Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Freemium Games and Free User Opinion

A friend at Bytemark Games sent me a link to a blog about Neil Young's (CEO, Ngmoco) GDC talk on his company's 'freemium' iPhone game model. The blog is Tuaw, where I also found a GDC interview with Allen Ma, an Ngmoco Producer, on the same topic. While Young's presentation and Ma's interview both address the business reasons for pursuing a freemium model, neither addressed a potential social Web problem inherent to the model.

A freemium game is a fully functioning game that is free to play. The theory behind releasing a free game is that more people will play the game, and, if it is a quality product, it will quickly gain popularity. Removing cost as a barrier to entry allows more users to get involved with the game quickly. iPhone games further benefit from the Apple AppStore, where these games are easily attainable and come recommended to users through various 'top game' charts.

Free does not equal profitable, however, and to monetize freemium games developers build in various short-cuts, premium and fluff items into the game that users can purchase via micro-transactions. While a user who plays for free can experience the complete game, a user who pays can do so faster and potentially have more fun. The stage is set for social conflict.

The freemium model creates a situation where there are virtual 'haves' and 'have nots'. Not surprisingly, the dichotomy leads to confrontations that surface in user communities. This phenomenon isn't limited to the iPhone platform, but exists in the PC world as well, or on any platform where a game can be influenced by a paid advantage. It is more extreme in games where players compete directly with other players.

The conflict is based on time. Free users invest heavily in freemium games, but with time instead of money. Investing time leads to users becoming emotionally attached to a game, and in some cases devloping incredibly strong senses of pride and ownership. When a paying user circumvents that investment, it creates resentment and conflict in the community.

Users who play for free resent people who pay to play. And users who pay to play treat free users as second class citizens. As Ma puts it:

"...you're paying for the game, so that you can continue to own people that don't pay for the game."

Game companies can't cater to the free user's perspective. Understandably, they are more interested in paying users as they are the source of revenue. And so, today's early freemium models already suggest a future problem.

The best lessons of the social Web teach us the resentment free users feel will become a public part of the freemium experience, negatively influencing future users and their attitudes towards freemium products. This negative influence, socially reinforced, contradicts the purpose for releasing a free game in the first place - the encouragement of rapid, wide-spread adoption.

Game companies operating on a freemium model must tread carefully on the social Web or they will find themselves negatively biasing their free users and jeopardizing the model they are striving to build.

© Jeremy Buehler and Rogue Tendencies (www.roguetendencies.com) 2010.

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