Freemium Ain’t All Bad, Folks

The mobile market has been impacting a lot of traditional markets in ways some people haven’t considered. Off the top of my head I can think of a few impacted sectors right now: credit cards, standalone GPS units, and point-and-shoot cameras, all changed in massive ways by something so small. Even something as broad as the internet – a creation that pushed major innovation in the world of mobile computing – influenced itself, by those very devices and the way people use them. But one change has been making headlines lately – the new model in the gaming world known as “freemium” designed to support the developers not by initially purchasing the game, but instead through the use of add-on “micro-transactions”; small transactions the user makes within the game itself. This model has been used in other arenas before, but it’s making a massive push in the mobile gaming market…and that people have some strong opinions about it.
A lot of people have been complaining about this model, and that’s understandable…but not for the reason people expect. It’s understandable because of the speed at which the gaming industry has adopted the new model. It’s understandable because the general consumer hasn’t had a lot of time to adjust to the new model. It’s even understandable because the games are marked as “free” in the store instead of “freemium” or “micro-transaction supported”, and that can be a little misleading to customers. It isn’t, however, understandable because you “want the game to be free.” Remember people: developers put real work into developing the games you enjoy, don’t bash them for expecting something in return for that work, they have bills to pay too, just like you, and who doesn’t deserve to be rewarded for creating something that you enjoy so much?
If you ask me, the freemium model works…and to be honest I really enjoy it. I love being able to get a feel for a game before I have to commit any of my money to it. I love being able to experience the game the way I want to without paying for things I don’t want or wouldn’t use. I also love that more and more of these games are beginning to work really creative ways of utilizing the freemium model within their games – take Real Racing 3 for example. A lot of games allow you to purchase in-app “gold” that can be used to accelerate gameplay, but normally this means skipping an artificial timer that doesn’t have any natural place in the game. In Real Racing 3 you can use this gold to speed up repairs, or part deliveries…things that actually take time in the real world. It feels better, it feels natural, and it makes the game that much more realistic.
There are other advantages to the freemium model too; since it hit the markets as a major player in the mobile world Android developers have been complaining of the ease with which users have been able to pirate their games – some even going so far as to avoid developing for the platform entirely for fear of lost profits (I’m looking at you Infinity Blade). By requiring purchases in a game to be made through a server off in the cloud somewhere it becomes much more difficult for a person to pirate the experience that the developer would otherwise be providing. Sure somebody could find the game file on the internet, but that doesn’t give them anything more than someone could freely get form the application market directly.
It isn’t all happiness and sunshine though, there are some flaws with the system. Personally, I look at these as growing pains more than anything. The system is still relatively new…certainly more so than the traditional “buy a game, play a game” model we have been using for the entirety of gaming history. Most of the games out there currently using the freemium model make it far too easy to accidentally purchase upwards of a hundred dollars worth of in-game content with a single click, and getting a refund can be difficult or even impossible. Sure we can chalk it up to knowing what you’re getting yourself into before you press the button, but does it really need to be that easy to drop a hundred dollars on a game? There has been more than one instance of kids hitting these buttons not understanding what they’re doing and spending hundreds of dollars in the process, (read one here) and that’s something that needs to be fixed. A combination of changes by the developer and some responsibility from the parent should be enough to fix these issues in what I otherwise consider to be a promising model for distributing digital content.
What do you think? I know this is a hot-button topic, and I’d really like to hear your opinions. Leave a comment, connect with me on Twitter at @CallChrisNow, or send me an e-mail at chris@chriscall.meand let me know how you feel about the “freemium” market. Do you like it? Hate it? How can it be made better? Is there a better model out there? Let me know! I look forward to hearing your ideas.

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