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When Free isn’t Actually Free

FREE COOL STUFF!* (*Actually there is no free cool stuff.)

When you were younger, your father or grandfather may have sat you down, and explained to you, that “in life there is no such thing as a free lunch.” Knowing that the hypocrite took you to McDonalds on a weekly, if not daily basis, and you didn’t have to worry about fronting a damn penny of it, this expression was likely lost on you, as it was on me, so many, many years ago.

But we’re not here to talk about McDonald’s or food. We’re here to talk about video games. Over the last few years, I’ve witnessed the “no free lunch” expression first-hand in many aspects of the video game industry, over and over and over again, and very recently it seems to be getting worse.

Prior to 2005 and 2006, the idea of downloadable content was something that was typically reserved for PC gamers, and it usually came in the form of a retail boxed-copy with the label “Expansion Pack.” Expansion packs were premium add-ons for games like Starcraft and World of Warcraft, and were usually cheaper than the cost of the full-retail game, added new content like additional missions, but still required you to own a copy of the original release with which to play.

In 2005 and 2006 Microsoft, Sony, and even Nintendo started experimenting with digital downloads. No longer did you have to go to a physical store to get new games and game add-ons, you could simply power up your console, submit your credit card information, and download the new content without ever leaving the house. In the beginning, these downloadable content items were gamer pics, themes/wallpaper for your console’s backdrop, and small add-ons like maps or in-game items (like horse armor for your horse in Oblivion).

Over the years, publishers, developers, and the gaming community have molded the downloadable gaming to the digital industry it is today, and you know what? It’s not very pretty.

Sure, it’s convenient to instantly gratify the need to have new games and new in-game content. Impulsive shoppers with disposable income don’t even have to drive to the local gaming shop to buy the latest and greatest content.

To be honest, I’m fine with having games and extras at your finger tips. As a fan of technology and innovation, I think digital distribution is mandatory and important. Who wants to lug around a disc copy of something when you can have it sitting on your hard drive. Ask any kid from the 80s (even the 90s) who took their Walkman or Discman with them on family trips, lugging a huge case of cassette tapes and CD cases, and compare that a kid today with over 3000 songs on a single device. But I digress.

My problem isn’t even really with the video games consoles and their digital distribution plan. For the most part, we’re still expecting to pay approximately $60 per game. If we like the game a lot, there’s likely a piece or two of premium downloadable content that will eventually come out, for around another $5 to $10 each. Not a huge deal.

Where I have a problem is with the games that have in-app purchasing. Specifically, the titles that rely solely on in-app purchasing. Right now, it seem to be limited to the mobile gaming market, specially for titles on Apple and Android app marketplaces.

I like being able to peruse a marketplace, whether it’s in a store or online. When I see something that is labeled “free” I know that it’s either a demo (or lite version) or it’s a price-drop, which often happens to iOS and Android titles. Now-a-days, it’s not unexpected to download what appears to be a really enjoyable game, which you believe is the full-version, and then suddenly you’re prompted to purchase the application in order to continue.

With games like Farmville, the in-app purchasing seemed a little less sneaky than it is today. Maybe it’s not. Perhaps I’ve had a few bad apples recently that have ruined the bunch.

I suppose when it comes down to it, gamers will speak with their pocket books. If they feel that they’re being swindled out of their money by a greedy studio who gives you a free application but nickel-and-dimes you for anything you want to do, they won’t buy it. They’re likely to flood the app review with negative reviews and warning others to tread lightly.

It’s an interesting industry today with mobile apps. I remember paying close to $40 for Scribblenauts on the Nintendo DS, and just a few months ago, I bought it on sale for $0.99 on the iOS. Sure, it’s not quite as fully-featured as the DS title, but it’s pretty damn satisfying for one-fortieth the cost.

And at the same time, I begin playing some other free iOS title and get to a point where I’m hit with a wall. You must pay if you want to continue on. I’m not so sure I’m okay with that. If you’re going to have a “freemium” game, I think there should always be a free workaround, like there is in Farmville. Maybe it takes significantly longer if I take the no-cost way: 3 days to complete a task as opposed to an instantaneous completion for the cost of $1. Give me the choice, don’t just lock me out and tell me I can’t continue because I don’t have enough credits, and I cannot earn them in a much more difficult fashion.

What do you think? Are we as gamers going to have to really start reading the fine print when playing games, especially ones that are free? And is it okay for a developer to require you to make mandatory in-app purchases to acquire items and in-game currency to continue playing? Or am I just being a baby?

About Troy

Troy is the Features Editor at Brutal Gamer. When he's not writing about or playing video games, he's enjoying life with his wife and children. He also loves coffee. And lots of it.

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