Freemium done right and wrong



There are two freemium games I've been playing on an occasion on my tablet, The Simpsons: Tapped Out and Family Guy: The Quest for Stuff. As they are similar games, I thought that they'd make an excellent comparison on the freemium model and how one is doing it better than the other.

As you might know, freemium is a business model, where you are given something for free, while the product has elements in it of which you have to pay for. This might be for an example DLC or in the case of a lot of mobile game, in-app purchases, which give you better odds at the game. In the case of The Simpsons and Family Guy, it's in-game premium currency, Donuts for the Simpsons and Clams for the Family Guy, that you can use to buy exclusive characters or just plain help you advance in the game. The one doing this better is the Simpsons.

The way I see it, the right way of doing freemium is to make the player feel like there's no need to actually pay for anything. It's important to make the game so, that the things you do as a freemium player are enough to advance in the game and reach the goals you are meant to reach for free. The wrong way, of course, is to make the game feel like it's forcing the player to use currency as while the game is seemingly free, the time limits or goals are so strict or high, that you NEED the premium items in order to reach them. And this turns the game into the worst incarnation of freemium: Pay to Win.

A typical game scene from the Simpsons, though from the social side of visiting other players city (or the stock "other Springfield" in this case, which is not player governed )
The idea of the games are pretty similar. In both games, the respective main city of the series has been destroyed and you are tasked to rebuild it. This goes on by creating buildings, unlocking characters and making them to tasks in order to raise capital for building even bigger and better city. This all is in theory topped with an additional premium item, building or a character, that gives you bonuses. In practice, it doesn't work quite like that, especially with Family Guy which feels more like it's contently begging you to buy something, especially during events, of which it has far too many. Both games have premium characters which are aimed to go through event-specific task a lot quicker, so it's not only tied to Family Guy, the difference just is, that in the case of the Simpsons those paid characters don't feel like mandatory purchases.

As far gameplay goes, the Simpsons is more straightforward in its approach: you unlock things by doing tasks the current storyline asks, after which you are rewarded with whatever the story offers as a prize, like extra money or a new character or a building. It's straight forwarded and simple and doesn't feel like you'd have to play the game professionally 24/7 in order to advance. The free characters alone will keep you going for a good while, as the series itself has been running over 20 years now, so there's loads of them. Some, like Barney, are premium, but not in any occasion it feels like you'd be forced to buy them, as even the events they're tied to can played through relatively effortlessly. The thing the Simpsons does well in the premium aspect is, that it makes you feel you're spending money only when you want to if you want at all, as the free goals can be reached normally in a reasonable time.

Family Guy takes a bit more complex and ultimately more annoying approach. In order to unlock stuff, you don't only have to do character tasks, you need to collect random items. By doing tasks the characters will drop those items, of which some are marked as common, some very rare. This means, that while unlocking something might need for an example 4 bananas, it can be a time eating task to collect them if those bananas are very rare.  This does, especially on the timed events, make it feel like the game is constantly trying to force you to spend money, especially if you can buy a character or a building that's dedicated to creating the items you need. But, ultimately, the way the game is built, trying to unlock anything after city tier 4 is just a fools' errand, as the events are mostly built in mind of that most players have unlocked only a handful of characters. Out of the ton of free characters you commonly use only 5 first characters you've unlocked, so ultimately progressing further and spending money feels even more of a stupid idea.

A typical game scene from Family Guy. Or a stock Ollieland from the stock social city interaction. But this's pretty much what you see in your city as well, minus the task lists and some other UI elements.
What's even worse is, that the premium characters are only really relevant to the events they're brought in. After the events, they turn as useless any other character after tier 4 and exist only as a reminder of how you've been duped. Personally, I haven't spent money, only free clams, on Family Guy, but reading forums has made it apparent, that even getting the premium characters isn't always enough. The game is expecting you to buy everything the event contains and that would cost hundreds of dollars in real money with no real value at all. The freemium side of Family Guy works out like a badly designed pyramid scheme, that gives nothing to no-one else but the man at the top.

Both games do give out some premium currency as well, of which the Simpsons feels like it's more generous of. In theory, you can save up this premium currency in order to buy what you want without actually spending money, but the amount of paid items Quest for Stuff has for its events is just too much for that approach. In practice, you can get one premium character for free once in a while, but actually saving up takes a lot of time. The Simpsons, on the other hand, has fewer events, so saving up feels more sensible, especially if you take account that the game itself has pretty regular sales, which let you get premium items half their original price, so a patient player can get a lot of bang for the collected doughnuts.

Make no mistake about it, both games have been designed to generate money. The difference just is, that the other has more finesses about it, making it feel like paying gives you fun extra things while the other taunts you with free things, but expects you to pay for them none the less. Ultimately shelling real money in both is pointless, but only Quest for Stuff will make you feel like you've been had if you do so and even if you use Clams you've gotten for free.

Quest for Stuff is a game I've stopped playing completely, because of the extortion-like model it uses. At first, it felt like a fun game, but the further you get in it, the more pointless it begins to feel. As far freemium games go, I can't really recommend it, as the game design is built too much around the idea of pay 2 win and that the game itself feels like it's hogging too much of your time with its way too strict time limits. In short it just doesn't feel like fun, whereas the Simpsons manage to feel like a fun little time waster, that doesn't ask too much of your time, even during events.

Both games are available seemingly for free through Google Play and Apple's App Store.

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