Unbranding the Sheep: The Perils of Free-to-Play Experienced

I’ve had a pretty good personal and professional relationship with Korean mobile publisher Gamevil. They make good games and price them well, including Air Penguin. At least, that’s how they used to do things. What’s happened since is depressing, discouraging, and shows one direction where the future of video games is headed.

A while back, I bought a game called Cartoon Wars: Gunner for the iPhone. It’s a simple game: You play a stick figure that has to kill other stick figures with increasingly awesome weapons. You start out with a bow and arrow and can move onto ninja swords, flamethrowers, and even mech suits. As you kill enemies, you get either gold or mana, the former of which is used to build up. It’s pure, mindless, violent fun, and it was an easy $1 purchase.

Since that time, Blue C&C was bought by Gamevil, and the Cartoon Wars games are being brought over to the Android marketplace. However, the games are free-to-play. Normally, this would be a cause for celebration—free games, yay!—but I got a pit in my stomach. There’s always a catch with F2P, and with Gamevil being a Korean company, they’re the masters of the business model. As I played the game—or rather, tried to play the game; the Android version is unbelievably buggy—I eventually noticed that I was underprepared for the later stages. I simply did not have the money to buy the weapons and boosts that I needed to effectively play the game, a problem I didn’t remember having when I first played. Furthermore, the ways to “earn” more gold were basically being slapped in my face. If I tried to buy something I couldn’t afford, a giant “BUY MORE GOLD!” link came up. There’s also an advertisement at the bottom of most screens to “EARN MORE GOLD!” by installing other free versions of Gamevil games such as Destinia. Lastly, the price to buy gold—something I’m not entirely against—seemed a bit off; 6,000G was $0.99, up to 1.25 million gold for $100. The prices seemed high; the best weapon in the game is effectively $10 ($80,000G). In short, I was afraid Gamevil had “rebalanced” the game in order to “suggest” that people buy gold with real-world money (RWM) in the same way a mobster would “suggest” someone buy protection; namely, by making it hard to do anything otherwise.

I decided to test things out by starting a brand new game, both on the Android and the iPhone. I played to stage 5. It’s official: Gamevil screwed the Android users. An enemy that gives me 40G on the iPhone, in the same stage, only gives me 14 in the Android game. Furthermore, weapon upgrades are more expensive, sometimes by thousands of gold. The ever-looming image of “BUY MORE GOLD!” is impossible to ignore because, in order to even be reasonably competent, you have to buy more to catch up. What’s even worse is that the prices on the Android version are higher than on the Apple game; on iOS, my gold prices are $1 (50K), $3 (200K) and $6 (500K). Therefore, on the “free” version of this game, you get less gold for more expensive weapons, and your real money brings in less gold. It’s a vicious cycle. It’s the Zynga Principle applied to a game that already showed it could be very entertaining without having to resort to extorting its users.

What’s worse is that Gamevil’s entries on the Android market are increasingly taking away the option to buy a full version. Zenonia 2 has both a free and a $0.99 version; but Zenonia 3, which I bought for iOS, is only available for free. Destinia is free only, as is Colosseum and the latest version of Baseball Superstars. What was once one of my favourite mobile developers has now become toxic. I simply cannot trust the company anymore because I know they’re designing their games with a complete and total lack of respect towards their customers. They are explicitly designing around the compulsive need to buy in-game currency with RWM, creating a lock-in effect. And they aren’t even giving a choice anymore; they’ve confirmed to me that the free version of CW: Gunner is the full version. Can I even trust them not to update the iPhone version—the one I paid for—with this new “balance”? Honestly, I can’t. When I asked them if they were going to be doing that while noting that the Android specs were terrible, they simply said that they would “advise the team” regarding my issue. I would very much like for them to do that, and then follow that up by saying “and we think you should never do that because it’s terrible and horrible and why the hell have we stopped selling full versions for a set price?”

Honestly, I would pay $5 for Cartoon Wars: Gunner, the exact way it is on my old, ineffective iPhone, so long as they fixed the gameplay issues with the Android. But as it stands, I’ve finally been unwittingly exposed to the same business model that makes games such as Zynga’s -Ville games and Capcom’s Smurfs Village so abominable. To stress the point, the latter has proven so successful that Capcom is making “social” gaming the focus of the entire company. Quite frankly, it’s chilling that players are falling for this nonsense.

POSTSCRIPT: Large Russian Games’ Ed Ropple has an interesting take on this, in a private conversation:

“I mean, look. You bought an Android. It’s universally known that Android users are cheap fucking douchebags who pirate much, much more than they buy. This stuff is, to me, a sane recourse. Angry Birds didn’t even HAVE a paid version on Android for a long time. ” (Ed. note: I mentioned at this point that they’re still not. Angry Birds, RIO and Seasons are all ad-supported) Because the ads can make money off pirates. 😀 I mean, I have jailbroken iOS devices sitting right here. Putting pirated software on them is still a dick. Android? Press button, fuck developer.”

I will admit that this is an angle I didn’t consider. Still, I’ve never been a fan, or a supporter, of screwing legitimate customers for the sake of the dickheads.

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Christopher Bowen

About Christopher Bowen

Christopher Bowen is the Editor in Chief of Gaming Bus. Before opening Gaming Bus in May of 2011, he was the News Editor at Diehard GameFAN, a lead reporter for DailyGamesNews, and a reviewer at Not A True Ending, also contributing to VIMM, SNESZone and Scotsmanality. Outside of the industry, he is a network engineer in Norwalk, CT and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.