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The Future Is Free

There is a lot of talk these days about “freemium” games. Freemium games are free to download and make money by offering players the option to purchase additional features from within the game. Most would agree that this model makes a lot of sense from a business standpoint. On the modern day Internet, people’s attention on any single digital product or service is becoming increasingly scarce, so anything that lowers the cost of entry increases the chance of getting attention. But outside of the business perspective, freemium is sometimes scrutinized for being exploitative, and even blamed for cheapening the whole gaming experience. In some cases, these claims are true, but these problems are not inherent to the model. Anything can go bad when implemented the wrong way. If done right, freemium gaming actually represents a much brighter future for gamers and game developers both.

First, it’s important to recognize that at its core, the freemium concept is not new. It has been around for decades in the form of shareware and free game demos. Allowing players to try before they buy is obviously good for them, and it’s good for business for the same basic reason as freemium – it lowers the barrier to entry. What makes freemium new is the way the game is proposed to a potential player. Instead of offering the player a free trial of a game which can be upgraded later to the full version for a one-time price, a freemium game is offered as a full game which can be enhanced, or even personalized, many times over for many (small) prices. This small difference enables game makers to sell games in a new way, and it can sometimes lead to problems. However, these problems are not very interesting and can generally be avoided by simply respecting and listening to players.

The great thing about this new way to sell games is that it perfectly facilitates the role of the player in the game design process. You should pause reading here for a moment and go watch this excellent episode of Extra Credits which perfectly explains what I mean by the role of the player (and while you’re there, bookmark the page since most episodes of the show are awesome). In this episode, they contrast games with other forms of media by stating, “A game without a player is nothing.” The best moments in gaming are defined by the experiences players have while playing (or watching) and are never contained entirely within the game code. To create these moments, avid players spend many hours, weeks, sometimes even years of their lives devoted to their favorite games, and often powerful communities rise up around them. Sometimes, a player will even become more familiar with a game than the game’s creators. A medium which depends so heavily on the audience to achieve greatness ought not to charge for admission. Rather, fans of great games grow attached to them, and will gladly pay for enhancements to the experience, even ones wich offer no functional value in the game. In this light, the freemium model appears to be the perfect way to sell games, as long as developers are willing to strike a healthy balance between a profitable business and a respect for the players.