An old school gamers perspective on the “freemium” gaming model

Grumpy old gamers view on the so called free-to-play games.

When someone mentions the phrase “free games”, it immediately raises some questions, and rightly so. The gut feeling is most likely related to the proverb: “there is no free lunch”. Gamers in general can be divided into two groups. First, you would have the traditional hardcore gamers, and then you have the people who play once in a while, casual gamers. This following is more related to the latter group of gamers.

In the not so distant history gaming used to be a rather expensive hobby. You had to have an expensive computer, or a console to play the games. Then you would need to buy the games, discs and cartridges to actually play the games. Gaming was not within everyone’s reach. If you look down even further down in the video gaming history, playing happened only in the arcades. There you would pay coins for every single round of a particular game. Needless to say, this was an expensive way of gaming.

The world has changed and we have come a long way from the times of Super Mario Brothers that you played at the arcade. In the recent years we have seen the meteoric rise of the so called “freemium” games. As the word suggests, “Freemium” is a combination of two words, free and premium. While the gaming business is booming, there has been relatively few critical voices about so called “free to play” games. Here’s a few ideas from an old school gamer, and a full disclaimer. I’m working at where we offer completely free and legal full version casual games.

Freemium isn't free

One of the biggest annoyances for me, is how the word "freemium" implies that the games would be free. The idea is that while the core of the game is free to play, users are able to buy items,coins, diamonds etc. for money, which equals “premium”. Sometimes the term “free to play” is also used, but the concept is the same. You can download the game for free, but once you start playing, you will be bombarded with messages saying that you should pay to gain x, y and z. Another way is to offer only a sample for free, and to unlock the full game or new levels you would need to pay. The term might be new, but the concept is far from it. Already in the 1980’s games and software were distributed as “shareware” which has quite a few similarities with the concept of "freemium".

Everyone hates waiting

Every freemium game has their own logic behind the monetization, but one of the most common tactics is using time as a currency. Player might have a limited amount of resources which will be replenished over time. Sometimes this is even more simple, and the game has a certain number of "lives" or "plays". The player is forced to wait, or pay to continue playing. Typically the logic is not hidden in any way, but most people just hate waiting. This is especially true if there is absolutely no other way for you to speed up the “countdown” timer of the game. Many games have the countdown timers short when you start it out, but the waiting time increases exponentially as you progress in the game. It is not uncommon that you might need to wait for days to build a structure, heal your soldiers, or something similar.

Twisted game logic

The previous paragraph briefly touched the topic of game logic. To make the games as addictive as possible, the developers have figured out a model that forces you to buy upgrades if you want to advance in the game. This depends from game to game, but some of freemium games make it practically impossible to advance without purchasing some premium items. When the player has reached a certain level, (and invested a considerable amount of time playing) it might be disappointing to realize that the advancement is only possible with money. Typically the first levels are easy, and become exponentially difficult only much later on. This makes is difficult for the player to abandon the game. After all, you would lose all your virtual progress.

Gaming skills devalued

Games are usually played for fun, and it is part of the experience when you get better over time by beating the computer or the other players. When the game offers shortcuts in the form of premium content, this gives a player an unfair advantage. On a single player game this might not have much of a difference, but if you are playing against others, this distorts the gaming experience in dramatic ways. 

In effect, someone can just buy their way to the top, getting the best items, weapons, armor, resources, diamonds etc. without actual gaming skills. You still need to have some level of skills, but depending on the level of the “bonuses”, this is unfair to the other gamers. Many games offer content that is only available for purchase, and naturally it has to be significantly better than “regular” content.

Purchases that never last

It is common practice that users are able to buy only virtual consumables. This means that an item you have bought, does not last, you do not own it, and it is gone once you use it. This in turn can lead into a vicious cycle when you want to buy the item one more time to see if you can get to the next level. Even if the temporary boost can help you once, there will always be another level that is more difficult, or another player who have bought even more powerful boosters.

Some takeaways

I am a gamer that is approaching 40 years old fast, and this might appear like a ranting from a grumpy old man. Gaming in general has changed rapidly, and it is certainly accepted more widely than decades ago. The “free to play” games have opened a door not only for companies with business models different from others, but for gamers as well. 

Maybe I really am an “old fashioned” gamer, but I find it especially annoying in online multiplayer games when my character gets killed / base raided / etc. by someone who just bought their way to the top. Though at the end of the day, nobody forces you to play those games, and it is up to every individual to decide if they want to spend their hard earned money on virtual consumables. For me personally, I don’t think I will.


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