freemium: the abomination of desolation

I’ve never been a fan of “freemium,” although I understand that game developers need to get paid. It often feels like the way freemium games are developed goes something like this:

  • design a good game
  • focus on making the player want to keep playing
  • insert arbitrary points at which the player must stop playing for hours
  • allow the user to pay money to continue playing immediately

This model drives me batty. It’s taking a game and making it worse to encourage the user to pay more. It is, in my mind, the opposite of making a good game that you can make better by paying more. I gladly fork over money for add-on content on games that were good to start with. I never, ever pay to repair a game that has been broken on purpose.

The whole thing reminds me of the 486SX processor, where you could buy a disabled 486 processor now and later upgrade it with a completely new processor that was pinned to only fit into the add-on slot. At least the 486SX could be somewhat explained away as a means to make some money on processors that didn’t pass post-production inspection. These fremium games are just broken on purpose from the start.

I think the deciding factor for me is whether I can play the game as much as I want without hitting the pay screen. Years ago, everyone at work was playing Travian. It’s a simple browser-based nation-building game, something like a very simplified Civilization. Your workers collect resources and you use them to build cities, troops, and so on. The game is multiplayer and online, so you are in competition with other nations with whom you may eventually go to war or with whom you may establish trade routes. You can keep playing as long as you have resources to spend and free workers. by paying money, you could speed up work or acquire more resources, but the game didn’t throw up a barrier every half hour forcing you to wait. It was all a natural part of the game’s design, and made sense to have in a simultaneous-play multiplayer game. (Of course, the problem here is that players willing to spend more money have a tactical advantage. That’s a different kind of problem, though.)

I used to play an iOS game called Puzzle Craft. The basic game play is tile-matching, and it’s all built around the idea that you’re the founder of a village that you want to grow into a thriving kingdom. At first, you tile-match to grow crops. Over time, new kinds of tiles are added, and you can respond by developing new tools and by changing the matching rules. You can also build a mine, for a similar but not identical tile matching game. You’ll need to deal with both resources to progress along your quest.

I was very excited to see that the makers of Puzzle Craft released a new game this week, Another Case Solved. It’s a tile-matcher built in a larger framework, just like Puzzle Craft, but this game is a silly hard boiled detective game. Matching tiles helps you solve mysteries. The game is fun to look at and listen to, but playing it has made me angrier and angrier.

Unlocking major cases requires solving minor cases. Solving minor cases requires a newspaper in which to find them. Newspapers are delivered every fifteen minutes, and you can’t have more than three or four of them at a time. In other words, if you want to play more than four (very short) games an hour, you have to spend “candy” to get more newspapers, and you get a piece or two of candy every 12 hours. Also, after a little while, the minor cases become extremely difficult to solve, meaning that every hour you’re allowed to play the game three or four times, and that you will probably lose most of them, because there is a low turn limit in each game. Of course, you can keep playing after the turn limit by paying candy.

The whole setup makes it completely transparent that the time and turn limits are there to cajole the player into paying to be allowed to play the free game. It sticks in my craw! I like the game. It is fun. I would pay for it, were it something I could buy at a fixed price. Microtransactions to continue playing the game, though, burn me up.

Maybe I should keep telling myself that I pumped a lot of quarters into Gauntlet when I was a kid. How different is this?

I think it’s pretty different. I’ve seen people play for a very, very long time on one quarter.

Written on February 24, 2014
🎲 games