I was an iPhone latecomer. I never got to experience the true roots of Apple's dominating phone and the beginnings of the App store. My first iDevice was the iPod Touch 2nd generation. However if there is one thing I do remember (and so does my wallet) is the sheer amount of apps that were just waiting to be downloaded and enjoyed on a beautiful touch screen.
Tap Tap Revenge was still in its first iteration, along with its Lady Ga Ga version soon thereafter. It was the age of apps when free truly meant free, and paying for an app meant that you got the full experience for a flat price, updates and all. Knights Onrush, one of my favorite iOS games at the time, may have cost me $2.99, but provided me with so much content that had me coming back for more.
Moreso, I miss the days of Lite apps. Yes, Lite, not free. You see, downloading a Lite app meant I only got to experience a very small chunk of it, until I either decided it's not for me, or forked over the cash to buy the full version. These demo versions were the perfect appetizer to a full game that I once again only had to pay for once, and get access to the entirety of its content.
Nowadays everything seems to be free*. Though, you might think "what's wrong with free?" There is absolutely no barrier for me to play any of these games right now. The problem lies with that little asterisk. You see free-to-play, or more appropriately freemium games don't require you to invest anything to try it out, but after a short while will become either impossible to play without spending money, or downright boring and awful until spending money makes it fun.
So what is this new fad of making everything free? Simple, money.
It's really not a new concept, and in some ways, has made certain genres excel when under their old conditions would surely fail. MMORPGs have seen a boom when going from a subscription based model to a Free-to-Play one. However the biggest asset that MMOs had going for them is that the core experience was still completely intact. Players could still advance from level 1 to level cap without any restriction, and only used cosmetic items and boosts in real life cash shops.
LOTRO's popularity spiked ever since going Free-to-Play
The Mobile front is seeing the worst of the Free generation as of right now. Fantastic games like Zenonia, which started out as a cheap, full download, is now completely free with a ton of in-game purchases. The problem is that you can't just 'enjoy' the game for what it is, and completely ignore spending any real money. The game refuses that. Instead, various game modes, banks, and avatar items all require you to purchase game currency with real money. I would gladly pay $3 - $5 for a full-fledged action RPG follow up to previous paid Zenonias (1 and 2) but instead, we got three free sequels that in turn require a much bigger price tag to fully enjoy.
Even worse, one of my favorite franchises, Final Fantasy, just released a battling spin-off titled All The Bravest, and it happens to be one of the worst offenders of this. Not only is the game not free-to-play, but it then charges money for a virtual grab-bag of characters. That's right, you never actually know what you're paying for.
Awesome looking game, with not-so-awesome microtransactions
The problem here is much bigger than some might even realize. There have been numerous lawsuits filed against game developers due to their free game racking up hundreds of dollars on their credit card, thanks to their kids playing without much supervision. One part of the problem was that the iPhone saves your password for a set amount of time after you put it in. Downloading a game for your kid and then letting them play it results in potential in-game purchases without any knowledge of it, of course until it turns up on their monthly statement.
Though the worst part is that this sort of 'instant gratification' payment model has made its way to fully priced console games. EA is certainly no stranger to charging a fee to instantly unlock various in-game content right away, instead of taking the time to play it and unlock it for free.
In a recent interview with CVG, John Calhoun went on record in saying that mobile games are to blame for including microtransactions in Dead Space 3. ""There's a lot of players out there, especially players coming from mobile games, who are accustomed to microtransactions, they're like, 'I need this now, I want this now.' They need instant gratification. So we included that option in order to attract those players, so that if they're 5000 Tungsten short of this upgrade, they can have it."
Don't waste your time playing the game, just buy the materials you need!
So where does it stop? Will future Halo games allow you to skip missions for $5 each? Will the next Call of Duty require you to pay $.99 to respawn quicker? Of course, to take these seriously is certainly laughable, but the state of the industry certainly seems to be heading in that direction, whether it's with these titles or not.
The freemium model is certainly a double edged sword. On one hand it allows developers to reap the rewards from having no barrier of entry to their titles and yet charge for instant gratification, but also hides behind the fact that getting the most out of the experience requires a lot more money than a measly $.99.