Since getting an iPod touch in middle school, most of my gaming experience has involved free-to-play games. These so called “freemium” games offer the base game for free to all players and allow players to purchase bonus content for a premium. This additional content can vary from purely aesthetic to in-game advantages.
The first freemium game I was introduced to was the mobile game Clash of Clans. In this game, players progress by attacking other players for resources which they use to level up a home base. Other players then try to attack this home base to steal the player’s resources. Clash of Clans was one of the first very successful freemium mobile games and not by chance. Many aspects of the game lend it to a freemium model.
The first aspect that makes Clash of Clans benefit from the freemium model is that progress in the game is mostly time based. This means that the best player in the world at the game might still take years to achieve a max-level base if he does not spend real money on the game. However, if a player spent no money on the game, he could eventually unlock all in-game content. In-game purchases being used to shorten the time it takes to progress in a game is in the favor of the developer because players get a sense of satisfaction when they buy an in-game currency, leading them to want to buy more. Also, after a player buys the currency, he is in the same position of wanting to progress in the game, meaning that if a player wanted to spend $1 on the game, then that same desire will lead him to spend $2, and the cycle will continue until he has spent thousands of dollars. I still remember being shocked when the number one player in the world Jorge Yao revealed that he had to spend thousands of dollars to stay competitive at the top of the leaderboards.
Another aspect of Clash of Clans that lends itself to the freemium model is the social aspect of the game. Players compete against other players and can join clans with their friends. When I first started playing the game, all of my friends were in a clan together, and we all wanted to be the best. If I wanted to get ahead of my friends, I could either spend more time playing or spend money. On top of this, when one of my friends spent money, it was hard to suppress the thought that I would get left behind if I did not spend money myself.
From an economic perspective, freemium games make sense. While allowing one additional person to download a game costs a game company pennies, every additional person that plays the game increases the chance for a huge payoff. Instead of every player contributing a small amount of money to revenue, a tiny share of players, known as whales, contribute the vast majority of revenue. When the game Lord of the Rings Online switched to a freemium model, the company reported receiving three times the revenue. The economic incentive makes it easy to see why a company would switch to this model.
Not only can companies benefit, but players can benefit as well. With the traditional model, companies will stop supporting old games because there are no new purchasers. For example, consider how Nintendo stopped supporting Melee. On the other hand, games like League of Legends get continuous updates even though they are years old because their income directly depends on how good the game is. Back in 2015, Sean Plott claimed that all new games would be freemium, and while his prediction has not been entirely accurate, many popular games like Fortnite are still freemium. I, for one, have been happy with the increased number of freemium games on the market because it means I can try more new games without the commitment of a large initial purchase price.
However, not everyone views freemium games in a positive way. One common criticism is that they often allow players who pay more money to win instead of those with more skill. When one of my friends would improve their base in Clash of Clans seemingly overnight, the rest of the group would tease them, saying that if they were really skilled in the game they would not need to spend money. Critics also criticize the seemingly endless spending that goes on, with whales spending thousands of dollars on games that they likely would not have bought for the same amount of money. Apple was also criticized because the app store allowed additional purchases for up to 15 minutes after one purchase was made without any additional information, allowing children to buy in-app purchases without parental consent. (Funny enough, in middle school, some of my friends did this with Clash of Clans.) Here is a clip from South Park poking fun at freemium games:
There is no easy fix to these problems, either. In high school, I spent many hours playing Vainglory, a mobile MOBA that tried to exist as a freemium game. To avoid common criticisms of freemium games, the only premium feature in the game was skins which change character aesthetics. Furthermore, these skins were gainable by all players, payment just made unlocking them quicker. When the developer realized the game was losing them money, it was already too late. They tried making it more difficult to unlock skins, hoping to provoke more in-game purchases. However, the changes only alienated the player base and the once-popular game now only exists only on community servers.
While I have often become frustrated with free-to-play games, feeling as though the only way to progress is to pay money, I have generally positive feelings towards them. Many of my favorite games growing up were free-to-play, and I likely would not have played them if they were not free. I would love to hear about others’ experiences with freemium games, so please let me know your thoughts in the comments!