The Price of Freemium Games

By Jhoana T. Merino-Martinez
Staff Writer

Apps like League of Legends and Candy Crush Saga are part of the “freemium game model,” a business approach that is dominating the mobile game market. More astoundingly, in-app purchases make up roughly 70-80 percent of the annual $10 billion iOS revenue, says Harrison Jacobs, writer for the Business Insider.

It’s a wildly successful tactic, and is no doubt highly supported by game designers like Sean Plott. Plott told Business Insider that he believes the freemium method is the best approach to the multiplayer game platform since they offer the core product for free, while still leaving a chance for profit.

“If developers don’t have a strong monetary incentive, it’s difficult for them to constantly improve the game experience,” Plott says. “With freemium games, players are continuously spending money on the game, as opposed to paying once and forgetting about it. Developers are then incentivized to put that stream of revenue back into the game to improve it.” Money makes the virtual world go round.

Looking at their process, however, reveals a more sinister plan.

While it’s a game developer’s job to make the game appealing, with the freemium model there’s another goal tacked onto it: make it as addicting as possible. Everything, from the bright colors to pleasing sounds, was designed not just to catch your attention, but to keep it longer. Have you ever felt that just when you were getting tired of playing, you’re awarded a trophy, a new bonus level appears or a must-have skin goes on limited edition?

No, that wasn’t a coincidence. These games operate on an algorithm of the average attention span, like a “timer.” When this timer comes close to the end, it activates another incentive to reel you back in. Once you are ensnared again, the timer resets. It was planned all along.

Schemes like this play with your hypothalamus, the part of your brain that releases a feel-good chemical called dopamine, Psych Guides reveals. These tactics put this hormone into overdrive, leaving its user dependent on the next reward.

A game that is raising some controversy in the mobile genre recently is Pokémon Masters, released on Aug. 29, 2019. For starters, the currency, “purple gems,” is separated into “paid” and “unpaid” gems. They also have “sync scouting,” which is a random loot box generator you can pay for with 300 gems. But, there’s a once-a-day special sync scout that is cheaper, costing 100 gems! The catch? They have to be “paid” gems. Users will have to spend $1.00 in real life if they choose to partake in this special “discount.”

The boldness of this game shocked many of its reviewers, such as Amber Neely, a writer for Apple Insider. “Perhaps one of the strangest things about Pokémon Masters is that they seem to be aware of how predatory their in-app purchase model is, and don’t try to hide the fact,” Neely says.

It’s one thing to use these methods on adults, but sneaking them into children’s games should be crossing a line. Especially when there is a whole category of games like Pokémon Masters, which has in-app purchases, and sell for as much as $79.99!

Why would game companies try this approach in the kids section? It doesn’t seem very profitable, right?

Generally, many industries prey on younger children because if they establish a connection early on, they would essentially be assuring their future revenue. By getting kids familiar with the in-app purchase layout, they’ll feel more inclined to buy in the future. Today’s children will turn into tomorrow’s reliable consumers.

Many people get caught in this multi-billion dollar industry’s mobile spider web. The mobile game industry not only depends on it, but  purposely crafts their apps to be as addicting as possible. The only way to not fall prey to these cheap traps is to become aware of them. Moderate your sessions to a certain time limit, and be strict with yourself when it runs out. Before you click “confirm,” take a second and think about whether you really need that skin for your Fortnite character. Question whenever the game tries to get you to believe anything is essential.

Remember, you play the game. Don’t let the game play you.

Freemium ART.pngToadette is one of the characters a player can unlock or buy in the game Mario Kart Tour.

Screenshot by Admir Durakovic