In Defence of Freemium

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.

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22 Responses to In Defence of Freemium

  1. Mark Johnson says:

    Agreed. It fascinates me that so many players hate to lose so much. I think the way you put it here is really helpful – people like to make progress in return for easy play. Makes sense when you think that so much of real life is hard. Framing play as fantasy escape, who wants to lose? Maybe the defining characteristic of casual games is that they don’t punish you much with losing?

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  4. J. Alan Atherton says:

    Good writeup, I enjoyed reading it. One thing that keeps coming to my mind any time the freemium concept (or worse, the games constructed to exploit our most basic psychological instincts), is that yes, people want them, *but* should we be giving it to them? I’m not going to say that everyone who makes such games is evil or even making a bad choice (because really, who can tell?), but I will say that I think it is healthy for the market to have some “literate” games. Even if people don’t want it. Games that *are* vegetables instead of games that *make* vegetables.

    • Matt says:

      Someone is going to give these types of games to them, no matter what, because there’s a huge demand for them… so I think it’s better that those of us who value games as a medium do it, rather than those that just want to squeeze every last cent out of each player.

      And I definitely agree with you that we still need “literate” games, I would never want to prevent those from existing.

      • Markusn says:

        “Should we be giving it to them?” – “Well, someone will”
        You two just reminded me of my parents talking about Comic Books 30 years ago :) ) I want to take it even further than to what Matt’s answer hinted at and say: Let’s try to make “The Dark Knight Returns” of freemium games and push the medium on a new level.
        Great post btw, Matt

      • J. Alan Atherton says:

        Since I wasn’t perfectly clear in my first comment (surprise surprise), I wanted to respond and say that I totally agree with you. I have nothing against the freemium model, in fact I quite like it, but I am against the crummy “games” that often use the model. We’re on the same side, it looks like. Just make good games.

  5. I agree partly with Adam: some freemium games are predatory – the one that gives you a puppy and makes it sick after three days, requiring you to purchase medicine – comes to mind.

    But no matter how I try I can’t apply the term “predatory” to Tiny Tower. I believe that if Tiny Tower *did not have* in-app purchase options for Tower Bux it would STILL be insanely popular. (My colleague disagrees, arguing that without a monetary value on Tower Bux, Tiny Tower would have 50% less players. What do you think?)

    If we take all the purchase options out of Tiny Tower, I just can’t see any “evil” in it – the kind that Adam Saltsman refers to. (Even with the purchase options I find it hard to see a negative.)

    • It uses psychological motivators to reward players on an optimal schedule. This isn’t evil. It’s what we, players, want.
    • It creates an interesting atmosphere with its audio and graphics. I played Tiny Tower for two weeks, fully aware of the tricks it was using. But enjoyed myself because it was a little world that I liked to visit. It gave me busy work in my idle minutes, it was mindless escapism. Not evil.

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  7. The approach of playing games the way you described is absolutely wrong. For the same reasons you state by the end of the article. It’s a strawman argument as Adam never mentioned playing games this way.

    It’s not only a strawman argument, It’s also circumstantial. Exchanging the mechanics for aesthetic value doesn’t change anything about Adam’s argument. The games in question lock potentially attractive items behind a wall of deliberately repetitive and boring sections of the game. Then they allow players to pay to remove those sections. It doesn’t matter if the attractive items are ludistic or narrative in nature.

    Finally, giving people what they want can me highly immoral. To give a drastic example: a drug dealer gives his customers what they want. But he doesn’t consider what what they want isn’t good for them, what kind of life quality his product is responsible for, that his product actually created their desire in the first place or that he exploits a predictable behavior of his consumers for personal gain. Adam’s post pointed out that some Freemium games are crossing a line where game developers should start examine their business practice from a moral perspective. He already addressed your argument in the “Players Voted With Their Wallets” and “Players Have a Choice” section of his article.

    • Matt says:

      “The approach of playing games the way you described is absolutely wrong. For the same reasons you state by the end of the article.”

      Could you clarify this? I really don’t know how a certain way of playing games could be wrong. I even said “there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the way we approach games” to make sure this was clear.

      “It’s a strawman argument as Adam never mentioned playing games this way.”

      It wasn’t a strawman argument though, in fact, it wasn’t an argument at all. I was simply presenting the perspective and context that we approach games with.

      “Exchanging the mechanics for aesthetic value doesn’t change anything about Adam’s argument. The games in question lock potentially attractive items behind a wall of deliberately repetitive and boring sections of the game.”

      What I’m saying is that users actually *enjoy* the deliberately repetitive and “boring” sections of the game. A huge portion of Adam’s argument was about the “checklist effect”, and with this post, I set out to show that the checklists aren’t a bad thing after all.

      “Finally, giving people what they want can me highly immoral. To give a drastic example: a drug dealer gives his customers what they want. But he doesn’t consider what what they want isn’t good for them, what kind of life quality his product is responsible for, that his product actually created their desire in the first place or that he exploits a predictable behavior of his consumers for personal gain.”

      Now *that* is a strawman argument.

      “He already addressed your argument in the “Players Voted With Their Wallets” and “Players Have a Choice” section of his article.”

      The main thrust in both of those sections is basically “just because you trick people to buy stuff, doesn’t make it right”. Those sections both assume that everything these games are doing is wrong, and players are just getting sucked in by the “predatory game designs”. My problem with that argument is that it doesn’t consider the fact that people *genuinely* enjoy these games.

  8. If you replace ‘freemium’ with a blockbuster movie like Transformers 3, the argument gets a little more familiar culturally. Us ivory tower game designers say, “Look at Transformers, what a load of horse squeeze,” yet millions of fans shell out their $20 or whatever to go see it in Omni-Digital-3D-Deluxe.

    We can piss and moan that skilled filmmakers are pouring millions of dollars wasting their talents and we can wail that the public is investing cultural capital into what is essentially nihilistic wankery. The people making the tripe can give the same excuses, “People want escapism.” “The public is voting with their wallets.” “Of course I’ll make this stuff, I have a mortgage.” And so on.

    So is it evil to do so or is it just simply base? Is it based on intention? Is it evil to market high fructose corn syrup? Or is it only evil if you market it in order to addict the customer?

    • Matt says:

      I think intention can have a large effect on how “evil” something ends up being.

      It’s also worth point out that something like high-fructose corn syrup is proven to be harmful, whereas it’d be a lot harder to figure out whether Farmville (or Transformers 3) is actually harmful.

      I also think a lot of people undervalue the amount of skill+talent it can take to make something like Transformers 3 (even though I hate those movies). In my opinion, it’s a lot easier to make something that appeals just to yourself (and people very similar to you), than something that appeals to a wider range of people… but of course marketing also plays a big role :)

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  10. Naomi Clark says:

    Hey Matt!

    I’m glad you liked my & Eric’s talk on the Fantasy of Labor — I think you really grasped the essence of one of the points I’ve been trying to make with this idea. (I think that was the third out of four presentations I’ve given on the subject.) Mechanics that involve labor more than skill or chance aren’t necessarily less fun — in fact a lot of hardcore gamers enjoy games that are fairly dominated by labor mechanics. Any kind of “grinding” could be viewed as a labor mechanic, so the list includes most Japanese RPGs, most MMOGs, games like Animal Crossing, etc.

    Gamers will complain about the proportion of grinding being too high — but I think that’s a different complaint than wanting it, or the investment of time-labor, to be removed completely. After all, if you didn’t like the rhythm created by SOME rote labor, you could probably find a different game to play. Of course, a lot of these games involve skill and chance too, in varying degrees, but there’s no question that Dave Sirlin had a valid claim about World of Warcraft when he griped that extensive time investment, not extensive skill development, is the key factor in a player getting to high level and earning a lot of the advanced gear that’s available.

    Condemnation of freemium on these grounds has mostly relied on the idea that there’s zero “game” present, which often translates to “no skill” = “just a checklist” etc. Even your post here makes it sound as if what people enjoy is the lack of skill and the complete reign of labor, but I kinda have to disagree. There are small doses of skill present in most of the more compelling freemium games, like a little dash of salt — and it’s a seasoning that seems like it can make a difference between a good freemium game and a great one. A lot of Farmville players are making little, subtle calculations of optimization, time management and use of space when they decide what crop to plant, and that’s probably one of the most minimal examples. A lot of the current batch of freemium sim-management games are essentially resource management. They may not take skill to avoid losing or dying — because there are no loss-conditions in many of these games — but they take skill to optimize for better profit over time, and in some case take skill to avoid “needing” cash currency!

    Perhaps more importantly — sometimes skill-oriented gamers measure the “worth” of a game by how much skill is involved. Like we say in our presentation, this notion has deep roots in many cultures — I think the example we used is the ancient Greek idea of “arete.” But that doesn’t mean skill is what makes a good game, or an entertaining game. The whole conversation between you and J. Allen Atherton earlier in this thread is sort of predicated on the idea that there are “good games” which are somehow “better for you” like reading Dickens is ostensibly better than reading a superhero comic book — and I suspect that’s partly related to this idea of “skill” vs “checklist.”

    I think we ought to challenge those notions as we ask ourselves what games truly provide for our brains and our internal aesthetic processes. A game isn’t necessarily made by the application of skill — you can also see it as being made of “significant decisions,” right — points where the player decides something, and the outcome is made different. If that’s the atom of almost any games, you can also see how labor molecules are made out of those atoms — in any well-executed labor game, the player’s making decisions about when, where, what to “build” or “grow” or whatever the metaphor is. Decisions about what to spend money on, buy, invest in. Those decisions have outcomes, payoffs, rewards — or sometimes they flop because the player hasn’t returned in time, or they only get a small bang for their buck. That’s where a lot of the pleasure lies, if you ask me.

    As a player, I find labor mechanics among the most satisfying and compelling, even though I’ve been playing games of skill and chance since I was a little kid, from puzzley text-adventure games to Street Fighter in the arcades when I was a teenager, and rich turn-based strategy games. I’ve designed games in a lot of genres too — but there’s something endlessly fascinating about the mechanics of labor which can’t be reduced to “checklists,” just as there’s something intriguing about the randomness of a die or a deck of cards.

    • Matt says:

      Great comment! Thanks for coming here and giving your thoughts.

      I should point out that I do know that there’s a bit of skill and creativity in these sorts of games, even in games like Farmville. That being said, in my experience, the amount of time you play (and how frequently you return to the game) has a much larger effect on your success than any optimizations you make.

  11. ano says:

    “So to wrap up: freemium games are giving players what they want.”

    But why can’t labour-based freemium games just be 1) one-time-purchases, 2) donation-supported, 3) pay-per-month or 4) just plain free?

  12. Thanks Matt for your great comment on my post related to this, which was from a competitive/skill-based gamer’s perspective, rather than a game designer as such.

    This is a very good article as well, and I generally can agree with the points you make here. I do think however, that Krystian Majewski’s comment above is also correct in that I do think Adam Saltsman has in many ways already covered your counter-argument here, although not in direct terms, in his sections about Addictiveness of games and “As long as it’s fun it’s ok”. I think that the fundamental difference you have isn’t clearly brought out in either of your articles though, but I think the base of it is in Adam’s comment:

    “the line between genuine intrinsic engagement and addiction may sometimes be fuzzy, that line definitely exists”

    There’s no doubt that people want these labour-based systems, so the debate really then moves into the is it healthy?, is it evil?, is it ethical? types of comments you’ve already had. Do they want and like these kinds of things for the right reasons? Does it matter?

    Personally I am somewhat sidestepping that issue in my article and from my perspective. My key point is that I don’t consider labour-based games as games or genunie puzzles or challenges <a href=""as I define them. They may be fun and I understand many people enjoy these things, but the trouble is they are moving into a different territory for me. I think a lot of the issue comes from the semantics of the term “game” and especially “gamer” and what it implies.

    Blurring the issue further are semi-games which involve a mixture of both luck & skill as well as labour. As you’ve stated, there are some minute skill based elements even within the most obvious labour-”game” candidates (like Farmville).

    My problem is I suspect the same main complaint that Sirlin has and it’s when labour-based systems are becoming more prevalent in titles
    “that would otherwise be better games”

    Hence why I came to my conclusion that for skill (& even luck-based) games that are intended to be a genuine competition or a genuine puzzle, the labour-based elements are best kept in the background away from the actual mechanics of play:

    The “right” way to use grindable systems in videogames that are actually intended to be games or puzzles is to gain the advantages of the ‘carrot’ they offer, but not to damage the game/puzzle aspects at the same time – make the grindable system separate from actual game mechanics.

  13. Ryan says:

    Fascinating arguments from both sides. I wish I had the time to properly dissect them, but alas, time is not on my side.

    Based on some of Adam’s comments in the article I think ultimately what he is suggesting is that some of this predatory game design should be presented more openly, so that people are more aware of what they are getting into.

    One comparison we could make is with advertising. It exists to entice people to buy its product, but there are some rules and regulations in place so that advertisers can’t outright lie to consumers (although they’ll still try their darndest to do so at times!).

    So I will agree with Adam that a little more transparency is always better, but I’m with Matt in that ultimately there are many things about a game that entices a player, and we can’t make their decisions for them. The best thing developers can do is to make games we believe in, and hope that players agree with us.

  14. R says:

    Howdy. This site came to my attention via a good friend – he loooves games and is a developer too! Anyroad I do not play games at all but I was interested in the focusing methods used to complete your game the Trainyard. At the point of which you failed to keep the structure (Am I playing it safe in making the assumption that this happened, after all nobody is perfect) what did you do to get back on track (no pun intended). Just curious. As I have been exploring patterns of successful people and this piqued my interest.


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