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In Defense of Freemium - Why It Can Be Good For Players

In Defense of Freemium: Why It Can Be Good For Players

“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.

About The Author

Zane Claes is a blogger at Life by Experimentation and a game designer in his free time. He has a B.S. with an emphasis on video game design, and has published free YouTube class on designing video games.


  1. I’m a dev who’s been more against the whole Freemium model; heck in my latest game I made it a sales pitch that the game is Free and not “Freemium Free”. I understand from a business standpoint how it can make a game practically mint money but as a long time gamer I’ve seen the model be taken over by sales people instead of gamers thus diluting the quality of games while at the same point being a money pit for (mostly casual) gamers. Gaming has for some time now become the mainstream money maker it was meant to be decades ago…thing is, back in the 80’s the game market crashed when the business got taken over by non-gamer suits (Ie: Warner Bros buying out Atari & making the stupid decisions with the E.T game). If we are to prevent another gaming crash and/or a complete public disregard for games (granted tougher now to happen than in the 80’s) we have to learn from the mistakes of throwing too much snake oil salesmenship in the gaming media and market. From things like DRM and the Freemium model, there’s a new age of get-rich-quick shovelware. That needs to be avoided. Granted, I do like the defense of some people having more time than money and more money than time. As a 31 year old who started gaming in 1985 at the age of 2 on my Atari 2600… I have seen that switch. I hardly have the time to game anymore and sometimes having an extra $1 to buy powerups it would take a few days of grinding is a benefit. I have no problem with good, well thought out DLC and I’ll be the first to admit that my game is very very simple.. needing additional updates to make it really worth the player’s time IMO. In other words, I can see why the model is there but again, if the gamer and the quality of the game is put first, than Freemium will be an ok model to work with. If the focus is to just mint money from simple, shallow… games, than even the casual gaming public will see right through it.

  2. I mostly agree with you, but think it’s still dangerous territory. If you’re asking your users to pay with either time or money, you need to avoid designing the game as a treadmill where you just grind to get new content. Sit back and think about that for a moment. Why would I want to pay to SKIP part of a game? The part that I am skipping must not be the fun part, or else I wouldn’t want to PAY to SKIP it.

    I played the game Brave Frontier for several months. It was really exciting and first and so cool to build up my collection of units. I paid almost $100 on the game to get better units to advance quicker. But after i while I realized…. the game is basically JUST grinding and collecting more units. The gameplay got pretty stale for me and the idea that the game is just a constant never-ending treadmill where the company just releases more units for me to collect… wasn’t too fun.

    • Absolutely, it is dangerous territory. It’s easy to exploit, that’s for sure, and I definitely take your point about grinding. I think the key point here is that some players want to “see and earn it all,” while others just want to “be the best.” There’s some interesting research out there on different gameplay styles, namely explorers, crafters, killers, etc. I think that explorers/crafters are interested in seeing everything themselves, whereas killers/winners are more interested in simply having the best stuff regardless of how they got it. In other words, for some players the act of putting in the time is the fun part, while for others the act of being at the top is the fun part.

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