a matter of grinding to achieve the best items, it’s grinding just to achieve anything because fuck you, why not just buy it?  The level if difficulty is increased in order to push me to pay more and having already paid $60 for the game just feels extremely deceitful, and that is my fear.  Selling a game at a fixed price-point use to mean you bought an experience, knowing whether it was a hard one or easy one, and you set out to experience that entire package.  Adding in micro-transactions for more real life money just corrupts that experience.  Now instead of saying “Here is the whole package that you paid for, enjoy!” publishers are essentially saying “Here is what you bought, but if you REALLY want to advance you should keep your credit card close by.”


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