On “Freemium” Games

I’ve been playing a lot of “freemium” games lately and have had some thoughts on them. A freemium game is free to play, but builds in mechanisms for the user to pay real money for premium features or goodies. Some of my favorite freemium games include Pocket Legends, Lord of the Rings Online, Pocket Frogs, and ElementZ HD.  In all these cases, the game is free to download and play and you don’t have to put any money in to have fun. There are other games that are very money grubbing and annoying about needing money to play well. Examples of that include GodFinger for iPhone and pretty much all the “farm” and “kingdom” games on iPhone and iPad. In these money-grubbing games, the grind would be made easier if you just had more mojo or power or whatever valuable stuff, and the game maker would be happy to sell you some. In most cases, you can earn mojo or power or gold, but at a pretty lousy rate. I’ll discuss premium features of the games I like in turn below.

Some games, like Pocket Frogs, are freemium, but that doesn’t take away from the enjoyment one bit. In Pocket Frogs, the consumables are coins, stamps, and potions, each of which can be bought in the store for real money. The good news is that if you play the game “right,” meaning you play to earn experience to rise in level, you spend a bit of time out in the pond with your frogs gaining experience. In the pond, you occasionally come across gifts, most of which are a few coins, a stamp or two, some potions, or another frog. Sometimes, however, you hit a red gift that has 300 coins or a new habitat (usually worth a lot. Never buy habitats — you’ll get all you can use in the pond.). So if you have a modicum of patience and like taming the frogs in the pond, which I do because it is relaxing, then you can play the game without ever putting in a penny. While I really like this model and this game, it may not be making too much money for the game devs.

In ElementZ HD, the commodity is “coins.” Certain special buttons that can provide significant advantage cost some number of coins to use, and while coins are occasionally won during the game, the total quickly dwindles if you use those power-ups. Since my wife and I play ElementZ HD for fun rather than trying to always beat the high scores (which we’ll never do), we have lots of coins and never use the power-ups, so again, not the best business model, but a fun game.

Lord of the Rings Online, however, might have a viable business model. You can have fun without paying a penny, but if you put a little bit of money in, the game will be a lot better. Things you can buy from the LOTRO store include quest packs, more inventory, horse riding skills (and horses), small character upgrades, and potions and such. Some of the items, such as the quest packs, are unlocked for all characters in an account, while specific upgrades are linked to a particular character. The store also has occasional sales, so wait for them to buy things like quest packs, which you will get to later, but probably don’t need just now. I have bought the riding skill, inventory bags, quest packs, and perhaps one minor trait upgrade. You can buy horses in game for 500 gold, once you have the riding skill, but that took me a long time to get as a newbie character (but I did it). The truly lazy can buy horses in the store for somewhere around $8-10. The game awards Turbine Points (the LOTRO store currency) for certain deeds, but it does so at a slow enough rate that plonking down $20 will allow you to have more fun and less frustration (particularly with inventory – buy the bags).

Since Pocket Legends is an MMORPG on the iPad (and iPhone), it too is made more fun with premium features. The items available for “platinum,” the store’s currency, include weapons and armor, outfits, potions, and quest packs. I bought some armor and a good weapon in the store for just a few platinum (less than 5 total, I think, so less than a dollar’s worth) and it made the game a lot more fun. I played with two others few some levels last night and it was terrific. I was a level 7 warrior, and my compatriots were a level 9 magic user and a level 5 archer, which was a great combination. While I tanked, the magic user healed us and blasted enemies and the archer did ranged damage. With my new armor, I was able to handle more punishment from the zombie hoards and my new weapon kicked butt! I haven’t bought quest packs yet, since I’m just getting started, but will do so soon. I don’t yet know if quest packs are account-wide or character specific, but I assume the weapons and armor from the store are character specific.

So the bottom line is that putting some money into premium features makes good sense for the freemium MMORPGs, but perhaps less sense for more casual games. In any case, the amount of money needed is fairly small to make noticeable enhancements to the MMORPG games. With each of these 4 games, the feeling that you need to pay money to play is not prevalent and obtrusive, as it is in some other freemium games that I don’t want to play for that reason even if they were fun.

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