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Some Gamers Fear a Dystopian Free-to-Play Future

The makers of Candy Crush and Clash of Clans love it. RollerCoaster Tycoon fans, not so much.

Original image: Shutterstock / Latino

King’s Tommy Palm thinks all games will one day be free-to-play and supported by micro-transactions.

He may be right. King and its free-to-play competitors certainly hope so, since that’s the business model that helped the Candy Crush Saga maker gross $1.9 billion in 2013.

Last year, freemium apps represented 92 percent of all revenue on the iOS App Store and 98 percent on Google Play, according to Distimo.

But the model still has a lot of detractors — primarily, traditional gamers who see games making periodic requests for money as an interruption or annoyance. Free-to-play games’ critics often call them “pay-to-win” because of the way some games withhold certain achievements or accomplishments until players pay up; games like the new Family Guy: The Quest for Stuff push virtual currency that can be used to speed up progress, and reviewers have found that “there is no comparison” between the game when played for free vs. for dough.

In recent days the anti-micro-transactions crowd has become especially vocal as the model extends its reach into beloved classic game franchises. A new mobile sequel to RollerCoaster Tycoon is not a free-to-play title — it costs $2.99 in the App Store — but still behaves like one, charging players to speed up construction of new rides and shops. That’s a stark contrast from the original games, which challenged players to manage the purely virtual finances of a theme park, with an emphasis on building as quickly and creatively as they could.

Among other complaints, these monetization tactics have generated a slew of negative reviews on the game’s App Store page.

“This is a game that is all about maximizing your urge to spend money on micro transactions,” one reviewer wrote. “Rollercoaster Tycoon used to be a game about creativity. … I WANT A REAL ROLLERCOASTER TYCOON. NOT CHEAP, MOBILE CRAP.”

“$3 later and I learn that this app is littered with pay to play elements,” wrote another. “I have to pay in order to build roller coasters? Are you kidding me?”

And one more: “RCT was such a great game when you didn’t need to wait to build something. I would prefer to pay 10 dollars and have the full game rather than this paid version that asked you to pay for more once you play.”

Aye, there’s the rub: Game companies like Atari (which did not respond to a request for comment for this story) want to make a lot more than $10 off of players. As a February report from app testing firm Swrve found, a tiny percentage of mobile gamers are responsible for half of all free-to-play revenue. These big spenders, called “whales,” can spend hundreds or sometimes thousands of dollars on games, so from a pure business perspective it makes sense for a game to cater to their habits.

However, not all free-to-play games monetize in the same ways. Some are far more aggressive than others.

In the interview with IGN linked above, Palm praised Blizzard’s well-liked trading card game Hearthstone as an example of a “well balanced” free-to-play title; to gamers, “well balanced” is just another way of saying “I don’t feel ripped off after playing this.” Games often earn the label when players have a good time while spending little or nothing, and the game only gently encourages them to pay up rather than holding the gameplay hostage.

The problem is that that sort of subjective labeling doesn’t fully communicate to gamers the difference between how different titles monetize. Someone unhappy with how Family Guy tries to make money might be discouraged from trying Hearthstone, even though the two games come at the same business model in different ways.

New platforms like smartphones and tablets are huge and getting huger, so for most companies, bringing classic franchises to new audiences is a no-brainer. But by chasing the game mechanics that work best there, they run the risk of alienating players who propelled those franchises to classic status in the first place.

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