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Column: The 'Freemium' problem

The minute we feel the fancy, anything can be accessed instantly--whether it's a library of books to our Kindles, a bevy of TV shows and films streamed to our monitors, seemingly infinite music options on Pandora and Spotify or thousands of game-...

A lineup of sports-oriented PS3 games featured at Play-N-Trade in Baxter.
A lineup of sports-oriented PS3 games featured at Play-N-Trade in Baxter.

The minute we feel the fancy, anything can be accessed instantly-whether it's a library of books to our Kindles, a bevy of TV shows and films streamed to our monitors, seemingly infinite music options on Pandora and Spotify or thousands of game-apps uploaded on our smartphones. Entertainment is, literally, always at arm's reach.

This accessibility isn't likely to change anytime soon. What is changing is how we pay for it. As the calendar nears Black Friday and the holiday shopping spree approaches, it's important to note that while we've enjoyed the luxury of instant entertainment in the palm of our hand, the cash register is also weaseling its way onto our screens-many times in unexpected and predatory ways.

This phenomenon is, more or less, present in all genres of entertainment-but video games pose a special case because the industry rakes in more cash than movies and music combined, and they're at the cutting edge of these aggressive and increasingly invasive revenue schemes.

Hardcore gamers are well aware of this, judging by Electronic Arts and its recent "Battlefront 2" fiasco. To break it down for non-gaming readers, a major game publisher is receiving backlash for withholding crucial features of a game-playable characters, weapons or power ups-and essentially forcing players to pay for them as in-game transactions. Now, players can "earn" many of these perks through investing hours of gameplay, however the system is not set up to reward skill, but to reward players that have money to blow-which is exactly what a developer wants.

It would be like paying up front for a streaming service like Netflix, then discovering that certain sub-plots or episodes of your favorite show are only available if you sign in with your credit card and make subsequent payments. Fundamentally the experience is there, but it's an incomplete product; the scope and immersion of entertainment is purposefully infringed upon.

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Monetized game features come in different forms: for computers and consoles, it could be DLC's (downloadable content packages) or "chapter" installments versus one-off purchases; for mobile apps-and, recently, also console games-it's "microtransactions" that pop up, offering in-game perks for real-world money.

It's been dubbed, somewhat sarcastically, the "Freemium" model-it mimics more legitimate services like YouTube and Spotify, which have a basic free-to-use option, but also offer premium features for a subscription.

Freemium-to be distinguished from the "Freemium" models outlined in this article-is a portmanteau of "free" and "premium," representing the multi-tiered structure of the pricing scheme. These models have been a popular mainstay of tech startups and e-business since the beginning of a millennium because of their ability to quickly establish a customer base with relatively little advertising expenditure.

In contrast, "Freemium" revenue models, said Mark Westberg, owner of Play-N-Trade in Baxter, commonly take advantage of a player's emotional investment in a game. At their worst, they're designed to be deceptive and habit-forming-much like a gambling racket-except, unlike gambling, it's perfectly legal to target children as they often do.

Public backlash against "Freemium" games like "Battlefront 2" may be encouraging, but less blatant examples of the model have been extremely profitable. While the collective outcry of consumers is nothing to laugh at, companies like Electronic Arts spend much of their budgets on research and market analysis. At the end of the day-no matter how much consumers may gripe-money talks.

As far back as 2013, during an an interview with gadget-news outlet Pocket-lint, Electronic Arts executive Nick Earl declared "the market has absolutely spoken so loudly that Freemium is the future," while other gaming officials predicted "Freemium" model games would be the industry standard within five to 10 years.

While he disagrees with assertions the industry will be dominated by "Freemium" games within the coming decade, Westberg said he believes developers are making a hard push to reshape the market.

"That's exactly where they're going. It's where it's headed," he said. "You look at what they're already getting away with-people bought it, people are buying it. They're doing it because it makes money."

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Proponents of the "Freemium" model have cited it as a means to curtail the used-games market, or to speed up the transition to digital gaming-which would remove costs for packaging, shipping and cut out the middleman.

Whatever the stated motivation, it's pure and unadulterated greed that drives the "Freemium" model, Westberg said, and game publishing giants are conditioning consumers to buy into a model that may be unfair and otherwise unattractive to them.

"They're saying that because they want it to be the norm," Westberg said. "It's desensitization. The more they say it-after a while people are like 'they tell me it's the norm, it has to be the norm.' You keep the mantra up enough and you keep pounding it in people's head, it's going to work."

Speculating on a future of "Freemium"-style entertainment is both fascinating and unnerving. At what point does an industry decide its aggressive tactics cross the line? Answer: more often than not, when the money dries up.

Westberg said it's important to remember that many aspects of today's entertainment market-the amount of manipulation consumers are willing to tolerate-would be unthinkable to yesterday's spenders. It's probably safe to say, at the very least, that traditional purchases of the one-off variety will take a back-seat to "Freemium" pricing strategies.

With that in mind, keep yourself informed this shopping season. Do the research and speak with store representatives before you make that purchase. As Westberg noted, he praised the beautiful visuals of "Battlefront 2" as often as he dished out criticism for its in-game transactions. So, does the product overcome its flaws? Ultimately, it comes down to weighing the reward versus the cost-just be aware of what that cost is. It might be more than what's listed on the price tag.

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Gabriel Lagarde

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