Free to Play – But at What Price?

The siren song of free-to-play games is a familiar tune to anyone who owns a smartphone, iOS device, or tablet. While it is easy to go back through your history or bank log and see the many micro-transactions documenting the monetary cost of these “free” games, assuming you are one of the many to actually pay real world money so you may speed up your progress, it is far more difficult to evaluate the real price of these games – your time and effort.

My first extensive experience with a free-to-play game was a frog breeding app called Pocket Frogs. The game was free, the frogs were adorable, and the environment was very colorful – characteristics which hit many of the “download this game right now” buttons in my brain, so for the low, low price of $0, I installed the game on my phone. Pocket Frogs promised the ability to “discover, collect, and breed over 15,000 unique frogs”, so I knew I was in for the long-haul, and I actually looked forward to the journey. I cannot count how many hours I spent with these darling little hoppers, but I am sure I do not want to know the overall total time investment because after more than a year of having this app installed and playing it every time I had a free moment, all of my progress disappeared. Totally, completely, wiped.  Five minutes here and ten minute there, which probably totaled dozens of hours – gone. Hours spent building over a dozen habitats, all complete with well thought out placement of flowers, rocks, and even Megalodon teeth – gone.  Hundreds of frogs in my virtual care, with many more eggs waiting to hatch – gone. I briefly considered starting over, but I could not shake the hollow, empty feeling of losing so much time and effort in one fell swoop. Instead, I went to the Google Play store to find a new time sink – one that would hopefully be more reliable and, perhaps, more substantial.

For my next attempt at mobile gaming I selected a franchise with which I was already very familiar – Plants vs. Zombies. I played the first game extensively on my Xbox 360, and this long awaited sequel seemed like the perfect way to reapir the wounds left by Pocket Frogs. As a player of console games primarily, I trusted EA and PopCap to provide an entertaining experience that was actually fulfilling instead of just a way to kill five minutes waiting in line at the post office or ten minutes at the end of my lunch break when it just was not wise to start another chapter in whatever Matthew Pearl or China Miéville book I happened to be reading at the time. At first, Plants vs. Zombies 2 did not disappoint, but eventually, the slimier free-to-play aspects I had tolerated in Pocket Frogs began to appear.

Image courtesy of PopCap Games

Image courtesy of PopCap Games

While I was in the middle of Pocket Frog mania, I now remember being frustrated by hitting the pay wall over and over again, and my progress was stalled until, after enough time had elapsed, my frogs matured, eggs hatched, etc. because I refused to throw any real world money into the free-to-play monster’s gullet. After I plowed through every regular level Plants vs. Zombies 2 offered, the only thing left for me to do was complete the daily piñata parties in the downtime between new levels being released. Like one of Skinner’s rats, I dutifully pecked away for my five minutes a day to win the chance to select three tiny piñatas out of sixteen which would hold either coins, gems, or the prized and elusive additional costume for my plants. The coins are easy enough to earn as you progress through the game, but the diamond-shaped gem currency is much rarer and more difficult to gather. Of course, you always have the option of spending your real world dough to build up a healthy stockpile of the little blue rocks. Coins are the currency of choice when throwing dollops of butter at a zombie’s head or sending a streak of lightning across the screen to take out a few of the ambling undead, but the gems are the only way you can purchase certain plants. These particular plants which are only available for purchase using gems are, of course, only available for a limited time, and the window to get them is usually no longer than a week or two. For a very long time, again over a year, I did not mind any of these aspects of Plants vs Zombies 2, but then one day my gems disappeared. I did a fair amount of research into a remedy that would bring back my lost loot, but I was not able to find a solution. That was the final straw for my free-to-play obsession. I looked at all the other games on my phone through a new light, and all I saw was a massive pool of quicksand, stealing my free time.

This does not mean all free-to-play games are a complete waste of time. Free time is a precious commodity, and each person needs to decide for him or herself how this time is spent. For me, this free time will no longer be spent on mobile games because the risk of losing all my progress all over again is too daunting. The five and ten-minute intervals of free time I have now will be spent checking the weather, reviewing emails, or watching Epic Rap Battles on Youtube. These activities are not inherently better than mobile gaming, but I do think they will be better for my long-term mental health.

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