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Video Games

When 'free' means 'spend more'

There's nothing inherently wrong with selling your game on the freemium model — but so few manage to do it right.

There's nothing inherently wrong with selling your game on the freemium model — but so few manage to do it right.

(Screenshot by Michelle Starr/CNET Australia)

Last week, like every week, I was testing out some apps for the Friday App Wrap; specifically, Extinction Squad and Ketai Guardian, because I like crazy-weird games.

One made the final cut, while the other — Ketai Guardian — didn't. This was because, after playing through the "free" section of the game, I still had no idea what the blazes it was all about — it was a dialogue-heavy cutscene, where I could make a few choices, and it told me very little about the gameplay before asking me to part with AU$7.49.

(Note: I don't think that's really an unfair price for a mobile game, but I'm not going to fork it over unless you give me more information on what to expect.)

Extinction Squad, obviously, did make the cut, because I think AU$0.99 is a reasonable price to pay if you're not sure whether you're going to like a game.

I really liked Extinction Squad. I thought it had a top little mechanic with some fun, gory animations, and the reimagining of Charles Darwin as a muscle-bound environmentalist made me chuckle.

But I didn't like the way that in-app purchasing was implemented. Levels and upgrades are purchased with coins, which occasionally fall out of the sky; levels and upgrades cost hundreds. With the coins you start with, you can afford one additional level. You can collect the coins in-game, but it will take a long time.

It seems that in order to actually enjoy the entire game, you have to spend extra money pretty much right off the bat. (Otherwise, you'll just be playing those first two levels over and over, and that's not what I'd classify as "enjoyable".)

In this instance, it's not hugely expensive, but it does feel a little previous.

Let me be clear: it's not that I don't think the work that the developers have put in to the game isn't worth it. If I like a game, I'm happy to spend money on it — it's usually just a buck or two, and I figure that I'm getting at least that much fun out of it.

But the implementation in Extinction Squad felt ... deceptive, somehow. If I pay an upfront price for a game, I kind of expect to get more of the game than just the first two five-minute levels — I'd prefer to pay a higher upfront price and get a little more content, or get the first two levels free, and then purchase further content.

Ketai Guardian failed even at this, with its nothing-of-any-substance prologue immediately followed up by asking for a pretty premium mobile app price. Not only that — the game can also split down three storylines, and, if you want to play through the other two, you have to pay AU$7.49 apiece for them, too.

Both experiences left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth.

Now, I have seen freemium done well. Temple Run is a perfect example. The game — the whole game — is free. Coins are actually pretty easy to collect, so you can play the game, feel like you're progressing and not feel like you have to spend money in order to get anywhere.

I did spend money, because I was really loving the game, and I wanted some extra avatars without having to wait forever. But it was optional, my choice — I could have kept playing the game perfectly happily without it. It added value, instead of yelling, "Surprise! Now we'll hold the rest of the game for ransom unless you give us money!"

Skylanders: Cloud Patrol also does its work well. You can buy gems if you want power-ups and characters right now, but the objectives of the game give gems as rewards, so you can buy them or not, as you like, without significant impact on the core gameplay. Or The Simpsons: Tapped Out (currently unavailable); the Donut currency is expensive to buy, but it's really easy to play the game and save them up.

But then you get time-management games, like Tiny Town. You pretty much have to spend money — and keep spending money — in those. And then, even when you do, there's no more than about 10 minutes' worth of gameplay per round. I want to keep going, but I run out of energy, or all my dudes are on a task that takes 12 hours. Of course, you can spend more money to regain energy or speed things up, but then it turns into a massive money sink, and it's frustrating, because the gameplay — what little you get — is really fun.

Here's what I like: I like a freemium game that gives me good-quality gameplay that I can keep playing without spending money. The money is optional. The money is for cool adds like power-ups that aren't necessary, but add a new element to the gameplay; or skins, which keep the game looking fresh and exciting; or new maps, which don't affect the core gameplay, but give you more of the thing you're loving.

I don't like a game that offers absolutely nothing new unless I pay money, and keep paying money in order to keep playing. (I should probably note that MMOGs on a subscription-based model are the exception here for me.) If I'm playing your game and having a good time, and then either have to stop or grind relentlessly in order to scrape together enough in-game currency to continue, I'm going to feel duped.

Mobile games are fun and interesting, and a lot of really cool developers work hard to make them work. They're worth our time, money and excitement. Just don't trick players with a game that looks like one thing and then turns out to be another. That's not cool, man.