South Park is a great show that has been entertaining us for 17 (!) years now and that has still not lost its snappishness or wittiness. One of the reasons of South Park’s success and why we love it is their ability to cleverly criticize current events without mincing matters.
In their hilarious episode Freemium Isn't Free the creators of the show share their thoughts on the free-to-play industry. Although the episode has been reviewed quite a few times elsewhere, we would like to amplify some of the statements made we think are important and deserve some explorations. To tell you right away, we believe most of the issues addressed in “Freemium Isn’t Free” are based on the wrong equalization of “pay-to-win” and “free-to-play”.
But let’s have a more detailed look.
Freemium Isn't Free?
As the Prince of Canada and the Minister of Mobile Gaming explain, the term “freemium” is supposed to be intentionally misleading. They highlight that freemium games are in fact not free, as people are able to spend money on them. No doubt about it. But: publishers and developers don’t claim their games are totally free.
Freemium is a business model and therefore it is only natural that developers and publishers seek to generate revenues with their products. The term “freemium” refers to the fact that these games can – opposed to, for example, subscription-based titles - principally be played by anyone and without spending any money, they are “free to play”.
Bad in-game currencies
We think there are various good reasons why publishers use in-game currencies. For example, one publisher might operate several titles and uses the same virtual currency for all its games. This makes billing more efficient while at the same time it raises the usability for players. Furthermore, a lot of games offer two different kinds of currencies: one that can be earned by achieving goals in-game and another that can also be purchased. This way, players who do not like to spend real money still have the possibility to unlock new items or levels and receive satisfaction from playing the game. For MMOs that have an in-game economy implemented two different currencies are also a good way to counteract inflation and keep up a satisfying gaming experience.
As the Minister elaborates, freemium games are not only cheaply developed pieces of software with little game mechanics. Without spending any money, these games are also intentionally designed to be unsatisfying and are only fun to play after unlocking paid items.
Based on our experiences as gamers and as part of the industry, this is not true for the vast majority of free-to-play titles. Most games are well-made and can be very entertaining, even without spending any money. The main reason why people could be under the impression that freemium games are only developed to squeeze money out of gamers, is a small number of titles that overdo things. As we said, it is totally fair that developers and publishers seek to make money with their games. But in order for a game to be successful, you have to maintain a healthy balance between generating revenue and entertaining game mechanics.
In other words: a game is no fun if it is “pay-to-win” instead of free-to-play. But as gamers are able to quickly see through these attempts, pay-to-win is rather the exemption than the rule. That’s why there are tons of examples of games that do it right – World of Tanks, Path of Exile, Planetside 2, Rift, Dota 2 or League of Legends, only to name a few.
So, are freemium games an evil invention to part gamers from their hard-earned money?
We don’t believe they are. Yes, there are some bad apples trying to make use of gamers by twisting free-to-play into pay-to-win. But they are in no way representative for the whole industry. If you look at the many good examples out there it is clear that both players and developers/publishers can benefit from freemium games. An entertaining and well-developed game which keeps player’s interests in mind will surely attract gamers and therefore generate revenues.