The 'Freemium' Model Is Brilliant, But It's Ruining My Life

I have a confession to make: I have an embarrassing addiction to a freemium game.

Three years ago, I downloaded “The Simpsons: Tapped Out.” One of my favourite shows of all time is “The Simpsons,” and as a proud owner of a new iPhone 4S at the time, I wanted to own this game.

In the end, it ended up owning me.

The gist of the game is that Homer Simpson caused the town of Springfield to blow up, and now you, the “Sky Finger,” must recreate the town and bring back all its residents. You make money by collecting rent from buildings and making characters do various jobs, which all take time to complete.

I have witnessed how this game has grown through the years, with the load times and overall quality improving with each new iPhone release. I’ve been there for every new character, new building, holiday and special promotion. My Springfield is immaculate. It’s gorgeous. You wish you lived there.

I want to quit. I do. I’m maxed out at Level 47, as high as Electronic Arts will allow me to go, and have all the current characters and buildings you can own through normal gameplay.

But I don’t have it all. And I’ll never have it all.

That’s what makes this a “freemium” game and not a “free” game. (Also why Apple needed to subtly change the App Store recently.)

Getting the premium items requires a special kind of currency, which can only be attained through either time or money. In the case of “The Simpsons: Tapped Out,” doughnuts are your “premium” currency, which you can collect by levelling up, or simply when the Electronic Arts developers feel charitable.

I’ve saved — no, hoarded — doughnuts for years, but my 458 doughnuts will only get me two or three quality items. I’m not kidding: I can’t even afford all four of these characters.

And there’s the rub: Even after spending three years collecting doughnuts, I would still have to spend money to achieve “100% completion.”

But in mobile games like “The Simpsons: Tapped Out,” 100% completion doesn’t even exist; EA regularly adds new characters and premium items each month. If you truly want to own everything, you’ll need to shell out money regularly.

The idea that you can get all the items through time and patience is just a red herring.

The freemium model has gained momentum on mobile, thanks to early popular games like “Angry Birds,” but now it’s spreading elsewhere. While watching a review of “LittleBigPlanet 3,” a new game for the PlayStation 4, I learned that in order to collect some really fun costumes for your characters, you need to spend money in addition to the $US60-plus you’ve already spent on the game.

These gaming companies are smart to implement freemium into their titles: The game teases you with its best rewards, which can only be attained by a spending an inordinate amount of time in the game — each day, and consistently over time — or by spending money. And there are plenty of people who will spend thousands of dollars to progress through their favourite games, just ask the lead singer of the Sex Pistols.

So freemium works out great for these gaming companies. But for the consumer, it’s downright cruel.

And yet, I can’t stop playing.

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