Amazon Underground, an experimental new scheme from the retail giant that makes several apps and games “actually free,” seems like an incredible offer for the consumer.
And, for many, it will be.
Several premium games are now available utterly free of charge, their developers paid directly by Amazon at a rate of $0.002 per minute of player time.
It's hard to dispute the value in that from a player's perspective.
After all, this is nothing new from Amazon - its Free App of the Day program, by which Amazon Appstore users were gifted a new premium app or game daily, had been running for years before being effectively replaced by Underground.
Freed from freemium
But premium and free-to-play are entirely different beasts, and what concerns me is that Underground is giving F2P games the same “actually free” treatment.
Maybe, for those who've been stung by one paywall too many, this sounds ideal.
But just think (for better or worse) how much of free-to-play game design revolves around currency being a limited and hard-earned resource.
Not so with Amazon Underground, which effectively allows you to sidestep the core systems and constraints around which the game has been designed, like a billionaire walking into an arcade with a wheelbarrow full of quarters.
Few out-and-out F2P games have appeared on Underground yet, possibly for the reasons highlighted above, but one of the few is a fighting game called Ultimate Robot Fighting.
You end up with robots far more powerful than you're supposed to have at such an early stage.
I've been dabbling with the Underground version of the game, and it confirms my worst fears.
Of course, my first port of call was to check out the game's hard currency store, and there is an immediate kid-in-a-candy-store reaction to seeing everything from mug to mountain of gold sporting a $0.00 price tag.
And, equally predictably, the second thing I did was to acquire 6000 gold - ordinarily a cool $99.99 - for zero pennies.
Because why wouldn't you? It's there for the taking.
But then what becomes of the game? Ultimate Robot Fighting operates on a card-based system, so it's all about bolstering your team of tin fighters with random card packs.
So you'll end up buying gold-tier packs, yielding robots far more powerful than you're supposed to have at such an early stage, and consequently winning fights with ease.
As if these victories didn't feel hollow enough, the rewards you're given as you effortlessly progress - intended to provide much-needed boosts to your game, something to strive towards - will feel like peanuts against the gold hoard you already possess.
Of course, some could say that what Amazon Underground gives you is choice, and that it is I who ruined the experience for myself by claiming so much free currency.
The point I'm making isn't that Amazon Underground is bad, merely that its system is limited when it comes to F2P games.
However, as long as Amazon Underground remains an exception from the norm, how many can honestly say they would show restraint?
And, even for players who do, it's hard to feel the same satisfaction when you know you've got what is effectively a win button right in front of you in case you hit a roadblock.
Not for everyone
The point I'm making isn't that Amazon Underground is in any way bad, merely that its system is limited when it comes to free-to-play games.
Take a game like Angry Birds, for instance - or other puzzle games in which IAPs are used primarily to circumvent an energy system - and the free IAPs don't present too much of a problem.
However, the only Angry Birds game to appear in “actually free” form on Amazon Underground is Stella, and even that's an Amazon-exclusive version of the game that doles out hard currency in daily instalments in an attempt to balance things out.
Evidently, then, there are fundamental design issues that present themselves when IAPs are made free, and not every developer is going to have the conviction or resources of Rovio to release alternate versions exclusively for Underground users.
It's a great scheme for those who want to grab some premium games free of charge, but for many free-to-play games the transition to Amazon Underground isn't going to be a particularly smooth one - and that's problematic for both developers and players.