Freemium

It used to be so simple. You'd make a good game, you'd put it in a box and offer it up for sale, people would buy the thing, you'd use the money to buy a fast car and hopefully make up for your lack of social skills.

It's a process that has been repeated many times over but one that is no longer the weapon of choice for todays discerning game developer. Where previously there was a simple 'Price', today we live in a world of the 'Freemium'.

For the uninitiated, Freemium is an alternative method of enabling people to play your game whilst, at the same time, providing you with an income for making the thing in the first place. As an ideal it is sound and solves a couple of thorny problems that always used to be around in the old retail model.

The principle

Allow people to pay you as much money as possible and yet make the game as attractive as possible to as many people as possible. (The word 'possible' has now lost all meaning to me - there was probably a more concise way of saying that but it would sound like terrible marketing speak with buzzwords like 'synergize')

With the old retail model, you would set a price point and people would pay it if they wanted to play your game. You had set a value on your product and only by meeting that valuation could a consumer gain access to your wonderful work. Brilliant.

But some bright spark realised that this idea could be improved upon. For there were several people who would want to play your game but wouldn't be prepared to pay your asking price. These people had a couple of options - they could either simply not play your game or they could acquire a copy through nefarious pirate means and play it without giving you a penny. This is obviously A Bad Thing.

Then there were some people who would have actually been prepared to pay more for your game, meaning that you were missing out on potential revenue. Whilst not as bad as the people who pay nothing, losing out on more money in this way is also A Bad Thing.

What Freemium does is enable users to pay an amount equal to how much they are prepared to do so, in theory maximising how much money you can make. At the bottom end of the scale, the game is given away for free. Gratis. This obviously entices a lot more consumers as it's no skin off their nose to give it a go. Also, it completely removes piracy as it becomes totally pointless to pirate something that people get for free.

Then, throughout the game, the user is presented with plenty of opportunity to 'enhance' their experience by paying real money for things. (Just typing that sentence puts me in mind of the various offers to be found lurking in the depths of your spam folder) Again, the theory is that the user will be happy to pay for items or features that they want and all at bargain basement prices - Microtransactions. I mean, who could possibly complain about having to drop 69p on an awesome feature? If they don't want it, they don't pay. Like a meal on an EasyJet flight.

The Freemium model then, is a good idea in principle and one that I'm totally on board with.

Where it all goes horribly wrong

There are many, many people making Freemium games. This is not a bad thing, but the vast majority are making exactly the same game. Under the exciting banner of 'social gaming', these games are getting churned out at an alarming rate. Everywhere you look, you'll see someone pimping out their city or bakery or garage or nunnery or space zombie factory.

Again, let me state that I'm not against social gaming at all - I love the fact that it entices people who otherwise wouldn't be gamers to play a game of some description. The problem for me is that each one of these games seems to just follow a cynical set of guidelines in order to extract the maximum amount of money from a user. There are plenty of places you can go to find the accepted guidelines of how to set this stuff up. Everything from encouraging virality to the frequency you should pop something up to remind your player that their experience would be greatly enhanced if they just dropped some more real money on this thing.

Now I know how hard it can be in this industry to get a game to market and for it to actually turn a profit can be a total exercise in futility. With that in mind, I'm all for developers making the most of their opportunity to make a bit of money when they can.

What concerns me is the long game.

We've already seen the term 'video game' change meaning in the last few decades. In the 80's it meant 'arcade shoot em up' or 'platformer'. In the 90's, 'action adventure'. The 00's became synonymous with 'first person shooter', nominally realistic and hyper violent. In these embryonic teen years, I can see it becoming 'something on facebook that people on my friends list bug me about' and this is a worry.

Fewer and fewer people are making games with soul. They're simply following an established guide to the letter and pretty soon, Joe Public is going to wise up to this. They're going to realise that they've seen it all before and, as much as they like seeing their city / space zombie factory filling up its various bars and gauges, they're done with that.

It's not all doom and gloom

I'm really trying to not make this sound like a rant against the evil that is Freemium. I'm totally behind the idea, 100%. There are also a few examples of Freemium gaming that are definitely more palatable - League of Legends, for example. Now the gameplay behind LoL (as it's affectionately known) is definitely the subject for a post in the near future, but it's the monetisation that concerns me here. It follows several 'rules' that I think are key.

Firstly, you can't use cash to gain an advantage over another player - none of this 'pay to win' stuff, which is abhorrent to my gaming nature. Instead, anything that enhances your performance is bought purely by using the in-game currency that you accrue by playing the game itself. As such, you never have to spend any money on this game and you can get as far as some dude who drops the national debt of Greece into Riot's coffers.

Secondly and with that in mind, it offers you plenty of things that you might want to spend cash on. Nominally, these are purely aesthetic customisations - character skins and, in some cases, comeplete re-workings of meshes, animations and audio. These will set you apart from other players, but no-one's forcing you to do it.

Thirdly, they've actually got a game in there. It's not a perfect game, by any means, but it's something you can play and get good at. You can learn a skill and demonstrate this skill to others, which is normally a pretty compelling reason to keep coming back and therefore helps strengthen the 'R' part of Freemium's 'ARM' acronym - 'Acquisition, Retention, Monetisation'. (If acronyms aren't your thing then you're in for a rough ride as Freemium has more than it's fair share of TLAs)

In short, Riot have done a bang up job of not making me feel exploited by cheap tricks and I've happily dropped a fair few pounds (and more than a fair few hours) on this title. It works and I'm fine with that.

Historical doom?

But I can't leave it on that happy note. Well, I could, but there's been something bugging me that I've got to get off my chest.

Remember amusement arcades? Remember how awesome they were? You'd go in, drop a credit or two in your weapon of choice and demonstrate to the assembled throng just how good you were. Your initials would sit resplendant on top of the high score table and you could take your pick of any girl in the place - a combination of fanciful thinking and a total moo point as girls in amusement arcades were rarer than hen's teeth.

But then something changed and the poor old amusement arcade went the way of the dodo. Conventioanl wisdom has it that home gaming killed the old duffer off - when consoles got more powerful than arcade machines, you could stay at home and have a superior experience. Now, this is obviously true, but I also think there were worrying signs before that actually happened.

Arcade machines stopped being tests of skill.

Instead, they started introducing more and more cynical ways of getting people to insert more coins. Super aggressive time limits or a restriction on the number of rounds a single credit would allow. Games were getting shorter and shorter and the prices were going up and up. Had the home gaming thing not come along, I reckon it would only have been a matter of time before people got fed up with getting gauged in this way and just went away of their own accord.

And this is what concerns me about the way things are right now. Joe Public must be getting wiser to the tricks that are employed in most Freemium titles soon. I'm hoping that very soon they start demanding more for their money, the gold-rush dies down and we can get back to making actual fun games again.

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