We're here. It's been a long time coming, but it's got to this point. Free-to-play models have gone past being an experiment, or the exception, and have become a standard. Not the dominant standard (not yet), but certainly one of the first considerations for developers when it comes to money. And I think it's finally become a problem.
Free-to-play (or freemium, or whatever you want to call them) models aren't in themselves an issue, I should stress. After all, Tap! is delivered in a free app, where you then pay for content. The problem is one of responsibility.
I feel like seeing the current uptake of the free-to-play model is like when school kids discover the font settings in Word for the first time, and suddenly every single document requires 46-point headlines set in purple Papyrus. Many of those using it can see its potential as a tool, but don't know where to draw the lines. But, perhaps more than that, it's concerning that it's becoming the tool of choice despite this lack of discipline. It seems as though, to an increasing number of devs desperate to build up the high number of players needed to earn a reasonable amount of money, every game looks like a nail when you’re too nervous to use anything other than an IAP-shaped hammer. The ironic thing, of course, is that in most cases it isn't new-to-the-industry bedroom coders or indies who are integrating IAPs with unrestrained abandon, but the big publishers, seeking new ways to get as much money as possible from their games (as they have every right to do).
Now, I'm absolutely not against the idea of freemium games, but they have to be done right. There are two different approaches, to my mind. One I think of as the ‘Complete’ approach, and the other as the ‘Endless’ approach.
The Complete approach is where you start with a finite amount of game, and then you split it into its component parts until you get to a playable core, with the bits you stripped off offering the upgrade, premium options. What's crucial is that you started with an end point, giving you a proper sense of game design. A good example of this is Tribes Ascend on PC. It's a free-to-play shooter with three free classes to play as initially, and more classes you can buy. What you could do is pay out the equivalent amount you would have if you were buying a full retail game, and unlock pretty much everything. Or you can battle and earn the ability to buy things by playing well. Both ways work, but the important thing is that there's a ceiling – a point at which you could consider yourself to have bought a complete game, and to need to pay no more. Hero Academy is the perfect example of this on iOS. You get one free army, and the rest cost a set amount each. You don’t pay for ‘energy’ or something similar in order to be able to battle – once you’ve bought the armies, you’ve bought the entire game. (You can pay for extra cosmetic items, as in many F2P games, but I don't see an issue with that. It’s not core to the experience.)
The Endless approach is where you have a game that isn't finite – one with no set ceiling to what's involved in it – and then you charge people for something you've made vital for playing. A resource that doesn't naturally accumulate very fast, or a healing item that just isn't quite adequate. Many devs says that they don't see a problem with free-to-play games, as long as the model doesn't get in the way of the gameplay, but that's exactly what these games are predicated on. CSR Racing, an arcade racing game, won't let you take part in an event if you run out of gas – you'll have to wait or buy more. MinoMonsters only lets you heal your party for free once every 15 minutes, but its 'candies' are woefully bad at healing your monsters, so if a boss defeats you, you end up having up wait before you can play again – unless you buy candies to heal with in the mean time, except that you'll burn through the whole load you bought just healing once. This is explicitly holding you back as a player, and it's an entirely artificial construct. Certainly, you can play without paying, and I have, because MinoMonsters is a ludicrously pretty game with excellent touch controls. It's a game that oozes talent, but also greed – its In-App Purchases aren't just in the way, they're also egregiously expensive. To buy one of its monsters to add to your party would mean you'd have to spend £70 on a purchase of MinoCredits. For that price, you could buy a second-hand Nintendo DS and a Pokémon game, and you'd never have to wait 15 minutes before being able to play it again after a defeat.
To no small degree, that's my biggest concern. I absolutely love gaming on iOS, but I worry that, unless some increased responsibility goes into freemium game design, iOS gaming will start to be held back. Perhaps not in terms of number of players, or money generated, but in creativity. If it looks like invasive IAPs are the only way to be successful, will brilliant games that don't fit that model end up going elsewhere? When games are being created with the Endless model in mind, do traditional game mechanics, such as progression, fall by the wayside? I played No Zombies Allowed for a while, but gave up after a few days, because all I was earning was more of what I already had. I was accumulating, but for what? The game didn't escalate. I was just building and building. What if all devs interested in offering a game with an actual pay-off abandon iOS for Sony, Nintendo or Microsoft platforms? That would be a huge regression for iOS gamers.
I think we've already seen a change in perceived value in games – that the idea of something as a whole has been eroded (though not completely washed away yet). That's doubly ironic when you think of the history of iOS games and the way that something like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope offered an almost Kickstarter-like experience. 'Pay 69p for our game now with only a few levels, and we promise you'll get more for free later.’
This is a big issue for me personally when I’m looking at games on the App Store. I like to know what investment I'm going to have to make in a game up front. When I look at a game’s page and see a big list of IAPs that say something like '5 diamonds 69p; 15 diamonds £1.49; 30 diamonds £1.99', I'm put off. What is a diamond? What's it worth in the game? How many will I need? I mean, I already know I'll probably need them, but will it be a case of regularly splashing out £1.99, or just 69p once or twice ever? Even free games need an investment of my time, and I don't want to spend ages getting into a game I'll later discover is far too expensive to continue playing.
When it's done well, the free-to-play model offers gaming as a buffet: Here's a wonderful spread we made, just take the bits you want and leave the bits you don't. But it feels less like we're heading in that route, and more like we're going back to the idea of arcades. Ironically, it’s only in the last few generations that console gaming has truly broken itself out of concepts like 'lives', designed explicitly to keep arcade players coming back for more – plunging in more quarters. Now I feel like we're heading that way fast in iOS games. 69p for three lives. But you can never run out of coins. I hope that having legacy games already on the App Store without this and other similarly extreme mechanics will keep things from going that far, but the landscape is changing so fast at the moment that I wouldn't put money on it.
For all this talk of what I like and don't like, this article isn’t supposed to be a proscription. It’s a question. This is the direction I feel like iOS gaming is heading, and I’m concerned it’ll harm the platform I’m enjoying so much. Not all devs are going this route, of course, but a significant amount, and I think the number of them doing it in a way that could be detrimental to the quality of future games is increasing. But do you agree? Is this a necessary change in the way games are conceived and played, or will it ruin the platform? I'd genuinely like to know what others think, because I think this is a discussion that's only just beginning.