Is Free-to-Play Fair to Play?

With the establishment of freemium games in the market, will money influence developers to reward gamers who can fork over cash?

With the establishment of freemium games in the market, will money influence developers to reward gamers who can fork over cash?

Clash of Clans, Candy Crush Saga, and even Defense of the Ancients 2 (DOTA 2) are are big names in gaming culture, even without having the extravagant promotion of console titles, making big announcements at entertainment expos, or platinum recording artists lending their voice for commercials. While free-to-play games are in a league of their own, their following is expanding outside of the freemium model. But is this market of gaming fair to players?

Freemium games, or free games with microtransaction options included to access more content, are shifting the direction of titles that players are going after. According to Super Data Research, a market intelligence group that collects information directly from publishers and developers, free-to-play in-game sales increased from 2012 to 2013 by 45 percent, totaling $2.89 billion.

This type of digital entertainment is dominating virtual stores. App analytics group Distimo determined free-to-play games with in-app purchases make up 92 percent of Apple’s App store.

Even more notable in relation to the growth of freemium sales is the decline of pay-to-play sales, which decreased 19 percent.

With the establishment of freemium entertainment in the market, there is growing concern over whether free-to-play games reward players with more content for improving their skill or for forking over more cash.

In the case of Tencent, the biggest grossing developer amongst the freemium market in 2013, and their CrossFire game, some of the game’s weapons can only be purchased as premium content. This gives players who may have not earned upgrades with skill a direct advantage over their opponents.

Then there is Blizzard’s Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, a freemium game with a fair system of in-app content accessibility. Players can earn gold through daily quest challenges, which is used to buy card packs and battle opportunities in the Arena. If the player performs well enough in battle, they could potentially net their gold yield or earn a surplus amount. This idea is equitable to all players because skill is rewarded instead of honoring a person’s dispensable money budget.

While the freemium business model is a revenue-generating idea for game makers of all sizes, some developers such as 12-year-old Sam Smith still forego the idea and keep the traditional pay-to-play model of selling apps, despite approving of games like Hearthstone.

“If a game is free, then you’ll probably have adverts and in-app purchases,” Smith told Venture Beat when explaining his thoughts on the digital gaming market. “If someone buys a game, they get the game, and they don’t need to just pay for more and more and more. It’s not fun.”

His $1 app, Spacepants, is considered one of the App Store’s best new games by Apple.

Smith, amongst others, raises the concern as to just how “free” these free-to-play games are. The European Commission, one of the three legislative bodies in the European Union (EU), has reviewed the freemium business model and decided to toughen their regulations on freemium apps. Included in their regulations are discouraging persuasive methods of in-app purchases, increasing clarity of purchase agreements, and the suggestion that app stores discontinue using the word “free” when describing free-to-play apps.

The European Commission is implementing these regulations to fulfill their purpose of looking out for consumers and businesses. After all, Apple did have to pay back $32.5 million to parents who unknowingly bought in-app purchases for their children But with any proposed economic legislation by a large authority, regulation is always an issue when it comes to keeping a market healthy.

Free-to-play, just from the name and purchase price alone, becomes an easy decision to make when scrolling through digital game stores. Because freemium business models include the lowest barriers of entry, the biggest hurdle for developers (getting consumers to try their game) also becomes lowest hump for gamers to experience a company’s title. To gamers, freemium games are as like a demo and the full content are all rolled into one.

“(Free-to-play games) are just trying to grab people’s money, and just luring them in by pretending to be free. Then you have to spend money for the next billion levels. I’d much rather have it be simple.”

-Sam Smith to Venture Beat

Once gamers decide they enjoyed what they played, the content is already accessible and their positive experiences leads them to pay for more content. The cliche “you get what you pay for” becomes it’s own philosophy in freemium games; in-game purchases could only enhance the content already being enjoyed. Simply put: pay more, get more.

According to Gartner, an American information technology research and advisory firm, the amount of gamers in the freemium market will only continue to grow. The company predicts free apps may account for 94.5 percent of all downloads by 2017.

With free apps growing in popularity, all that is left to be seen is how fair and responsible game developers will be when utilize the freemium model in their content.

About the author


University of South Florida radio broadcaster and newspaper correspondent. Critically consuming the mass media.