30 March 2017

Freemium Games And The Death Of Fun

What happens when bean-counters run the playground.

There’s a general misconception that game developers are like the rock stars of the technology sector. You get to work on cool, fun things that look awesome. If you write a great game, you can become almost a cult hero. And you can make lots of money.

The truth is that many game companies aren’t very good places to work. Electronic Arts, one of the biggest producers of computer and console games, is well known to be only a couple steps up from working on the Burma Railway. Many are under-funded, and few people become millionaires.

So the fact that game companies have hit upon the “Freemium” business model, and seem to be profitable with it, doesn’t seem like something which should be upsetting. But it is.

A game is supposed to be fun. It is supposed to be something you can get lost in. When you’re playing a computer game, you don’t think about deadlines at work or bills you need to pay or responsibilities of any kind. Such is the nature of “play.” And such is the magic of computer games, for they can create such wholly immersive virtual worlds that you can literally escape from actual reality.

At first, In-App-Purchases for games were more like paid cheat codes. If you wanted to move through the game quicker, get cooler weapons or power-ups, or unlock levels, you could pay a little money and voila, you were in. You still paid a basic fee for the game, and the game was playable and winnable without spending any extra money.

And now there are “Freemium” games. Free to download, and then you pay for in-game currency to advance through the game. But things have gone too far. It’s not bad enough that you have to pay for items, but you have to pay a surcharge to actually get your items immediately. The bean-counters have indeed taken over the sandbox.

Playing a Freemium game is as much an exercise in economics and budgeting as it is in gameplay. In fact, the “play” part of things too often starts to become secondary as you find you can’t get ahead, or don’t have the time needed to get ahead, without spending more actual money.

The side-effect of this rapacious greed goes deeper. Part of the rush of playing games is the learning process. Learning how to drive around a track faster, finding a path through a monster-filled map, learning air-to-air combat tactics: whatever the skill or technique, you are actually learning. And the natural tendency when your mind is in that mode is to want to keep learning. It can be like a drug.

Freemium games take advantage of that desire for instant gratification. That desire to keep learning and exploring a new, virtual world. In order to keep your mind and your gaming experience in that magical “zone”, you will have to pay because Freemium games not only charge you for things, but also for getting those things when you want them. Which is “now.”

Of course, you can also exercise self-discipline. Every Freemium game is mathematically possible to win if you spend enough time atit. If it is a fantasy role-playing game, you can revisit already-explored dungeons and kill the same monsters over and over to build up in-game currency by investing time instead of money. But Freemium game designers make sure that the amount of time required is so demanding that no one will bother. It’s just so much easier to fork over another $5 or $10 to get moving.

The end result is that playing a Freemium game stops being fun. Soon the thrill of challenge and accomplishment is replaced by the sting of resentment and denial. And if a game isn’t fun, then what good is it really?

No one begrudges game designers the right to make money from their work. Software developers in general don’t make all that much and the work to put out a really good game is intense. But when the games become thought of as profit centers instead of as a source of entertainment, and when business concerns completely obliterate gameplay design, then something is wrong.

It used to be that there were a few “great games” made per year which became block-busters and made their authors money. Now it seems like the work of creating such a game is no longer needed since the Freemium route allows for a lot of profit from just an above-average game. After all, why spend those extra few months making it perfect when it can be “good” and with the Freemium business model you can feed off player’s natural emotions and reactions and extract cash from them with all the ruthless efficiency of an anal-retentive vampire.

So strike another blow for the new greed-based economy.