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A decade ago playing a game was a simple affair for your wallet. You went to the store, you bought it, and then maybe a few years later you’d also buy an expansion. That was it. There was no DLC, no cash shops, no premium in-game currency.

Ah, but times have changed. Now many games are free up-front, but bombard players with an endless array of in-game purchases, some of which are impossible to avoid if you want to complete the game. Worse, these pay walls can be undetectable at first, but there are usually a few hints that will tip you off before you sink too much time into the game.

Pressure To Share The Game On Social Networks

Games that dip excessively into freemium territory operate on the idea that a fool and his money are soon parted. Who that person is and how happy they are with the game aren’t important. What’s important is getting the game in front of as many fools as possible.

freemiumfacebook

To encourage that, freemium games will often ask you to share the game via social networks like Facebook How To Block Only Facebook Games & Apps On Your Network How To Block Only Facebook Games & Apps On Your Network Interacting with users and customers on Facebook is almost a requirement for any business that wants to maintain a competitive advantage. What this means is that many companies are no longer blocking their employees from... Read More . Almost all games of the freemium breed do it, but those trying particularly hard to drain your bank account are absolutely relentless. They may ask you to share every time you start the game, every time you finish a level, or even send notifications to your phone or tablet asking you to share when you’re not playing the game!

A Lack Of In-Game Bundles, Or Bundles That Are A Raw Deal

Many freemium games offer bundles that provide in-game items and/or currency at a set price which is much less than what each item would cost individually. This is a typical business practice, similar to supermarkets selling items at a reduced price if you buy multiples. They make less per item, but the bundling encourages you to spend more than you otherwise would.

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This practice can take a nasty turn, however, if the game wants to put the squeeze on you. Not everyone that buys a bundle actually compares its price to the price of individual items, so sometimes a bundle won’t even be discounted, but instead be priced as the sum of everything included.

You may also run across excessively expensive bundles that exist only to lure customers who have a moment of weakness and fork over big bucks with a single click, or whose point is to make other bundles seem inexpensive in comparison. Both tactics are a good indication that a game is more concerned with your pocket-book than your entertainment.

A Steep Difficulty Curve

Freemium games are easy to start playing as a rule. The entire point of making a game free is to have as many people to play as possible, and making the first levels anything but brain-dead easy would go against that goal.

What’s a problem, however, is when subsequent levels are extremely difficult 7 Video Games So Hard They Will Make You Want To Throw Your Controller 7 Video Games So Hard They Will Make You Want To Throw Your Controller One of the major staples of old school video games is the incredible difficulty. I've talked about the level of challenge in older games before in an article about the things I miss most from... Read More or even impossible to pass without buying in-game items or currency. This tactic teases the player into feeling confident and powerful, and then takes that feeling away alongside a promise that it could be regained by spending a few measly bucks.

A fair freemium game may be difficult, but it will never be so hard that passing a level is impossible without spending money. If you feel tempted into pay-to-win, do yourself a favor and uninstall the game. The feeling will only get worse.

In-Game Purchases That Never Last

Buying an item in-game usually provides you with some advantage, but how long does that advantage last? In most cases the answer is “forever,” as you’ll either be able to buy an in-game item directly, or buy the item with in-game currency that was itself purchased with real money. Examples include bonuses to leveling, items that make your more powerful, or travel tools that let you move around the game more quickly.

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Some games, however, won’t let you have anything you can keep. You’ll be able to purchase bonuses, but they’ll only last for a set period of time or for the duration of a specific level. After that they’re gone, leaving you to buy more, which means there’s no limit to how much you can spend on the game. This tactic is common in the freemium world, but particularly nasty titles will only offer temporary bonuses, rather than placing them alongside more permanent advantages.

Rip-offs And Boobs

Freemium titles that want your money usually don’t spend a lot of time trying to think up an entirely original idea. What’s the point? The goal is to nudge the player into an endless cycle of paying for rewards that run out, leaving you with the urge to open your wallet again.

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As such, freemium games often focus on looking good upfront – and also rather familiar. Searches like “Lord of the rings” and “Fast and the Furious” tend to produce a lot of me-too games, particularly on the Google Play store.  These tie-ins aren’t always trying to fool you into thinking they’re the real thing, but the developers of such games know people are more likely to download a game if it looks vaguely familiar from the start.

If that doesn’t work, well, it’s time to bring out the boobs 3 Ways Game Studios Still Reinforce Negative Body Images For Women [Opinion] 3 Ways Game Studios Still Reinforce Negative Body Images For Women [Opinion] It’s 2012. It’s been four decades since video games first began to emerge as a form of entertainment for consumption. In those decades, game complexity has improved, massive online worlds have been constructed, and 3D... Read More ! Overtly sexual advertisements have been around a long time, but have become particularly common with the rise of freemium titles. Evony is one of the most famous examples and a pioneer in ridiculously sexual ads, and even kills both birds with one stone, as it also mimics the look of Civilization’s older ads. Using virtual flesh to lure in customers is a dead giveaway a game’s looking for easy money.

Conclusion

You’ll notice, as you look through these statements, that they apply to more than just no-name games from unheard of developers. There’s a strong argument that popular titles like Candy Crush fit at least a few of these criteria.

Some might say that’s because Candy Crush really is a bad game that’s trying to suck you dry. But it’s also an indication that these rules are broad. Fulfilling just one of the conditions above doesn’t mean a freemium game is going to suck, but if you spot multiple red flags, it’s probably time to run.

Fortunately, you usually don’t need to spend much time with a game to see if it’s trying to spring a trap on your bank account. Sometimes you don’t even need to download a game. Do all the official images include scantily-clad women alongside pay-store items? Cross that sucker off your list!

What do you think about freemium games? Are you willing to put up with their antics, or do you think they deliver addiction rather than entertainment? Let us know in the comments.

  1. Scott Hedrick
    April 15, 2015 at 10:39 pm

    I played Evony. I bailed for two reasons: first, the ability to buy armed forces directly meant that he who spent the most gold, won. I'd spend time to find a careful position and nurture it, only to be beaten repeatedly by new players who could not possibly have built their armies from the game resources available to them. Those players also tended to be the most obnoxious. Second, I got tired of the boob ads. If your game is worth playing, you don't need to use those kinds of ads. Even Leisure Suit Larry didn't push boobs that hard. I currently play Ikariam, which recently made a change that I think adversely affects game play. You can now directly buy resources with ambrosia, the in-game currency you get by buying it. I personally have used this because I had to give the game up to finish my thesis, and I wanted to get back to where I was as quickly as possible. Previously, you could use ambrosia for a 20% boost in resource production, which was a help but did not overwhelm the game. Money gave you a bonus but it didn't overwhelm the game. Being able to buy resources directly definitely gives a significant advantage to folks with money. If Ikariam starts allowing military forces to be bought directly, I will be done with the game, because then it will have become Evony. Other than the direct buying of resources, I think the in-game purchases are fine. They are bonuses that don't overwhelm the game, and it looks like you can still be top dog without spending a dime, but you need to work it like a second job.

  2. Dinofan
    March 28, 2015 at 4:52 pm

    What's your opinion of Jurassic Park Builder and other freemium games from Ludia?

  3. Richard Sievert
    March 18, 2015 at 4:53 pm

    The market ruined games with pay to play. With the high price of electricity it seems that isn't enough for the gadget grabbers they want it all.

  4. Scott Hedrick
    February 20, 2015 at 4:08 pm

    I played Evony for a while. One of the things that seriously unbalances the game is that you can buy armies. That means you can simply buy your way to the top. I also got tired of the sexual ads. The game didn't need them.

    I currently play a freemium game called Ikariam, and, while you can spend real money, you don't have to in order to enjoy the game. You can spend money and get a timed bonus for production of materials, and I don't have a problem with that because it enhances and doesn't overwhelm the game. I had to stop playing for a while because of grad school, but I started again a few months ago and discovered a change that I don't think is an improvement, even though I took advantage of it. Now you can buy material directly, and that means being able to build much faster. It also means that, while you can't yet buy armies directly, you can buy the stuff you need to make them (even population, but that is terribly expensive). I took advantage of this because I wanted to rapidly get back to where I was when I had to quit. It's too expensive to keep growing just on the materials you buy. I believe this is the start to unbalancing the game because you can build armies faster. Once every several months they offer the Spartan, a particular military unit, which you can obtain only by buying it. Spartans are stronger than the hoplite, the main military unit, but their chief advantage is that they are fanatics and so don't have any continuing maintenance costs. You can't use them as substitutes for the other forces, so they don't overwhelm the game- they die the same as other units, it just takes a little more effort, and so they cost too much to replace to use as frontline troops. I bought a bunch of them and use them in my own towns as defense. As long as they are only offered once or twice a year for a limited time, they can't overwhelm the game (and you are only allowed to buy so many at a time, although it is a generous amount). So, as long as the folks behind Ikariam don't allow you to buy military forces directly OR allow you to pay to build them faster, the game will still play well without ever spending money.

  5. Hamburgular
    February 14, 2014 at 4:32 pm

    Even pay for games like infinity blade try to get you to purchase stuff in game all the time. Another nasty tactic that I have noticed is that the developers will start out not trying too hard, but then a while after its release they will update it and begin making you pay in game currency for everything in an attempt to get you to purchase more. Plants vs. zombies 2 is one that springs to mind.

  6. RcRon7
    February 13, 2014 at 6:50 pm

    I'll try to find out things about the game. One thing I try to look for is the ones you "Pay" for and as stated still little you with Adds. Hello, if I have spent money on your game, do me a favor and stop shoving that crap in my face.

  7. Oswaldo
    February 13, 2014 at 5:52 pm

    I've run into a couple of rough spots in an otherwise great game, such as "Real Racing 3". It's those situations where a certain car costs about 200 "gold coins" (when you make 10 to 15 of these "coins" when you complete a level at 100%) or when you need to upgrade your car at increasingly expensive amounts (let's say, 20 "gold coins" for an engine overhaul).

    • Matt S
      February 14, 2014 at 8:22 pm

      Even Forza 5, the new Xbox game, can charge some pretty steep prices for cars. You don't have to buy them with real money, but the currency rate is low enough that you may need to if you switch cars often. Very annoying.

  8. Matthew H
    February 13, 2014 at 1:17 pm

    It's not just freemium games.

    I paid hard cash (well, a fiver) for the Batman The Dark Knight Rises game for Android, and it was still littered with cynical attempts to bleed money from its users.

    • Matt S
      February 14, 2014 at 8:21 pm

      You're right, it's starting to become just "games" in general with titles from certain publishers. I hate putting up with that; I want to play a game, not an interactive advertisement.

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