Paying or Playing21 March 2016
Remember the good old days of gaming? Hours were spent putting a disc or cartridge into the console, grabbing the controllers and playing with friends, stomping on Goombas as Mario, saving the Princess as Link, racing opponents, soaring through the sky, shooting baddies, levelling up and so much more. These are our nostalgic memories of gaming in a simpler time.
Games – just like books, films, TV and music – are immersive experiences. Whether it’s an interactive story, an effortless rampage of destruction or anything in between, games allow us to achieve the impossible. They put us in the shoes of a character that we can never become. They can challenge and excite us, convey a message and affect us with their obsession. They can also, importantly, make money for the people who craft such memorable, remarkable experiences.
However, a newer style of gaming now dominates the market. With the proliferation of smartphones and tablets powerful enough to rival dedicated consoles, developers have embraced the ‘freemium’ pricing strategy. This allows them to make more money from the billions of smartphone owners who have become incidental gamers.
‘Freemium’ is a term that was coined in the late 2000s by combining the words ‘free’ and ‘premium’. It refers to a game or service that is available for free in a basic capacity but costs money for access to more features, sometimes those necessary to advance in a game. In the case of freemium mobile games, players can make micro-transactions (also called in-app purchases) from $1.00 up to $159.99 at any point in the game in exchange for virtual goods.
Furthermore, these games are dominant on mobile devices. All but two games in the top 200 grossing games on the iPhone App Store are freemium titles. It has been estimated by Distimo that over 90 per cent of App Store revenue is earned through in-app purchases. These games are more accessible through their free entry point and according to King Games guru Tommy Palm, “the micro-transaction is so strong and it’s definitely a much better model” for the future of profitable game development. So from a financial standpoint, why wouldn’t you create a freemium game if you were a developer?
Perhaps the biggest crime that these games commit is that they give smartphone users the wrong idea of what games are and what they are capable of. Console games as we know them are not greedy, but are in fact profoundly generous. By making money at the initial purchase, their only aim is to give something back to their user – a genuine and innovative gaming experience worthy of the price paid.
On the other hand, as freemium games have no cost to download, their primary aim is not to create a unique gameplay experience. Instead, they strive to make money from as many downloaders as possible; the ‘game’ is simply a means to this end. The bright colours and encouraging sounds of Candy Crush Saga are designed to be perfectly addictive, compelling users to pay to keep playing when they inevitably run out of lives. Buildings in Clash of Clans take large amounts of time to be constructed, making it apparent that you won’t advance far without paying for the building to be ‘rushed’.
The truth is, these games don’t need to be creative, innovative or even fun. They just need to be addictive and utilise these freemium tactics to be financially successful. Also, rather than requiring just one purchase, these games set up the strategic framework to accept virtually unlimited amounts of smaller micro-transactions. The carrot of advancement or advantage is dangled enticingly and continually out of reach.
To be fair, there are some freemium games that get it right and traditional games that get it wrong but in general this is not the case. In-app purchases may be used positively to add optional gameplay content post-publication. For example, in Mario Kart 8 gamers can pay once for access to extra racing courses.
If you own a smartphone and play games like Candy Crush or Clash of Clans, I would implore you to try paid (yet still very cheap) titles like Alto’s Adventure and Tiny Wings. You’ll pay for the experience of beautifully crafted gameplay rather than disposable sets of gems. We need to support the few who still want to create genuinely fun games for our modern devices. Our technological age can harness the great potential of mobile gaming without exploiting the player.