It’s common, these days, to look over someone’s shoulder on the train and see their fingers swiping lollies or jewels or farm animals around their phone screen. And with no initial cost to download games like Candy Crush, Bejeweled Blitz and Farmville, why wouldn’t you fill your spare time with them? Catching the bus (or going to the loo, or sitting at work with your phone hidden surreptitiously beneath your desk) has never been so all consuming.
There is a downside, though, to the apparently cost-free goodness (you know, apart from the shame of no longer being able focus on actual work). Most of these game apps rake in profits by charging users real money to speed up game progression. In Bejeweled Blitz and its variants, the in-app purchase takes the form of coins, which allow the player to access booster gems more quickly. Game developer King Digital Entertainment is renowned for the huge profits made from the phenomenally popular Candy Crush Saga (and its sister sagas – Pet Rescue Saga, Farm Heroes Saga, Papa Pear Saga, etc.) in which extra boosts and lives can be purchased in lieu of waiting for new lives to replenish.
Gaming purists tend to dislike these sorts of ‘Freemium’ games that are loaded with purchase prompts for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the integrity of a game is compromised because players depend on money, rather than skill, to advance the game. Anyone can get ahead if they’re willing to pay, which undermines the strategic skills that serious gamers have spent time (perhaps several years) working to perfect. But this is only half the problem. If games companies focus too much on integrating money-making mechanisms into their games, the nature of the game itself suffers – unless you pay, it becomes almost impossible to progress in the game within a reasonable time frame.
While the first part of the above argument is a little black and white (it assumes that ‘serious’ gamers never get caught in pay-to-win scenarios, and that casual gamers are more easily manipulable), it’s certainly true that some games resemble online stores rather than actual games. I had this experience recently trying to play the mobile release of Dungeon Keeper, a challenging PC strategy game originally released in the late 1990s. The original version garnered a cult following (including myself), so the mobile version was widely anticipated: it was also met with almost universal outrage. Actions that took a few seconds in the original game (such as building a library for your warlocks) took literally hours in the mobile app, and speech bubbles kept appearing with messages like ‘Who says money can’t buy time?’ blatantly encouraging players to spend money to speed up the game. I deleted the app the day after I downloaded it, simply because it was so boring and I refused to pay for it.
Games writer Simon Sage argues that core gamers should get over their snobbery and accept Dungeon Keeper Mobile for what it is – a pay-to-win game for casual gamers who, on average, spend less than three minutes on each individual gaming session. However, not all Freemium games are as shamelessly mercenary as Dungeon Keeper Mobile: the two big games from Supercell, Clash of Clans and Hay Day, do contain in-app purchases, but can also be played for hours on end without spending anything.
There seems to be a hierarchy of game quality, even in the Freemium genre – and so despite core gamers’ occasional disdain for casual gamers, they’re perhaps right in defending the integrity of gaming in order to protect both the medium (and people’s wallets) from being exploited.