Excerpted from a working draft:
In some ways, this new crop of games is a throwback to gaming’s early roots in the arcade, and not just in their relative simplicity. Take my favorite cabinet classic for instance: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time. It only costs a quarter or two, each, for up to four players to take control of Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo in the side-scrolling basher. Compare that to the cost of the same game on a Super Nintendo cartridge for about $50. But then, one of you would succumb to the Foot Clan’s flurry of kung-fu kicks and throwing stars, and the flashing Insert Coin To Continue would replace your character’s depleted health bar.
One of my best memories involves spending $13 over the course of a rainy afternoon reviving fallen Turtles. I was not playing the game. I was watching other, older kids play, using my precious quarters to continue their quest. Arguably, they should have known better than to take advantage of an 11-year-old with spending cash. This was on a Boy Scout camping trip, by the way.
The point is that “in-app purchases” are their own continuation of this tradition. But there are significant ways that smartphone, browser, and the whole new breed of “freemium” games have perverted the model beyond the simple joy of kids smashing joysticks and pumping quarters into the machine like, in the words of Noah’s Arcade proprietor, Noah Vanderhoff, “lab rats hitting the feeder bar to get food pellets.”
Money wise, the most obvious differences between a game like Sims: FreePlay and Turtles In Time is the complete removal of that initial financial barrier: the first 50 cents to play. We can squabble about the cost of personal computers and smartphones as proxy to that cost, but that has nothing to do with the phenomenon of these games themselves.
“Freemium” as a marketing strategy – give the basic product or service away for free, then charge for premium content upgrades – has been around forever. It has been such a huge success in the software world, in part, because the per-unit cost of software products (formerly floppy discs and CD-ROMs, now simply .ZIP files) is negligible. So we could see this trend as a factor of the new technology surrounding gaming: marketplaces like Apple’s App Store and the Google Play Store easily facilitate freemium – even encourage it, what with the built-in categorical distinction between “Free” and “Paid” apps – so more freemium games are being made.
Maybe Turtles in Time could have been a freemium game if the marketplace of the arcade was better suited for that model. Clearly, giving a decade of delinquent juveniles free reign on those expensive oak cabinets would have been a terrible business plan. But this isn’t the only difference between coin-ops and FarmVille. Most importantly, what your money buys you has changed.