I’m sure we’re all quite familiar with freemium genes the likes of FarmVille, Hay Day, and Clash of Clans. Games where one only needs to click the in-game objects and wait to succeed. For years I’ve ignored these digital constructs as—from my perspective—nothing more than cash-grabbing time sinks, ones that are not even worthy of the term “video games.” When my friends and acquaintances sent me invites and such likes on Facebook, I brushed them off; considering them as no more than spam messages broadcast by my social circle. They’re mere occasional annoyances that just had to be tolerated, I suppose.
Now I’ve been an avid video-gamer since I was perhaps three. My father bought me the now archaic games of Windows 98, and my siblings had a Sega Genesis which we all shared. With these pathways left wide open for me to enter, I experimented a lot with gaming. At first, they were simple distractions, ones unable to replace the model cars I raced around the house. Yet later on, I suddenly found my eyes glued to either the computer or television screens. Games gave me challenges, required me to think both in battle and puzzle-solving, all of which in diverse and unfamiliar ways. In short, those cartridges and floppy disks sucked away my free time like no other form of entertainment could. More so than football, biking, and anything else common for a four year-old of the 90s.
The fun of gaming, for my childhood-self, lies mostly on how much I was needed to complete tasks framed as crucial by the narrative: kill the bad guys, protect the innocent villagers, save the world, so on and so forth. As a child who has not yet reached a productive age, the sense of importance video-games granted me was enrapturing. Active participation, alongside the surrounding context of how in-demand you are within the game, are the crucial elements of what makes video-games fun.
Yet now, the video-game industry is experimenting with something entirely now. Attempts at creating what is in direct contrast with the nature of older games: passiveness. The mobile-gaming sector is chockfull of freemium titles where users only need to click, wait, and sometimes and sometimes spend actual money to be competitive in this category—including the aforementioned Hay Day and Clash of Clans.
The structure and “gameplay” of passive games are the polar opposites of their predecessors’ eras—the times of the Nintendo Entertainment System, Playstations, Xboxes. Gamers are not, in these freemiums, tested on skill, reflex, planning and all those other elements that make video-games a favorite pastime for many. In their place stand patience, sociability—as your social media’s accounts usually give bonuses based on your game-related interactions with your friends—as well as expendable income for those who just can’t wait for their corns to ripen. But this change of style, one which would have caused roaring laughters and odd looks when consoles and PCs were the juggernauts of gaming, has proven surprisingly fruitful.
Open up any app-store from your smartphone OS of choice and you’re guaranteed to see some freemiums on the tops of ‘most downloaded charts’. Financially, and at least popularity-wise, these digital items are rarely challenged in their market. Yet why are so many people playing games where they’re forced to wait and do nothing? This statement may sound odd, but perhaps the ‘doing nothing’ part is what makes these apps so successful.
As we gamers grow older, our list of responsibilities continue to pile on. Students are forced to juggle with their schoolworks and pervasive social lives, employees are left exhausted after a hard day’s work, and each and everyone of us are handed somewhat more than what our own plates can handle. We run out of the time and energy to repeat those six-hour long gaming sessions and all-nighters. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day, and strength in our physiques, to do those activities whilst still fulfilling our duties. But abandoning a hobby we’ve cultivated since childhood does not come easily; we needed a solution. For myself, and perhaps many more, the answer popped up in the form of freemiums.
I spend a lot of my time—maybe even all of it—studying, playing futsal, reading and writing day after day. By the time my day’s list of objectives have been checked away, either the sun has already set or I’d be feeling my muscles tearing themselves away from my bones. I.e. I’m too often too tired to play with my Xbox 360. But I do have to hold on to my cellphone a lot, for texts and calls, news articles, e-books, etc. So why not put some games in there, I asked. I could theoretically entertain myself four hours or mere minutes as I drift to sleep—often the few moments I have entirely to myself.
Currently, I’m occupied with a game called Clash of Kings. In it, you build up your army, city-slash-castle, try to protect them as best as you can, and send your forces to crush and plunder other players’ holds. The mechanics would be very familiar to anyone who’s played with freemiums: click, build/train/improve, and wait. I chose the game simply because of its relatively realistic art-style alone, since the gameplay would pretty much be identical to its competitors.
Yet Clash of Kings only serves as a kind-of gateway drug for my now ever-present freemium addiction. It led me to install other titles; Vega Conflict—which is basically Clash of Kings set in space with spaceships instead of Medieval Europe—the Hay Day cousin Jurassic Village and many more.
I enjoy each of these little games equally. I click, wait, and reap the rewards I gained from doing virtually nothing; for none of the actions I did in-game actually demanded me to think or even focus. And due to the hectic atmosphere of my recent days, the change of pace provide by these freemiums is most welcome. They allow for what can be perceived as a break from the business and chaos of my waking hours anywhere and anytime—letting me worry about nothing other than inconsequential numbers and pictures on a screen in peace. Wasting away on what I think are well-deserved breaks from reality, for the sake of unreal and insignificant characters existing as representatives of the ones and zeros behind them.
Thus, perhaps the rise of the freemiusms should be attributed to the “breaks for air” they give. Glancing at their target market of both children not yet capable of playing more sophisticated games, and working adults who are kept busy throughout the day, the assumption rings with some truth—at least for myself. Besides, who among us doesn’t need rest? A time of no worry and spent efforts? Many of us, especially those with full-time jobs crave for the tiniest of breaks; freemiums simulate those fleeting periods of having no responsibility and reward you for it.