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Freemium Fallacies

Today's post explores the industry's latest craze of "freemium" design. Some say that it's the wave of the future, but at what cost to game design?

Recently there was a news piece about the head of EA saying that freemium design was the wave of the future. Considering that Star Wars the Old Republic has recently announced plans to go free to play, it's easy to think that freemium is the next wave for EA.

The allure of freemium design has not gone unnoticed by the game industry. MMOs like Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeon and Dragons Online both bounced back after switching to the free to play model. Then we have the successes of League of Legends and World of Tanks that garnered massive profits being built entirely from the start with freemium design in mind. Even Valve is getting behind freemium with the upcoming release of Dota 2, which is their first free to play title not counting Team Fortress 2 that became free to play in 2011.

But while the promise of massive profits is sure to entice developers, I personally don't see this becoming the standard for the industry. While freemium design is great for publishers, it comes at a cost to game design.


                                               Lord Of The Rings Online store

The Art of Making Money

Any video game released to the market has the goal of making money for the developers and publishers in question; the price barrier insures that they receive income in exchanged for the game. I know that the previous sentence was painfully obvious to everyone here, but hear me out.

For standard games, both retail and the indie market, that is the only price barrier separating gamers from the gameplay. Everything that involves the gameplay itself and the design are separated from the transaction.DLC operates on the same concept: once the player buys it, the DLC is fully integrated into the gameplay.

What that means from a design point of view is that the price barrier exists outside of the design and is not considered during the creation of the game elements. MMOs are a modern day exception, as being designed around monthly subscriptions requires the designers to figure out how to keep players continuously subscribed.

DLC is a grey area as some designers view it differently in their design. In Crusader Kings 2, Paradox knew from the start that they were going to experiment with DLC micro transactions and released multiple packs featuring different songs, character portraits and a character builder. In other words, they knew while they were creating the game, what elements they were going to leave out of the retail package and reserve for DLC. The same could also be said about the costume options Capcom leaves out in Street Fighter 4 or Marvel vs. Capcom 3.

While in Payday: The Heist, the designers put everything they wanted into the game for its retail launch, and then updated the game with DLC down the road. The difference is that here, the development of the DLC didn't happen until after the game came out and was not a consideration of the original design.

The problem with freemium design is that it tethers the act of making money to the game design. This is something that we've seen in the arcade industry and what we're seeing with social games.


                                    Marvel Vs. Capcom 3

Metric Design:

I've already talked about the problems with designing by metrics in my post on Negative Game Mechanics and I won't bore you with the details again. When games are designed around consistently making money, in almost every case, the game's design takes a hit. The only games I've played so far where this wasn't the case, was League of Legends and Dota 2. Both titles keep the gameplay and monetization separate from each other to keep the game from becoming "pay to win."

Social games for the most part however, haven't figured out yet the medium between monetization and gameplay and they are struggling from it. Case in point: Last week I decided to try Outernauts on Facebook. Everything about the game sounded awesome: A science fiction take on Pokémon developed by Insomniac games. However the entire game is shackled by the negative game mechanics of energy and premium resources from the get-go.

What is happening with the development of social games is that the designers know that to make the game profitable they need people to keep spending money on the game. Instead of creating new content, they went with systems designed to keep people from playing so that they would hopefully spend money.

Giving the player multiple options for spending money by itself is not a bad thing. MMOs like Star Trek Online feature pages of items and content for the player to spend money on. Most of this content falls into the category of "cosmetic" with several items that could offer a benefit. But when you design the entire game off of needing the player to keep spending money, it brings down the gameplay.

Playing a few minutes of Outernauts, I could see the potential of the game, but the more I saw the negative mechanics, the more I wanted to play a retail version of the game without the monetization aspects. And when someone says that about a social game, that means the social game has failed.


                                                   Outernauts' store

The biggest hurdle facing freemium design is: How will it provide benefits to both the people playing the game, and the people who are making money off of the game? As it stands, freemium design in most cases, only benefits the latter. Until the day that designers find a happy medium that pleases both sides, then retail releases will still be the preferred option for many gamers. As with how expensive these games can get, it's cheaper just to buy a game rather than be nickel-ed and dime through monetization.

Now that the "new game sheen" is started to fade from games like Farmville, it will be interesting to see if Social Games can revive themselves similar to MMOs with the switch to F2P.

Josh Bycer

Reprinted from my blog: Mind's Eye 

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