Bram Cohen (bramcohen) wrote,
Bram Cohen

Freemium results in terrible games

Game designers in general think of themselves as performing a valuable service for humanity. Aside from simply entertaining, they have the goal of making their users smarter, more disciplined, and all around better than they were before playing. In large part they can succeed in doing this. Unfortunately the freemium business model doesn't encourage game mechanics which enhance the user's cognitive skills. In fact in directly fights against them.

Freemium at first blush doesn't seem like a bad idea. Players get to try out a game for free, and generally can keep playing for free, but if they're really into then they can pay more for some game extra. This results in cheap games, which make money by servicing their most die-hard fans, with continuous development and, above all, more games. On the surface this sounds like a huge improvement over the flat fee model of trying to sucker as many people as possible into buying a game they only play a few times. The problem comes in with the psychology of players, and it's one rooted deeply in the human psyche which I don't have any good solutions to.

There are essentially two kinds of game players - those who view achievement at a game as validation of their skills, commitment, and endurance, and those who see game achievement as an end in and of itself. The first kind will not on principle ever pay any money to get a leg up in a game, because that would permanently cheapen whatever success they might later have. It would be, to use a vulgar term, cheating. Players who are just interested in progressing, on the other hand, are perfectly happy to do that, and hence are much easier to monetize - just offer them in-game gold for a few real bucks, and on a day when they're feeling frustrated, they'll happily fork it over.

The people who design games, and most of the hard-core gamers, are from the skill camp, and instinctively fight the pay to cheat model, sometimes to a ludicrous degree. When Ultima Online first experienced a large market for in-game items, a phenomenon which had never been seen before, the designers banned the practice of selling items and with to great lengths to stamp out the aftermarket, rather than simply selling in-game items themselves, which would have resulting in them making a lot more money and their players being a lot happier. I personally was very excited when the game Bloons Tower Defense 4 came out, because I'd made it through all the levels of Bloons Tower Defense 3 and greatly enjoyed them. I happily played through most of the levels of 4 on the hardest setting, until I got to the fifth one. That level is so ridiculously difficult that it's clearly just there to get people to pay for power-ups, a form of monetization which simply wasn't there for 3. After banging my head against it for a while, I simply stopped playing. The whole franchise feels tainted to me now, a cheap form of grabbing money rather than a legitimate intellectual pursuit. I realize how silly this is, especially for a game whose pinnacle of weaponry is a Super Monkey Storm, but it's fundamental to my motivation for game playing - if the reward for succeeding has lost it's meaning, then I don't get a positive pavlovian response to it, and I lose my interest.

Once a game starts to do freemium monetization, the natural tendency is to simply abandon aspects of gameplay which require greater cognitive skills altogether. The people who are attracted to such things will on principle never pay any money, and the ones who remain - the ones who really just care about getting ahead in the game by any means, will find anything which absolutely requires developing skills overly frustrating, and will likely just get scared off by it. Gameplay descends into repeatedly clicking next, with enough cute animations and just enough having to move around of the mouse between clicks to keep the user entertained, and the monetization scheme is that if you pay a buck you can skip ahead a few thousand clicks.

I don't have a good solution to this problem. Freemium is a much more compelling games business model than anything else anybody's come up with, and absent any real alternative, the phenomenon of dumbing down of gameplay will continue.
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World of Warcraft is trying to head down a different path. I believe a huge part of the success of WoW comes from the reasonably successful balancing of letting hardcore gamers hammer their heads against new, challenging content and then a while later open it up for more casual gamers through "welfare epics" and nerfing down the difficulty.

But to get to the point where this worked took years of millions of monthly subscribers, and an excellent dev team given strong input from hardcore gamers. Since most companies do not have even remotely those resources I expect you're entirely correct; the shortcut to go freemium must appear very tempting. Most mmorpgs already seem to be heading that way, and other "less complex" (for a lack of better way of expression) games are even less likely to even support the "WoW model", much less be given the expensive constant development such an approach requires.
I play WoW for about a month each year. Last year there was a lot of new content which was nicely made but entirely unchallenging. This year I failed to find any challenging content. The only challenge in WoW is to stop playing, forget how to play, and come back later. And I'm not particularly hard core.
I'm impressed you have access to a 25 man top end guild which will let you try out all content in such a short time. Most people don't, and will find the end game instances quite a challenge, even in 10 man. How did you find the Lich King in Heroic mode to be?
Exactly the same as all the other content, but with slightly higher numbers. That's my point.

Based on your characterization of the Freemium games business model, I would say that your conclusion depends on the type of games offered. Games that rely primarily on visual pattern detection and logical puzzles can offer no shortcuts that wouldn't amount to 'cheats', but there are many games that combine reaction-time challenges or boring 'grind' activity with various types of problem-solving. As long as the challenges are offered in series rather than parallel, I don't see how offering to bypass the 'grind' or 'twitch' parts necessarily detracts from its challenge to cognitive skills.

I think you're partially correct. Partially, only because you're speaking from the perspective of the male demographic. It's men who are more achievement oriented. Women on the other hand, seek socialization and cooperation more than achievements.

I have a feeling that if a game design fosters social connections and ways to use those social connections as enhancements to the game, paying for the game is an after thought. Some of the social media games we're seeing are starting to realize this, but I think game designs haven't hit the grand slam quite yet.
I hate games that penalise me for not having enough friends.

And that game is called LIFE. (not the board game)
Game designers in general think of themselves as performing a valuable service for humanity. Aside from simply entertaining, they have the goal of making their users smarter, more disciplined, and all around better than they were before playing. In large part they can succeed in doing this.

I don't believe this part.
That's a fallacy of the excluded middle, Bram.

The concern you're expressing is very real and it does happen, but it's fallacious to assume every freemium game suffers from this issue.

Thus the solution you're searching for is to find a freemium game that doesn't suffer from this issue. Or to make one.

All it takes to make freemium succeed in gaming without alienating players in the way you describe is to use ways of monetizing it that aren't performance-enhancing.

A hard balance to strike to be sure, but not impossible.
Having played two games of this type, I'm obviously in an authority position. :)

One of the games (Improbable Island) is a turn-refilling game, where you can buy game cash or extra turns for real money. While the game is a "game" in that your decision in certain areas affects the outcome of an event, I was really playing it to grind through the frequently amusing monster descriptions that the community has produced (it looks like once you've got through them, the continuing appeal is in role-play, which I simply wasn't too interested in). In my opinion, recognising that a game is principally grind+content allows a developer to add "reduce grind for a fee" buttons without damaging their conscience: I didn't object to paying a few dollars to get the content in less button presses!

Of course, this applies only to a game with sufficient "ambience" to entertain the player without actually needing to challenge them (I suppose visual novels and so on come under this class, too).

The other example is "S4 League", which is a 3rd person shooter. For a small fee, you can buy limited use items with small bonuses (5% extra health and so-on). Honestly, I don't think these bonuses confer much weight in gameplay, and many of the bonuses can be obtained using the in-game shop; the primary difference seems to be that purchased items can have /any/ bonus while free items have only a limited set; for example I think free trousers give defence bonuses. I get the impression that the primary motivation for buying items is that you think they /look/ cool: many of them are limited edition or only available by paying. The game isn't any (much?) easier using paid-for items, at least for me, but having a pair of limited edition trousers is a real value that I'd pay for. :)
I don't think buying World of Warcraft Gold should be considered cheating since every player is able to use this system. So, even if it's just a matter of option, monetization has become mandatory if you want access to the "greater cognitive skills" you're talking about. There's no chance of developing if you're killed in your infancy.