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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+

25 thoughts on “Freemium: It’s Real, It Sucks … It Really Sucks”

  1. Hi. I heard you talk about this article on your podcast. I had to read it; I 100% agree with you. I HATE games that do this. I don’t want to pay for ingame items. I won’t play or won’t buy the ingame items. I hope this doesn’t spread to all games…….

      1. Great Article Shane, I feel the same way.

        As to why it works even when so many people hate it, I’d like to share an insight though from my days as a developer in one of the top freemium game companies in the world.

        You are correct that a lot of gamers hate this model. In fact, MOST gamers hate it with a passion. According to the data we had, more than 90% of a game’s users vocally hate the freemium / microtransaction model when it gets introduced, and only 5% of a freemium game’s users ever spend any significant amount in the in-game shops.

        The problem is that the aforementioned 5% spends RIDICULOUS amounts of money. Sometimes as much as thousands of dollars per user in a single month. This 5% then throws more money making a game “suck less” than the remaining 95% would have paid to make a good game to begin with.

        IMO It’s a sad reflection of the way the world is shaping up lately, a widening gap between the rich and poor with an evaporating middle class – a handful of rich spoiled brats with money to throw and everything in the world catering to only this class, the remaining 95% rest of the world slaving away to maintain that decadent standard for the few.

  2. Thank you for writing this. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve only found one f2p game that hasn’t been a money pit, Path of Exile. Most of them, like Drakensang, are a scam where vital game items cost real money and are perishable. The day all of gaming goes to this is my last day as a gamer.

  3. These freemium games are what that is killing good, high quality games. Games that were produced by Gameloft. Gameloft was good, but then they realised they needed to adopt freemium because of the freemium games that were causing them to lose money. Some apps however, deserve a pat on the back because they aren’t such a money sucker. Temple Run, take for example. They don’t rely on a alternative, paid “premium currency” to obtain all items. Hopefully they don’t adopt this type of freemium. There are a two types of freemium I see. One-The type of freemium I like. You can obtain all items without paying, and playing instead. Two-The type of bullshit freemiums I see. The typical thing I see is two currencies. One is an easily earned currency, while the other you have to PAY just to obtain it. This, is the type of freemium that is killing paid mobile games.

  4. I read your article and I 100% agree with you. Freemium games kill the ‘fun’ that should be seen in games. You wanna have more fun? Pay. That’s what they do. Look at Glu Mobile games. I’ve played a couple of their games (Blood & Glory, Frontline Commando) and I realized there is no way I am progressing without paying. Sigh. I miss those days when games were made to ‘wow’ rather than to fill their dev’s pocket.

  5. Freemium is definitely not for everyone, but like you said it’s here to stay and mark my words it’s not just in the games category. You will see all consumer software head in this direction. Even $99 photo editing software (MSPR from the developers) was being “given away for free” but obviously has limited functionality with upgrades to pro and additional features like filters and templates.

    I’m very familiar with Heros Call and it’s unfortunate what they did with a game like that. It’s easy to blame freemium, but honestly you should be blaming the developers more than the business model because their game design and execution of freemium weren’t ideal for their target market. You can strong arm a soccer mom to drop money on Tap Zoo for cute animals, but obviously doesn’t translate well to players who like Diablo games.

    Just remember where this business model comes from; radio and television. You can listen/watch for free with commercial breaks or use your own resources (time and/or money) to DVR (download or whatever you might do) around commercials which is the equivalent of grinding in the freemium model. Intelligently designed freemium games never “make” you pay or leave the game, but compliment the experience. More importantly, if your target audience just wants to pay for a good game… then let them. Have a $20-60 in app purchase that “unlocks” the game. Heroes Call could keep the freemium model and then have this unlock all feature. Everyone wins.

    Anyways nice article Shane. I agree Heroes Call could’ve had better execution on their business model and monetization mechanics, and I could turn it around. It’s my JOB to make freemium games fun and profitable.

    1. Thanks for the comments.

      I don’t think the EXISTING freemium model is here to stay. There has to be a better trade off than crippling core game mechanics for a genre. That (Heroes Call) is an example of what I call “bolt on Smurfberries”; that is the game was obviously retro-fitted with Smurfberries after the fact. The genre doesn’t lend itself to the model – and anything outside a full re-write with proper balancing makes it all that much more obvious.

      Your example of photo editing software isn’t the Smurfberry model per se – that is the shareware model. “Here is a crippled product – if you like what you see, pay and unlock more functionality.” I have ZERO problem with that. That is a fair model. Now, to make your example more fitting – let’s say you get the editor for free, but you have to Facebook 200 people to get “noidblox” which allow you to use features of the app. “What? You want to use that Crop Tool? That’s 10 noidblox. Oh you only have 4 noidblox – would you like to buy more for just $.99? WAIT! Hit TapJoy and we’ll give you more! Sell your soul on Facebook and we’ll hook you up!”

      How long would THAT model last on desktop software? Imagine “MS Word: Smurfberry Edition”. FREE!!!!! LOOK!!!! Of course, turning on spell check costs 10 paperclips. Clip art is just 1 paperclip. You can earn thumbtacks every time you write 200 words, but thumbtacks don’t unlock spell check – so you have to trade up the thumbtacks to get paperclips; OR JUST PAY .99 FOR 10 MORE CLIPS! The good news is you can spin the lucky wheel of prizes for just $2.99 where you can with paperclips, tacks or maybe a lucky spin will unlock PRINTING! WHOO HOOO!!

      Yeah, that’s a software world I want the hell out of RIGHT NOW.

      Radio and television are poor examples, my friend. There is no money being traded – no matter HOW you consume it. I can get up and pee during the commercial – not have to watch commercials AND relieve my bladder (win win) – and it costs me ZERO Smurfberries. I don’t have to GRIND to get commercial free TV. My DVR (which I haven’t lifted a finger on in YEARS) records, intelligently tags commercials overnight, and I can skip them with 99% accuracy with a button click. No grinding there. And if I want to go with “piracy”? There is SickBeard. Set up once? Free TV forever. No grinding, no work. They tried “TV and radio” models on mobile gaming (throwing ads in your face) but people screamed and hollered (then rooted their device and put on Ad Block). No, advertising isn’t the way either.

      Continuous “Pay To Play” will wear out its welcome soon enough. Mark my words. I’ve been in this industry (gaming, commentary, journalism) for thirty years. I know a turd floating in the toilet when I see it. The other toilet-bowl partner of Smurfberries is “Chapter 1” gaming. I simply will not download anything that has a suffix of “Part 1” or “Chapter 1” because that’s clear admission that this is going to cost me.

      What you’ll see? More “free to play, pay to stay” – that is; get the game for free, play a bit – pay a reasonable one-time fee to unlock the rest of the game. You know – shareware – the tried and TRUE method of “free to play, pay to stay” gaming for the last 20 years. Big Fish and G5 are doing this (obviously well enough that they can put out a new game every day).

      I totally agree with you – dual business models? Fine. Drop $60 into the game $.99 at a time or let my buy it OUTRIGHT for $20. Great. But the problem is? Only BAD freemium games are built to support this dual model. Look at Jurassic Park Builder (read my review; – one of the best examples of freemium I’ve seen yet – I haven’t spent a DIME on this game. I’ve played it DOZENS of hours. I’m a patient man. But you can’t “unlock this” for $20 because the game was BUILT around the model properly. If I could pay $20 to give myself “unlimited dollars” (the IAP currency), the game would leave NOTHING left to do within an hour. That’s why THAT game works – and Heroes Call doesn’t. Dual models – SOMEONE gets screwed.

      If you want my backing for Freemium? The model of endless Smurfing needs to end. Or, I want FULL disclosure on Google Play. They can do it in real time. Right under the FREE button? It says “The Average player has spent $xx in IAP”. At least there is some truth in advertising there. There are REASONABLE models out there – just far and few between.

      I’m THRILLED to pay for good software. I’m not a “free or nothing” over-entitled basher that believes I should be handed a AAA game for free (or $.99). I want to pay. But not forever.

      I’m not sure who you develop for Ben, but if you are serious about saving this business model – I have ideas. 🙂 Be sure to submit your titles to Green Robot Gamer (my Android gaming site) for review. If you see my other reviews, you’ll see I’m very fair.

      Thanks again.

  6. Absolutely agree with your article.

    One thing I think google and apple should be made to do is make it abundantly clear in their app stores that the game you are downloading is infact a freemium game.

    I can’t count the amount of times I have deleted a ‘free’ game because of the inability to progress without the purchase of some BS ‘megabucks’, ‘gems’, ‘coins’ or some other dodgy virtual currency.

    Before I download an app I want to know:

    1. Is this a freemium product.
    2. will I be able to complete the game without the use of IAP of virtual currency.

    Without this information, a lot of people’s time is being wasted downloading, installing and uninstalling after the realisation that they have downloaded a dastardly freemium product.

    A game should not be allowed to be advertised as ‘Free’ if they contain IAP.

    1. You can tell whether it’s a freemium game on the App Store. Simply scroll all the way down an app’s info, past the screens & description, and look for the tab “Top In-App Purchases”. Clicking it will show all the IAPs of the game.

      It’s that easy! I wonder how so many consumers can miss this fact.

  7. Great article!

    So… we all hate it, and we all know it’s not going anywhere in a hurry. The question is – how do we avoid it?

    I don’t want to have to scroll through the full product details of every game I look at to know whether it has the freemium curse. Is there a site out there anywhere that lists non-freemium games? After some googling I can’t find one.

    1. You’ve hit the nail on the head. Someone has to take control of this situation. Google isn’t going to do it. Developers are not going to self-govern, apparently. It is up to a community to take a stand; people helping people.

      I haven’t built a community in a long time. Maybe that should be my next community.

  8. I’m confused. Don’t get me wrong, I hate freemium, but I downloaded Heroes Call 2 weeks ago. I’m level 7, have made no in-app purchases and am still enjoying the game. Yeah, the appraiser takes his time, but it’s usually longer on higher level items. You can rush (as I have done a dozen times) after a minute remaining at no charge, and the charge has been gold, not money or gems. It is a freemium, but all I’m saying is that I have not run into any pay-to-win spots…yet. Perhaps as the game was updated, they changed the freemium features. Other things that bug me: the third appraisal slot costs a second character purchase, you can buy gold with money, you don’t keep experience from replaying a dungeon.

  9. Developer here,

    What about a free game that very occasionally produces an ad, non-intrusively when you complete a level.

    And an option to go “premium” for $0.69 where ads are removed, online score board is unlocked and you get a free upgrade point* for every weapon you have.

    * You can unlock points just by playing the game, no pay-wall or time-wall, simply play, do better naturally and gain upgrades like any pc game.

    Please let me know what you think, it is really important for me as it is my first release on mobile!

    1. No, that’s not exact the same thing. Your methodology would be more than acceptable. The idea is to give us a way to play for free – and a way to pay to get rid of the annoyances required to make the app free for those that want to pay.

  10. True… But the 3rsd type of pay to win is when a game is super hard seriously like you can’t damage the NPC they kill you in one hit they are pretty much god??? They just kill you in one hit unless you buy 2.99 for 50 gems but you only use KT for one fight. (example shadow fight2) I hate p2W

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