In light of recent news involving free-to-play games like “Candy Crush Saga” and “Dungeon Keeper” showing their true colors, as money-grubbing tools for companies rather than a gamer’s best friend, I realized that this newer genre of game has roots deep in the days of arcade machines and quarters.
Free-to-play games, or pay-to-win games, depending on your viewpoint, have been around for the last four years and have gained rapid popularity on smartphones and in online forums like Facebook. They are often free or inexpensive to download, and will offer the ability to buy in- game items in exchange for real world currency.
Games like “Farmville,” “Candy Crush,” “Bejeweled Blitz,” “Jetpack Joyride,” “Plants Versus Zombies 2” and a litany of other titles all use this feature, some in a more predatory fashion than others.
Where these games start to look like older arcade machines is in the design, particularly in how developers gate how often players are able to play or how long a task takes to complete by the use of an item that they can buy in an online store.
For instance, in “Candy Crush Saga,” a gamer can play for up to five deaths. On the fifth death they must wait about thirty minutes for a new life. However, because the game is fun and addicting, players often spend the 90 cents required for a new batch of lives. This idea of gating fun behind time limits and lives has worked its way into nearly every free-to-play title.
Game developers will intentionally make a task either tedious or boring to encourage players to buy items to make it past the task. However, if you think about it, there is usually no ultimate goal in a free-to-play game. There are always more levels, and always someone higher on the leaderboard.
This is no different from the days of the ‘80s arcade machine. However, now there is one more dastardly twist added to the mix.
Where older machines only took gamers for a quarter at a time, new games have “limited offers,” or “best deals,” on in-game items and currency. Some even claim that spending $99 on a virtual currency is a “super deal.” These tactics are predatory on people who need to save, have addictive personalities or just want to play a fun game without being badgered to spend.
I think there is no way out of it. Much like Pandora’s Box, now that it has been unleashed on the world, there is no putting it back inside.
There is, however, still a glimmer of hope.
Free-to-play games has made gaming become more popular. Where gaming used to be a stigmatized hobby only for kids during summer, or 40-year-old men in basements, it is now pastime of a much wider audience of people of all ages.
Even though predatory systems like this exist, the vast majority of games that rise to the top are simply fun. They bring joy to people who are bored and people who need a smile. Leaderboards bring out the competitive nature of humans and cultivate new interactions.
By Sean Burke