Sunday, February 19, 2012

What Grinds My Gears: Free-to-Play Games That Aren't Really Free

Recently, I've jumped on the iPhone train, and so I've downloaded some games to play while I'm in waiting rooms to pass the time. Since I'm on a budget and I don't want to drop bucks on a game without playing it first, I decided to browse the free games and download a couple to see what they have to offer. I've downloaded more than a few, but I keep coming back to a game called, "Pet Shop." Pet Shop is nothing novel or amazing - basically bring new pets into your store with the money you earn and then you're constantly upgrading parts of the store. Each day, you can log in and collect a bonus amount of money, and throughout the day your pets continue to earn you more cash. I like Pet Shop because it's simple enough for short play sessions and because I enjoy simulation games. But Pet Shop is never a game I would actually drop cash on because, honestly, it's little more than the same situation over and over. Sure, it's fun to get new puppies and breed them for even more pet options, but outside of that there's not much of a game here.

Here's the thing, I understand games need to profit somehow to stay "free" and I'm perfectly okay with that. It didn't bother me at first that I couldn't access certain breeds because I didn't have these special purple gems that you must cough*BUY*cough to advance. These gems can also speed up your breeding speed, but I didn't mind waiting, even if sometimes the wait was a full two days. That was fine, but what really was the kicker and what grinds my gears was when these gems were required to expand my pet shop. At this point, I've filled my pet shop to the point where there's no more space for new animals - I'm at a complete standstill. These gems you have to pay for have locked me out of playing the game any further. The game does offer one way to get around paying for the gems: You can ask other people over the social network to give them to you. Umm... something just doesn't seem right about that, why would complete strangers give me gems that they had to pay for? And, seriously, if I let them, what kind of hidden social contract am I entering into? Paid content is fine to keep your game afloat, but it comes an issue when you lock out the non-paid subscribers from playing the game. My point here is you might as well make your game paid then.

I've learned my lesson here - I'd rather spend a one time entrance fee to a game than be led on that it's free and be manipulated into spending money on it later. The problem with Pet Shop is that these gems are costly - you can't just buy one or two - the smallest package is 24 for $4.99, while you can go up to buying 580 for $99.99. Let's be honest, most iOS games cost .99 to $3, and only the triple A titles cost more - Pet Shop is not a triple A title, but it expects you to invest money into it like it is. So, Pet Shop, you've taught me a valuable lesson - very few things in life are really free, there's always a hidden agenda. Forcing the player to invest in the game to move on is just absurd. By removing the option, you remove my desire to support the game at all.


  1. I definitely agree that stuff is annoying.

    The question is - what are the alternatives? Do you think Pet Shop would make more money if it simply charged up front and that should be the standard model? The question of "support" of a free game is tricky because what a game company wants is dollars.

    It's a good question though - we know from Zynga's success that the play for free but if you want, here's some stuff in game you can pay for model of microtransactions is a legit way to make lots and lots of money, and in a crowded space like mobile app stores, the top downloads are always "Free" to download games. Mobile app dev houses face their biggest challenge just even getting noticed in such a crowded space - once you hit the top 25 on iTunes for example, you are probably going to be set, but if you never get there, how do you make any return on your investment? Hence "Free".

    It's tricky stuff and I'm not sure what I would do in a dev's shoes. Would love to hear your thoughts.

  2. Honestly, I think games like Pet Shop can make more than enough money on their paid content alone. I think that's why I find it upsetting that they try to force everyone into buying at one point. I was okay with not having access to every animal and having to wait longer for animals to breed. I know plenty of people who would get sucked in and pay for the speed and extra animals.

    If you're going to put out that the game is free, I think the option for the player to continue playing with or without paying for content should always be there. The sad thing is I probably would have cracked a spent a dollar or two eventually, but because I got forced into I was turned off completely. Not to mention, the pricing was just off the charts for what anyone should pay for a game like this. I agree that Zynga's model seems to be the most successful with the micotransactions... I think that's how I wanted Pet Shop to function, but the fact that I can no longer advance in the game without dumping more money than I think the game is worth... is just really disappointing. I hope that isn't the future of free to play games, because if it is, I'm definitely just going to go for the games you pay for up front. Those games tend to be better in terms of quality, anyway.

  3. Back again after doing some really, really mild amount of research on this since you had piqued my curiosity on the topic.

    If you look at the list of the highest grossing games on the App Store currently - they are almost completely dominated by "free to play" games that contain in app purchases. Also Zynga's profit margins last year were at WAY higher percentages than AAA game companies, and they use the "free to play" model as well.

    So I guess I am far from certain that Pet Shop can make MORE money by being a "pay up front only" type of game. Perhaps the thing is they didn't do a good enough job of keeping you hooked to a high enough degree that you were willing to spend the dollar?

    Anyway given the profit margins I don't see this model going away anytime soon. In fact even "pay to play" games have been doing more and more of it with DLC, and since gamers seem to tolerate it - maybe not on message boards, but they still are taking their wallets out - it isn't about to disappear unless an even more profitable model comes along.