Note: this was originally intended to be a comment on Adam Saltsman’s “Contrivance and Extortion II” post on Gamasutra, but it got way too long, so I decided to post it here instead
Hey Adam, I’m glad that you’re bringing all these issues up and starting this discussion, and I think (maybe) I can convince you of the benefits of freemium games, or at least present an alternative viewpoint. I should also point out that I’ve never made a freemium game, and that I usually make the kind of games I imagine you’d enjoy.
To start off, I think we need to talk about perspective.
You (just like me, and a lot of other people here), approach games as a game designer first. This has a bunch of interesting side-effects. The first is that we have “game-designer-itis”, where we play a lot of games, but usually only play them long enough to grok what they’re about and to experience whatever it is that makes them unique. This is why people like us love games like Braid where there’s very little repetition. Every single level introduces a new element, a new twist. There’s no fluff, no filler.
On the other hand, we never finish most blockbuster games for the same reason. They just get too repetitive. I’ve never finished Halo, Gears of War, GTA, etc. It’s not because I couldn’t finish them, in fact, it’s just the opposite: I knew I could finish them, so I didn’t see the point; I had already explored all of the systems that the game had to offer.
Now let’s be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the way we approach games, but I don’t think it’s fair to assume all gamers are the same as us. A lot of people play games purely as a form of entertainment, and so they want as much of it as they can. They’re not nearly as concerned about whether each moment they’re experiencing is unique or not, they just play games as a way to escape normal life, a way to kill time, a way to be someone they aren’t.
Ok, so how does this all tie in with freemium games? There was a fantastic presentation at GDC 2011 called “The Fantasy of Labor”. If you have access to the GDC Vault, I highly recommend you check it out. The ideas I’m writing about here are rooted in the concepts that were presented there.
The core idea of the talk is that all games require three things from a player, in varying amounts depending on the game: skill, luck, and labor. A game like Street Fighter requires mostly skill, a game like roulette requires mostly luck, Farmville requires mostly labor, etc.
The common attitude in both the game development and “hardcore gamer” communities is heavily biased towards skill-based games. These games are appealing to the majority of the traditional gaming community, but they have flaws. The talk goes into detail into quite a few issues, but the most important take-away is this: *a lot of players do not want to play games that require skill*.
Now let’s move from skill to labour. There are a huge number of players (a large portion of the “casual” demographic) who *enjoy* games that are labour based, and dislike games that are skill based. They want a game where they know that the longer they work, they will always improve, no matter what.
It took me a long time to come to grips with the fact that some players really don’t want a game with interesting gameplay or systems for them to grok. They just want something where the more time they spend, the more results they’ll get. They aren’t looking to be rescued by some well-meaning game designer, saving the day, saying “no, this is what games really are! Try all these interesting systems, look how intrinsically motivating this game is!”, instead they just want to check boxes on a checklist. They *want* to.
Alright, now for the final piece of the puzzle. In your post you implied that the only reason someone will pay to skip ahead is if their urge to complete the extrinsic checklist overpowers their enjoyment of the intrinsic mechanics of the game. I heard someone summarize the main take-away of your post as this: “If a game lets you pay to skip playing, it’s not fun. Why wouldn’t you want to play?”.
One issue with this argument is that it doesn’t consider all of the other elements that make up a game, especially the aesthetics and mythology. I think we can agree that it’s possible for these to motivate certain players way more than “the desire to experience the mechanics” or “the desire to improve their skill”. Players will sometimes want to advance just so they can experience more of the story or more of the aesthetics, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Now coming back to the checklist. I think this is probably the main point I want to make: some people actually enjoy filling out the checklist. And really, it’s not just some people, but a large portion of players in the casual gaming space. Even more importantly, they don’t enjoy the kind of games that *you or I* wish they would enjoy. Specifically, they don’t want games that require skill, and they don’t want games with interesting mechanics (unless there’s also a checklist attached).
One more thing: even if you think I’m completely fabricating the existence of this type of player (I can assure you, I’m not), I think we can probably agree that even regular gamers can become this type of player *some of the time*. For example, long after I’d grokked all of the core mechanics of Tiny Tower, I kept playing for weeks because of the desire to see my tower get taller, and I loved every minute of it.
So to wrap up: freemium games are giving players what they want.
An afterword: I really want to be clear that I’m not saying “freemium games can do no evil”, because they can, and a lot of them do. I simply want to point out that the core mechanics of these games are not inherently evil, and that they fulfill the needs of certain types of players.