In game purchases – when nickel and diming goes to the extreme

Games on tablets and mobile phones used to come in two flavours: one lite or demo version for trial purposes and the full product that had to be bought outright. These days most of the games are free. I know because my iTunes account is shared with a pre-teen and over the past year, they have yet to ask me to buy any games for them presumably because every single one they play is free to play or rather I’ll call it “free to play”.

It used to be in game purchases simply made the game easier to play. In Kingdom Rush, I could simply cheat my way through difficult stages by purchasing health potions or other forms of deus ex machina. I could always reasonably finish the game myself but since spending time replaying stages was a commodity I didn’t want to spend, I made the plunge to buy some items to speed things up.

Recently, a coworker of mine was encouraging me to join him in Clash of Clans. He said the game was free so it’s not much of a commitment on my part and besides, I was always wondering why he had to go on his tablet in hotel lobbies and airport lounges to keep up with the game. Having been a fan of games like Settlers or Caesar, I thought a city building game with some military units would be fun on a tablet until I actually tried it. Now I realize it’s not so much a convenience factor as it is a veiled ongoing subscription cost you must constantly pay to continue with the game. The worst is the concept of a shield to protect your buildings, essentially your progress in the game, from other players. In our hyper-connected 24/7 world these days, there are a lot of people so this amounts to paying for a save game function. And yes, you have an alternative to paying, you can slowly (very slowly) generate it within the game’s mechanics. To get around this cash grab, my coworker suggested I join his online friends where he splits sentry duty a few hours a day to protect him and his allies. A few hours a day? Is this work or entertainment I wondered.

I first became truly annoyed by this in the now defunct Ultima Forever. A game that had top notch production values, and an ever expanding set of dungeons and locations to explore I was thoroughly confused as to how Electronic Arts would let Mythic publish a game like this for free until of course I realize there was a catch. Like a lot of RPGs, the game has a concept where your equipment breaks down. To repair your equipment, you needed keys and the keys were distributed sparingly throughout the dungeons. Of course, your equipment would only break down whilst in a dungeon but if you didn’t want to be bothered by this, you can buy some keys. Keys could also be collected for conversion into bigger and better items but what use are they to you if they shatter during the course of gameplay. I had been playing Ultima Forever since a few days after launch and you could tell the game was being tweaked here and there to ensure you have just the right incentive to play the game without being too frustrated.

Sadly, this has now extended to sports games as well. I don’t expect to get a copy of FIFA or Madden for free on iOS. Before purchasing, though, it’d be nice to play half a soccer or football game to try it out. But now it’s free. One day I fully expect to there will be a prompt to purchase something because I wanted to chip a ball over a keeper or do an onside kick.

I ended up politely declining the offer to participate in my coworker’s game of Clash of Clans. They must be making quite a bit of money as they are able to afford advertisements during weekend sports games. In the end, I’ll go back to my $19.99 purchase of XCOM Enemy Within. At least if I fail and let the aliens overrun planet Earth, I know it’s not because I didn’t shell out an incremental cost of $3.99 for a new SkyRanger so I can actually go on a ground mission.

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