This week, I have mostly been playing a new game on my iPad.
It’s a free racing game and it follows many well-trodden themes in this genre. For one, it’s very simple in concept and yet fiendishly addictive in execution. The gameplay itself involves dangerously close to nothing at all; the setting is street drag racing so not only are there no corners, there’s not even a steering wheel. There are no obstacles of any kind either, so there’s nothing to avoid even if you could steer the car. All you have to do is press the throttle to initiate the race and then change up a gear every time a light on the dashboard tells you to. When you reach the finish line, you either have or haven’t beaten your opponent racing alongside you. And that’s it.
There is a little skill involved in timing your gear changes for example, but any driving game that you can play while watching TV and with a cup of tea in one hand can never be described as an accurate simulation. It does however look very pretty, and the cars modelled on real-life cars are rendered in exquisite 3D beauty and look very fetching as they speed past rows of onlookers along neon-lit city streets.
The addiction comes in two ways though. Firstly, there’s the inexorable draw of merely being afforded the opportunity of winning something. I fear that I’m particularly competitive, but entering some kind of challenge, staking your claim and then rubbing your opponent’s nose in the dirt is a timeless source of pleasure for humankind. Noble it may not be, and pointless it most certainly is, but seeing your car surge forward as you snatch third gear and just edge past your opponent by inches as you cross the finish line is strangely satisfying, even if your primary achievement was managing to eat a chocolate Hob Nob without dropping too many crumbs whilst playing.
The second form of addiction comes from an extremely well-honed aspect of modern mobile games; the constant promise of evolution. Every race brings a virtual cash prize, and every chunk of cash can be spent on improving your ride. Engine upgrades, sports exhausts, sticky tyres, race gearboxes and customisations like personalised number plates, new paint jobs and garish bodywork graphics. The list is endless, but in all cases leads to either better performance or the potential to win more cash at the next race. You can now drive harder and faster, as well as more profitably, and can crush your foe with an even greater margin.
As you rise through the seemingly endless ranks, you’ll need more and more add-ons to compete with faster and faster competitors, and after every few hours of gameplay you’ll both need, and be able to afford, a new car altogether, and you can start again at a higher level of competition with an even racier, shinier set of wheels to begin to customise and improve. The sense of aspiration is constantly nurtured and tickled on the tummy to ensure that you never lose sight of your primary aim – to get that next thing and so move on to that next bit. It’s gameplay crack, where you’re teased into the action with a mere Marlboro of a bog-standard Mini Cooper which leads, by degrees, onto harder stuff until you’re searching for that virtual vein so you can inject pure, uncut, race-tuned Ferrari.
So what’s not to like? Great graphics, addictive, if simplistic, gameplay and at a price that’s right – completely free. Except… ah yes, we need to talk about that. The game manages to sit simultaneously in both the App Store’s ‘Free’ category as well as atop its ‘Top grossing’ one. A contradiction, surely? And yet, once again, it’s a shining example of one of the current trends in mobile games and its current addiction to the ‘freemium’ pricing model, whereby games are downloaded and entirely playable for free, but encourage in-app purchases of credits to expedite progression through the ranks.
It’s usually possible to progress entirely through a freemium game without spending a penny, but at a frustratingly slow pace and with strict limitations placed on how long you are able to play for any given period. Buy an uprated exhaust for your racing car for example and you might have the choice of waiting 10 minutes to have it fitted or you can override this and play immediately if only you pay. And once your petrol runs out, you may have to wait a whole day unless you cough up.
The currency is often expressed in virtual gold or plain ‘credits’, but also often in a more contextual medium, especially where aimed at small children, as these games often are. Players may be encouraged to buy extra ‘gold’ or ‘berries’ or ‘chips’ or ‘gems’ or ’emeralds’ or ‘jewels’ or ‘acorns’, or any other number of endearing and seemingly-innocuous forms of credit.
These are then usually bundled up into increasingly large and discounted bundles to encourage bulk-buying. Why buy 10 gems for 69p when you can buy a whole ‘bag of 50 gems’ for only £2.99, or a ‘wheelbarrow of 500 gems’ for the bargain price of a tenner. My racing game lets me buy anything from a ‘Few chips of gold’ (30 coins) for £1.99, via an ‘Executive case of gold’ (100 coins with 15 free!) for £6.99, all the way to the ‘BEST VALUE’ option of the ‘Gold mine’ of 1,000 with 650 free for a mere £69.99. Yes, that’s right, 70 pounds of your English money.
And it’s not like those 1,650 gold coins would last a lifetime. The most expensive of the 26 car models on offer costs 1,000 gold coins before the customising even begins. Sure, most of the other cars costs considerably less, but it wouldn’t be hard to get through two loads of the £70 option in an afternoon, and it would cost vastly more if you bought it dripfeed-style rather than in bulk. So it’s no wonder that these ‘free’ games can potentially top Apple’s top grossing lists. They can in fact generate large amounts of cash. By the bag, wheelbarrow or boatload in fact.
Is it so wrong though? Certainly these games are slick, professional efforts that will have required teams of experts and thousands of hours of hard work. Work that demands payment. But it’s easy to argue that this subtle, maybe even cynical way or leaching money from people, children particularly, is morally questionable at least. Yet still, it’s very effective.
It’s interesting to note that while games like these are effortlessly lifting money from punter’s pockets by the punnet, newspapers and magazines are struggling to work out effective pricing models to ease their shift onto digital platforms. Some charge by the edition on a daily or weekly basis, some offer all-you-can-eat subscriptions on a monthly or annual basis and others still experiment with micro payments of a few pence for an individual article.
Clearly this is not the answer. The answer is obvious. You buy credits, in bulk. You could have a small ‘Bundle of Newsprint’ for a fiver, a much larger ‘Delivery Van’ (10 FREE!) for a tenner or an entire ‘Printing Press’ (Save 70%!) for only 50 quid. Reach your desired article and you’re faced with a countdown timer that will descend maddeningly slowly from ten minutes before you can read it for free, or simply accelerate you experience by paying a credit to read immediately. Need a powerup like a certain columnist to enhance your experience? 5 credits will unlock it for you. But don’t worry if you run out of cash – you can always tweet an article or share with your Facebook friends to earn an extra credit or two.
So there you have it. Freemium newspapers – the answer has been lurking in the kids’ games section of app stores for ages. Newspapers can be free whilst earning a fortune.