Free-to-play games may work for smartphones, but they’re no good on tablets

February 12, 2014

I believe "free-to-play" is really a term that was invented by mobile games industry business people. Players have given the game style much different names—names like "pay-to-play," "free-to-pay," and "pay-to-wait."  And those are all more accurate, to varying degrees, depending on the game.

Gamers tend to get pretty upset about these things. We don't like getting nickel-and-dimed. Who does? But not all free-to-play games are bad. Sometimes the business model makes sense. Sometimes it's even the best option. The thing is, that's rarely the case with free-to-play tablet games, because tablet gamers play much differently than smartphone gamers do.

On smartphones, players tend to game in short bursts throughout the day. You whip your phone out in between classes, or for fifteen minutes on the bus, or while you're waiting in line at the ATM. And the "free-to-wait" thing doesn't sting as much when you're going hours between sessions anyway.

That's where EA Mythic's Jeff Skalski, the senior producer of the highly controversial recent Dungeon Keeper remake for smartphones and tablets, was probably coming from when he told TabTimes Games, "It’s important to emphasize that we designed a game that is built around the typical mobile play patterns."

He continued, "This means Dungeon Keeper is meant to be played on the go multiple times a day with a few minutes here or there."

That didn't sit well with most players, as you can see if you check the comments on that article. But I think Skalski has a point—and I doubt he's just making this up, pulling assertions out of thin air to scam critics into thinking the company knows best. You can bet EA does its research on this subject, and I have little doubt that they know exactly when, where and for how long mobile gamers play EA games.

But here at TabTimes we focus entirely on tablets, and tablets are only half mobile. The other half is on the couch, or in bed, or at the dinner table. There are a lot of differences between smartphones and tablets—not just in the sizes of their screens, but in the ways that users interact with them differently. And that's something that EA and other developers of F2P games have failed to take into account.

Tablet users sit down with their devices for hours at a time. I use my iPad mini and Surface RT when I'm watching TV or eating, sometimes throughout an entire evening. And I'd have to spend literally hundreds of dollars of real money to get past all the paywall roadblocks I'd encounter in Dungeon Keeper if I tried to play for that amount of time (in our review, we said that "it's a mild blessing that this poor excuse for a reboot is free"). 

Developers wouldn't try to pull the same crap in an Xbox One or PS4 game, so why do it on an iPad or a Nexus 7? Game developers, even big ones like EA and Rovio (Angry Birds Go! is pictured above), need to start applying their knowledge about the differences between platforms when it comes to developing smartphone and tablet games too.

(Stay current on the best tablet games: Sign up for TabTimes' free iPad Games or Android Tablet Games newsletters.)

The free-to-play model makes sense from a business standpoint, since it gets players in the door for free and then lets those with more disposable income spend as much money as they want. And when the model is implemented with skill, players can get a satisfying experience out of a game no matter how much—or little—they spend.

But play patterns are not set in stone, particularly across platforms. When developers try to shoehorn the same models that work on smartphones into tablet games, the whole system begins to split at the seams. And the stitches? They cost $4.99 each.


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