Mobile Mavens

Is South Park's criticism of F2P games valid?

Indie Mavens debate the situation

Is South Park's criticism of F2P games valid?

Debating the woes and virtues of freemium is old hat. But when a TV show as big as South Park puts freemium mobile games on a pedestal, and bashes them with a hammer, it's worth revisiting in light of the this far-reaching comedic criticism.

The line from the South Park episode at hand that best surmises its approach to its subject is as follows: "Freemium. The "mium" is Latin for not really."

It portrayed those creating freemium games as greedy, unethical, and abhorrent businessmen. When one of the characters in the episode worries about making money from "people with problems," one of the businessmen replies, "Don't think about that! Think about all the money!" 

So given the criticism in the episode, and knowing that some of our Indie Mavens had created their own free-to-play games, we wanted to find out what they thought about it. So we asked them:

"Given the recent criticism of the freemium model in South Park, do you think the mass market's attitude is moving away from F2P and back to paid mobile games. Will this sort of criticism change your attitude to making F2P games?"

Dave Gilbert CCO Wadjet Eye Games

My first question is how many F2P players are likely to be South Park viewers?

That's the way to do it

I know that I, personally, haven't watched South Park in almost a decade!

Hugo Smits Game Designer Goodbye Galaxy Games

I see F2P as a *new* platform and/or business model. And like all new models and platforms it takes time to get good. I remember back in the day CD-ROM became the new thing. Lots of developers jumped on the bandwagon of making interactive movie games. Most of those sucked, but it took the industry awhile to realize that.

In the perfect world I think F2P is the best model for games.
Hugo Smits

That didn’t mean CD-ROM sucked as well. It just took a while for the industry to figure out how to use CD-ROM. Suddenly it could be used to store more data and bigger textures. Audio streaming improved audio quality a lot as well.

I think the same thing will happen for F2P. There are obvious ways to really screw things up. The industry is just struggling to find the proper way to use it.

In the perfect world I think F2P is the best model for games. Because it lets you play the game and see if you like it. If you don’t you only lost a few minutes. If you do like it, you can spend some money to play more (which is fair to the developer, since they put a lot of effort into making the game).

That sounds much better than how other business models work - where consumers go to the store and spend lots of money on a known franchise or whatever box cover looks the best, only to find out at home the game actually sucks.

Vadim Starygin Founder Elite Games

F2P is not the solid term. In some games like Dungeon Keeper - it's terrible, in some games it is transparent - League of Legends - and does not impact on gameplay. Some games released demos and then you can unlock full game - that is similar mechanic to F2P.

Dungeon Keeper - worthy of South Park's ire?

F2P is not a bad thing, if done correctly. All my games are free with IAP/microtransactions in them, but they are not breaking gameplay, and sometimes they add beautiful things for player.

South Park does NOT crap over F2P games, but ones that suck money in same way as the alcohol industry.

Richard Perrin Owner Locked Door Puzzle

The focus on chasing whales ... was always going to bite back eventually.
Richard Perrin

Although I don't think the free-to-play model is going anywhere, I do think the reputation of the model in general is probably going to continue to trend downwards for a while until the more exploitive methods of monetisation are less prevalent.

In all honesty the industry has brought this on itself by so viciously defending the more ethically dubious techniques for the past few years.

The focus on chasing whales and justifying abusive game design by the huge incomes reaped was always going to bite back eventually.

So no I don't think free to play is going to go out of style but I'm hoping both customer and media push back against the style mocked in South Park will make that go out of vogue.

Pavel Ahafonau Co-founder Happymagenta

I'd second Vadim Starygin's words. F2P isn't a bad thing. Bad is how it's done by some, sometime major, big players.

EA's Dungeon Keeper is quite a good example of the game you uninstall almost instantly when you see the model. Star Wars: The Old Republic (also by EA) is better, but in it you have to purchase extra content anyway - so, it's more like a paid game with a free preview, because it's damn good and you know what you do pay for.

The situation according to Trey Parker and Matt Stone

And in terms of paid games, there are some that you buy on a whim without even reading reviews based on history of the brand and or trailers - Civilization Beyond Earth, for example, - it has tremendously bad reviews on Steam - and this time I've fallen into the same error, spent my dollars just to uninstall it a hour later and to find out the bad reviews just to check I'm not the only one.

In Civilization Beyond Earth, F2P would save my money. So, I've no problem with F2P as a thing - sometimes it's even a good thing that allows devs bring good content into the world.

P.S. And South Park is as hillarious as always.

Dan Menard CEO Double Stallion

I think that South Park bashing free-to-play games is a sign that the cliché tactics used in some of these games aren't going unnoticed. If the game boils down to a Skinner Box, players are going to notice and eventually catch on.

The key to making a good F2P game is making free part of the reason that the game is cool.
Dan Menard

To me, the key to making a good F2P game is making free part of the reason the game is cool. It's really cool that League of Legends is free, because I don't have to push my friends very hard for them to download it and join me. 

Candy Crush Saga on the other hand doesn't really give the players much benefit for being free, aside from being more viral. When free is a feature that brings value to players is when the model works best.

Jonathan Blow did a great talk a couple of years ago comparing F2P to bad TV. I think as time goes on players will get more educated and demand better experiences. Players will recognize the same patterns that turn us off games with abusive monetization, and the industry as a whole will be better for it.

League of Legends - the gold standard for F2P?

That being said, I don't think F2P is for every game, and I do hope that it doesn't supersede the premium model in every market and genre. There is a class of games which you just can't make F2P and they are still very compelling to play.

With an affinity for eccentricity, as well as anything macabre or just plain weird, Chris searches for the games that fly under the radar. If you ask him, anything can be a game. Oh, and a game can be about anything, if you put enough thought into it. So, there.