Finding the Line in Free-To-Play

So I've been playing Solitaire Blitz, a speed solitaire style puzzle game from PopCap, on Facebook. It's a fun game, very PopCappy; quick moving, easy to pick up, and rewards on a regular schedule. It's energy based, so you can play 6 games every hour or two; pretty liberal. Typical PopCap, quality stuff.

I finish the first few levels, and then I get to a level that requires "crew"; basically I have to invite two friends to play the game before I go on. Alternatively, I can pay 200,000 silver to "hire" crew. I could win about 100 2 minute games to get this much silver, or pay $9 to buy it. Once a week or so they offer a steep discount on silver, offering 200,000 for $.99. I wait for that deal, and buy it, hire my crew, and play the game. The next level also requires 2 crew or 200,000 silver. Instead of waiting for the next sale, a friend steps up and crews for me. The level after that, I have to hire crew again for 200,000.

This time, I wait for the .99 deal, and when it comes up, I buy 9 of them. I get 2 million silver for $9, which is a great deal! I think great, this is plenty to pay for the rest of the game, and I can really enjoy without having to harass friends; I am already telling them about this game, and others I know are starting to play it, so I'm doing my part for PopCap. Then I get to the next level.

They want me to pay $4 to hire crew! Not Silver, not anything I can buy in the store, or earn through playing. Just pull out my wallet and drop four dollar bills to play one level. This feels like an affront. The concept behind free-to-play or freemium games to me, has always been about giving options to players who don't have the time or desire to grind, and are willing to pay to continue playing.

Now, there are a lot of different ways this model plays out. There is the energy model which limits the amount of times you can play within a given period. This does not prevent you from playing ever again, you just have to wait. Solitaire Blitz uses this model. There is the customization model, in which Players can pay to change the look and feel of the game without affecting gameplay. Solitaire Blitz uses this model. And there is the Upgrade model, in which Players can pay to improve their performance, make the game easier, or increase the rewards for playing the game. Solitaire Blitz uses this model.

In addition to the money making models, there are the marketing models, usually taking the form of sharing rewards with friends, creating competition through leaderboards or battles, requesting assistance (or spamming) via social network channels, and achievements. Solitaire Blitz uses all of these models, and none of them prevent you from playing ever again, you can choose to use them or not.

It is important to understand that the game does let you bypass this paywall by having friends "crew" for you. I do not like that my options for moving forward have been limited. Instead of 3 options for unlocking the next level (grind, share, pay), I now have 2 options (share, pay). At level 7 of 19 levels, will I eventually be forced to share or pay? The terms have changed unexpectedly; will they change again?

But locking the next level of a game behind what is effectively a paywall actually prevents me from ever playing the game again. I can't play rounds to earn dollars. I can't buy dollars with my silver or energy. I can't post spam on my friend's walls for dollars (in this scenario).

This, to me seems like double-dipping. The unwritten contract between player and publisher is or should be, "I will let you play this game for free, and in exchange, you will accept that elements of the game are going to cost you time, money, or privacy." If that sentence changes to "I will let you play this game, but once you reach level 7, you must pay money to continue.", you are no longer playing a game. You are playing a demo. A trial game that, before you even find out it is a trial game, asks you to drop real money to buy DLC that is rendered worthless once you find out you've been tricked.

Publishers like PopCap, Big Fish, and Zynga are clearly examining every facet of the free-to-play model, and they have a lot of it down to a science. I hope that they consider when they are stepping out of the boundaries of free-to-play, and when it is inappropriate to do so.

4 Comments

3D Dot Game Heroes Notes

Link to my current postion in the game:

LInk to Link character:

Notes:

Need to complete the "After Aqua Temple" sidequests, since there are several time-sensitive events that have to be completed before the next temple.

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