Freemium: What’s the cost?


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,




One thought on “Freemium: What’s the cost?

  1. songwong says:

    It was not until I read your post that I realised I have been surrounded by Freemium for so long. As your post have suggested, I have been using Dropbox, played Angry Birds and many more that makes me questioned myself would YouTube consider to be one of the Freemium? The reason of my speculation is because YouTube has introduced paid channels and contents, for example, they let you watch trailers of movies, but for full movie you will need to purchase through Google account.

    I have truly enjoyed reading your post because it is very relevant to my life. Although I would not call myself a gamer, I still spent many hours playing games such as “The Simpsons: Tapped Out” and “Jetpack Joyride”. These types of game are very addictive as they introduced different virtual equipment or buildings for different levels. Apart from usual routines, “The Simpsons: Tapped Out” also introduced real-time events, such as in real life October, they would have special event for Halloween. Sometimes they would intertwine TV episodes’ plot with the game as well.

    I agreed, “Many people play these games innocently, allow them to run their course and then move on. For others however, they play a more sinister, addictive role.” However, from personal experience once I get hooked to a game I will not stop playing until the consistent advertisements or pop-ups annoyed me enough to stop me from playing. And once I moved on I will not think much about it, but your post makes me wonder, is this kind of game ethical or unethical?

    After reflecting my own experiences in regard to get addicted in games, I realised I have logged into “The Tribez & Castlez” every day for at least a year to get gems without paying, but when I didn’t log in for 24 hours they would “take away the awards”. During that time I was very conscious of when I should log into the game to get the “award” because the “feeling of losing something” urged me to constantly play the game without realising the impact it has on my life, time that I can spent on doing something else. From this realisation, I think games similar to this are unethical because it affects my life in the real world.

    However, from the developer’s perspective I think the borderline of ethics for gaming would be very different because after all it is how they earn for a living. It may be up to us, the players, to restrict ourselves from getting addicted to the games. The problem is how can we restrict ourselves, when we are not conscious to how addictive we are to the game?

    I strongly agreed with the statement from your post “the model continues to embed itself into our life and influence our decisions.”, because freemium would affect how you distribute your free time, money and emotions.

    My thoughts for freemium games are: they are both a blessing and a curse.
    They are a blessing because they let you interact with your friends and family, for example by sending lives in “Pet Rescue Saga” and competing with each other by achieving higher level in the game. But it is also a curse because once you are addicted to the game your emotion towards the game would change and from this change, players might have emotional desire to upgrade or pay for features in the game.

    At the end, I also agreed “freemium does have a cost” and “the costs are larger than” what people “might think”. From my own example above, I realised I have spent much longer time than I expected and could have spent on some other more productive places. Thank you for your post, it is very inspiring and it allows me to reflect and aware on the amount of time and energy I have spent on freemium games.

    (Group 15’s comment)

    Liked by 1 person

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