Updated: Aug 11
It was 2015 when I had my first - and so far only - brush with ‘freemium gaming’. Let me set the scene. Due to having to look after several sick relatives - some very old, some very young - I was moving about a lot, rarely spending more than two nights in a row at any given place. This was exhausting of course and left little time or energy for gaming. Not that I could have gamed much anyway, seeing that I only saw my 50” Samsung, PC, Xbox 360, PS3, Nintendo Wii and the non-digital members of the family (i.e. wifey, kids, doggo and the huge-and-still-growing-daily tortoise) at weekends.
As you can imagine my week days and evenings were pretty boring, and the only thing I had to entertain myself was a 2012 vintage Samsung Galaxy Tablet.
After reading through much of the SCP website and binge-watching music videos I was starting to get bored again. (I have a very low boredom threshold.)
It was during one such music video binge that an advert popped up unbidden. Usually, I skip past adverts at the first possible opportunity, but this one caught my eye. It was for ‘Family Guy, the Quest for Stuff’. To be fair, the advert was a work of genius.
The game didn’t look anywhere near as good…
I was a big Family Guy fan back then, and a big fan of American Dad. Heck, I was even one of the few people who actually liked The Cleveland Show!
“How much is it?” I thought to myself. This was important since being a carer in the UK paid a pittance, most of which was spent on the train getting to and from the people I was caring for, and so I had roughly zero disposable income. Therefore, I was a happy man when I saw the price was £0.00.
“Sold!” I thought. (Although if you are getting something for free are you really buying it, and is the other person really selling it? *Insert the deep in thought emoji*)
…because the game actually looked like this
It was bloody hilarious to start with, building up a virtual Quahog and unlocking the various characters. Said characters could perform actions to level up and earn virtual cash which could be used for buying new buildings, outfits and the like. These actions were free, but they did take time to complete - sometimes several hours or more. If you were impatient you could spend real-world money to complete the actions early. ‘Financial transactions for speedy actions if you will’.
“Ah, Game, I see your wicked …err…game. You are not gonner pull the wool over this gaming veteran’s eyes. I’m not going to spend real-world-dosh on virtual tosh that doesn’t do anything. I’ll be patient like a good, sensible, grew-up-in-the-‘80s-and-’90s-and-so-remember-the-days-before-paid-DLC-and-microtransactions-gamer.”
I will confess to feeling quite smug at the time, feeling like I was ‘sticking’ it to the man.’
I did start to diarise when the character’s actions would end, however. I did this so I could log in, collect the virtual cash and set the various characters on their next task, without a moment wasted to non-tasked wandering about.
Those virtual Quahogians lacked self-motivation and initiative, so you had to manage the lazy S.O.B.s or else they wouldn’t do anything. No one said being a semi-omnipotent overlord of a digital realm would be easy.
This was probably the first warning sign, although I couldn’t see it at the time. I was sensible about it, I told myself. I had a good routine going. It went something like this:
1. I would log in around breakfast and get them all started on something.
2. I would log in at lunch, collect the digital dosh and set them on a new task.
3. I would then log in after dinner time to collect the dosh, upgrade the town and set them on their third task of the day which they would complete sometime in the late evening.
4. Rinse and repeat the next morning.
Total time spent on the game per day was about 1.5 hours. Not a problem I told myself - back in the ‘90s when save games were generally ‘not a thing’ I could easily spend 2.5 hours playing a game to completion, in one sitting. For a few weeks, this was working fine.
Then ‘they’ started introducing limited time events, such as Halloween and a Star Trek: The Next Generation event. (Possibly linked to Comicon or a Stark Trek convention perhaps?)
Because there was a limited window of opportunity to obtain the ‘stuff’ from these events I felt compelled to make every second count. I started staying up later than I should so I could wait until my little digital puppets had completed their dinner time tasks. Now I could set them a new task to work on throughout the night* and reap the rewards the next morning. This would squeeze in four tasks per-character per-day.
*NB - this game wasn’t like The Sims. The characters in ‘Family Guy, the Quest for Stuff’ have no needs and so can work non-stop 24/7/365. And so, they did. Eating, sleeping and going to the bathroom are what lazy employees do. #peakcapitalism 😉
I was rapidly becoming a (virtually) very wealthy semi-omnipotent overlord of a digital realm. And that digital realm of Quahog and Langley Falls was looking pretty good by this point, as was my Star Trek TNG building/ship/convention-centre thingy.
As you may have guessed, I spent a good deal of time on various trains, both above ground and on the tube/subway/metro. Of course, my tablet went with me, and thus so did the game. And yes, I played it on the train. It’s not like I had anything better to do, and it was actually less distracting than a book.
(I have lost count the number of times I overshot my station in my commuter days due to being too engrossed in a book to look up. Doh!)
Again, this didn’t appear to be a problem. I was getting no more obsessed with it than I did with other non-freemium games. (Which admittedly was perhaps still a little too obsessive, but what are you gonner do?)
Time to Wake Up
My first mini wakeup call was when I was out with the family. The Tablet was at one of the relative’s homes. I found myself itching to get back to said home - not because I wanted to be away from the wifey and kids (I didn’t) nor due to a burning desire (which I didn’t have) to see the sick relative again. No, I was itching to get back there because the tab was there and I wanted to check in on my virtual town and ensure its inhabitants were not wasting time by walking around taskless.
The real wakeup call came a few days later. The Stark Trek TNG event was going to run out that day, and there was something I wanted from it, Worf’s bat'leth stand or something.
(It couldn’t have been that important in hindsight since I can’t even remember what it was now.)
But at the time I wanted it. I wanted it a lot, and I could tell that my digital puppets were not going to complete their tasks in time for me to get it. What was I to do?
The pop up that reminded you that you could complete tasks early kept popping up. It was enticing. It was shiny. It had sparkly animations in front of an open chest filled with enough shiny gold jewellery to make a pirate salivate.
“How much was it to get the lowest amount?” I asked myself. £3.99.
“That’s not too bad”. I thought to myself, and then self-justified it with;
“I mean a coffee in *INSERT GENERIC CHAIN COFFEE SHOP* cost the same. A meal deal from Boots costs that much, I can afford that”.
Does anyone else visualise conundrums like this as cartoons?
My finger was hovering over the ‘buy now’ button. One simple tap and I would have that sweet, sweet virtual dough, and thus Worf’s bat'leth stand. The little Evil Homer-devil on my shoulder was telling me to “Do it, do it, you know you want it”, whilst the little Good Homer-angel on my other shoulder was saying very little since his face was stuffed with doughnuts.
My finger was descending slowly. “Drop your finger one more centimetre. That’s it, like that. Good, Good.” said Evil-homer-who-has-now-turned-into-Palpatine-from-Robot-Chicken. “Just a few more millimetres now. Reach out and take what is rightfully yours” Said Evil-Homer-Palpatine.
Or stop motion toys? Anyone? No? Just me then…
My finger was about to touch the sensitive surface of the pad…and…aaand… I pulled away.
“What are you doing Iain?” I thought to myself. “This isn’t you. You are better than this. If you start spending on this game now how far will it go?”
I exited the app and immediately uninstalled it. I never went back to it, nor did I install any similar games. To this day The Simpsons Tapped Out has never been installed, nor will it ever. Not a single of my pennies was wasted on freemium gaming. Evil Homer-Palpatine had lost. The Freemium gaming industry had lost this particular battle - for now…
But I was one of the lucky ones. I have an (almost) completely non-addictive personality, so the game and its exploitative monetisation methods were incapable of sinking their hooks into me, which is why my story had a rather anticlimactic ending.
(Apologies if you were expecting something more exciting.)
Unfortunately, not everyone is blessed with a personality as non-addictive as mine. Some people do get hooked and hooked badly. This rarely ends well for them as we shall see.
Join me in the next article where we will take a look into the dark heart of ‘freemium gaming’, where we will see how the freemium gaming industry uses calculated psychological tricks to hook players, how they milk ‘whales’ for every penny and cent they can get and witness the aftermath of freemium gaming addiction and the lives that are left in ruins in its wake.
See you all again in The Perils of Freemium Gaming: Part Two – What they are, how they make Money and how they Affect us.
Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to on-line multi-player. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17, and contacted via email at email@example.com
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