My life is over. That’s because I’m hopelessly addicted to a popular video game called "Candy Crush."
It’s not some hardcore bloodfest such as "Attack of the Alien Mutants from Hell" or "Gun-toting Nuns vs. the Zombie Apocalypse." I’m in love with a colorful, sparkly, puzzle game that has paper cutouts of a cute pig-tailed heroine, baby dragons and a gentlemanly host. My video game cred just dropped about a thousand points.
But "Candy Crush" illustrates a popular but often frustrating business model with video games, a strategy known as freemium, or "free-to-play."
But don’t be fooled by the name. It’s far from free. As you progress through the game and become addicted, you will hit a wall where you just can’t move forward without plunking down money to open new levels or to buy weapons, powerful spells or powerups to keep going. They call those extra goodies "in-app purchases." You can spend anywhere from 99 cents up to $100 on a game, depending on how fast and easily you want to go through it.
The model was introduced to gamers on Facebook, with popular time-wasters such as "Farmville." It’s also used in online role-playing games for the computer. Now, it’s the standard strategy used for many mobile games sold on iTunes or the Google Play Store. And the business of in-app purchases also is taking over full-fledged console video games.
Some games do a horrible job of implementing the model. Take the new mobile offering, "Dungeon Hunter 4." It’s a role-playing game for the iPhone, iPad and Android devices that’s much like the popular hack-and-slash title, "Diablo 3."
You can play it for maybe an hour before you get into serious trouble. That’s when the monsters suddenly get tough, and in order to progress you have to buy better weapons or armor with real money. Also, you can hold only a maximum of three health potions at a time. They restore your health in battle. If you use them all, you can either buy more with real money or wait a full 24 hours to get three more free.
It could take a lot of money, maybe more than $50, to get through the whole game without feeling frustrated. As a result, hundreds of players and game journalists have trashed "Dungeon Hunter" for the way it cheats players from having a great experience for a reasonable price.
Then there’s "Candy Crush." The game is much like the popular "Bejeweled," where you match three colored gems on a board. It successfully walks that delicate balance between giving players value without paying a lot, while also allowing the game developers to make a reasonable profit.
Unlike "Dungeon Hunter 4," you have five lives that replenish after just a couple of hours. So you can play in 15- to-30-minute chunks before running out of free time, which is just about right for a mobile game before you want to take a break. As it gets tougher, you can pay for powerups for 99 cents or $1.99 that help you clear the board faster.
If you’re really good, you could probably play the whole game without paying for anything, but it does get tougher. To help curb the challenge, the game also lets you connect with your Facebook friends, who can help by giving you more lives or unlocking new levels.
I’ve had hours of fun with it, and I’ve paid only 99 cents so far to unlock new levels. As I progress further, I will happily pay more money, because the developers deserve it. Not so for the makers of "Dungeon Hunter 4," who appear greedy given the way their freemium model works.
But the free-to-play model is a cynical idea to begin with. It relies on addiction in hopes that players will stick with a game and therefore pay to keep playing. The problem is, as with all addictions, if you’re not careful and don’t keep track of your purchases, it can become an expensive habit.
My biggest complaint is that these freemium games don’t provide a way to buy the entire game outright at one price. In other words, they ought to let you unlock everything by paying just once. But none of them do. The new and popular racing game, "Real Racing 3," is a perfect example of one I would gladly pay $10 or more to just unlock all the cars and tracks.
But this is the way video games are being sold, whether we like it or not. It may seem like a deal that you’re getting a game initially for "free." But is it truly free if you’re always trapped into paying more and more?
If you have a tech question for Vince, email him at email@example.com, and he’ll try to answer it for his column in The Salt Lake Tribune or on its website. For an archive of past columns, go to www.sltrib.com/topics/ohmytech.
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