Published on May 18th, 2013 | by Jonny Neeves1
Selling your soul to freemium games
On the 28th April 2013, yours truly paid for an apple tree on mobile game, The Simpsons: Tapped Out. As soon as this transaction was concluded, a feeling of regret emerged similar to that moment when you realise buying several batches of Lynx: Africa doesn’t actually produce some strange pheromone, whereby you’re inundated with bikini-clad beauties. In fact, were I not in a Starbucks at that moment, I may have indeed stood up and exclaimed with much gusto something like “bloody hell” or “balls”. You see, against my quite cynical nature I had embraced the idea of downloading a free game, only to be duped quite unceremoniously by the snake-like antics of these companies using “freemium” models, trapping their consumers into the mindset of paying to progress.
It’s akin to being given free cocaine or heroin with the promise that it’s not harmful or debilitating, then once you’re hooked being offered up an even more delicious and delectable grade of the drug for a minor fee. This, of course, builds and builds, progressing to a situation one can only describe as addiction. It’s a horrific business model, one that guarantees financial viability for the companies and assures financial instability for the consumer.
The term freemium describes the drab process of combining the words free and premium. In essence, the product is developed with the intention of rolling out consumer enslavement, the eventual aim being to force your customer into spending enough time with a product that they feel obligated to spend money to improve the overall experience. In recent times it has indeed become a prevalent term in the entertainment industry. It has to be stated, though, that it’s been particularly egregious in the gaming sphere. There are arguments for products such as Skype and Spotify being validated as freemium products because they actually add a substantial amount when paid for. There is a slight difference even between the aforementioned and mobile and Android games, in that Spotify, for example, offers the premium service for around £10 per month, meaning that you’re never inclined to spend more than that, as you get everything you need at that price: offline playlists, mobile usage, and so forth.
This is where the gaming companies have begun to unravel the delicate balance of respect between consumer and developer. It will come as no surprise to learn that effectively every freemium title is used to utterly enthrall and eventually trap the user into spending enough time that they continue to play for enough time to become addicted. Freemium products are extremely dangerous in that respect. Where the typical business model has a safety net for customers, allowing them to know they’ve spent money for property, this new path doesn’t protect the user. There are always people who will have trouble being able to restrict themselves because they feel vindicated through self-promotion, and that’s what’s possible with the implementation of this contraption.
Nick Earl, mobile boss at EA, once said that the numbers demonstrate that people support the freemium model. His point was superficial, pointing towards the fact that their products were highly rated on the iTunes store. The opposition to EA’s new way of mobile life is deemed a “vocal minority”. This is a skewed perspective. You can’t take statistics seriously when they adhere to people who have already been brainwashed by the seedy tactics being questioned. This supposed vocal minority is the basis, the very foundation upon which this particular company was born: the “hardcore” demographic. Casual gamers will almost unanimously approve of these games, because they’ve not been exposed to the gaming world and as such won’t necessarily understand that they’re being sucked in, slowly but surely. It’s quietly deceptive, exploiting the masses by offering the first hit for free and then gradually injecting the needle until one is entirely doped up and willing to pay for any old thing. Such is the reason EA deserve their horrific customer relations rating.
At the end of the day, if companies make a good game we’ll play it. Our issue shouldn’t be with the game — although if the quality is lacking then by all means go for it — but by taking advantage of human weakness simply to make revenue and financial gain you’ve moved away from the simplicity of a game and into severe psychological trickery. By using such gigantic franchises as The Simpsons and The Hobbit, companies have such an easy route to making money. That’s fine, of course, but when it’s at the expense of the customer it becomes more like profiteering. That’s inherently disgusting in a medium that was originally defined by its community and relationships between developer and consumer.
Regardless of dubious tactics however, there’s also the matter of where the future lies for the industry through the introduction of freemium as a means of profit. These games bulldoze their way to making extraordinary amounts of money for the organisations involved. It paints a bleak picture going forward, but generally economics dictates that if something is working then everybody will copy the concept, offering half-assed interpretations in order to blossom. The consumer will be left with a whole host of incomplete titles that misrepresent the very essence and beauty of the medium. Perhaps we’ll continue to lap them up willy-nilly, but just maybe we’ll lose all confidence in the mobile market. Nobody wants to experience such a tragic time, especially those heavily involved in the gaming world and those who dearly love this medium.
The mediocrity these games bring to the table is borne from not needing to innovate to make money. This leads to stagnation, which is something that the industry struggles enough with as it is. It’s a wholly creative medium, with enough diversity to make developers quiver with excitement. Monotonous games brought about by cheap, exploitative tricks harboring false pretenses doesn’t do anyone any good, particularly those actually trying to carve out something immensely powerful.
Lessons learnt are intrinsically vital to our progression as a species. Let’s hope that we gradually come to terms with the freemium model and how it works. Only then can we ask ourselves questions about personality and addictive tendencies. Next time a game asks whether you want to purchase a golden ticket to success, just remember that it’s stating that you need to pay to win. I don’t believe that’s what gaming is about; when we complete a title, the overriding feeling should be that we’ve achieved something through skill and dexterity as opposed to money. That’s a mug’s game, so think carefully before you hand over your cash to those domineering fat cats.