The Cost of Freemium Games


I got my first touch screen device (an iPod Touch 3S) several years ago.  It was my baby, but also my gateway drug.  I have hundreds of physical, grade A games, yet it was so easy to not play them.  I had this little toy that made it simple to find a game, download it quickly, start it up, and let that gratuitous rewarding begin immediately.  Even more, it’s free!  Well, somewhat free.

In years past, the microtransaction, or in-app purchase (IAP), has become a rampant success, for better or for worse.  You’re given a grand welcome, followed by a tutorial, and then some free microtrans currency.  Then it shows you how to spend it.

“Here, you don’t have to wait five minutes.  Just spend a gem here, and your valuable time is saved!” it helpfully informs you.  “Thanks, game!” you reply, and gone is that gem.  “Oh, look at this neat cosmetic item.  Wouldn’t your character and his/her space look darling with this?  It’s only the rest of your gems!” says the game, only a little more pushy this time.  “Well, it doesn’t really do anything, but I guess you’re right about that,” you reply, and there goes the rest of your gems.  Now, it begins.

“Looks like you’re out of gems!  You should give me your money,” the game pushes, trying eagerly to get you to confirm a purchase.  Some tend to harass you, others try to be like your best friend asking for a couple of bucks for lunch.  Regardless of how the app approaches the subject, it wants money.

Excessive tirade aside, what I hope to accomplish in this ever-growing essay is a brief list of observations and advice on dealing with this possibly irritating, or even detrimental, facet of modern gaming.

Protect Yourself!

Unfortunately, I don’t know how to do this for Android phones. Please look this up for your specific phone!

Before I even start with apps and their IAPs, I cannot stress enough to set up some restrictions.  You never know when you might absent-mindedly buy something, or your child might get hold of your phone and decide to buy something.  It sounds like something that happens in sitcoms, but there have been plenty of news stories in the past of children or inattentive adults buying hundreds of dollars in IAPs.  Also, don’t leave your credit card information connected to your profile.  I find myself far more tempted to spend money if it’s at all accessible.  If I do want to pay some money for an IAP, I make myself go out and get a physical card for that shop.  The harder it is to spend money in a game, the less likely I am to actually do it.

Aesthetics and Value

Chances are, if you’re anything like me, you’re downloading a game because it looks pretty.  Mobile games have become an outlet for some pretty talented artists, and it’s hard to resist that fifth or so card game with the gorgeous artwork.  Don’t be taken by their good looks!  All games are different, and they handle their ways of getting your money differently.

This is where I like to start assessing a game’s value.  My first major criteria is the value of a dollar in terms of the game’s microtransaction currency.  What is a dollar worth in this game?  What does this microtrans currency get me?  How many types of currency exist?  What do I have to do to get each?  Most free to play games have three types of currency: one earned within the game, one given or purchased through the store, and one created with time.  The last one can be a little tricky to remember, because we don’t always view our time as a valuable resource.

I’ll use my favorite “freemium” game, GungHo’s Puzzle and Dragons for examples.  A dollar in PaD can purchase one unit of microtrans currency, or a magic stone.  Magic stones are used to expand your storage of monsters and friends, you can refill your stamina (the time based resource), it can allow you to continue if you fail in a dungeon, and, most importantly, it can give you a chance at rolling the egg machine for newer, more powerful monsters.  You can roll, that is, if you have five magic stones.  In short, it costs five U.S. dollars to maybe have a more powerful monster.  The emphasis here is on that “maybe.”  You have no idea if that attempt will get you something amazingly powerful or desperately pathetic.  Just as in any gambling, chance is in the house’s favor.


The Currency of Time

I touched on this earlier, but our time is a valuable resource we sometimes forget about.  A lot of games released today involve a timer and stamina of some kind.  Find out immediately how quickly this recharges and if there’s a way to refill it (more than likely with an IAP).  Also figure out if its notifications are a gentle reminder to come back to the game, or if they’re like a constant barrage from a clingy child demanding your attention.  Is this something you’re willing and able to invest your time and patience in?

Farming games, like DragonVale pictured here, depend more on the currency of time, and your lack of patience.

The Currency of Social Connectivity

A moment of real talk: your friends are a valuable resource.  This doesn’t just apply to games, this is important for life as well.  If you’re playing a game that pushes you to pester your friends for assistance, reconsider playing this game.  Don’t be that person who only talks to people through social media just to get help in a game.

Another social aspect to consider is how it deals with accounts and connecting to others.  I personally hate connecting my games to Facebook, and also hate having to sign up for a special account just for one specific game.  What’s more, sometimes signing up for the account does nothing to benefit you.  I am a huge fan of games that allow you to back up account progress to their server, just in case your phone dies or the app corrupts and needs to be reinstall.  Also, being able to befriend people within the game instead of having to seek an outside source like a forum is a huge perk to me.

Giving and Taking

Generosity is a glorious thing, so how generous is your new game?  Referring back to Puzzle and Dragons, I find this game to be about an eight out of ten on the generosity scale.  There’s a daily bonus of points that can be used at the lesser gachapon, the Pal Egg Machine.  They have frequent events, and usually hand out plenty of stones or special monsters just for being a daily player.  If you hit certain milestones in your playing career, you get more magic stones.  I really admire and appreciate when a game company spoils and cares for their player base.


This sounds crazy, but should be said more often than not.  If you feel like a game is too draining to play, is too needy and clingy with its notifications, is too expensive, can give Scrooge a run for his money in the category of stinginess, or if the gameplay just isn’t fun, delete the game!  Have your constant messages asking for help driven friendships away?  Delete the game!

I know this can seem difficult at times; we develop attachments to apps because we don’t want to lose our progress.  “It can change.  This game could get better,” you tell yourself.  It probably won’t.  Some companies do take caring for their players to heart, but if you’re finding yourself more frustrated with a game than anything, find a different game.  The constant change in what’s popular means you never have to settle for a game that treats your like livestock instead of as a player.  With your shiny, new devices from the past holidays, and maybe some caution in your arsenal, please enjoy your games.

I am RNDMMeow, catless crazy catlady extraordinaire! Obsessed with gaming big and small, I relish in the weird and quirky. Join me on Twitch every Tuesday as I burrow through my collection of games, one life at a time.

Tell us what you really think.