A disservice to freemium gaming

Disney tries with Where's My Dollar?

Writing about First Touch Soccer's turn to free-to-play the other day left me feeling like the any other internet idiot who rants about having to pay for things. In my post I said First Touch got everything wrong with freemium monetisation, but it isn't true. Forcing waits with countdown timers is also one of the big free-to-play sins as Disney's Where's My Water? 2 demonstrates.


I'm picking the topic from a very interesting discussion on the revamped Pocketgamer Podcast with James Gilmour and Keith Andrew last week. You can download the episode here and listen the around the minute 40 mark. When it was time to preview the new games released, Gilmour presented his frustration trying to capture sufficient video for a review on AppSpy. The game's energy system forces you to stop playing every ten goes, making it difficult to progress quickly and get some varied footage of the levels available. It turns out the sequel of the Disney Mobile hit Where's My Water continues with the same gameplay mechanic but uses an energy system to hide plain freemium timers.

Wait to play

My first-hand experience with timers in mobile games was Ngmoco's Eliminate. In what was a very decent multiplayer FPS, your character would only level up as long as you had sufficient energy — you could still play without energy, but your stats wouldn't count towards progression in the game.

Although Eliminate's early experimentation with a monetisation model that didn't rely on extra DLC angered a lot of FPS players, playing the game without leaderboards was still fun. You may argue you could practice and learn maps while your energy was loading, which is still fun and entertaining. When you have to stop playing after 15 minutes and are asked to wait or pay, that's not fun.

The difference with Where's My Water 2 is that your energy bar will only last for few short games. Once depleted, you have to wait until it's recharged or pay. There's no mechanism to override this. No way to unlock the full game with one IAP. You have something in the spirit of a coin-doubler, which extends the amount of energy you can collect, extending your session before you run out again.

Delaying the inevitable

Going back to the podcast reference, Pocketgamer's hosts and regular guests are some of the most understanding journalists about monetisation in mobile gaming. Hearing the criticism of a game that I haven't tried yet was kind of surprising but it felt honest. These are rough excerpts from Gilmour points:

"You're only ever delaying the inevitable. You can keep throwing money at it but in five or ten goes you are going be back to square one and locked out […] I can only assume they've looked at the other freemium games that have been very successful; the model has been incredibly successful and has been making all of the money in mobile games practically, and gone: yep, we'll have a bit of that."

There are different techniques to get players to give some money in a free game. I'm not a big fan of the timer model to begin with, but it doesn't look like it suits Where's My Water either.

The way it's implemented it's kind of horrible. It puts me off playing it altogether. You're constantly under pressure from the energy system it feels like. You can't really relax and play because every time you have to repeat a level […] that costs energy.

You may argue the franchise you liked is ruined now forever, which is an argument people tend to use on other popular games. EA's taken a lot of heat for it, but Real Racing and Plants vs Zombies managed to adapt to free-to-play without such a dramatic impact. Yes, they're not the same games you used to play three years ago, but the monetisation doesn't come across as greedy.

Getting one of the most popular games on the App Store to shoehorn random count-down-timers is a disservice to the model. The exposure of Where's My Water, arguably as recognisable as brands such as Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja, will only make the average App Store gamer to think that all free games are a little dodgy.

"We have talked about freemium and it doesn't necessarily have to be done badly. The problem is, people use the model badly and it gives it a terrible reputation. It's stuff like this that gives freemium the terrible reputation that it has amongst some people. Disney is doing the model no favour whatsoever […] This looks like a pretty cynical way of doing it."