The evil myth of free games

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An exposé of the trickery and sheer evilness of games developers in the world of ‘free’ online gaming.

Free games are everywhere: on Facebook, in Flash form, and on mobile phones as apps. It would seem only a drunken lunatic would complain about them because, well, they’re free. But underneath the pleasant ideal there lies a world of psychological trickery aimed at robbing gamers of their money. Games developers’ plans are simple; get you addicted and then restrict your access to main features, from which point you have to pay. As a consequence, titles like Lord of the Rings, World of Warcraft, and Dota 2 promote the squandering of hard earned money for the privilege of playing the complete game.

Are we aware of being duped whilst we’re playing freeware? Have you been guiltily thumping hundreds of pounds towards something superfluous? Here’s a gander at the state of freeware in 2013 which exposes a dramatic, horrifying world of… not-so-freeware!

The cunning machinations of developers

A gamer wonders whether to spend £30 on a mode of transport
Planetside 2

The concept of free games may seem unusual; why would a developer make something they can’t profit/fund themselves from? The answers are numerous: for new developers it can act as a path into the competitive gaming industry, others just want to be generous in a materialistic world, but the sad fact is there is money to be made here, and the way it’s made is morally tenuous.

The downloadable software platform Steam is a central hub for some of the most famous freeware titles. For example, the instantly appealing Planetside 2 has drawn in thousands of fans, but its concept of “free” is somewhat spurious. If you want to be successful you have to buy additional items or face annihilation from the opposition. One alternative is to grind, something many World of Warcraft players will be aware of, which involves killing stuff to gain equipment and level up. It’s a tedious process and the far simpler option is to pay up for the improvements.

Unsurprisingly many of the free games on Facebook plump for this option, a perfect example being Sim City. £30 can buy you a batch of diamonds to open up new features, the alternative being spending endless hours doing it the difficult way. Games like this purposefully make it extremely difficult and frustrating to make progress, leading to the obvious solution of turning to your credit/debit card. The added peer pressure of friends playing the same game can lead to this decision as you race to better your friend’s city, making the payment decision all the more tempting.

Facebook, on the other hand, draws in the more casual gamer, ensnaring them in addictive gameplay, and then working money out of them. I talked with several games fans about this, all of whom bemoaned the situation. One was able to hiss, “You spend some sort of currency by playing, often coded with words like ‘energy’ and after an hour or so of play you run out of ‘energy’ and must wait between 2 and 24 hours for your ‘energy’ to recharge”. Usually these games promote a brief addiction which passes, but not before a lot of money has been spent.

Having dabbled with freeware games on Steam, I’ve found the experience largely frustrating. Fellow digital thrill seekers I spoke to had similar issues. My colleague Graham Ward (a sensible, taxpaying gamer of 29) chirruped, “The most profoundly evil thing about these new ‘apps’ is that continuous play isn’t free”. He cited Zynga (responsible for Farmville, the title which has enraged many Facebook users due to its habit of updating on the News Feed) as a main offender. He went on, bellowing furiously, “The majority of games I’ve played ask for money to be put in within ten minutes. So by their nature to enjoy playing the game is to want to pay for it”.

The cost of free-dom

A gamer vents his fury delight at not being charged anything to play a free game
Team Fortress 2: A freeware game that understands what it means to be free

The colossal draw of freeware is likely due to the expense of modern gaming. An Xbox One, PS4, or Wii U, will set your back up to £400+. The “free” tag attached to an online game can appear to be a perfect alternative. This notion is reinforced by the quality of freeware titles: Hawken, Dota 2, Star Trek Online, March of War, and World of Warcraft have all received great reviews. The problem is they will only let you play for free to a certain extent, and after this it’s time to pay up repeatedly. Of course, developers do need to earn money, but deceiving people with the promise of a free game is not the way to do it.

The players who do dish out tend to make rapid progress, setting off a whole other idiotic part of modern gaming – elitism. You’ll find this in all gaming genres, but the “noob” cycle of verbal assault is particularly disastrous in the freeware environment of paid add-ons. Some are capable of rising above it, but others can go berserk. Clearly having conceited rivals labelling you as a “noob”, or “gay”, is enough to make some individuals pay up, improve their character, and set off in search of online redemption. Even if they achieve some closure through this method, the main thing their efforts end up altering is their bank balance.

The path to enlightenment

Relaxing endeavours? Or money grabbing? Even GTA5 is at it!
Grand Theft Auto V: Cashing in on the microtransaction trend

Luckily there are titles out there which are 100% free, it’s just a case of wading through the money grabbers to find them. One of the best is Team Fortress 2, a very entertaining first person shooter with a great sense of humour. Runescape, League of Legends, and Tribes: Ascend are also excellent and remain largely free, whilst many apps, such as Cut the Rope, come at no cost. There are also hundreds of Flash games, and you’ll find the likes of Doom, Super Mario Bros, and Tetris amongst them. They offer classic entertainment, but lack any real long term challenge for seasoned gamers, which can promote the more challenging freeware titles back to the forefront of a gamer’s trigger happy mind.

Developers are manipulating gamers with their trickery, using digital addiction and oppression to make cash. As long as people keep paying large sums of money for these not-so-freeware games, they’ll have every reason to keep the practice going. It’s what it must be like being addicted to cigarettes; although you may avoid the hacking cough, foul stench, and clogged arteries, you’re still trashing money on a ridiculous, big-money con.

Whilst companies do need to fund their creative endeavours, it should not be through digital trickery. The news that Rockstar will charge players for online upgrades on GTA V (which costs £40 and made £624 million in three days in the UK) may be the catalyst for a movement which could swing either way. People could rebel and ignore the demands, or it will succeed and allow developers to use the tactic regularly.

The process is deceptive and should be stopped, and a solution lies with developers and gamers. The former should drop their claims of “free” gaming and state what can be expected; no deception, no lies, just a clear cut outline of what’s to be expected. From this gamers can make an informed decision on whether to go ahead. For companies to make money, a one off payment to unlock a game and provide the funds would suffice. If the game is good quality, players will cough up the moolah. However, based on current trends the situation looks set to remain unchanged. What you can do to avoid a nasty fiscal fate is be wary of your freeware activity. Do you really need to pay another £30 to be drip-fed some more gaming? No, so spend it on something like Rayman Legends. An honest, proper game which won’t demand an extra penny. Outstanding, sir!

Photo credits: PlanetSide 2 by Sony Online Entertainment, Team Fortress 2 by Valve Entertainment, and Grand Theft Auto 5 by Rockstar North.

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