Is There A Good Balance For Freemium Games?

Is There A Good Balance For Freemium Games?

I spent a chunk of time playing Plants Vs Zombies 2 recently, EA’s latest forced foray into the world of freemium gaming. I came away bored, but also curious about how to best make a freemium game work for both developers and gamers alike.

I had all sorts of problems with it, although the fact that it was freemium didn’t bother me in one sense. Freemium’s just another payment model that games developers can choose to either use or ignore, same as any other. Want to give it all away for free? You’re perfectly welcome to do so, just as you are to charge $100 for it if you think that gamers will cough up that much.

Freemium, though, gets a terrible reputation due to the actions of some games. EA’s not immune to criticism here, with games like Tetris Blitz being notably pushy when it comes to freemium payments, to the point where they may as well be old school arcade games that require you to tape 20c pieces to the front of your gaming device of choice.

Plants Vs Zombies 2 isn’t quite that obnoxious, but it has clearly been built around the idea that at some point you’ll cough up some money to expedite play.

Once again — I don’t hate Freemium for the idea of a bit of game for free, and other bits for money. Developers make stuff, and they can set the rules for how (or whether) you’ll pay for it. In much the same way that we can decide whether or not to play at all, which is what I’ve ultimately decided with Plants Vs Zombies 2.

It’s not that EA wants money from me. Give me the right games experience with freemium, and I’ll cough up cash to play. Indeed, there are games where I’ve bought freemium stuff not because I have to, but simply because I’ve had so much fun with the free bit of the game that I’d like to reward the developers, big or small, for their efforts.

Sadly, with Plants Vs Zombies 2, that wasn’t the case; I was ultimately left feeling bored with the whole experience, because it’s so very similar to Plants Vs Zombies 2 with IAP bolted on. To avoid it, you’ve got to replay levels you’ve already played a LOT, and that quickly gets boring. I can put up with all sorts of things, but boring is not one of them.

It does leave me pondering what the “correct” freemium balance is, though. Yeah, I’m willing to pay for my games, and I’ve paid money when I didn’t have to. Equally, being pestered to pay is annoying, and I’ve avoided all the Farmville/Smurf Villlage/Simpsons “building” games that are built on the freemium-or-crawl model. But is there a good middle ground?

Games are things we all love to get as cheaply as possible.

Nobody would care about a Steam sale if it didn’t adjust prices radically. Everyone expects mobile apps to sell for 99c. Neither is necessarily a sustainable model in the long term, especially as games development costs continue to rise. Freemium could offer a way around that — and a handy way to stop piracy issues along the way — but it’s not something that gamers like being battered around the head with.

Ultimately there aren’t any “easy” answers to this kind of thing, but I don’t think that’s entirely to do with the comfort level of gamers differing when it comes to paying for games.


  • I don’t like “freemium” at all. I think it fundamentally changes the way we design games. Your goal changes from being “design the best possible experience for the player”, to “promise the player that the best possible experience will come after they spend the next couple of dollars”. You stop designing for joy and start designing to annoy, though in a compelling manner.

    • I think Halfbrick did it right with Jetpack Joyride. The lead dude said he hates microtransactions, so he was like, what would be one I would pay for? The game was $2.99 and then you could spend an extra 99c to get a coin counterfeiter that would double all coins you received FOREVER. You thought, I better buy this now so I can reap the rewards for longer, and it was a fair price, and it wasn’t a finite purchase.

      The biggest problem with free-to-play, is the idea that if I wanted to play it for like, 4 years, if I wanted to keep coming back like I do with all my old favourite games, It would cost me far more than a fair retail price for the game. Because in order to play you need to buy gems to unlock chests or god knows what else, you can’t keep replaying without spending more money on the same things you already bought.

      What the games industry needs to do is stop bringing executives from other industries who don’t understand that people who play games are very different consumers to those who go to the movies, or wherever they are from. We need people who love their work and love other people’s work too, not the money it brings.

    • I agree. There is no balance when it comes to freemium gameplay wise. They remind me of the old arcade games which were unbalanced and the game mechanics were designed to get you to pay for more lives. I’ve been playing Plants vs Zombies 2 and I’m really disappointed. I must of bought the first one 5 times on different devices plus gifting to steam friends. I won’t spend a cent on the second.

  • Indeed, there are games where I’ve bought freemium stuff not because I have to, but simply because I’ve had so much fun with the free bit of the game that I’d like to reward the developers, big or small, for their efforts.

    Agree totally, Gaming is being ruined by micro transactions, I do have confidence that there will be gems, they will just be harder to find.

  • I noticed when Real Racing 3 came out there were heaps of complaints about the freemium setup, as well as the timed repairs. I just checked the stats and I’ve played 131 hours and i’m 61% complete. To date, I haven’t spent a single cent on the game. I have no doubt that I wouldn’t be able to get to 100% without paying, as it gets to the point where I would have to buy million dollar cars for just one or two races, but I don’t mind one bit. I think I can happily get to 200 hours game time before that becomes an issue. There would be people out there that specifically want 100% and are probably willing to pay for that ability, and that’s their choice. I think it caters well for everyone, depending on their level of enthusiasm about the game.

  • I play The Simpsons Tapped Out quite regularly, it doesn’t pester you for payment or leave major parts of the game out of reach if you don’t have enough money or donuts, that said i think the prices of donuts are a bit steep and EA are just cashing in on it being a Simpsons game.

    I think Tapped Out has the right balance for a “freemium” game, it has regular updates, bringing in new characters and buildings and buying donuts isn’t essential, buying donuts enhances the game but ultimately doesn’t restrict the game if you choose not to.

  • If I play this type of game I’m usually inclined to buy the “double your coin pickup” style option. I get to give to the developer for making a good game, and it doesn’t ruin the balance by giving me a super weapon or something

  • I quite like ghost recon online’s model. All the guns can be bought with in game currency but if your impatient then you can fork out some real cash for it. And it doesn’t take you ridiculously amount of time to earn the in game currency

  • I’ve been playing the Injustice mobile game lately. I don’t think it’s perfect, but it’s pretty close to my ideal freemium model:
    -everything is available in exchange for the in-game currency – no pay-only goods*
    -in-game currency is available in exchange for doing the main thing the game wants you to do – winning fights
    -you’ve got a set amount of energy, which is used on fights; when your energy is used up, you can wait for it to fill, use a refill card (given out occasionally but not rarely in-game), or pay for more energy.
    *(there’s things you can unlock only if you have the console version, but that’s the whole point of the game, and you’re not missing out on anything fundamental without them).

    Here’s why that works for me: If I could play forever, I would. I wouldn’t read a book instead, I’d play the game. This way, I’m limited to 20 minute stretches at a time, and then an enforced break where I literally can’t play the game without spending money (which I won’t do). The grinding that I have to do doesn’t really bother me – I’m the kind of guy who gets kicks out of watching characters level up – so I get longer out of the game.

  • I just want to be able to pay for a game once and get the whole experience. Or is that too old-fashioned now?

  • I wish they’d just give us the option of paying a one-off amount and never be hassled for any more money ever again. I understand the micro-transactions might work for some people who don’t play much or who are still deciding if they want to keep playing. But if I decide I like and and just want to be able to play it without being nickel-and-dimed to death the whole way through then why not say “pay $50 and unlock everything and never have to wait for anything again”?

  • I don’t mind buying DLC but detest pay to win models.
    On launch there was no one off pay to unlock all options for this game.
    I would’ve happily paid $5 to get the additional plants and then work my way through the game.
    But I refuse to pay for each plant individually at $2.99.

  • The only thing I hate about freemium is that I feel sometimes its not about just getting 5 bucks from everyone to play the game but getting the 500-2000 bucks off a child clicking away or people who just can’t help themselves.

  • The problem I find is that I find I have to be forced to pay for anything in microtransaction games which only rewards the jerks. Take Jetpack Joyride. You truly don’t have to spend a cent so I didn’t. I got full achievements and enjoyed myself. Once I’d got everything and stepped back I realised they deserved at least $10. It was a good month so I forced myself to hand over some money, yet Neverwinter Online absolutely gouged me for money at every turn and I’m sad to say I forked over a little in order to make the game playable.
    The most frustrating ones are the ones like Neverwinter Online or Samurai vs Zombies Defense where after you pay a little the game continues like you didn’t. In Neverwinter Online you buy a bag, but it doesn’t solve your storage problems because you need more bags, and if you start a new character they’ll need more bags too. In Samurai vs Zombies you pay for gems, and then you spend the gems right away on minor upgrades. Spending $50 in either of those games won’t give you a noticeable advantage, and even spending $250 won’t remove the constant ‘hey, you can buy stuff you need with real money’ nudges all the systems are designed around. No matter how much you spend the game never says ‘ok, that’s enough, put your wallet away and we’ll treat you fine’.

  • I downloaded PvZ2 the day it was made available. Not sure how many hours I’ve played, but it’s quite a few. It’s my first ‘freemium’ game, and I found it quite enjoyable. I didn’t have to spend money to advance through the levels if i completed the extra challenges and I didn’t mind redoing levels to get the extra keys etc. can’t really see the problem.

  • One of the biggest complaints I have with Freemium games is the usual ‘always online’ requirement of them which is a royal pain if you are on a mobile device that doesn’t always have a connection.

    After the uproar on Xbox ‘always online’ I’m surprised more people haven’t cited this as a real deal breaker.

    PvZ2 is another case of this. I can’t play it on the train to work unless I’ve got an active internet connection.

    Screw that. PvZ2 just got uninstalled.

    Have a nice day.

    • Why would you lie like this? You do NOT need an active internet connection in PvZ2.

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