I've tried to be fair to the concept of free-to-play games, which you see a lot of in mobile gaming. Yes, it all seems a bit cynical — it trades a single price for a potentially unlimited revenue stream, but there's nothing necessarily illegal or unethical about that. It does depend on making some substantive portion of the experience, you know, free to play, as kind of a good faith gesture.
This week I agreed to look at a free-to-play game that just set my teeth on edge, and it has put me off freemium games, the flavour of the year in an oversaturated mobile gaming space, indefinitely.
Maybe you've heard of this one: Chip Chain, a numbers-matching puzzle game, whose gameplay is quite good, a perfect timewaster on a bus, a plane, or on the toilet. I fooled around with the game's "short" mode, in which you try for as high a score possible within a limited amount of moves. Then I put the game down and came back to it the next day.
"Short" was no longer available. It was locked. I could play "long" or "timed" if I wanted. Short would probably be available tomorrow, with either Long or Timed locked out. Obviously, if I wanted to play my preferred mode, I could pay for that.
There are more egregious freemium games out there — NFL Pro 2013 is one — but even in it, and in others I have played, there's a standard mode of play that's always available. I've not yet encountered a game that basically puts its playlist up for sale in this fashion. It's sort of like a free-to-play multiplayer shooter — they do exist — dangling team deathmatch on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and requiring you to pay to unlock it on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
I'm done with this shit.
When I review them, I spend most of my time probing freemium games for their ulterior motives, and there are plenty in Chip Chain. You're never evaluating the free experience solely for what it offers, you're always evaluating it in light of what it has held back and whether that is fair. All freemium games have some sort of bullshit secondary economy that gives them a fig-leaf defence that the whole game is in fact free if you play it enough. Chip Chain is no different, and when I pried it apart, I really got mad.
In about half a dozen games, I reached level 2, amassing 428 "gems," the virtual currency you use to unlock all of the features of the real game. Unlocking all game modes for play whenever you want them requires 20,000 gems. The game sells gems in lots of 100,000 (for $US1.99) or 500,000 (for $US4.99).
I saw that and I came to one conclusion: Chip Chain judges itself to be a $US1.99 game, a perfectly reasonable price, but still a dollar more than the 99 cent price expectation established by the onslaught of self-published products — some good, most garbage — on this market. Instead of saying goddammit, we're worth it at that price — and I would have agreed, and said so in a Gaming App of the Day writeup — Chip Chain invented a back door to get you to buy it for $US1.99 while still pretending to be a dollar or less.
This kind of abuse is why I'm officially done fucking around with freemium games. I will not play them. You see that big fat "free" next to a game's title in the iTunes or Android store, be suspicious. This is different from premium downloadable content — which does have its share of cynical practices, but at least the main game experience is still there, still whole. This also is not the same as pay-to-upgrade models, as I've played some fantastic mobile games that do offer a great base experience with the option to buy extra features. ARC Squadron is one.
For completely free games, though, I'm done trying to Perry-Mason my way through virtual economies and determine what these games really consider their price to be, whether it's reasonable, and how much of an effort is required to get all of the content for its advertised price, which is, ostensibly, free. I'm not going to praise gameplay models and ignore the means in which that gameplay entices someone to spend more money.
I get no fewer than three pleadings each business day for me to review someone's new goddamn mobile game, and by now all of the pitches sound the same. They all use the same language. All the PR poured onto this publishing sector is just breathtaking. I get fewer emails and follow-ups about $US60 console titles than I do about mobile games. You want me to play a game? Fine. I'll play a game. I won't play a get-rich-quick scheme. Neither should you.