Freemium is Fine

I’ve been playing a lot of Realm of the Mad God recently. It is a freemium game, and I usually hate the constant barrage of buy, buy, buy that happens in most freemium games, but have been really enjoying my experience with it. In the past, I’ve been rather critical of the entire idea of the freemium game model, but have been justifying them more as the reality of paying for school, food, and rent has been sinking in.

Freemium games are generally thought to be the bane of the game world. They sacrifice game experiences to the ever-present looming corporate overhead, demanding that players pay real-world money to gain non-refundable points; worthless outside of the game. They specifically target heavy users to give just those next few dollars to gain the next level, a gazebo on their digital farm, or even a Cthulhu cow. They prey on the innate achievement cycles all humans have, use fastidious user-metrics to find what makes us tick, then makes us buy digital coins, potions, or game money to get those items.

They are also a new wave of gaming that is upending old-world development and pay cycles. More AAA titles are offering downloadable content for a few bucks, and more than half of the revenue for the top grossing apps on the ipad, iphone, and android are from in-app purchases. So, because games like this are not going to go away any time soon, we game designers should at least learn how to make good ones. To make good games, you have to play games, so it follows that to make good freemium games, you have to play good freemium games.

This brings me to Realm of the Mad God. It is a perma-death bullethell MMO RPG with a strict level cap. (Yes, you read that correctly.) The game is a freemium game, meaning you can play for free, but spend money for in-game items in micro-transactions. The thing is, Realm of the Mad God manages to mitigate most of what freemium games do wrong, while creating a friendly online community at the same time.

Freemium games normally try to make people pay for fun. They specifically make a list of achievements, limit you from getting those achievements, then ask you to pay real money to help you get there quicker. The reason so many game designers hate them is they design an semi-fun system, block the user from it, then asks you to pay to remove the blocks. The freemium model not only creates bad games, but uses it as a business model.

Realm of the Mad God doesn’t put anything between the player and the fun. Walking to your destination, usually an arduous process in MMORPGs, is totally mitigated by allowing players to teleport to any other player on the map. It’s fun to dodge bullets, and it has quite a few of them. When you kill a really hard boss, you feel like you just accomplished something huge. It structures the leveling up so that it seldom feels like grinding, and it only takes half an hour to an hour to get to the level cap. The grinding bits of the game are the same grinding bits that are found in any MMO RPG: to get the really good swag, you have to defeat the really hard bosses and dungeons, sometimes several times.

There are many instances where RotMG could insert pay structures, and doesn’t. You can’t buy gear with real money. It consciously divides items in the game into practical and non-practical items, then doesn’t charge for practical items. The most desired item in the game is the resurrection amulet, and it can only be bought with fame, which can only be earned while playing. It is a successful model for how to make a playable, interesting game that includes micro-transactions.

People aren’t going to stop wanting to be paid to make games, and the freemium model is working really well at getting money into the pockets of game design studios all around the world. If one studio can execute a game based on the freemium model, and make it a great game even if you don’t spend money, then others can do it as well. Because the freemium model isn’t going away, we need ways of embracing the model without destroying the progress of games as a respected art field. The next great game design challenge may be, and I kind of hate to say it, the creation of freemium games that don’t suck.

2 Responses to “Freemium is Fine

  • Heinz Wiegand
    12 years ago

    I would say League of Legends has the best model of how a free to play game should work, and the best part is it is actually good. There model makes them tons of money, and none of it can be spent to make people better. Another free to play game that has the potential to not only be very good, but possibly be the most influential game of this generation is Dust 514. Two completely different games that exist in the same constant MMO universe and interact with and affect each other, genius.

  • League of Legends does do the Freemium model really well. I should have mentioned them, but I know RotMG better anyways. Dust 514 looks like it has a lot of potential. I can’t wait to see how it turns out.