What South Park Got Right About Freemium Games

In 17 years and 18 seasons, South Park has scathingly satirized dozens of organizations and cultural trends. This season, they’ve turned their attention to Silicon Valley. They’ve skewered everything from Apple’s culture of adoration to Uber’s rise over taxicabs to freemium, or free-to-play games.

In case you missed it, the recent episode “Freemium Isn’t Free,” opens with the four main characters introduction to a free game, based on a popular television series from the South Park universe (like so many actual mobile games). The app’s gameplay is simple: Harvest “Canadian coins” to build virtual hospitals and parks, or pay with real-world money to get more “Canadough.”

The game is revealed to be a product of the Canadian Department of Mobile Gaming, which happens to be in cahoots with the Canadian devil, Beelzaboot. Profits from the game fund massive infrastructure improvement projects in the northern nation.

When one of the main characters gets so addicted, he spends thousands of dollars in microtransactions, the actual Devil gets involved.

To us mobile geeks, what’s particularly fascinating about the episode is the explanation of how freemium games work (explained, of course, by the terribly unsubtle Beelzaboot), and how well the South Park writers hit the nail on the head.

In the “outdated” method of gaming, players pay a lot for a game upfront, and enjoy it for as long as they’d like, improving their character and circumstances through hard work and time spent in the game.

South Park: Previous RPG play model

Beelzaboot and the Prince of Canada then reveal their updated RPG loop made for freemium games, infused with microtransactions wherever possible, gleefully shouting, “Money! Money, money, money, money, money!”

South Park: New RPG play model

There is a grain of truth in the joke: In days past, a small, but highly-engaged group of gamers consistently bought consoles and games, and high-quality games were rewarded by large profits. However, that niche group has been expanding for over a decade, with games becoming more popular to a much wider group of consumers since the turn of the millennium.

Gaming no longer requires an investment in a console or a high-end computer: Ever since Snake, mobile phones are also gaming consoles. As mobile phones expand their reach, mobile gaming expands too. However, while users expect high-quality games on their game-specific consoles, they do not necessarily expect them on their mobile device. Plus, simple, casual games (and gamers) are on the rise.

The South Park animators nailed the issue on the head. It is a well-known fact that successful games are those that effectively balance time and pleasure. Users are allowed to “try before you buy,” but don’t ever have enough time with the game to get their fix, effectively “[keeping] them buying forever.” Candy Crush is the perfect example—users only get to play five games before they have to either quit or pay money, and five lives don’t always last long.

Short play periods fit right into the “distraction” periods in which casual gamers play. As the Canadian Department of Mobile Gaming so succinctly put it, funding freemium games means trying to find out “how to make people spend money on the toilet.”

South Park: Secrets in the background

Relying on microtransactions is fine. It’s a real, acceptable strategy. The problems come when games that are very good at getting players addicted, and converting them into microtransactions intersects with games that are low-quality time-fillers.

As the Devil says, “if something’s addictive because it’s fun, that’s one thing, but this is just blatant Skinner Box manipulation. […] Temptation has to be nuanced.” This is true: Quality, enjoyable games can turn over in-app purchases easily and not suffer. Monument Valley is a highly-acclaimed app that charges $3.99 for the initial download. When they asked their users to pay $1.99 for new levels, a whopping 10 percent were willing to pay—a conversion rate to make many app developers jealous. Users are willing to pay money to get quality content.

South Park is right to criticize the app industry for their questionable promotion methods. Random chance and limited opportunities make games more addictive, and these can have terrible consequences for players who, like young Stan Marsh of South Park, get caught in the web of microtransactions. Even the young get addicted to freemium games, and not all of them have the financial resources of John Lyndon of the Sex Pistols to support their habit.

Freemium app developers can say South Park is being a bit extreme in comparing them to Beelzaboot, and for the most part, freemium games aren’t evil. If games can convince their users to give them money—either up-front or throughout the game—because they enjoy the content and want to support the creators, then they’ve created something good.

Just remember: “When the Prince of Canada agreed to make a freemium game, he apparently signed a deal with the Canadian Devil.”

You can watch the entire episode for free on South Park’s Comedy Central website. For more analysis, check out what Pocket Gamer’s Mobile Mavens had to say aboot the whole issue.

Sara Kewin is an Account Executive at Appency who has spent too much time on her iPhone. She stands with Sheila Broflovski and blames Canada.

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