“Freemium” is under attack… and rightly so. South Park, in a surprisingly technical episode, recently ripped apart this business model. Freemium was decried as exploitative: capitalizing on the addiction-prone psychology of a small set of “whales” in order to rake in huge amounts of cash. If you haven’t seen the episode “freemium isn’t free,” I highly recommend watching it.
Yet, as a mobile game developer who has published a freemium game, I feel compelled to defend the business model. It’s not that it cannot be used for evil. I won’t name any names, but I’m as appalled by the brazen exploitation of human psychology as anybody. Still, I believe that freemium is an important part of the mobile app ecosystem and ultimately beneficial to players.
What South Park Got Right
It’s true: freemium games rely on some pretty basic principles, like over-rewarding players for relatively trivial tasks. I personally know game designers who even refer to these as “dopamine hits” and structure their games purely for maximum addiction. The worst offenders structure their games like casinos, using gambling mechanics to suck as much cash out of the players as possible while providing these dopamine hits.
It is also true that the vast majority of freemium revenue comes from a small percentage of the players, and of those players, the vast majority of total dollars spent is attributable to a small set of “whales.” Even in my game, a mere 1.7% of all players are paying customers of the game.
Why Freemium Games are a Good Thing
Some people have more time than money, others have more money than time.
Both should be able to enjoy a game.
The noble theory behind freemium is that players who have more time than money will advance by “paying with time…” and those who have more money than time will advance by “paying with money.” At it’s heart, I believe this tradeoff is one which is fundamentally healthy. The young student who has little money but lots of time to play a game should be able to get very far in the game… but the older businessman who has little time to play but lots of disposable income should not be handicapped for the fact that he cannot invest as much time.
When I was a high school student, $50 (or even $10) was a lot to pay; the freemium model would have allowed me to sit and enjoy a game without ever spending a dime, if the model was implemented correctly. In fact, MMORPGs in the early days suffered the opposite problem as freemium games: the only players who could succeed were those who could afford to put in tons of hours. Later MMOs started handicapping players such that consecutive play hours counted for less, which meant that the “weekend warrior” could still advance in the game.
Freemium is a dangerous tool in the hands of an exploitative company looking to maximize revenue. The problem is that the tradeoff between time and money is forgotten. Instead of making a game where the player can invest time or money, unscrupulous companies try to addict players to the degree that they want to spend time and money.
Doing Freemium Well
Fundamentally, the problem with “bad freemium” is “fun-gating.” The unscrupulous companies place the fun things behind pay gates (you have to pay to unlock the content).
Simply put, the developer should keep in mind the relationship between time and money. It is fine to have gates which can be unlocked via payments as long as they can also be unlocked for an equitable amount of time.
What bothers me about some freemium games isn’t so much that they attempt to create addiction in the players. It’s the fact that they sacrifice good game design in the name of profit. The core of many of these games frequently require very little skill. At it’s heart, any good game should require mastery: a shooter should require hand-eye coordination, a strategy game planning and resource management, etc. Slot machine games are antithetical to true game design: they trade money for the chance to “win.” And this is why people have problems with freemium: if winning is not connected to skill but the game is addictive and costly then the game designer has done nothing but create a new narcotic.