The freemium model offers a free-to-play game experience that monetizes through the player’s purchase of more-or-less optional in-game content. This distribution method can offer a lot to players.
Like everyone else who remembers driving to the mall to buy a new PC game in a box, I love checking out a game before deciding to buy it. And I’m happy paying for an awesome extra upgrade in a free game. Spending 99 cents in a freemium game for a more powerful sword for my brave adventurer or a faster cupcake oven for my cute little baker often serves as the same kind of pick-me-up as an afternoon latte.
But there’s a depressing side to freemium as well. Sure, I work in games, but I play games for my own pleasure and enjoyment, and I get thoroughly annoyed when poorly designed games ask players to pay to fix the difficulty balance or avoid a grind. I’m infuriated when my “free” title includes a surprise paywall. As someone in the games industry, I’m saddened by the release of games that aren’t so much mental puzzles or interactive storylines, but more like vehicles for virtual currency.
Good freemium makes the terms very clear. Distributor Big Fish Games uses a free trial very effectively to engage casual gamers. Players are offered one free hour of the game they’ve chosen, and then once a player is excited about the game and confident about the content and the system requirements, the player can decide to purchase the game. BFG is very clear about the terms, so players aren’t surprised by the end of a free session. Mobile game developers use a similar system by offering players a few free levels, a lite version, or another free introductory experience, that ultimately draws mobile gamers the same way that BFG does.
Some publishers use a similar tactic to add a surprise paywall partway through the game. I think the intention of a paywall is the same as a free trial, but the lack of clarity produces a very different result. For me, though, discovering midway through that a free game requires me to pay to finish usually results in frustration. It colors my enjoyment of the game and leaves me pretty doubtful of the publisher’s next “free” title.
Good freemium add value to the game. BitMonster’s Lili for example offers a variety of in-app purchases for players to chose. Players can add to their stores of coins and flowers, and exchange these for power-ups, but the game can be completed without paying in. I happily spent 99 cents on Lili’s hipster outfit so I could dress my character like me. (I liked this outfit before it was cool)
Another successful freemium model relies on a withering mechanic. In appointment-style games, players who miss the chance to water their crops, or perform a similar action, take a penalty, like a withered crop. Many games monetize successfully on premium currency for watering cans or other forms of an undo button. Of course, this doesn’t just apply to farming games, many casual games can have a withering mechanic, even if the game activity is letting your cupcakes burn. This works well because, like a free intro, it relies on the player’s commitment to the game, and enjoyment of what they’ve played so far.
While good IAP adds value to a solid game experience, bad freemium demands players spend money to adjust the difficulty balance in order to create a more solid game experience. There’s an unappealing dishonesty in a game that’s billed as free, but requires additional purchases to make the game experience playable. Pixonic’s Robinson is free-to-play if you don’t mind waiting to acquire dozens of needed materials from a random drop that refreshes every 24 hours. I noted in an article I wrote for Hardcore Droid that Zenonia 5 is free-to-play, if you don’t need any armor or weapons from the merchants, and your character never dies in battle. Thousands of games use a painfully slow and repetitive grind as a motivator for premium purchasers, deliberately boring and annoying players into paying. There is something deeply flawed about designing gameplay so dull that it begs to be avoided.
And that’s what’s most upsetting about bad freemium content. Good games offer so much artistry to enjoy, with intriguing puzzles, engaging characters and storyline, and combat action that it’s disappointing to see games designed to bring players a boring grind, and then monetizing by asking players to pay to avoid it. It’s a disappointing trend to watch as a hobbyist. As an industry, we can all do better. With creativity, the freemium model can mean offering great additional content, and monetizing successfully on extras that add to gameplay, instead of designing to bore.