Why I’m Not A Fan of Freemium

Freemium apps have become something of a boom recently. Some of the most popular games on the App Store go by this model, whereby the actual app is “free” but to progress through the game, you’ll need to spend some real cash to actually get anywhere. Hannah Richards wrote an excellent piece arguing why freemium apps are great but now it’s time for me to vent my anger at them and why I won’t be downloading any in the future.

Before I start my rant, let me say that I was a fan of freemium games. I used to play quite regularly on The Sims: Freeplay, The Simpsons: Tapped Out and Pocket Planes (all of which received highly favourable reviews on this site) and I enjoyed it until I realised that I was actually wasting my life, money and, indirectly, my university degree trying to make my Sims to fall in love and get married or get my Bearclaw-P to Stockholm to deliver a valuable batch of screws.

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Rafael Angeline from Gamedevtuts+ put together this excellent little diagram to illustrate how freemium games work.

Why is this? I commend the developers of the aforementioned games for providing an accessible way to popular games but I feel that their gameplay is diminished somewhat by the fact you are constantly waiting for something to happen and you don’t get that same sense of satisfaction that you do with traditional games in completing a level or stage. With freemium games, it seems to be an endless, dragged out storyline with constant updates promising, “A BRAND-NEW EXCITING STORYLINE! MORE CHARACTERS ADDED! EVEN MORE WAYS FOR US TO MAKE MONEY OUT OF YOU!”, and this doesn’t entice me one bit.

Take The Simpsons: Tapped Out, for example. Although a highly amusing (and extremely popular) game, I was getting absolutely fed up of having to constantly wait 12 hours for Homer to complete whatever he was doing or 24 hours for the building under construction to complete. Progress through this game was glacial and I never really found myself getting anywhere, which was precisely why I deleted it after having thrown away nearly £30 ($50) of my hard-earned dosh on in-app purchases.

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The Simpsons: Tapped Out, although a commercial success, requires expensive in-app purchases for “premium items” or to progress quickly through the storyline.

To speed up this 24-hour wait, you could of course use doughnuts — 12 of them to be precise, which cost $1.99 a dozen. I find this extortionate and you could happily fritter away your stash of doughnuts through purchasing “premium items”, which in some cases didn’t alter the gameplay one bit. I calculated that to buy all the premium items in the Store (and have some doughnuts left so you can advance quickly through the tiresome storyline), you’ll need around 2,400 doughnuts or, in real terms, $100. Free gameplay? I don’t think so. The one redeeming feature, that I found, was that they used the original Simpsons voice actors for the in-app dialogue, which I respect.

I feel that freemium apps also prey on the younger generation (and consequently their parents’ bank accounts) as most of them are popular, family-orientated games. Is it a consequence, therefore, that at the time of writing 7 out of the 10 Top Grossing iPad apps were freemium games, most of them with an Apple 4+ rating? Don’t think so. Children are likely to badger their parents into parting with their hard-earned cash so that they can buy more animals for their zoo or an extra field for their farm. We’ve all heard the horror stories of iTunes bills running into the hundreds of dollars (here’s a recent example from the UK), merely through in-app purchases (OK, this was Apple’s fault, but it’s still a valid argument here nonetheless), which I find obscene and I believe that on these kinds of games, there should be a limit to the number of in-app purchases in a certain timeframe. Is this going to be implemented? Of course not. The developers won’t want to do away with their constant stream of revenue and Apple won’t budge as they’re making a handsome 30% commission from each in-app purchase transaction.

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Did someone say “free games”?

It’s even attracted the attention of the Consumer Action Group, a British consumer rights group, who were worried after the app My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, required an in-app purchase to actually complete the storyline (which originally cost nearly $50, but was reduced to $9 after an adjustment by Gameloft, the app’s developers), forcing parents to choose between spending money on their precious daughter (as the app’s target demographic was young girls) or saying “no”, thereby preventing them from progressing and completing the game.

I would far prefer paying a little extra for a game, say $5, and being able to progress through it without endless waiting and being pestered constantly by in-app advertisements. I understand that developers require a constant stream of revenue and that nothing comes for free in this world, but I feel that charging for a game and providing the incentive for people to actually buy it, rather than simply downloading it for free (often out of pure curiousity), would motivate the developers to write a better standard of game. Not everyone will agree with me here, but I feel that standard games are far more enjoyable to play as you actually feel like you are getting somewhere, rather than waiting for that little notification saying, “Your farm is now ready to cultivate!”.

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Real Racing 3 – an example of a well-executed game crippled by in-app purchases.

Of course, you don’t have to pay to enjoy freemium games and you can progress through them without spending a single penny. But that temptation is always there (and I give in easily to temptation) to buy that super-duper item that will gain you extra XP or complete the level instantly. I feel that this is kind of cheating and takes away the pleasure of actually playing the game. With Pocket Planes, I discovered a hack whereby you could modify (through the game’s preference file) your coins and XP to anything you liked (so I gave myself about a gazillion of each) and consequently, I felt like there was nothing worth achieving any more and deleted it. Sure, I’ve only got myself to blame, but I feel that in-app purchases are exactly the same as this, only that they cost a bit more.

So whilst I’m not taking anything away from freemium games (I find it extremely clever that game developers can make money out of almost nothing, something which as an economist amazes me greatly), I don’t agree with them and consequently don’t fill my iPad up with them. I have my guilty pleasures — Grand Theft Auto Vice City being one of them — because I actually feel like I’m actually working through and immersing myself in the game, rather than being someone who simply has to part with cash (which I feel could be spent far better on something else) to reach that next major milestone. Unfortunately, though, I’m probably in the minority here.