Jul 12th, 2013

Game developers have finally found a way to make money on their apps and games, and users don’t like it. I’m talking about the explosion of “freemium” content that has stormed into the Google Play Store as of late. It’s nothing new, with this sort of content seeding the market for a couple of years now. It has picked up as of late, with nearly every high-profile title launching with free-to-play features.


What is “freemium”?

A lot of people don’t really understand the concept of freemium, so I’ll put it simply. You’re often promised a “free” download, and that game is “free” forever, but the game is designed to entice you to spend real currency. Currency might be used to buy something like energy (the game would block you from playing if you don’t have enough energy), power-ups, new costumes, and other add-on content.

It’s through these tactics developers look to make their money. Instead of scaring people off with the initial price tag, they can attract more people to download the game. Even if just a fraction of those customers regularly buy in-game content, the developers are making more money than if they were to offer the game with no frills for a few bucks.

Where did it come from?

The freemium model didn’t actually take off on mobile. Enter places like Facebook, where games like Farmville have gotten millions of users addicted to the point where they’ll gladly spend more money to enhance the game. You could even rewind a bit further and see services like the now-defunct Coke Music and the still-strong Habbo Hotel, internet-based games which also encouraged you to spend real money to make the experience that much better.


These models translate well to mobile titles because users have a sense of entitlement when it comes to mobile gaming. A game should be no more than $.99, shouldn’t have ads, and shouldn’t have any in-game content locked behind a paywall, according to most. Thus, developers have caught on and have started designing games, keeping these monetization tactics in mind every step of the way.

Why is this happening?

It’s simple: people are cheap. I’m sorry to be so blunt, but whenever I write an article about a great new game, but note that it comes with a relatively high price tag, the answer is as clear as day. People need to stop being cheap and buy games. Take, for instance, X-COM: Enemy Unknown on iOS. That’s a $20 download, but people see the value in that game and are glad to pay that $20 for the full experience. There are no catches, no ads, no freemium nonsense to put up with — just you and the game.

Similarly, people loathed downloading Magic: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014 because it required an initial $10 purchase to unlock the full game after going through the tutorial. Many users moaned and groaned in Google Play Store reviews, giving the game 1-star ratings because they felt they were “duped.”


This is happening because we’re not willing to pay for quality content. It’s that simple. Users need to understand that developers put a lot of time and money into these projects, and they have to be able to make that money back and make that spent time worthwhile.

Unfortunately, the vast majority have shown that they aren’t willing to help make a (worthy) game profitable by throwing money at it, so developers would lose interest (because let’s face it, the money is a very important part of why most people make games in the first place).

It’s the same reason why ads have become prevalent, though even those are taking a backseat to this magical new freemium concept. We’ve done this to ourselves, and as long as we keep showing developers we aren’t willing to pay for games they will keep evolving and do whatever it takes to get the sales they need.

Can things change?

I think so. When users said they wouldn’t put up with high price tags on games, developers introduced ads. When users said they wouldn’t put up with ads, developers introduced freemium. Those particular changes weren’t changes beneficial to consumers, but they were changes nonetheless. If enough people are willing to take a stand and show developers they are willing to buy quality games, developers might be more comfortable making games that don’t ask for money around every bend.

If we’re going to stay on the freemium route for a while, though, developers have to do it right. Things have gotten better in recent months, with developers making it possible to tap the vast majority of a game’s content without spending a dime, but there are still some titles which completely miss the mark.

oregon trail

I can only think back to my time with Oregon Trail: American Settler, where I was completely blocked from getting ahead in the game after just an hour of play. That was one of the biggest violations of the freemium model I have ever seen, but thankfully there hasn’t been much of that since.

Developers have a right to make money on the content they create and deliver. Knowing how the development cycle works from personal experience, I gladly spend the money to help a developer out if I genuinely like the game and feel it deserves a purchase. I know how nerve-wrecking, time-draining and cost heavy development can be, so rewarding those developers with a sale is as easy to decide as whether I’ll have regular pancakes or potato pancakes for breakfast.

Unfortunately, one man’s propensity for doing that isn’t enough to incite widespread change. I probably won’t change the opinion of the vast majority with this plea, but I felt the need to spread the message anyway — stop being cheap, buy the titles you want to play, and we wouldn’t have to deal with freemium. Otherwise, we’re just going to have to deal with it. How do you feel?