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Grant's Review Corner: Volume 12

In this episode of Grant's Review Corner, I review the entire freemium model of gaming. Okay, so this is more of a rant than a review, but my feelings have been fermenting in my mind for quite a while, and in the wake of Nintendo offering not one, but two freemium Pokémon games (a move which is making a boycott seem severely tempting right about now), I feel the need to pitch in my two cents on this genre (as opposed to my 99 cents).

The freemium business model sounds good on the surface: you get to play a game for free, and only pay money if you want to. It's akin to the shareware model in that way, where you play a demo of a game, and then you can pay for the full game. Everett Kaser Software has run on the shareware model since the 1990's, and as I've let on before, I derive enjoyment from his games, somehow. What's good in theory, though, isn't always good in practice, and the freemium model is no exception. I hold the freemium business model in about as much esteem as Richard Dawkins holds religion, or David Morgan-Mar holds Monopoly.

Many people have already chimed in about the freemium business model. This article on Gamasutra explains why the freemium model is as ingenious as it is devious. This fan of hack-and-slash games recounts his experience with a freemium game called Heroes Call. The television show South Park lampooned the business model in 2014. Oliver Stockley writes, "It’s my view that games should distract you from the mundane (but vital) details of life like, y’know, money. In being geared towards making you regularly spew out the innards of your wallet, freemium games cannot capture the escapist bent of traditional games." And in spite of Sean Plott's defense of the freemium model, and this article suggesting that most of the big spenders who play these sorts of games think they're getting their money's worth, my experience with the freemium model is that it is nothing more than an attempt to exploit the player's impatience and have them spend hundreds of dollars on a game so vapid that paying $199 for Action 52 would be a better bargain. It says a lot about my experience with freemium games that the biggest selling point for Alpha Omega, a word game in the iTunes App Store, was that it wasn't free, but 99 cents. I won't review Alpha Omega in detail, but I will say that once they add the ability to undo moves, it will become a game that, just like Bonza, I can heartily recommend to all word puzzle lovers who want to be able to waste small pockets of time.

My earliest experience with the freemium model was with the Facebook solitaire version of Pickomino. Pickomino introduced me to one of the primary tropes of the freemium model: the energy mechanic. Instead of being able to play the game as much as you want, you have a certain amount of energy which refills slowly over time. If it weren't for the game enticing you to pay money to temporarily lift this restriction, it might be a reasonable Anti-Poop Socking measure (that is, a way to encourage the player to take a break from the game to live real life); with it, it's just one of the forms of exploitation which defines the genre. I will say that this free demo of Pickomino encouraged me to buy the real board game for two or more players; aside from the fact that it can outstay its welcome if people keep stealing each other's tiles long enough, it's an intriguing game with unique press-your-luck gameplay. (Reiner Knizia is a mad genius.) However, I never spent a cent on the Facebook version.

My next experience with freemium games was a game called Triple Town. It's a turn-based casual game on a tile-based grid, where three or more of the same kind of thing adjoining each other become one upgraded thing (grasses becoming a bush, bushes becoming a tree, trees becoming a house, and so on). This game, too, features an energy mechanic to artificially limit how much you can play (a couple hundred turns or so, and then your turns restore at the rate of one every few minutes). The game intrigued me for a while, especially in Joseph DeVincentis's ability to consistently outscore me. (Smart man, that guy is.) I'll even admit that I spent $3.49 on it, out of sheer curiosity for what the upgraded version of a high-level thing looks like. Nonetheless, the energy mechanic severely detracts from gameplay for me, and eventually I kinda forget the game exists.

My first experience with how truly exploitative and malevolent the freemium business model can be, especially when applied to the puzzle game genre, was with the Jewel Quest app for iPad. I had recently played a time-limited demo of a Jewel Quest computer game. The game is a Bejeweled clone, where you have to match three gems of the same color horizontally or vertically, and you're only allowed to swap adjacent gems if doing so forms a valid line. When you match lines of three, the squares those gems occupy turn to gold; your goal is to turn all of the squares gold within a time limit. As I am much more a fan of action puzzle games like this than turn-based puzzle games, I quite enjoyed this demo, and found the iPad app when searching for more information. As it was free, I gave it a try.

The first difference I noticed right away was that the new Jewel Quest was turn-based instead of time-based; you have to beat the level within a certain number of swaps instead of a certain amount of time. There are time-based levels, but they are rare, and take a back seat to turn-based ones. I guess this change makes the game more casual friendly. Okay, I'll roll with it. The game is smooth sailing for some time, and then gets gradually harder, like a good game should. It also introduces new mechanics that the previous game didn't have, such as pieces that don't move (not even due to gravity), but instead need to have gems of a specific type moved onto them; this is added to the winning condition alongside turning the board gold. It seems genuinely like a good game.

Then the freemium crap kicks in. Remember that God-forsaken energy mechanic that artificially limits your play time? It's present here. If you play a level and lose (or forfeit), you lose a heart. You have a limited number of hearts you can have, and they regenerate slowly. At the end of a level, the game will try to entice you to buy a power-up to give you a few more moves or a little more time, rather than lose a heart. Exploitative move number 1.

Exploitative move number 2: the game become a money game. The Gamasutra article mentions a distinction between skill games and money games, and how freemium games rely on having skill-based levels early on to trick you into thinking you're playing a skill game, before switching gears to really siphon your money away. Without having seen the terms "skill game" and "money game" before, I instantly knew I had hit that wall when I hit a certain level where I needed to get 8 (I think?) green gems to a specific spot, but that spot is so far out of the way that, in a game where the only valid moves are swaps of adjacent gems which create lines of three matching gems, it would be nearly impossible to achieve that goal in the number of moves allowed. I could just sense that there wasn't just some hidden strategy that I was missing; it was the game's way of trying to get me to pay money to see the next BS-hard level under the guise of a game that, up to this point, was testing my skills like a traditional puzzle game is supposed to do. Sure, you could buy power-ups with in-game currency, but it wasn't clear that any of them would make the level close enough to remotely possible to justify buying them. I deleted the game from my iPad soon after.

I just looked up the Jewel Quest app in the iTunes store and decided to rate it 1 star in a vain attempt to discourage people from touching it. Apparently, I had previously rated it 5 stars. Wow. . . I was gullible. Not gullible enough to spend my money, thank God.

I have a bit of a bias as a puzzle lover, but perhaps the number one genre of video games that suffers from the freemium business model is the puzzle game. Remember back in the days of the NES, when you'd pay $50 for a game like Tetris or Dr. Mario, and you'd be able to play it for perpetuity? This gave Nintendo incentive to develop a really fantastic game that people would actually want to buy. I adore every incarnation of Dr. Mario with the exception of the Game Boy version; the game is a true test of skill, where even the hardest level can be overcome by someone with fast enough reflexes and a keen enough intuition of the best strategies. (The Game Boy version suffers because, on levels 19 and up, there are only two rows of guaranteed empty space above the viruses instead of the three rows in the other incarnations, meaning it's theoretically possible to have the viruses spawn in such a fashion that you can't clear a single one of them.) None of the games have any way to make money off of you after you buy the game, so in order to get money, they have to be genuinely good games that get good reviews. For just a few bucks, you can download Dr. Luigi for the Wii U, which includes the classic mode, the Virus Buster (touch-screen) mode from Brain Age 2, and a brand new mode featuring L-shaped pills. If you own a Wii U, and want to support actual good puzzle games (as opposed to predatory "free" ones), please don't hesitate to download Dr. Luigi.

Within the past week, I discovered a freemium Minesweeper-based RPG. Despite my loathing for freemium games, I decided to try this one. I mean, we already know that Minesweeper, despite its high skill component, has a reputation for BS luck-based guessing, so a freemium Minesweeper can't masquerade as a skill game as easily as a freemium Bejeweled clone. As expected, the game had the usual freemium of tropes of energy (which you spend to play a level, regardless of whether you win or lose) and "hey, you lost, but you can pay to continue from where you left off, you were soooo close!", but the gameplay mechanics were genuinely interesting. You can capture monsters to aid you in the levels by cutting trees and building bridges and doing other things. The game was almost about to earn my goodwill and willingness to spend money. So what did it do to lose it?

Boss battles.

The boss battles are a total departure from the gameplay of the rest of the game. There's no Minesweeper to be found at all, and as far as I could tell, no real hints on how to win them. Some villager told me I could use my monsters, but it wasn't clear how to do it. I tried tapping my monsters and then tapping the boss. Nothing. Worse, these boss levels cost a crapton of energy to play, much more so than the previous levels, so you can maybe attempt them once an hour (unless you forfeit your money, of course). Seeing as the game wasn't popular enough to have a walkthrough to explain what obvious thing I was missing (or possibly what not-at-all-obvious thing I was missing), I deleted it posthaste. Maybe someone reading my blog will give the game a try and figure out how to beat the first boss (level 9) and possibly slightly redeem the game in my eyes (enough to try it again and see what BS lies after level 9 to siphon my money in a different way than I was expecting), but I just hadn't the faintest idea.

You want to know what's a good business model? StreetPass Mii Plaza. StreetPass is a feature where, if your Nintendo 3DS is in sleep mode, and you pass by someone else with a 3DS in sleep mode, your systems exchange data. You can also use Nintendo Zone hotspots for StreetPass Relay, which allows you to StreetPass with people who've visited recently, even if you're not in the same place at the same time (a boon for people like me who live in less densely populated areas). Some games are compatible with StreetPass (for example, players of New Super Mario Bros. 2 can exchange Coin Rush records and get bonuses for beating the other guy's top score), but the system comes pre-loaded with two very simple games which are somehow more fun than they have a right to be (perhaps because of the core mechanic of "get out in real life and meet other people with 3DS's").

The first is Puzzle Swap, where you collect pieces of pictures (each picture having 15, 24, or 40 pieces). When you pass by someone else, you can take a copy of a piece (of your choosing) from their collection and add it to yours. For 2 Play Coins, you can buy a random piece; it's not guaranteed to be a new piece, but it's guaranteed to be from a panel you have started but not finished yet. Play Coins are earned by putting the system in sleep mode and using the pedometer; there is no other way to earn them, not even by paying money (which somehow makes me not mind so much that you're capped at 10 Play Coins per day).

The second game is Find Mii, where the people you run into are fighters on a quest to rescue your Mii from capture. Each Mii can only fight once, at which point it runs away. Fighters can be up to level 7 depending on how many times you've run into the same person before. The color of the shirt on the Miis you run into also determines what kind of magic they can use (red is fire, for example); as you progress through the game and its unlockable sequel Find Mii II, you run into new mechanics such as monsters with shields which can only be broken by Miis with a specific shirt color, rooms which require a specific kind of magic in order to fight in them, and the ability to make teams out of two Miis with similar colors or the same color. The aforementioned Play Coins can be used to summon wandering heroes of random colors, buy potions during battle, and even summon Miis who have fought for you in the past (which is great when you need Miis of a specific color).

Here's the thing: there are currently 6 premium games you can buy for $4.99 apiece or in bundles, plus an upgrade for $4.99 that adds a side quest to StreetPass Mii Plaza of trying to collect as many birthdays as possible. However, the purchases are all based on goodwill, a desire to play new games, and a desire to unlock things which are purely cosmetic. If you don't pay a single cent, you don't feel like the game is assaulting you with "GIVE US YOUR MONEY" as a freemium game typically does. I don't think there's even a way to spend more than $34.93 on StreetPass Mii Plaza (as opposed to freemium games that can easily suck hundreds or thousands of dollars out of the wallets of certain "whales", as the insiders of the industry call them) Recently, I finally decided to cave in and buy the birthdays update and the game Monster Manor (part polyomino-based puzzle game, part real-time fights with the spooky denizens of a haunted manor from which you're trying to escape). Unless there turn out to be hidden freemium elements in the game (and free-to-play elements in paid games are not unheard of; Jimquisition calls this abominable practice "fee-to-pay") to encourage me to spend real money rather than use Play Coins (which cannot be obtained via money) or just hit up a bunch of people on StreetPass as often as I have opportunity to, I feel as though I can recommend Monster Manor as a puzzle fan and especially as a polyomino fan (I did invent Pent Words, after all). I can also recommend Pokémon Battle Trozei, the excellent predecessor to the utterly execrable Pokémon Shuffle (the freemium follow-up my reaction to which I shan't reproduce here on my blog). Despite the simple mechanics, it's a fast-paced game that rewards quick thinking and fast, accurate stylus movements. I will in all likelihood never recommend any freemium puzzle games for as long as I live.

I recently learned about the upcoming game Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Bros. Edition. I don't know how to feel about it; Puzzle & Dragons is one of the more infamous money-grubbing freemium games out there, but Mario is the best video game franchise to ever happen to the world, and this appears to be a retail game. There's nothing yet to indicate that it will be "fee-to-pay", so I'm hopeful that it will be a splendid use of the Mario property, but I will not buy the game until it's been out long enough to be absolutely certain.

Edit 4/21/2015: I have since seen the aforementioned South Park episode in full, and its being peppered with profanity aside, I thought it was spot-on in its assessment of freemium games. However, I have since also found this article attacking the show's criticism, saying, "The whiteboard sessions. . . aren't actually substantive arguments against the freemium model; for the most part, the whiteboard diagrams simply represent easily dismissed subjective judgments on freemium games. . . . Ultimately, the whiteboard sessions parroted fairly vanilla gripes with the mechanics of freemium that don't indict freemium games beyond being 'not fun' as a function of personal taste." I have added the link to the dissenting article out of fairness; nonetheless, I contend that freemium, while a good concept that allows people to try things before investing money in them, has given rise to exploitative games whose fun value is negatively impacted by their constant obsession with pitting my patience against my wallet. In a shareware game, you get a demo with limited features or a limited amount of play time, and then if you like it, you pay once for a game you can play for perpetuity; freemium games generally sell you consumable (virtual) goods rather than ones which last for perpetuity, and have no upper cap on how much money you can spend. If any of these freemium games were to sell a power-up that removes the energy mechanic for perpetuity instead of temporarily restoring the player's energy, that would be a gigantic step in the right direction. My understanding is that the iPhone app for the aforementioned Triple Town actually does this: you can pay a one-time fee for a lifetime of unlimited moves. I commend it!


valvino said...

After reading this well-written and researched rant I find myself agreeing with practically all the points here, and have a couple of points to add to this. My first, in order of mass-market impact are facebook games, a term I use here to include titles such as the infamous Farmville, though is definitely not limited to it. The main issue I have with these is the sheer lack of accountability these companies have regarding access to microtransactions. There are many horror stories of children racking-up large bills, which their parents are then forced to pay for what is in essence a very simplistic game with very simple mechanics, and no storyline to speak of.

The second point refers to the blighting of franchises better known for following the traditional payment model. I’m sure there are more examples but just some of the series that have had Free-to-play titles attributed to them are Final Fantasy, Fable, Age of Empires, Command and Conquer, Plants vs. Zombies, Dungeon Keeper, with Assassins Creed also being criticised for its microtransactions. For fans of the games in these series it can result in the initial disappointment that comes with such a poor quality game in the first instance, then the ongoing scepticism that comes with any further titles. Final Fantasy: All the Bravest being the gravest of all of these, and no less than an insult to fans.

Grant Fikes said...

You are absolutely correct about the way freemium games exploit children who don't understand the value of money, never mind other people's money. The South Park episode, in fact, revolves around this, comparing a kid's addiction to a freemium game to his father's alcohol addiction and his grandfather's gambling addiction. Combine dopamine with children's low impulse control, and you have something truly unethical, IMNSHO. This is the reason iOS added an option not to automatically authorize purchases without a password for 15 minutes after the last purchase.

I also agree that seeing a beloved franchise jump onto the freemium bandwagon promotes cynicism and skepticism regarding the future of said franchise. Although an increasing number of adults are getting into Pokémon (or, more accurately, an increasing number of underage Pokémon fans are becoming adults), it is still a very G-rated franchise with a certain appeal to children, and thus said children seem like a heavily targeted audience by these freemium games. It frightens me to see Nintendo making this move, and given their recent announcement of their intention to get into the mobile market with their next-generation console, I worry about more "free" games in the future. Please don't make a freemium Mario game. . . . :(

This has been on my mind a lot recently because I've been StreetPassing frequently. It's a little frustrating not to be able to advance in the games at a faster pace, but since there's no desire for the game to steal your money in a psychological battle with your patience, my enjoyment of the StreetPass games is higher than that of any freemium game I've touched. The thing is, when you StreetPass with someone, it shows you their most recent software. It fills me with grief when that most recent software is Pokémon Shuffle or Pokémon Rumble World, and in fact the smiling Pikachu head which makes up the icon for the former has become one of the most ugly sights in the universe. (The same Pikachu head, albeit on a different background, is the icon for Pokémon Battle Trozei.)

Any genre of video game can be ruined by freemium design sensibilities, and I suppose anyone who is particularly attached to one genre of game will say that freemium hurts that genre worse than any other. I contend that the prevalence of RNG in puzzle games makes it really easy to make levels that are BS hard rather than challenging. Puzzle games ought to have a skill barrier (even the absurdly high one in Tetris The Grandmaster games) rather than a money barrier; the RNG should force the player to puzzle out new situations on the fly, not make the level winnable only 1% of the time even with optimal play.

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