Free-to-play shouldn't ruin the experience
At the time of this writing EA has already announced that the next instalment of one of the most popular racing titles for iOS is going to bee free-to-play. Needless to say, a very vocal group of gamers don't like the idea and are being very vocal about it.
Real Racing 3 includes waiting mechanic that can be triggered after every race. As your car components wear off, you need to spend virtual currency and real life time to continue playing. To surpass this time limitation you can only use the special currency that sets all the timers to zero or invest either virtual or real cash in another car to continue playing while the other one gets serviced. A little more classy than paying for virtual gas.
Apple has traditionally favoured Real Racing developer Firemint. The Australian studio now known as Firemonkeys — sold to EA and merged with the Aussie IronMonkey — was always ahead of the curve adapting its games to the latest hardware on iOS devices. It's fair to say their relation is mutually beneficial, with Apple having stunning games to showcase and the developer getting crazy publicity. The most obvious examples of this relation would materialise in Apple's special events, demoing new functionality such as AirPlay mirroring in WWDC 2011 with a build of Real Racing 2.
The reason why I mention this relationship is because in the next developer conference in 2012, Apple decided to side with UK-based Natural Motion, creators of CSR Racing. Demoing a different racing game on stage isn't a huge surprise; giving other developers some share of fame should promote healthy competition, I guess. The remarkable thing is that for the first time Apple demoed a AAA free-to-play game on stage. Not even when in-app-purchases were first introduced or during the company romance with freemium pioneers Ngmoco this happened.
You may argue Natural Motion was lucky because there weren't any other high quality games finished around WWDC that year. Perhaps they were shortlisted along with other companies that didn't make it; who knows? The reading I take from it is that Apple made a point. From now on the App Store won't be embarrassed of smurfberries.
A system you're already part of
Fast forward one year and CSR Racing is one of the most profitable iOS games ever, raking up to $12 million a month from willing players racing on a straight line. That is something to consider, both game design and money wise. For a massive company like EA, with a legion of games on the App Store, it should be easy to forecast these numbers. The acquisition of casual mobile game publisher Chillingo and developer PopCap for $20 and $750 million respectively makes a lot of sense. When I say sense, you have to think of the point of view of the executives at EA's board: they know a premium game is never going to bring $12 million every month, even if that means you'll have to race on a straight line or get Homer Simpson to farm.
It's not like EA doesn't have any experience in free-to-play. The company has slowly changed it's strategy in past year. Gone are the days it would control the App Store running sales every week to fight for space on the paid charts in a head to head race to the bottom against Gameloft. It stopped last year, around the launch of Mass Effect Infiltrator.
More recently, the company has stopped farting paid games — a role now taken by Chillingo — to focus on freemium. This change of strategy was confirmed at the Mobile Games Forum, admitting EA is now more careful with its releases. Out of this experience you get things as embarrassing as Monopoly Millionaire and Monopoly Hotels. What I gather hurts most people is spoiling the potential of a studio shoehorning a freemium model that shouldn't be there in the first place. Firemint's fist concoction under EA's rule was Flight Control Rocket, a sequel to the once popular line drawing king leaning heavily on monetisation.
I see timers everywhere
Simulation and strategy were the first genres to succumb to free to play. They were reverse engineered to the point that I cannot longer find a game I like of my favourite game type. The term 'time management' is now synonymous of disgust. Gamers like me must be afraid that free-to-play will spread like a disease intoxicating other genres — I complete understand it. And now it's the time for racing games.
After playing the limited beta version of Real Racing 3 I can already through some conclusions. The production values are still there. Just like Firemonkeys demonstrated with the superb Need for Speed Most Wanted, Real Racing 3 is the best looking, most realistic racing game available on mobile platforms. The monetisation is based on career progression, a concept that was rooted on the original series, so it shouldn't feel like a complete abuse. The amount of stuff to do is varied and challenging, not necessary feeling you need to spend money to cheat instead of being good at it. Probably spending too much would ruin the game, as the big draw is progressing to earn every car available.
The most flagrant attack to traditional gaming is the addition of timers to car repairs and maintenance. Every race takes its toll and you eventually need to stop and wait to continue competing; otherwise, you need to pay or race with an underperforming vehicle. Real Racing 3 is mobile, giving you short sessions of five to ten minutes and then making you wait for a timer.
If you're allergic to freemium or have already experienced a smurfberry diarrhoea with another free-to-play game, the route is simple. Close the app, keep the timers queued because you're going to move on and play something else.