Freemium: It’s Real, It Sucks … It Really Sucks

Since the first Diablo game, I’ve been hooked on level-grinding dungeon crawlers. I swear, I’ve played them all – regardless of system. From its humble origins … to the latest incarnations (well, almost latest; I refuse to play Diablo 3). I’m chomping at the bit for Heroes of Ruin (3DS) and for Torchlight 2. Give me the kill-loot-level-wash-rinse-repeat formula. I’m good for it.

One of the best things about crawlers is that they can work with almost any controls – from keyboard mouse to 80-button controller – provided the game is leveled for it. Therefore, as a huge Android fan (and deliriously happy Android tablet owner) I’ve been PATIENTLY awaiting a high quality, Tegra driven hack and slash extravaganza on my green robot gamer pad.

I believe in paying for quality software. I own HUNDREDS of dollars of apps and games on Android. My gaming tastes are typically puzzlers, match 3’s, word games, etc. – you know, things that make GOOD use of a touch screen and fit into my 10-15 minute gaming sessions. Shine Runner, WarGames, Dungeon Raid, Cardinal Quest, various pinball games … I love’em all.

… and unlike the media would have you believe … I’m thrilled to PAY for it. I love supporting Android development. But I don’t like ads. I don’t like surprises. I don’t like being nickeled and dimed to death via microtransactions. Fortunately, my experience has showed me that most of the games that employ these money-sucking techniques aren’t the sort of games I like to play.

Until today.

I got the latest NVidia TegraZone app today – and front and center is a BRAND NEW hack and slasher called Heroes Call. I’m reading the article … drooling … my eyes glaze over looking at the tasty Tegra-enhanced Diablo-clone. Could it be? Finally? A proper grinding game to steal ALL my free time? Getting out my Google Wallet, I went to install this gorgeous bit of kit.

Huh? Free? Something stinks here. I figure it’s ads. That’s okay – I block ads (either sell me the game or make it free – I don’t play ad-supported games).

205MB later, the game is installed. I fire it up and I see two classes available to play; fighter and wizard.

Wizard! Duh!

Wait … 60 gems? I can’t play the wizard without 60 gems? Oh, I see – artificial gametime extension. Play through as the fighter, get those gems – THEN you can “unlock” the wizard. I’m ok with that.

I’m romping through the first dungeon (what? No rats and barrels? Oh wait, there are the barrels …) getting a feel for the game mechanics; killing, looting, weapon/armor swapping …

Sigh .. Daddy is home. It’s all here. Combo click attacks. Gesture swipes for skills. Red and blue bars. Kill-loot-swap … mindless … I blaze through the first level busting out my phone to hit Google+ and recommend this to my friends.

Time to go to town and unload my loot, identify my magic equipment and carry on smartly (or in my case – just carry on). My first stop, the Appraiser. Let’s find out if that code was worth all the Bothan spies, er black widow spiders that died to bring me these goodies. I drag my item to the appraiser slot and I’m told it will take 6 minutes for him to ID my shin guards. What? What the hell is this? So I nip out of there, leaving my prize with The Haunted Collector to get the spirits out and hit the shop. Unloading my loot went as planned. As usual, the store had nothing that I could afford that was any better than what I had (wtf .. is there an algorithm they use for that?), so I hopped back to the Appraiser. Still another five minutes … Dammit .. fine, let’s go to the guild.

Pay some gold for some salacious info … Then the first of the hammers fell.

“You must log into Facebook to visit the guild.”

I hate Facebook. With a passion. I refuse to buy ANY tables on Pinball Arcade until they fix the leaderboards to NOT require Facebook. I was damn close to uninstalling this game at this point.

A couple of deep breaths … relax … go back to the Appraiser, get your shin guards and get back to the game. Remember the game? It was fun … you were liking it. Relax.

The Appraiser informed me I still had 4 minutes to wait. Now I’m getting irritated. Fine, I’ll just take it back, sell it for 1/100th its value and move on. So I touch the slot and the Appraiser asks me if I want to “hurry up and identify this at no charge” … well, YEAH … poof. Done. WTF? That’s all it took? I could have throw some gold at this bastard and it would be over?

Damn cocaine dealer … the first hit is always free. Well, I’ll be back … and in greater numbers.

Off to the next dungeon where I have to find five bones of some dude. Groovy. It played out great – they showed me RIGHT where they were and I made a bunch of bank, kills and scored more unidentified weapons.

Back to Brineside! First, sell the loot – need a second mortgage for that Appraiser. I pawned my stash and headed back to the blood-sucking Appraiser. I dragged my item into the appraiser slot, and I’m told I get to wait 6 minutes. I know this scam. I tapped the slot, purse ready to pay.

“You need gems to pay for this. Buy now?”

Sure .. I got gold. No sweat. I was ready for him to come at me with a wrench like a crooked auto mechanic saying, “How much you got?”

The gem shop pops up … Gems come in packs. Ok, 80 Gems please, shopkeep.

Oh yes … you know where this is going, don’t you? The screen flickers and good old Google Wallet pops up informing me it is $2.99 for 80 gems.

Suddenly I’m sick to my stomach. This ENTIRE game … buying characters, identifying items … it’s all built around these stupid gems … which is all built around slurping money from my Wallet … and making me recruit others via Facebook and Twitter (they HELPFULLY allow you to insta-Twitter every time you finish a dungeon – now it makes sense).

I’m not a newcomer to freemium. I knew what it was. I knew what it was capable of. But until that VERY minute – it was like a teacher telling you that your kid is on drugs. “Not my little Johnny. You must be mistaken. MY kid would NEVER do drugs. He would NEVER beat that geek up for drug money. He would NEVER pimp that girl out for a hit of meth. Surely, there is some mistake here.”

It wasn’t real – until now.

My mind raced with scenarios … like Nicholas Cage seeing the next two minutes of the future before making a move. I saw every gaming genre … every platform (from handheld to console to PC) suddenly infected with this … Black Plague of 2012. Yes .. every single game from Call of Duty to Bejeweled … from Gran Turismo (oh wait – HA!) to Uncharted … from Donkey Kong to Pong … EVERY .. SINGLE … GAME … could be “retrofitted” to this evil lapdog of Satan freemium format.

And what is to stop them? People are paying … if they weren’t, this model wouldn’t exist. There are people willing to build Smurf villages at $1 a mushroom hut. There are people willing to pay real cash for weapons that should have been in Diablo 3 TO BEGIN WITH. The media and naysayers SCREAM about the evils of “locked on the disc” DLC .. games built to sell you levels that are already done .. but for some reason .. the same silly sumbiatches are handing over stacks of cash to get extra balls, gems and trinkets to bling up their onscreen persona? They aren’t screaming about paying $3 a hit for 80 green gems that will be depleted after identifying a few items?

Yes, freemium is real. It is apparently here to stay, too – since people just LOVE “free” games (and somehow aren’t smart enough to figure out that they end up fleecing you for more money than a retail game disc would have cost for the PS3 when all is said and done). It is like buying an Xbox 360 from Rent-A-Center – it’s only $20 a month, and in the end you paid $2200 for a $149 system.

It used to be that “batteries not included” were the three little words that brought tears to the eyes of parents at Christmas time. But now it’s a new generation. It’s time to retire those three little words and replace them with three new words that should bring tears to everyone’s eyes:

“Play for FREE!”

About Shane Monroe

Shane R. Monroe has been doing technical and social commentary writing for over 20 years. Google+