The Case Against Free

Having built my fair share of online advergames (read: far too many), and generally being frugal with my game purchases (i buy all my games used), i’ve long been a fan of the free-to-play game model: play the game as long as you like, and maybe you can kick in a buck or two for a new hat.

Or the free trial game: play the game’s first level for free, and then pay (or not) for the full experience.

Or the advergame: play a decent Arkanoid clone with Toucan Sam whispering sweet nothings about sugar cereal in your ear the whole time.

Or the ad-supported model: stare blankly at a text-only plug for Viagra or U.N.I.V.E.R.S.I.T.Y. degrees for fifteen seconds before the game starts.

A Clockwork Orange

Buy now, and we’ll throw in the chamois!

David Frampton at Majic Jungle Software makes a strong case against devaluing your software. In his experience, lowering the cost of entry brings out the worst in people:

… a $0.99 app will get MANY one star reviews, even after increasing the price. Two months later reviews like this will still show up:
“…i vot it for 99cents and now its a wopping 5bucks woow…”

If you price your app too low, you will get bad reviews.

Beholden to Quick-Fix Fun Junkies

We see the same phenomenon with online Flash games. There are countless portals hosting scads of games, and nearly all of them are free. The customer can just flit from game to game like a fun-hungry hummingbird, making up his mind about the entire product in a fraction of a second.

Rocket Robin Hood Friar Tuck

Friar Tuck from Rocket Robin Hood only takes one bite of that chicken leg before throwing it away. Free Flash games are wastefully sampled in much the same way.

The result is that customers develop loyalty to the portal (miniclip, addictinggames, pogo, etc), instead of being loyal to the game or the developer. That’s a messed up model. Think of a world where TV viewers are fans of ABC, instead of being fans of the actual shows that the station airs. “Are you watching ABC tonight? i just love ABC! i wonder what offerings ABC has for me this evening?”

Don’t Love the Game Aggregator – Love the Game

Customers should follow content, not content aggregators. Contrast the iPhone App Store and online Flash game portals with a service like Xbox Live. The brilliant Achievements system was designed to increase loyalty to the Xbox 360 platform, sure. But developers are able to leverage those customers with the way they structure their game’s Achievements.

20 gamer points for trying the online mode. 15 gamer points for designing a custom character. Developers can move players through the game by dangling gamer point carrots in front of them, ensuring that players experience everything the game has to offer before deciding to stay or move on. Games like Catan make no bones about where they want players to spend their time, with tantalizing Achievements set for playing hundreds of Catan games online over Xbox Live.

Doing Lines

i’ve seen the free/ingrate phenomenon rear its ugly head in other areas of my life. i’ll never forget a trip to Disney World where a friend and i got into the park an hour early as a bonus for staying at the Disney camp ground. We knew we’d have time to jet through an empty line-up and be the first to ride anything we wanted. For whatever reason, i suggested Peter Pan, so we made a beeline for it.

Just as we’d hoped: there was no line-up, and we cruised through all the chains and cordons and hopped into the first pirate ship carriage in line, unbelievably giddy because we hadn’t languished in a mile-long queue.

It was the worst ride of my life.

Suddenly, all the animatronic characters looked stupid. The sets were dull. i was not entertained. i did not have fun. i gave the ride one star. i kept thinking about some other ride i’d rather be on.

Peter Pan's Flight

i guess some things are better when you’re six?

For the rest of the day, we found ourselves sitting on the barricades at ride after ride after ride, waiting our turn for up to an hour. And all of those rides were great.

Investment, be it time or money, favourably increases expectation.

Higher Quality Products Attract Higher Quality Customers

My mother runs a singles group. Unmarried adults pay her a membership fee to attend different social events that she organizes, from bowling and mini-golf to fancy dinners and dances. The less she charges, the more unsatisfied customers she gets. The more she charges, the higher the “pedigree” of her customers becomes. She sometimes gets worried about turning a profit, so she’ll run a less expensive event and hope to make it up in volume. But time and time again, this strategy bites her, to the point where some of her ultra-cheap customers just refuse to pay. Her most successful events are the ones that cost more money. The quality of her patrons improves, their satisfaction ratings improve, and the business turns a profit.

Of course, we’ve all experienced this. A fifty dollar steak will generally taste better than a six dollar steak, even if they’re the same cut and are prepared by the same chef. Humans are funny that way.

All this is enough to make me rethink the benefits of free-to-play models, as both a business owner and a consumer. Maybe i’ll start buying high-quality furniture rather than kindling from that Swedish place with the metal pegs and the allen keys? What if i start ordering all my clothes from the LL Bean catalogue? This could be a problem.

Is pricier really better, or am i just slowly turning into an old white guy?

3 thoughts on “The Case Against Free

  1. Pingback: Shareware sucks. Time for a change. « Majic Jungle Blog

  2. scutdog

    Like the “Pandora’s Wine” episode of the television show Corner Gas. Give your customers higher quality software to bump them up to a higher “software bracket” and then they can’t go back.

  3. Facebook Indie Games

    We find this with books. People are more likely to complain that a $30 is overpriced than a $60. The dialogue is something like this, for 30 buckers…

    “I can’t believe I shelled out $30 for this. It’s got spelling mistakes, the print quality is worse than O’Reilly, and I don’t like the cover.”

    The 60 buckers…

    “I’m a skilled professional and I needed this content. I thought hard before buying it, but realized that if it can help me with [blank] even if it just saves me a few days work, it’ll be money well spent. Sure it has some spelling mistakes and it won’t win any prizes for beauty — but it did what I needed, and I couldn’t have got this content anywhere else.”

    A high price fits into the story that customers tell themselves. Of course, if the book didn’t do the job then it would still have got poor reviews — but premium customers will overlook glitches because they understand they’re worth overlooking if they can unlock the value in the product.


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