A Discussion on Freemium Gaming

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“Social and freemium is not where gaming is headed”

Jack Tretton

Freemium Gaming, the dirty little secret of the console connoisseur’s repertoire, a shameless exploitation of the worst aspects of a person’s character targeting the desire to succeed at a literal cost trapping the user within a un winning cycle of endless repetition. In their current iteration on occasion they are closer to licensed and themed gambling machines as opposed to their premium equivalency on the latest generation of consoles and dedicated gaming rigs. There is a temptation when exploring video games as a wider genre to discount and dismiss these titles as representative of the worst parts of this artistic medium, neither presenting a traditional narrative or structure and instead opting for a cyclical progression type. In short, when breaking down these games and software, there is an allure to dismiss the entire experience as nothing more than exploitative media however, in one form or another these types of games have existed since inception first as shareware on the PC architecture through to its current form. In its earliest form, games were released in a limited or restricted state, similar in limitation to beta access today or game demonstrations on the previous generation but crucially releasing an almost fully realised form with the constant presence of advertisement to purchase release keys to unlock the full experience. In the absence of internet connectivity this was an important means to allow users to experience the game before paying a final fee to unlock a range of exclusive features, the nearest equivalency we have to freemium titles today that present the core mechanic of the software as the game with the addition of  paid content available to the user. Living within the age demographic of the user base that grew up on the periphery of the development curve of gaming provides an opportunity to dissect and break down the various models and methodologies of the industry as they have passed as a user of the various gaming types.  However, it does also breed a feeling of contempt for an interface or approach that challenges the traditional form of release opting for an alternate methodology that in truth has garned a significant level of income for the developers of these titles and introduced a new generation to a style of play that is as alien and distant to a traditional user base as the original titles themselves to those that came before.

Perhaps whats crucial to remember, primarily where these titles tend to be released with online connectivity as a requirement as opposed to traditional offline models there is a clear differentiation between historical shareware titles and freemium gaming. Also, now based primarily on mobile and tablet devices as opposed to traditional gaming architecture, these games can be viewed as disposable quick fixes of entertainment as quickly dismissed as they are installed raising the prospect and question to developers how to generate income from these titles ensuring their continued to support. These games, unlike traditional fixed term media don’t generate an initial income to the developer relying instead on inbuilt expendable items or ad revenue to generate profit. The games themselves will only exist and be supported as long as they generate income, viewed as a business model generating income as opposed to a fixed sellable unit of media to the consumer base. And fundamentally as to whether they do succeed as a commercially viable product to the market is the level of accessibility to the core function, the game with the inclusion of purchasable items as opposed to progression being locked behind an artificial pay wall. Earlier freemium games often tended to opt for an artificial progression spike that stopped forward progress without investing capital into the title. Having downloaded and tried a number of these titles myself across a variety of genres and types there was a consistency in the restriction which often resulted in deletion and being purged from memory. Be they licensed or original titles once they had served their monetary purpose for the developer support was discontinued and they were confined to the dustbin of code and data. Instead developers were required to alter their methodology and approach to the market, responding in part to changing consumer demand but also technology. Where data speeds and network coverage once necessitated the consumer to rely on one particular title due to download restrictions and perhaps push past whatever limitations existed today the user can delete and discard any game that has perceived inbuilt restrictions instead forcing designers to opt for alternate means of revenue generation attracting the attention of larger media companies into this potential source of income.

My personal history with this type of game is somewhat restricted, not due to some grandiose morality or snobbery but simply recognising the limitations and restrictions of these games and opting instead to enjoy sporadically a small handful of games that in my personal opinion have maintained a subjectively ‘fair’ and balanced approach to progression within the title whilst permitting progress, albeit at a slower pace than if I had invested money into these titles. Certainly, I am perhaps typical of the user base that enjoys these titles for the core dynamic and don’t feel a need to purchase expendable decorative items or cosmetics but the attraction of these consumables and the ability to progress through investment is understandable. Over the years the longest running game I have played and enjoyed sporadically is the title HayDay from Supercell which continues to generate income for the developer through expandable items. There is a considerable level of content available for users to enjoy for free, the majority of the items to buy tend to be decorative to personalise your farm, a quality that I can understand but is largely lost on me. Screenshot_20190317-174903_Hay DayProgression never feel’s unfair or restricted, and due to the simplistic nature of the game you can enjoy playing over a period of weeks or months then return at a later date to carry on, often with new additional features to experience or enjoy. Its biggest restriction is in the expansion mechanic, with new land slots requiring resources that can be unlocked slowly or through purchasing the tiles immediately. Certainly over the years the speed of progression in receiving these resources has been rewarded consistently through completing basic tasks however with each subsequent upgrade there tends to be additional land slots available to purchase that further fill your screen and perhaps tries to influence you to spending money to tidy up your map. In contrast a number of expansions have been released such as the fishing area expansion, the town area and competitive mechanic all providing new ways to enjoy this title. Certainly, there is scope and a temptation to spend money to enjoy some of the more superficial cosmetic items but there is a great degree to enjoy and consequently I have spent a great amount of time periodically enjoying this game over the years enjoying the simplistic, whimsical nature of the farming simulator.

In contrast the Star Trek Timelines title as we looked at previously when reviewing the current iteration of titles based on the franchise has opted instead for what would be identified as the more traditional methodology of the freemium experience with a great deal of content available based primarily on the legacy and history of the franchise but also, unfortunately relying on paid packages costing a great deal of money given the subject matter. Screenshot_20190317-171034_Star TrekWhen these first released or became available through the app I was somewhat surprised at the price of the content costing the same as a premium traditional game at retail. To date there have been packages released at twice the cost as that shown here and as such you have to question what value they add to the game and whether this is instead appealing to an addictive nature of a person’s character. I have enjoyed Star Trek as a fan for a large part of my life, having my personal preference for a series and style, that said no package would tempt me to part with that amount of cash to buy a cosmetic item for a mobile release. That these items retain these prices is somewhat alarming that fans of the genre or this specific game continue to purchase these packs, yes they are available to dedicated gamers however they are hidden behind the artificial pay wall of chance and are by design rare to unlock and win. That said based on the history and the substantial wealth of material to use certainly there is a great deal unlock and enjoy without spending any money and unless you are dedicated to a specific crew or series there is a certain joy to unlock and shape your crew from a variety of influences. Of the titles I have played and continue to enjoy this is one I do see having a limited duration as the means of income cannot continue to generate enough revenue to justify its continued existence unless there is substantial demand for these cosmetic and expansion packs. Star Trek Timelines hasn’t opted for the ad revenue approach instead focusing on these expansion packs in contrast to Hay Day and other titles which prompt you to watch an advert or trailer in response for resources. A recent announcement from Google has seen the formulation and development of software known as smart segmentation which will allow developers to target advertisement at users who haven’t invested money into the title whilst allowing premium users to avoid these intrusions. Ostensibly this is framed around the ‘app life cycle’, from pre-release to post launch. With a majority of the installations occurring around the first two months of the titles launch the challenge to developers is to maintain a source of income revenue following its release. As opposed to traditional game releases where you have paid the premium on purchase without a necessary upfront cost developers rely entirely the premium user base who are willing to invest money. In the post launch phase of this games release, the game relies entirely it seems on the expansion packs for sale, whether this is sustainable is another matter.

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Is their merit in the free to play cross-platform titles such as Fortnite which has successfully launched to critical acclaim on Android mobile device? certainly they have seen a huge user base on consoles with a great deal of income generated from the cosmetic items available to buy to personalise your avatar. As with Apex each of these free to play Battle Royale titles earns revenue in the absence of traditional advertisement instead opting for purchasable expansions. This same methodology has expanded onto the mobile platform and indeed does generate profits for the developers from gamers who instead of purchasing traditional releases instead spend money on these items. However, there is also evidence traditional games such as Red Dead Redemption 2 one of the biggest selling titles from last year continues to have a substantial market share. So are freemium games a legitimate gaming experience? are they an introduction to this hobby or instead a future direction for the industry that established users will have to adopt? certainly in my youth I enjoyed a comparative experience playing titles such as Realmz and Escape Velocity which presented hours of play whilst acknowledging that it was a free experience. In contrast to today there wasn’t a temptation to pay to win or spend money buying new ships or vessels to explore the galaxy. Perhaps a peril of modern technology and the accessibility of companies to the user base that was not possible even a decade ago. On my part, to date I haven’t invested or spent any money on these free titles, instead opting to find the proverbial wall and decide whether my investment of time is a worthwhile experience to push forward or to abandon the game. My preference is to purchase and play using the traditional approach of buying games on release, whether this is the future of the industry is another question.

What are your thoughts on this subject matter? do you enjoy a particular freemium game or see a future for this approach? would you accept targeted advertisement for the benefit of playing games for free? share your thoughts.

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