South Park Kicks F2P in Da Nuts!

South Park pokes fun at the Freemium game business model, and nails it right on the head!
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South Park is no stranger to the world of video games, with its own RPG, South Park: The Stick of Truth, as well as goofing on all kinds of other video games in the past, including World of WarcraftGuitar Hero, Farmville, and more recently, the PlayStation 4 vs. Xbox One console wars. The latest episode, “Freemium Isn’t Free”, takes a hard jab at the Freemium aka F2P/Free-to-Play games. 

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The episode features a game that is based on Terrence and Philip, which looks very similar to The Simpsons: Tapped Out game, where players start off with a  blank city, and are required to collect coins in order to build up their town. 

The episode hits several key points of the F2P business model that are so very true. The basic premise behind these games is to entice players to spend money through a variety of means, but make it appear that they are only spending small amounts of money at a time. However, when added up together, the players are spending way more money than it would cost just to buy a downloaded version of the game. 

South Park’s Explanation of Micropayments

The episode first explains how micropayments work:

In essence, the game market has evolved from making a game that you pay outright for and enjoy with no further payment to the game, to mobile games that allow developers to produce crappy games that can be made better by purchasing upgrades to make the game more fun. 

Then they explain the “RPG Loop”, in which traditionally, players will Explore –> Collect –> Spend –> Improve in order to gain XP, however, they have taken that model, and instead, players pay money in order to do this at every step.

My favorite explanation given is for the definition of “Freemium”, where the “-mium” is Latin for “not really”.

5-Point Checklist on Making a Successful Freemium Game

They continue to explain via a 5-point checklist that a successful freemium game should include:

  • Simplicity – The player must be enticed by a simple game loop
  • Compliments – Along the way, the player needs to feel good about themselves, so the game showers them with compliments like “You are amazing!”
  • Fake currency – Train the players to spend the “fake” in-game currency
  • Switcheroo – Convince the player to spend real money to buy the fake currency, making it feel like they’re not really spending real money
  • Waiting Game – Make the game about waiting, but players can spend money not to wait.

Above all of this, the game has to be barely fun in order to entice the player to pay money in anticipation of making the game fun.

For myself, I know I have been guilty of spending money on some of these Freemium games, but fortunately, I had the sense to get out when I realized that I had just spent $30 on Candy Crush Saga, where it probably would have cost that much to just buy the game outright.

Having invested personally in a webgame publisher that published MMO RTS games, I have personally seen whales spend thousands of dollars on these games. 

While I personally do not think that the F2P/Freemium business model is “wrong”, per se, South Park does make a good point about issues such as addiction, and equating it to drug and alcohol addictions. The games are offered for free, which, similar to drug dealers, is a way to get people to become addicted, and then just start charging them in order to feed the addiction.

Perhaps, someday, there will be legislation put in place to control this business model a little, but hopefully, not quite as strict as it would be in Singapore… 

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mchiu is an old-timer, falling in love with video games since the introduction of Pong. Nowadays, his passions in gaming center around social and political issues, game development, promotion of games as an art form, promotion of games as sport, and the business and economics of games.