Out There

Is freemium bad for game design or just misunderstood?

Time to mass debate

Is freemium bad for game design or just misunderstood?
| Theme Park

With everyone from small indies to large mobile publishers like EA and Gameloft releasing freemium titles these days, you could be forgiven for thinking that every mobile gamer is crying out for developers to adopt this relatively new business model.

In theory, freemium offers the best of both worlds for gamers and developers - the former gets control over how much money they want to spend on their favourite titles, while the latter gets more downloads and often more cash as a result.

But, as can be seen by the public backlash against Theme Park and Dungeon Hunter 3, not all gamers are over the moon about this trend, least of all the group labelled (in some quarters) "core" gamers, who are used to epic role-playing games or explosive shooters.

As a result of our long and extensive gaming upbringing on mobiles, handhelds, PCs, and consoles, the Pocket Gamer crew falls mainly into that 'core' group, but at least we got a good old fight going on the subject.

Keith Andrew (News Editor, Pocket Gamer.biz): I can't think of any freemium games that I love, but I rarely look at the price of things I download, anyway. Rob Hearn: The worst [freemium culprits] are games like Star Marine. When I found myself starting a level and just firing a gun into the air to earn enough money for a gem to buy a weapon I needed to get past the next level - most of which I'd played already - I thought, "Surely the developer knows this isn't fun?" Will Wilson: A lot of freemium developers justify the IAPs by taking the "people pay because they're having fun" line. Which I don't think is exactly true - the reason they fork out for IAPs is quite often because the player can't progress / unlock something that promises to make the game better.

It's like dangling the carrot on the stick. Is the donkey having fun? Is he?

Jon Jordan: The bottom line is people will pay $20+ for IAPs and they won't pay that for a game upfront. It's simple economics. Will Wilson: Aye, indeed.

Keith Andrew: I'll tell you what: there's a fundamental misunderstanding here. In that gamers love things to be 'free'. They'd love all mobile games to be free.

I think the problem is that many publishers and developers assume this means they love freemium. Gamers don't - they just want things entirely free.

Rob Hearn: That's true of FarmVille, surely, but not of, say, BioShock. The mobile industry is trying to sell BioShock as if it's FarmVille, thus ruining BioShock for the people who actually do want to play it.

Keith Andrew: I do subscribe to the idea that if you make a game (flipping) incredible, people will willingly pay to carry on playing, and that by that token, when the model has been better defined, it could and should lead to a better quality of game.

If BioShock, or Assassin's Creed 2, or any of the other games I truly loved had been free but charged me £x to unlock the next stage, I'd have paid. I'd have paid well over £40 in all, I suspect.

Rob Hearn: Depends on how it works in the game, though, Keith.

In a lot of titles, it seems to me the developer basically ruins the game. There's no way you can ignore the fact that you're getting cockblocked at every turn by the necessity to pay or grind in games.

You want to get to the next level, but you can't until you've either spent sufficient time grinding or fulfilled the commercial ambitions of the developer.

Keith Andrew: Well, only in the way that buying the game in the first place is a cockblock. Freemium - at least when done well - gives you the opportunity to taste.

Freemium as a 'brand' already has a dirty name, so it may need to go away and come back again before it takes off on consoles and so forth.

Jon Jordan: With games such as Tiny Tower and Temple Run, however, we see that indie F2P games can be massively popular. The two tiny studios responsible for those games are now rich off the back of releasing freemium games.

Free means you can go viral very quickly. IAP means that if you have a large enough audience, an adequate number of folk will almost inevitably pay for something.

Paid apps just can't compete with that audience explosion. Tiny Wings was the last: almost a year ago.

Keith Andrew: At the moment, free games can go viral quickly, JJ, but the problem is we're still in the early stages - when everything is free, that advantage is gone.

When everything goes freemium, that doesn't mean all games will immediate enjoy a level of success. If anything, it'll be even more cut throat - users will have so many options in terms of downloadable games they can try out for no charge, I'd bet they actually get even more selective.

Jon Jordan: Absolutely, but those who have hits will find their games are even more lucrative.

Keith Andrew: Yeah, and, hopefully, if those hits are decent, that'll help show quality wins out: the opposite of what most people seem to think of freemium right now.