As a Generation X gamer, I’ve seen it all; arcade, consoles, handhelds, computers and everything in-between. Gaming has gone from giant white pixels to near-realistic graphics — and from beeps and boops to full orchestral soundtracks with spacial multi-channel sound.
Along with porn, video gaming drives technology; always has and I suspect always will.
As usual, for me to properly explain my issues, you’ll need some background on the freemium model and then I’ll explain why it bothers me.
The devil goes by many names.
Freemium. Free-To-Start, Free To Play. Doesn’t matter what it is called — the end result is the same. You get the game for free up front and are then expected to pay later; often spending far more than you ever would have if the game was merely $4.99 as a one-time purchase.
Everyone seems okay with it — except me.
We had a similar model in the “good ol’ days” of gaming. It was called “Shareware”. You got the first part of the game for free — then you unlocked the rest of it with a one-time payment. It sounds the same, but it really isn’t and in this article I’ll explain why.
In The Beginning: Pay or Wait
In the early days of “freemium” a number of methods were employed to get you to pay money. These obtained the moniker of “Smurfberries” — as a Smurf village building game was a high profile example of a game that lured you in as “free” only to demand you pay smurfberries (fed to you very slowly in the game — but you could spend real money to buy them) if you wanted to move things in the game along faster. This “pay or wait” model used the human brain’s need to get faster gratification. Many popular titles ended up using this method — many based on beloved franchises like The Simpsons or Family Guy.
I obtained a “cracked” copy of The Simpsons that had “infinite donuts” to see just how much artificial time was added to these games. I played for only four hours straight to unlock everything possible and do every task I could possibly do. Fans of the game said they played every single day for over a year and still didn’t have everything unlocked. The number of donuts to finish the game without nonsense involved was in the tens of thousands which would have cost the end gamer thousands of real world dollars.
This concept was extrapolated by locking content down behind time or paywalls. If you really wanted The Wizard as a character, you had to grind for months to get enough “smurfberries” to obtain it for free — or pay $9.99 in real money to get the necessary amount of in-game currency to afford it.
As this model continued to expand, they used drug dealer tactics to illicit a dopamine response in the brain (hey, don’t take my word for it — Google it; most big freemium game companies have a staff of psychologist on staff or retainer to figure out how to milk your money from you). This came in the form of “the first hit of crack is free”; starting you off with every weapon or bonus possible and letting you get a taste for it. Then, when the money grab comes they nerf down everything you had and give you a pistol and a single health kit hoping you’ll pay real cash to get that tommy gun or frag grenade back into your arsenal.
The freemium model evolved. As people started catching on, they started hiding the money-milking formula behind double or even triple currencies. Gems and coins make it easier to hide the cash-grab and provide a steady stream of dopamine to please your brain. Gems were the “rare” currency while the coins flowed like wine; making you feel you were earning big while still limiting The Good Stuff to the Gems only currency.
Evolution: Pay To Play
After the currency nonsense started getting long in the tooth, it was decided that simply limiting how much you can play without paying was a good tactic for many games. This honed the dopamine receptors with carefully prepared on screen rewards and sound effects — designed to give you a hit of “good job” and keep you playing the game.
This came in the form of “hearts” or “diamonds”; you get x number of these per day and consume one every time you played. These were rarely awarded for free (but they make a big deal about it when they are) and you could always spend cash to buy more anytime you wanted. The games were artificially balanced to ensure the proper level of dopamine pleasure at the height of running out of daily pay-to-play currency.
These game companies made millions.
De-Evolution: Pay to Win
It didn’t take long before gaming crossed the line; especially in the multiplayer gaming arena. Everyone wants an unfair advantage, right? Why grind and level up to find that perfect gun when you can spend $10 and just buy it? Another $10 will get you some good armor. Another $10 will unlock that Spell of Fire that it takes a non-paying player six months to get.
Those used to never dropping a dime to play these “Free To Play” games were suddenly at a great disadvantage and they didn’t like it.
Slowly, but surely, the game companies started ratcheting back on this blatant “Pay to Win” philosophy and instead hid these treasures in the controversial “loot boxes” which you COULD earn for free but could still pay real money for. The argument was that no one was guaranteed the BFG for their purchase — so it was no longer “Pay To Win”. But the unfair advantage was always there for the big spender of cash versus those that didn’t.
The Loot Box
The loot box “gambling” mentality sparked a huge controversy across the globe — several countries banned them. But there is a reason that Las Vegas casinos make butt-loads of money and people blow the family nest egg there in a weekend.
People enjoy gambling and they are willing to lose money to do it.
While “pay-to-maybe-win” loot boxes have largely been dialed back to only be non-play influencing “vanity” items, there are still many games that obfuscate the “pay to win” model through loot box deliveries of items that indirectly affect game play.
That doesn’t stop loot boxes from being the new cash cow; thanks to the latest popular trend in gaming — public performance.
Monkey See; Monkey Want — The Real Issue with F2P
Now that everyone has broadband and women are willing to objectify themselves in endless “titty streamer” Twitch channels for donations, these “Free to Play” games have increased in popularity exponentially. More psychological manipulation. After all, the kids don’t watch TV anymore — they watch youTube. If their favorite streamers promote Fortnite or other “Free to Play” games, they want in on it.
They want to be part of — something.
Since the barrier of entry (cost) is gone? Everyone and anyone can play these games for free — making it more “virally possible” to evoke the “mass adoption” strategy:
The more people playing; the more likely chance they will buy something.
The more people that are playing, the more people WANT to play — perpetuating the cycle. Advertising has always been a numbers game; and “Free to Play” is the ultimate advertisement.
It also works oddly well as being a DRM component; but that is another article.
By using new dopamine receptor manipulations and some clever algorithms for controlling loot box pay out — even paid games like Overwatch are able to earn substantial post-sales cash using nothing more that what seem like “pure vanity items”.
In reality, these “harmless loot boxes” really contain the Nikes or Member’s Only jackets of the new generation. Skins, emotes and other trinkets let you appear to be like the video game equivalent of television and music celebrities of the Gen X group — boasting rights and in turn make your streams more desirable to watch.
“… Then Don’t Buy Anything …”
Yes, that’s what I’m told when I complain about “Free to Play” games. I’m informed that “Game X Does Free To Play Right” and “You don’t HAVE to buy anything!” or “Just grind for it instead of paying — what’s your deal?”
Aside from all the nonsense manipulation going on with “Free to Play” games — what with the loot boxes, the tittie streamers, viral implications … My problems are two fold.
The Flood of Undesirables
“Free to Play” means everyone gets in free. That attracts the bummers and the drovers … the dregs. I’m not into gaming to be popular or so I can brag to my friends about my level in Fortnite.
I play games to have fun.
Based on the rising stories about youth and rage … the addiction issues with children … frankly, I’d rather play with people who paid to be there. Tweens aren’t throwing down $60 to play Call of Duty every year. But by God, they are all playing Fortnite.
… because they can. Because the other kids at school make fun of them if they don’t play … and parents are letting them — because it is free.
Game Design Suffers
Recently the “Free to Play” game Paladins was released on Nintendo Switch as a paid “Founder’s Edition” only (at the time of writing). I don’t play “Free to Play” titles anymore (and if you haven’t figured out why by now, I have failed as an author); not on mobile, not on consoles and not on PC. But, Switch needs a team-oriented FPS game and thanks to a little region hopping magic, I was able to secure a copy for $13. Since it is “paid only” (unfortunately cross play means “Free to Play” people are going to intrude on the space anyway) I thought I would give it a look.
Everything I hate about “Free to Play” is present here. Locked content. Multiple advancement meters. Smurfberries (the odd increment purchases that make you buy 500 when you only need 200). The convoluted nature of daily rewards. A true mess of madness and confusion — designed to keep the gamer blissfully unaware …
In the days of mobile, many classic style games had Smurfberries or monetization “strapped on”. It looked awkward and was an obvious cash grab.
But now … matters are worse.
They build the games around the monetization.
The proof is all around you. You may see some of the changes all the time. You may see all the changes some of the time. But I assure you — you do not see all of the changes all of the time.
In the good ol’ days — shareware started with the full game first. Then it was determined what subset you got prior to paying for the full game.
In more and more cases, we’re seeing games where the monetization element is first and foremost while the game itself is built around honoring and maximizing that monetization element.
That is what Paladins feels like … and it is, despite the fact that you paid for it up front.
After all, for maximum post-sales cash, you need to game to deprive, limit or virally entice the user. All three if you want to really score. Ask Electronic Arts how that is working out. They know.
The End Game
Unfortunately, as Generation X exits gaming — those that grew up knowing what pay-once gaming meant will taper off and those that grew up with this “Free to Play” nonsense will take over. My demographic is fast losing its influence in the market and is being replaced by disposable, flavor of the month, never sit still millennials.
Like so many things from my childhood — the franchises and properties I grew up loving don’t belong to me anymore. It started with terrible movie reboots and Star Wars sequels and now one of my greatest hobbies — video gaming — doesn’t belong to my generation anymore. They have been taken and molded to match the new generation of consumers (that apparently don’t have money to get married, buy a house, own a car or go to school — but somehow collectively drop billions into Free to Play Smurfberries).
Grumpy old man syndrome … or Free to Play … which is responsible?
Perhaps a little bit of both.