Opinion: It's time to give freemium haters the heave ho

Not a time to be behind the curve

Opinion: It's time to give freemium haters the heave ho

If you had the chance to speak with the developer behind a freemium game that amassed $12 million in its first month, would you spend your time debating whether the model behind that particular cash cow works or not?

That was the curious way the latest F2P Summit – held in Shoreditch, London earlier this week – came to a close.

Jason Avent, who heads up Boss Alien - the studio behind chart-topper CSR Racing - spent the last hour of an otherwise positive, progressive event justifying the freemium model to three journalists who, quite out of step with the rest of the room, remained unconvinced.

Racing rage

The event itself, of course, was brilliantly delivered: engaging talks fused with some rather tasty chicken and some delightful mini-quiches that I would have happily paid out for via an 'in-conference purchase' or two.

Leaving with the feeling that, yet again, some still doubt that the freemium model is one that can deliver both profits and potent gameplay, however, was far less welcome.

So angered was I, in fact, that I downloaded CSR Racing the next day, determined to put the game through its paces and discover whether its immense success was some kind of trick – whether the millions that had fuelled its rise up the App Store were in fact propping up a model that undermines the bedrock of the industry, as some appear to believe.

A fair few hours in and, I have to say, CSR Racing is pretty good. It's not a game that's going to change the world, but it's easy to see why so many players become so invested in it – in both a literal and emotional sense.

A question of investment

Here's a game that completely understands its audience. The actual gameplay element – tapping the screen to rev your engine and to change gear – is not complex, but it's perfectly suited both to the form factor of the hardware it runs on, and the five minute slot the game is designed to fill.

However, built all around that is a universe that consists of multiple levels. In terms of the upgrades you can equip your car with and the world of street drag racing that surrounds the actual gameplay, CSR Racing plays out like a big, big game.

Boss Alien and publisher NaturalMotion have realised that, just because the gameplay itself is scaled down when compared to the kind of racer you'd see on console, doesn't mean the experience as a whole also has to be similarly contained.

More importantly, here's a freemium game where the in-app purchases are perfectly placed.

Running out of gas – CSR Racing's energy system – hasn't been an issue for me, because I spend far more time fiddling with my car than racing with it, meaning I tend to only take on 4 or 5 races in one session as it stands. In short, I put the game down long before it requires me to.

My pride and joy

Any in-app purchases I've made have been my decision, too: I chose to invest in the game because I was enjoying the experience. Exactly how it should be.

Boxing clever

It seems strange, then, that some still wish to debate whether freemium games work or not. That debate, for me, is a couple of years old – or as GAMESbrief's Nicholas Lovell eloquently put it, that argument is now "redundant".

Without getting all too bitter about it, in my experience these so-called 'freemium doubters' can be dropped into one or two boxes.

Firstly, there are those who have valid concerns – players who have encountered freemium releases that get the system wrong. Let's be honest here, I can extol the virtues of CSR Racing all day and all night, but freemium games of its ilk remain in the minority.

As Avent himself said during the conference, it remains early days for the entire free-to-play movement. We're still learning what works and what doesn't, and going the freemium route means changing the way you approach game design from the ground up.

More currently get it wrong than get it right, and so there are a number of early adopters who have been burned by bad experiences. It'll take time before those wounds heal – time, and a whole lot more good freemium games.

Moral muddle

The more worrying group of doubters, however, are those that claim to dislike the freemium model on a moral basis.

I put this stance down to many gamers – particularly critics – taking a dislike to being reminded that games are, above all else, a business. Many of us like to think of our favourite titles almost as pieces of art, delicately designed to let the fun seep out.

So used are we to paying before we play – four decades or so of one model dominating – that we almost disassociate the transaction from the gameplay itself. Unless the game is awful, we soon forget about the pounds or dollars we parted with long before we got paying. The two things – gameplay and payment – are separated.

Freemium, however, mixes the two up, and even if the costs associated with paying for in-app purchases are entirely reasonable, we're reminded that this is a game that wants our money. This, I believe, makes many view the whole process as some kind of 'dirty trick'.

It reminds them that they are not a viewer simply gazing upon the wondrous vista the developer has served up – they're a customer, plain and simple.

The real cost

In reality, making a distinction between just when you pay – either before play or during – is entirely nonsensical. All games want our cash, and they always have done.

Doubters have to move beyond seeing the freemium model as a dodgy one. Yes, it does change the nature of how games are built, but change is a good thing. A necessary thing. An exciting thing.

What's required – as Lovell also pointed out at the time – is for developers to get better at utilising the freemium model, and that's something that will only come with time.

As things stand, those behind huge successes such as CSR Racing can't pin down exactly why their games have reached such heights. Finding a blueprint that delivers top notch freemium games as standard is proving difficult - but that's something that will come with time, not debate.

The developers, journalists and ultimately even the gamers that continue to dismiss freemium games as a rule will ultimately be left behind over the course of the next five years. Now is not a time to be found trailing way behind the curve.

Indeed, what initially excited so many about smartphone and tablet gaming was the sector's ability to rip up the rule book – to change both the types of people playing games, and the way they played them.

It seems curious to criticise the freemium model for doing the exact same thing.

Keith Andrew
Keith Andrew
With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font. He's also Pocket Gamer's resident football gaming expert and, thanks to his work on PG.biz, monitors the market share of all mobile OSes on a daily basis.