Freemium is the new disruptive model that is changing how we interact with products, from games to software. The oxford definition of freemium is “A business model, especially on the Internet, whereby basic services are provided free of charge while more advanced features must be paid for.” You mightn’t think that this affects you, but have you ever used Dropbox, Spotify or even played Angry Birds? Then chances are you’ve bought into the model.
The Irish Times article titled the “Fun and games? The cost of freemium” questions the ethics of these free-to-download games. Conor Pope (2014), has experienced the cost that these games incur when his own children spending 90€ on a virtual cat. In the article he questions the real intentions of companies and who they are targeting. Some apps are marketed at users as young as 4 years of age. One only has to google “child debt game” and pages of situations appear where kids have racked up huge debt unbeknownst to their parents. The ethics of this drive and manipulation used to get young users to spend their parents money is questionable.
One might be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t played freemium games. Many play these games innocently, allow them to run their course and then move on. For others however, they play a more sinister, addictive role. This is clear from a quote from video game consultant Nicholas Lovell “The job of that thing is to convert people from being players to payers, because once people have shifted into that mindset of ‘this product is so good, I want to spend money’ – however little [they spend] they have become customers, and that is an important mental shift for them” (Alistair Charlton,September 26, 2013). The conversion of real money to virtual coins or chips creates a smoke screen which camouflages the spending of the user’s money.
This is further explored in an article released on the Bloomberg website, which singles out Candy Crush. I myself have played it and the early stages are easy, with later stages gradually getting more difficult and addictive. By the time they have you hooked, you need to pay for a boost and at this stage you’re already so involved that you feel like you have to continue. It follows “the dynamic laid out in Mayyasi’s Pricenomics” (Line 45, Joshua Brustein,July 11, 2013), whereby the game threatens to take away the awards you’ve paid for if you don’t keep playing . This taps into an innate human trait; the feeling of losing something we feel we have nurtured. Take the virtual cat for example, if you don’t pay coins to feed it, the cat will die. This is something users naturally don’t want to happen, thus they continue to feed the cat and spend their hard earned money on what is essentially binary code.
There is an obvious financial cost, but there’s a creative drain on these freemium games. In The Guardian, Stuart Dredge points out that “As developers try to make money by creating Candy Crush clones, free-to-play mobile games are in danger of creative stagnation” (17th February 2015). He continues to say that he is not anti-freemium but merely questions if developers have become lazy, creating basic graphics for high return. Game development is not a priority for most of these apps; high revenue return is the main target.Game of War is famously endorsed by Kate Upton & Mariah Carey. I’ve also played this game and I agree with Matt Johnston (19 May, 2015) that “After trying it out for a couple of weeks, we have to answer a resounding no. This game is disaster.” ( Line 13). Is it ethical to have celebrities endorse games that lure players into spending their own money due to addiction and not enjoyment? You can make your own mind up by clicking here for the advert featuring Kate Upton.
I suppose to conclude, freemium does have a cost. As explored above, the costs are larger than you might think and can be unethical. However, the model continues to embed itself into our lives and influence our decisions. I will continue this post next week and hopefully explain the ethics of freemium applications. What’s your thoughts, are freemium games a blessing or a curse? Let me know in the comments below.
Until next time,
- Brustein, J. (2013) Joshua Brustein. Available at: http://www.bloomberg.com/bw/articles/2013-07-11/how-freemium-products-use-our-brains-against-us (Accessed: 18 February 2016).
- The ‘Freemium’ model: Top flaws and potent fixes (2013) Available at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/brettnelson/2013/07/23/the-freemium-model-top-flaws-and-potent-fixes/#2715e4857a0b1b3a4c7f7108 (Accessed: 18 February 2016).
- Dredge, S. (2016) OFT report into children’s apps and games answers some questions, but raises others. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/appsblog/2013/sep/26/oft-kids-apps-games-report (Accessed: 18 February 2016).
- Pope, C. (2014) Fun and games? The cost of ‘freemium’. Available at: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/consumer/fun-and-games-the-cost-of-freemium-1.1716867 (Accessed: 18 February 2016).
- Dredge, S. (2015) Are freemium games focusing too much on monetisation and not enough on fun?. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/feb/17/freemium-mobile-games-monetisation-candy-crush (Accessed: 18 February 2016).
- Charlton, A. (2013) Freemium, In-App purchases and the psychology of gaming. Available at: http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/freemium-app-purchases-candy-crush-saga-gaming-509349 (Accessed: 18 February 2016).
- Smith, D. (2014) The ‘Freemium’ model is brilliant, but It’s ruining my life. Available at: http://uk.businessinsider.com/freemium-model-is-brilliant-but-its-ruining-my-life-2014-11?r=US&IR=T (Accessed: 18 February 2016).