Freemium: Free to Play, or Pay to Win?

I’m (mildly) addicted to a few Freemium games. You know, like Candy Crush Saga, which I was into for a while. So was my Mom. And my elderly uncle who lives overseas.

But the current Freemium (Free Premium?) games that I spend a lot of time (but not a lot of money) on are Game of War: Fire Age, Clash of Clans, and a relatively unknown garage-built game called Galactic Empires (essentially an oGame space combat clone).

About the money part, I like finding games that are balanced enough such that paying for the upgrades or speedups is mildly appealing to me, but where I can still pride myself on spending nothing, or as close to nothing, as possible. It’s part of the challenge, really. It usually means I’m not ranked the highest on the leader boards, but I often find myself leading or being on the council of a influential alliance or clan, and getting lots of satisfying play and online interaction for free.

See, they call these Free to Play (F2P) games, but a lot of gamers derisively refer to some of them as Pay to Win (P2W) games. The latter are more specifically games that are balanced to benefit players who spend lots of money (“whales”). In other words, the only way to “win” is to buy the upgrades.

There’s a┬áSouth Park lampooning the Freemium game concept. They have it pretty bang on, especially the mechanism of getting addicted to the game for free, starting to care about it, then agressively encouraging the purchase of upgrades and speedups. It’s funny, but I don’t share their wanton cynicism…

Over the course of years, I’ve spent, in total, $19.99 on Game of War, nothing on Clash of Clans, and exactly $1 on Galactic Empires (to remove the ads).

But these games can make a hell of a lot of money. Like serious, serious coin; some of the companies (King, Supercell) have valuations in the billions of dollars. Yes. Billions. Game Makers Valuations

As with gambling, there are people playing these games that have either too much money to spend or a serious gaming addiction. But also like gambling, if you have self control and aren’t susceptible to getting addicted, then you can have lots of fun sitting at the penny slots in Vegas, getting free drinks with pleasant frequency if you tip the waitress a dollar every time she comes back.

South Park does have a point, though. In fact, the controversy over Freemium games, and the true stories of young children spending thousands of dollars of their unwitting parents’ money, has prompted Apple to change their download buttons in the App Store to say “Get” instead of the potentially misleading “Free”. Free Vs. Get in App Store Apps

I think that’s a good change. But I also think Freemium games have been unfairly vilified. Non-gamers are afraid of the addictiveness and appalled at the idea of spending money on frivolous games. Hardcore gamers are snobbish about the whole casualness of it all, and prefer being encamped on their dedicated gaming consoles or super-charged PCs. They don’t want to be hounded to gift free lives to their Aunties and Grannies on Candy Crush Saga, or Pet Rescue, or Farm whatever.

What’s undeniable is that Freemium games are a force to be reckoned with, and have turned the gaming industry on its head. Some of these games have earned their success through balance, innovation and market savvy. They are just plain fun.

Why don’t you see for your self? Try it, it’s free. What could possibly go wrong?