Comment & Opinion

Why Amazon Underground is broken for F2P games

Ultimate Robot Fighting borked

Why Amazon Underground is broken for F2P games

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.

There's no F2P game when everything's free

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.

Royal flush

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.

Underground gives you as many gold packs as you want

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.

The Amazon version of Angry Birds Stella has a different reward system

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.

Features Editor

Matt is really bad at playing games, but hopefully a little better at writing about them. He's Features Editor for, and has also written for lesser publications such as IGN, VICE, and Paste Magazine.


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Greg Quinn CEO/Lead Developer at Meltdown Interactive Media
I certainly wouldn't be releasing any F2P title on Amazon underground, the author is spot on when they say each title would essentially need to be re-designed, not only from a monetisation perspective, but a game design perspective too, as nowadays, both are usually interlinked.
David Phan Producer at Relic Entertainment
This is an awesome example of how problematic Underground will be for F2P game design. It's like Amazon didn't have any foresight or experience to understand how freemium game economies work. Sure there'll be some people who will enjoy "god mode", but this is going to turn off most players pretty quickly in my opinion. A lot of freemium game design is pretty hollow already, but tack on "god mode" and it becomes really apparent how shallow these games are now that the skinner box is no longer in effect.
Shu Wan cheng Game Developer at Nob Studio
I dont think it is meant for F2P titles, this type of sales strategy is more for Paid games that has longer game life such as RPG.
Greg Quinn CEO/Lead Developer at Meltdown Interactive Media
Agree David, it is essentially hurting the consumer the most at the end of the day. I'm sure most consumers would rather make a few small IAP's and get enjoyment and balance out of a game than walk in with the God Mode ticket.