At the time of writing, most of the top grossing games in the App Store are freemium titles: games that are free to play, but that hinge on a business model that more often than not requires money to be semi-regularly fed in, either to speed up the game or to get through regular doorslams. I’ve written about freemium games before, highlighting my distaste for the model on the basis that it’s too often abused.
Occasionally, this isn’t the case, although that’s mostly when a game is more akin to an old-school demo (and therefore more accurately labelled as ‘free to play’ than ‘freemium’, if there’s a distinction to be made). For example, Gridrunner Free gives you a unique game mode and a single IAP upgrades the game to unlock everything else. Letterpress restricts you to a couple of simultaneous games, but, again, a single upgrade unlocks everything.
However, even when you enter into the realm of upgrades and ongoing cash injections, there’s no reason why gouging and grinding has to be front and centre. Hero Academy has a smart system where you buy new teams of characters and aesthetic customisations, but you can play without them, albeit without the same level of variety as those who choose to pay. And despite its hateful £59.99 ‘gold package’ (to my mind, any game with a disposable 60-quid IAP needs to take a good, long look at itself), Royal Revolt is a hugely enjoyable romp that you can play through without spending a great deal of cash to speed along upgrades. In fact, it’s perhaps the first game of this sort I’ve played where I thought it could do with more roadblocks, because it was being a little too generous. (I also felt the same about Frisbee Forever and its sequel, both of which I threw a few quid at, purely on the basis of the enjoyment I’d gotten out of the free games.)
On Eurogamer recently, Dan Whitehead reviewed Ghostbusters. Whitehead seems to be of a similar age to me, given that he references David Crane’s 1984 tie-in (which, let’s face it, was amazing if you had a C64 and were about ten: *stabs space bar* GHOSTBUSTERS!), but this also means he’s old enough to remember not only when gaming lacked modern-style freemium business models but also when it was heavily based around ‘pay to play’ a.k.a. arcade gaming.
Whitehead tears apart Ghostbusters, his review being summed up by the concluding paragraphs:
You quickly realise that there’s absolutely no point to anything you’re doing. You grind through identical battles dozens of times to scrape together enough credits to earn the right to grind through more identical battles. It’s a prime example of that upside-down design mentality that requires the ‘game’ element to be so slow and frustrating that the player feels compelled to pay in order to skip it.
In the comments, he’s then accused of being anti-freemium. Perhaps, argue those in favour of the model, Eurogamer should be asking people who love buying a 70-quid barrel of Smurfberries to review the likes of Ghostbusters. But making that accusation on Whitehead is missing the point he so clearly makes in his review:
There’s a world of difference between a game that uses micro-payments and a micro-payment model that is simply delivered in the guise of a game. If Ghostbusters has any value at all, it’s as an illustration of this important point.
In the comments, he further elaborates:
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a freemium model, and many games use it wisely to great effect. There is something very wrong with ‘games’ that are simply mechanisms for payment, dressed up as ‘gameplay’ in the limpest possible sense. That’s what Ghostbusters is. Take away the payment model and there’s simply no game there—just an endless series of mindless tasks with no positive feedback loop.
This is something people misunderstand when comparing freemium titles to arcade games. The latter were sometimes vicious in their difficulty levels, gulping coins, but the games were always about skill. Get good enough and you could survive on a single coin. That, to some extent, was the magic: a well-tuned game would reward your investment; and although from a manufacturer standpoint you could argue it’s not savvy that a game would potentially earn less per play as it aged, older games would regularly make way for new ones anyway, enabling the cycle to repeat.
However, I do nonetheless divert slightly from Whitehead’s views; he states:
This is why the example of arcade machines is flawed—those games were fun, whether you put 10p into the slot or £10. The input-feedback loop was completely different because progress per coin was skill based. You don’t need skill to beat Ghostbusters—just reams of patience and money to burn.
Although this is an opinion that aligns perfectly with my own preferences, it’s not an opinion I consider relevant to all modern gamers. In many cases, people seem content—even happy—with an experience rather than an old-school arcade-oriented title, demanding puzzler or slice of challenging strategy that demands skill for success. They’re happy to tend—the gaming equivalent of mindless gardening, where you go through the motions. However, I believe that even in this space, there still needs to be reward, and companies must take care to not enforce grind.
Even looking at Ghostbusters from the point of view of someone who enjoys freemium games, Whitehead’s review calls out the truly negative, hateful aspects of the production: grinding through nondescript scenes dozens of times to merely see more of the same; making progression so slow, frustrating and annoying that a player pays to skip through. Even without skill, a game can offer progression, fun, delight, beauty, and, as I’ve said, rewards—a return for the investment of both your time and your money. Without at least those things, freemium titles still represent a massive threat to not only iOS gaming, but also to the entire gaming ecosystem. Within a few years, the most exciting medium in history could be little more than potentially infinite Little Infernos* installed on people’s devices, sucking bank accounts dry in return for what ultimately amounts to nothing at all.
* Little Inferno is an experience-led game that riffs off of freemium games, almost being one, but with in-game currency generated solely by the items burned on the Little Inferno fireplace. It’s proved divisive, but it’s one of the finest productions I’ve seen in recent months on the iPad, and I very much recommend it and staying the course. If you get frustrated by the combos, I’d even argue you won’t lose much by finding some hints online, because the game’s pay-off is wonderful. Also, judging by reviews I’ve read, some people (who presumably like their freemium games) are ecstatic purely with the burning and not just the underlying story, which is amusing.