Friday, May 10, 2013



What is it about the freemium model?  There seems to be this knee-jerk reaction against it by many people, myself included.  Why?  Where is that anger coming from?  The fact is, a lot of the things people dislike about the freemium model are Nothing New.  I want to try and take a step back and look at this thing objectively, addressing some complaints -- both my own and the kind you hear from people who like to talk about video games -- and offering some thoughts about them.

Those Greedy Developers Are Trying to Fleece Players

Well, yes.  Despite the fact that you can download and play these games for free, they are in fact commercial products created by companies who are trying to make money.  This should not surprise us.

Maybe this comes from a feeling that software is not a "real" thing.  We shouldn't have to pay real money to add some special object to our game.  The thing is, we didn't mind this much when games came on physical discs and a disc full of special objects was called an "expansion pack".  All they've done is allowed us to download these special items instead of installing them from a disc, then asked us to pay in order to activate them.  Depending on the game, you might not even have to pay real money if you can earn the premium currency in some other way.

You Spend More Time Waiting Than Playing

Of course, there's another use for premium currency -- speeding up progress.   A lot of freemium games run in some form of real time and force you to wait for an action to complete before you can play again.  This can be offset by spending the premium currency to speed up time.  To me, this seems like the biggest waste of money, either real or imaginary, but it's also nothing new.  It's a bit like those arcade games where you have to insert credits to go on to the next level, except hey, you can also continue for free by waiting a bit.

The thing is, games like this have existed before.  I don't know about you, but I remember that a lot of my experience with Sim City back in the day was spent waiting for a year to pass so that I could get enough tax money to afford a brief round of construction... then waiting for another year to pass.  In fact, freemium games are more polite than those older games because you don't even have to have them turned on.  You can set things up, shut the game down, and come back in a few hours to collect on your progress.

Personally, I find that I rarely weary of a freemium game in the early game, when there aren't a lot of things to click when my "turn" comes around.  That's more a problem for the late game, when I have so many things to check in on that my five-minute break becomes a grueling chore.  It kind of suits my needs to have this little toy that I can finish playing with and put away.

They Are Not Games.  There Is No Skill or Strategy Involved.

Now, this is going to vary from game to game.  In fact, there are a lot of games that wrap a freemium model around what would otherwise fit an ordinary definition of a game.  Order Up! To Go is a cooking game with restaurant management elements.  Jetpack Joyride is kind of an arcadey platformer. Temple Run is a very arcadey platformer.  Puzzle Craft is an arcadey puzzle game with a kingdom-building metagame.  All of these are free games that are supported by some sort of currency that you can buy with real money.

But the fact is, an awful lot of freemium games follow the concepts of Farmville.  You place Structures.  You give Quests to Characters.  There are no long- or short-term goals beyond Continue Doing This Forever.  You sometimes make decisions, but they are largely meaningless.  Unlike, say, Sim City, it doesn't make any difference what you place or where you place it.  There is no failure, and therefore no success.  There are just Numbers and a compulsion to Make Them Go Up.

So it's a lot like Animal Crossing.

Yes, I feel bad for saying that out loud, but look at it.  Animal Crossing is just this game where you check in for a little bit every day and see what's going on.  There are things you can do to your environment -- plant trees and flowers, decorate your house, draw bitmaps that go on your clothes -- but for the most part, these decisions you make don't have tactile consequences for the game world.  Is that much different from The Simpsons Tapped Out?

Sometimes you don't want a game that will test you.  Sometimes you just want to chill out with this little living world.

And yes, the proliferation of this kind of game is sickening.  They've reskinned this exact same concept to a point of saturation, applying every license you could think of.  Smurfs, Charlie Brown, Shrek, The Sims, Men in Black -- Men in Black?  Seriously?  Build your own Men in Black headquarters?  Just... why?

But you can only get so mad.  After all, the more games they make with this theme, the more likely it is for someone to find the one freemium game that is perfect for them.  And when everyone already has their one true freemium game, developers will have to start trying something else.

They Are Pure Evil

Now... Hmm.

This article about the making of Cow Clicker has some pretty strong opinions about social games.  He accuses them of reducing our friends to resources, turning us into Skinner box lab rats, providing limited interactivity, and destroying time.  And not just destroying time in the way we normally do when we play video games (emphasis mine):

But social games do something even more violent—they also destroy the time we spend away from them.

Compulsion explains the feeling of struggling to return to something in spite of ourselves. Its flipside involves the disrespect of time that we might otherwise spend doing more valuable things—or even just pondering the thoughtful and unexpected ideas that an asynchronous game might raise. Social games so covet our time that they abuse us while we are away from them, through obligation, worry, and dread over missed opportunities.

I... what?

Look.  The longer you spend around freemium games, the more you feel this sort of layer of sleaze just accumulating on your skin.  The Audrey II is always there on your screen, promising you untold pleasure if only you'll feed it.  But destroying the time you spend away from them?  
I've done my time with a number of freemium games -- Tiny Tower, Happy Street, The Simpsons Tapped Out -- but I've never had this experience where the music fails to stir my heart or the food turns to ash in my mouth because I was missing some opportunity to tap something.

Maybe there are people for whom this represents a Real Problem.  Honestly, I can see how it could.  But I also think it's unfair to say that these are problems specific to freemium and social games.  Any game can be a compulsion and take up your mental energy while you're away from it.  Most of my favorite games have done this to me for a period ranging from days to weeks, and I don't begrudge them for it.

They are Dumb Games.  Trying to assign any more importance to them just sounds like those morons who thought the Wii remote was going to destroy the industry.

So, What, Do I Actually Like Freemium Games?

Well, no.  Just because these ideas have precedent doesn't mean I have to like them.  Hell, who liked those arcade games that asked you for another quarter after every level?

I think there's a place in the world for them.  There is something neat about being able to download something for free and play through its cute little tutorial and maybe stick with it for a few days.  Every freemium game comes with the metagame of how much enjoyment you can get out of it without having to pay the developers anything.

But after a while, you get your fill.  You can guess the arc that a game is going to take without even having to download it.  You can read the description and feel in your head what a chore it's going to be to make your virtual town look anything like the screenshots.

So if games like this are a problem, they're a self-correcting one.  You do eventually work them out of your system.  And if you waste your time, at least you don't have to waste your money.


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