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A Freemium Manifesto – Part 2

Sometimes paying to download a game isn’t enough…

Has this ever happened to you? You’re excited about the release of a new iOS game, and have been following news before it’s release. Finally, the release day is upon you, and you rush to the App Store to download it. You start playing the game, and while enjoying yourself, you notice an extra menu item titled “store”. Upon inspection, you find that this in-game store offers more powerful items and in-game currency that will allow you to progress through the game more quickly. The catch? These items all cost real money- the same money you used to buy the game in the first place.

This is the second of a multi-part series on the current state of free-to-play (freemium) games on the App Store. Check out part 1 here and part 3 here. Your feedback is welcome and appreciated, whether it be via the comment section below, tweeting me @thesmi1ey, or emailing me directly via matt (at) touchgen (dot) com. If you are an iOS game developer and would like to provide your particular story or input to be included in a future article, don’t hesitate to get in touch!

From Pay-to-Play to Pay-to-Stay

Last week we discussed the psychological and social means that freemium developers use to entice their users into spending large amounts of money and time on their games. Some may argue that this business model takes advantage of customers in an unfair manner, but no one will argue against the fact that this model makes a ton of money for many of the developers and publishers who implement it. I have spoken with several founders of freemium game studios during my time with TouchGen. While specific sales numbers were never disclosed, I’ve heard the following terms and phrases used to describe the amount of money their games were making: “buttloads”, “dump trucks of cash”, and “we’re swimming in it”. Does this mean that everyone studio who goes with the freemium model  is filled with money-hungry trolls? Not necessarily, as there are right ways to go about creating a freemium game. Today I want to talk about one of the most evil and greedy business practices to emerge from the depths of hell’s video game marketing department.

It’s All Vanity

The idea of charging for upgrades, add-ons, and other items from an in-game menu is not necessarily a new one. Before the App Store, Xbox Live, or even World of Warcraft, various games have offered “vanity items” for sale. Usually this was a feature of MMOs with a large player-base. These kinds of games often focus on character customization, so vanity items like clothing, pets, or other in-game objects helped to aesthetically enhance your player, and to provide you with uniqueness in a large world of other human players. Putting a real monetary value on these vanity items helped to set them apart for those that really take their character’s appearance seriously. However, it also meant that only players who had the extra money available would be able to participate, meaning younger players, or those without extra funds to spend, were left out.

I’ll have you know that I do not have any issue with vanity items in games, namely because they don’t affect how you or others play the game itself. If you were among those who spent the extra cash to unlock Batman’s alternate costumes in Arkham City, more power to you. I get nothing out of choosing which shade of gray Batman’s spandex will be, or how defined his nipples are in each new suit. For some people, nipple definition is a big deal. For you, the nipple enthusiast, coughing up a few dollars here and there to ensure Batman’s nipples are rendered in an intimidating way is perfectly justifiable. It’s the point where those crisply rendered, bump-mapped nipples give Batman an edge in combat that I have a problem.

My first real negative experience with game-changing “in-app” purchases came with the release of Dead Space 2. For those who haven’t played it, Dead Space is an incredibly polished, well-written, and flat-out scary third-person shooter. I’m not normally a fan of the genre, but the original Dead Space grabbed me by my sweaty hands and wouldn’t let go. Dead Space 2 came with a plethora of pre-order bonuses, as well as several packs of purchasable items at launch. Rather than simply providing you with different suits and weapon skins that looked cool, EA felt the need to provide items that actually changed your stats and abilities in the game. Being a huge fan of the original game, I impulsively bought all three (I believe it was three) packs that were available via the in-game premium store at launch.

The Dead Space series features an in-game store that allows you to save up in-game credits to purchase valuable upgrades, new weapons, and so-on. Similar to Bioshock, these upgrades are hard-earned and are a big part of the gameplay. As you progress through the game, you unlock new suits, weapons, and other items that help you in your journey. When I purchased the in-game item packs, I assumed this would also be the case. Not so, as every single item I purchased was immediately available in the first store I came to. Equipping these items made me far stronger than the game intended me to be, and I blazed through the first level without much fear of dying. I was still scared, because Dead Space is scary, but the anticipation of unlocking new items was gone, and the constant knowledge that my weapons were never quite as sufficient as they could be to defeat the enemy was never there nagging at the back of my mind. I realized that the in-game purchases had essentially broken the goal of the game, which was to provide a scary, sweaty-palmed, story-driven shooting experience. They also kept me from knowing which items the developers had intended to be available at that point in the game. There was no indication as to which items were paid for, and which items were the originals, strategically placed by developers to provide the best gameplay experience. Luckily, due me playing the game on an Xbox 360, I was able to delete each individual item pack. I then started a new game, and much to my joy, found that the first store I came to now had only a few minimally helpful items. This is the Dead Space I remembered and loved. Why would anyone want to ruin that experience by purchasing unbalanced items and boosts for cash?

We lightly addressed some various aspects of the human psyche in part 1 of this series. Based on what was discussed, I think we can safely assume that some people don’t care about ruining the “ideal experience” of a game. They are more concerned with the achievements (both literal and mental) of completing a game with the highest score, lowest game time, etc. I personally bought the item packs thinking they would enhance the gameplay by providing a wider variety of in-game items that needed to be purchased. I didn’t realize that they would free and readily available in the game from the start. I felt like I had wasted my money, and ended up playing the entire game through without any of the packs enabled. There was most certainly a group of players that loved the fact the purchased items made the game easier, as they were focusing more on the challenge of completion than the gameplay/storyline. My big question is: what do developers think of in-app purchases that break their intended player experience/game mechanics? What is it like to create a game you think provides a specific experience, only to have the business suits break said experience via in-game purchases and bonuses? If you’re a developer and have an opinion on this subject, feel free to sound off in the comments below, or shoot me an email (contact info above).

An Unfair Advantage

I’ve mentioned the individual disappointment from succumbing to the draw of in-game purchases with a single player game, but I feel that the biggest elephant in the room relates to social games. Most  popular games on the App Store have at least minimal social connectivity built in, whether it be through OpenFeint, Game Center, or some crappy,  publisher-developed, multiplayer dashboard. Hell, even single-player games find some way to include a competitive leaderboard for end-game score, times, deaths, kills or other arbitrary numbers that don’t have impact on the gaming experience itself. When you introduce game-changing mechanics and items that can only be accessed by those with money, you are instantly creating a gaming caste system that places poorer (or more “hardcore”) gamers at a lower level than those who have cash to spare. It’s actually quite dumbfounding how much this happens in modern games. What’s even more perplexing is that the solution to this issue is insanely simple: create two separate scoring systems; one for those who pay for premium items, and one for those players who are quite satisfied with the game they’ve already paid for. Creating two separate score lists or multiplayer playlists isn’t that much work to do, but for some reason it’s not something that is done very often.

Does the IAP (in-app purchase) model make money despite having to pay for the original product? If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be so common in modern game releases. The Call of Duty and Mass Effect series’ have made hundreds of millions of dollars on post-launch paid content, showing that customers have a big desire to keep the game experience fresh after the fact. I don’t have anything against expanding the game universe and play time by providing extra multiplayer maps, new campaign missions, and so on. My issue, as I’ve already mentioned, is providing in-game items and credits that change how the game is played, and provide a unbalanced benefit to those who spend the extra cash.

What Not to Do

Until now, I’ve tried to avoid giving specific examples of games that I believe fail at using the freemium and in-app purchase models in a fair or justifiable way, but I suppose that it’s hard to give credibility to my arguments without something to base them on. I have planned on providing examples of games that do freemium and IAPs right in a future article, but it’s tough to continue writing without mentioning some of the games that have inspired this series in the first place.

The first great example of what not to do with IAPs comes with the recently released Homerun Battle 2. The original Homerun Battle was among the first to experiment with live multiplayer, and was a game I was utterly hooked on for a long time. The ability to battle opponents from all over the world using my 3G connection was pretty incredible, and the gameplay itself was simple and addictive. In the original game, you collected “gold balls” that were used to purchase better clothes, bats, etc – all which came with various stat bonuses that helped you knock out homers more easily. With Homerun Battle 2′s foray into freemium, an additional premium “stars” currency was introduced. This currency can only be purchased by spending real money, and can be used on a variety of super-charged gear. Since there is no way to trade in gold balls for stars, there is literally no way to get this really good gear via in-game currency, instantly putting spending players on top of everyone else. Also, these paid-only items are in a game that you already bought for $5, which isn’t cheap by App Store standards. In order to succeed, you not only pay a premium price to own the game, but you have to keep paying to excel in the game. Ouch.

Another example of IAPs done poorly, and a game that has already received a fair share of criticism for doing so, is Modern Combat 3. Like it’s “inspiration”, the Modern Warfare trilogy, MC3 features unlockable weapons, perks, and killstreaks. Normally these advantages are awarded to players who put in the play time required to reach specific gameplay goals; capturing flags, getting kills, performing headshots, etc. But to those with money to spare, packs of gold coins can be purchased and then used to instantly unlock various bonuses that will help you tip the scales in combat. Sure, Gameloft has tried to balance things by only allowing a certain number of perks active at a time, but those who spend more money will still have an advantage over those trying to work their way up. This is especially seen when you first start the game. A brand new player has little chance when pitted up against another brand new player who paid for all the upgrades.

Steroids

Am I just too old fashioned in thinking that players should need to work their way to achievements and glory rather than paying for them? To me it’s like comparing the kid who mows lawns, runs a paper route, and flips burgers to earn money to by his car to the kid who’s parents buy him one. The kid with the rich parents will probably drive a nicer car, and will consider himself better than than the kid who actually worked hard to buy a POS car that gets him from point A to point B. I may be delving a bit too deep into things, but I would imagine in my mind that the people who pay to instantly be the best have a similar mindset to douchebags that use glitches and exploits in games to win without a challenge. I was playing Battlefield 3 with some friends the other night, and our enjoyment of the game was all but killed by these kinds of players. I can’t imagine how much worse it would have been had BF3 offered max upgrades for a price at launch.

To me, the practice of allowing players to boost their levels, equipment, bonuses, etc via cash payments in video games is akin to allowing steroids in the Olympics. Oh wait, that’s right; steroids are not allowed in the Olympics, or any other sport for that matter. Providing an unfair advantage to roid-raging athletes destroys the spirit of competition, and spits in the face of those competitors that trained through sweat and tears to attain their current skill level.

Can steroids make people better athletes? Certainly. Steroids allow people to run faster, lift more weight, and punch holes through walls. If everyone was on steroids, there would be no issue with allowing them. (Come to think of it, that would be a pretty awesome new sports league; one that only allowed roided up players.) Unfortunately, while everyone may have the ability (not necessarily the desire) to take performance enhancing drugs, not everyone has the ability to drop $20 on a pack of in-game “gold”. These games are essentially creating a performance gap between “rich” and “poor” players; or more accurately, between those who are willing to drop cash to boost their performance, and those who would rather do things the “old fashioned” way.

The Bottom Line

As mentioned in part 1 of this series, freemium games, and games that offer enhancements for cash, exist for one reason: they make money. It’s quite obvious that the experience of the gamer is not something that was taken into consideration when these business models were designed. It’s a sad fact that it’s not easy to make money on the App Store. When a method for revenue is introduced that’s easy to implement and guaranteed to work, it’s hard for a smaller studio or publisher ignore it. While larger studios may have the capital needed to focus more on quality and a rich gaming experience, indie devs, who are generally in the red before they even launch a game, have a much harder time justifying the cost of development without any assurance that they will recoup those costs. Richard Hawkes, a developer from Minoraxis (Exitium, Juice ‘Em Up, and others), made a great statement in response to part 1 of this series that I would like to close with.

“Developer here. Freemium was a path our company took with a heavy, heavy heart. However our games were being just swamped and lost in the App Store in a matter of days. You DO have a chance, just after release, of making a splash but then it’s gone forever, game dead-and-buried, move on, develop another. It’s heart breaking. For every Angry Birds success, there are a ton quality games that are financial failures, especially those that cater to niche markets.

The competition is fierce and users have demanded ever cheaper games. Free or $0.99 is what users expect. Could you have imagined paying so little for a high quality game, even 5 years ago? Would you ever spend even $5 on a great mobile game these days? I have, recently, GTA3, a game I’ve loved forever and I probably would have paid double for, but hey!

Game don’t cost any less to produce and in order to make up the shortfall, the volume of sales needs to increase drastically to compensate. If that doesn’t happen, ouch… Devs out there will also be aware of the rapid rise of 3rd party companies promising more downloads, top 10 listings and offering incentive based advertising and virtual currency revenue. The reason all this exists is the that the old ways of doing things just aren’t bringing in the money. If things seem desperate, that’s because they are!

Freemium sucks but going out of business sucks even more! Here’s to hoping things will get better for devs and gamers alike.”

In part 3, we’ll discuss how developers can implement freemium and IAP models without alienating or disappointing their intended audience. Yes, good freemium games exist!

Stay tuned for Part 3 of The Freemium Manefesto, and follow Matt on Twitter @thesmi1ey if you feel like it.

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  • Anonymous

    Great article. This is a great way to show awareness of this horrible, unethical behavior and, hopefully, serve as a starting point in abolishing it. By that, I mean the excessive iAPs, intentionally slow game progress which basically forces you to pay more, and, as mentioned in the article, in-game steroids which basically kills any sense of competition. Ah, but what can we do, so long as freemium shows even the slightest chance for profit it ain’t going anywhere. If only nobody supported this kind of business model then maybe it wouldn’t have escalated to this level but, unfortunately, there’ll always be the rich bastard who’s willing enough (or stupid enough) to actually pay $300 for these so-called “free” games.

  • http://twitter.com/DaKleine Mark

    Great aricle, although with the example of Modern Combat 3 I think it is worth mentioning that you still have to unlock the gear before being able to buy it, no matter how much money you have in game, so two levle one players, one who has spent no extra cash and one who has would still be using basically the same equipment (one could buy the attachments earlyer, but that isn’t too much of a difference). What really ruins the balance in that game is that you can buy the killstreak rewards, wich just doesen’t make any sense atall.

  • http://www.facebook.com/parisotbenjamin Benjamin Parisot

    A great example that I experienced is death rally on iOS. You get a game for £0.69 and then you enjoy a wonderful, playful game. But then the multiplayer appears, good quality, you find opponent quickly etc… but you can only access HALF of the cars you could access on the singleplayer, you have to pay to get the next cars, it is not only frustrating because people have better cars, but also because I had a feeling of being cheated on. Why could I unlock those cars in single and have to pay on multi?

  • Anonymous

    Matt, great article that clearly demonstrates some of the major issues with freemium games. Eliminate from ngmoco is an example of a game ruined by the timers and poor balancing. But thats only part of the issue, the stupid matchmaking system was the nail in the coffin. This system would only match players based on their skill, regardless of level. As all items in game are unlocked based on level, not skill and that you could only level during “energised matches”, it meant that players of greater skill who didn’t purchase energy would earn skill points without levelling or improving their gear. These players were then matched with players who did level (often due to paying for that privilege) and who consequently upgraded their gear. Thus I would often find myself matched with players 20+ levels higher than myself who could simply 1-shot kill me.

    As for good examples of freemium (or whatever it’s called when the game isn’t free), I would say that Infinity Blade 2 pretty much nails it. Every item in the game is unlockable by playing the game. And the game actually rewards players as some of the best items in the game are only unlockable by playing the game. And to top it off all these items are attainable in reasonable amounts of play – during 2 playthroughs I’ve collected the majority of dual swords and standard swords, including the best of each of those categories. Additionally I’ve acquired 2 swords that are not purchasable with earned or paid-for gold. The only cash I’ve spent in-app was for a health potion due to winning my last fight with about 20HP left and having no potions or gold left. As I was unable to win the fight after many attempts I bought enough gold for a potion.

  • Anonymous

    Forgot to mention, have you heard of Cow Clicker? It’s depressing to say the least!

    http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/12/ff_cowclicker/all/1

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