Games = Free?

There’s a cute little corner store a block down from my house. It’s family-owned by a pair of brothers, and it’s my ‘go to’ place if I’m looking for a snack or a cold beverage of some sort. I stopped in last week to grab myself a thing or two and the owner was behind the cash register with a friend, staring intently at his iPhone and pointing at the screen and laughing. I hemmed and hawed at the choices in the iced tea section, taking my sweet time while these guys were clearly enjoying themselves. After long deliberation, I walked up and plopped my Pure Leaf down onto the counter and apologized for taking so long.

“It’s okay, we’re just playing Clash of Clans.”

I smiled and engaged in a bit of conversation about the game. I always love hearing about people’s fun with mobile games, considering I’ve been in mobile community for years and find the playerbase to be fascinating. He explained to me how he plays the game for hours every day, how he has a fantastic fortress that he’s really proud of and he’s in an awesome clan with his friends. I asked him if he tries to rank highly on the leaderboards.

“Oh hell no, I’d have to pay money to do that.”

I have to be honest, I made an assumption that if he was spending this much time playing Clash of Clans every day — probably more than I spend gaming myself — that he must be paying at least a little bit of money. I’ve always believed that if I’m enjoying a game, throwing a few dollars toward the developer for their time is totally the right thing to do. But I know that I’m coming from the perspective of someone who has worked at companies fighting to stay afloat with their free-to-play mobile games. So I wondered, why hadn’t he paid?

“Once you start paying, then it stops being a game.”

I was taken aback by that statement, but it sounded familiar. Hadn’t my mom just said something just like that when I flew home for Mother’s Day?

Mom’s what I’d call a Candy Crush addict. She plays the game all night long, and multiple times per day. Has been max-level many times before King raised the level cap on her. And she doesn’t feel duped or anything, she genuinely loves the game. She bonds over talking about various difficult ‘hell levels’ with her 50+ year old friends and knows more about the game’s level design that I could ever fathom. She belongs to several strategy forums where she reads about the best strats for beating difficult levels. But she told me straight up: “If I pay real money for this, it will no longer be fun.”

Initially I thought that maybe part of the fun for my mom and the store clerk is in trying to “outsmart” the game’s design by progressing just as fast as friends without ‘cheating’ and spending money to speed up progress. But after further conversation, I think that’s actually giving them a bit too much credit. The store clerk told me deliberately that once you “bring real world funds into it, that it becomes too serious and no longer a game.”

This is a stark contrast from the gaming culture that has been wowed at E3 and press releases and big lengthy CG trailers and massive game budgets being distilled into $59.99 boxes on the shelf. The stereotypical portrait of a gamer seems to understand that these games aren’t created by a mythical game development unicorn who casts magic spells and causes 60-hour games to materialize out of thin air. They seem to understand that someone on the other end (whether it’s the indie developer or the corporate conglomerate) needs some compensation for their time and effort in making the game. So why are these new-fangled mobile gamers displaying such a radical stance of anti-monetization?

Could it be the press that talk about players who have gotten sucked in and forgotten their real-life obligations in favor of digital experiences? Or maybe it’s the fact that one of the last words my mom would ever use to describe herself would be “gamer”? Or could it be the fact that these Candy Crush, Clash of Clans, and Kim Kardashian: Hollywood fans are actually enjoying the games they’re playing and the fact that they’re free is removing the scary barrier that stands in the way of making the decision to game?

I am not claiming to have the answers here, but I’ve come to the conclusion that there are many different types of people who play games. I refuse to believe that there isn’t a market for humans who want to play games on their easily-accessible device without the intimidating commitment of a price associated with it. Whenever I read an article that makes claims about how free-to-play mobile gamers are being scammed and duped by insidious developers with twirling mustaches, it screams of shallow narrow-minded thinking that disregards the real motivations of the players in front of the screens.

Of course, there is a whole segment of the mobile gaming ecosystem aimed at extorting money out of people by spinning up hundreds of clones and cross-promoting them together — but that’s not indicative of the entire sector of the gaming industry. Read any internet marketing forum and you’ll read about nefarious scams: the ability to buy a Flappy Bird clone out of the box with everything you need to make dollars per day, hire an overseas developer to clone any game for $99.99, cross-promotion services that guarantee if you release 200 tiny free games in 2014 and use this ad service, you’ll make at least $50/day on your investment. These aren’t game developers by my definition, and they’re not in the business of creating wonderful, exciting, enjoyable experiences for players. In other words, they’re fucking shit up rather than contributing meaningfully to the mobile game space.

But this occurs in all mediums. There’s a thriving community of erotic e-book authors who create hundreds of short stories (5,000 words) and self-publish them on Kindle, cross-promoting them with each other and chasing trends. Hell, I’ve done it. And there’s good ways and bad ways to do it, like most things. You can spend time crafting a great story and use all the elements of good storytelling & writing and end up releasing something you’re proud of. Or, to save time you can check out the Hot 100 on Amazon list and see what’s selling, download a couple of them and then spin the text in your own words but keeping the same themes and general plot. Create your own derivative cover and name it uniquely and release it before heading on to the next ‘spinned book’. Just because a segment of the erotic e-books are created by internet marketers, doesn’t mean all self-published e-books are shitty creations unworthy of buying.

My dream is that before another article is published featuring someone in the hot seat talking about freemium games who is literally not even creating them, that someone does a bit of due diligence beforehand. Do some research and find someone who understands the nuances of the free-to-play mobile market, someone who knows a thing or two about creating experiences that delight players and is committed to doing so. There are people out there actively working to make beautiful creations in this space, and their voices deserve to be heard as well. Sure, there are players who might just play games “because they’re free”, but there’s a market for those games and unique ways to drive a business off of them without exploiting the players. Let’s find them and embrace them.