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The Freemium boom and the games defining it

It might sound like a buzz word… scratch that, it really is a buzz word called “Freemium” and over the last year it’s been the word on everyone’s lips when it comes to mobile gaming. It is of course a portmanteau word combining “free” and “premium”, but it’s the direction that many game developers have taken in an effort to attract more customers and earn money at the same time without resorting to constant in-game advertising, and nowhere more so than in the mobile gaming arena.

It involves charging the customer for in-game purchases, extra lives, unlockable characters and the like. Candy Crush Saga, for example, allows you to download and play the game for free, but encourages you to spend money in order to unlock levels, extra moves and so on.

The caveat of course is that not everyone wants to spend money (or can afford to) on in-app purchases, nor should you have to in order to enjoy them. For many gamers, freemium has become a dirty word, even though there are actually some games that give you hours of entertainment, but in which you can choose whether or not you want to spend that extra cash. Some are blatant and aggressive in their attempts to get you to spend, and others are less intrusive, but all will in some way eventually ask you to hand over your credit card details.

PvZ 2: Garden Warfare (Popcap)

The sequel to the amazingly popular Plants vs Zombies, PvZ 2: Garden Warfare follows the same physical gameplay mechanic – defend your house against an army of invading zombies by using the special plants at your disposal.

The premise of PvZ 2 is much the same, except it’s altered in the sense that if you want to unlock certain plants or reduce your wait times, you can fork out some of your hard-earned plastic money in order to do so.

Considering the popularity of the original game, PvZ 2 has come under considerable fire for this new model, with many gamers refusing to play out of principle.

It is however possible to play through the game without spending a cent if you’re strong willed and principled (or just broke). Are you willing to invest a fair amount of time replaying levels in order to generate coins and unlock stuff you could pay for? How important is that sense of instant gratification?

Clash of Clans (Supercell)

Clash of Clans is a tower defence/strategy game that has many gamers addicted. The basic premise requires you need to build up your barracks, train warriors, send them against other warriors, and defend your own town against invaders at the same time.

In online mode you can play and chat with real people, and it offers up different challenges compared to the single player campaign. Quite straightforward, and to be honest we’ve seen it’s ilk before, but Clash of Clans is executed in an attractive and addictive manner which has obviously been a hit in the mobile market.

It also tries to persuade you to boost your playing power with in-game purchases, and in fact Supercell’s freemium hit is apparently generating somewhere in the region of US$654 000 a day in revenue. We might mock it, but this makes it the third best performing freemium title worldwide.

Candy Crush Saga (King)

No list would be complete without Candy Crush Saga. Love it or hate it, it has been by far one of the most successful mobile games of 2013/2014. Match the candy colours and create combos in order to destroy all the candy and achieve the high score – it’s a pretty simple premise that gets insanely difficult as you progress. It also allows you to unlock levels in a couple of ways.

If you’re willing to link your Facebook account and bother your friends with endless requests for more life or level unlocks, you certainly can play through the hundreds of levels currently on offer without paying a cent. If you’re the impatient type then you’ll be buying those couple of extra moves, or unlocking a level here and there by paying outright. The fact that this game is annoyingly addictive doesn’t help matters.

To be clear, while these are some of the best freemium games on the market, or certainly the ones doing particularly well, this is not a trend I particularly adhere to. In fact, I hate in-app purchases and won’t buy them out of principle.

That said, the so-called “casual” gaming market spends a massive amount of money in pursuit of those extra lives, and so while this might be a business model that many of us abhor, The Guardian recently found that the “majority of players spending money in games like Candy Crush Saga and Clash of Clans feel they’re getting their money’s worth from in-app purchases”.

Perhaps this is so, but it’s certainly not something I’ll be spending my money on any time soon.

Author Bio

Pippa Tshabalala: Columnist
Pippa Tshabalala is the former presenter of The Verge -- South Africa's first locally produced TV show on videogames. She has a passion for all things gaming and tech related as well as a growing collection of tattoos. Based in Johannesburg, she is currently the On-Air Producer for Comedy... More