There are probably no three words in the average gamer's vocabulary that are more contentious than Free To Play. Rather, due to a marketplace glutted with unsrupulous developers and their steady stream of shovelware, the term tends to evoke emotions that range from mild irritation to outright rage.

I have to give a nod to Saint, who bravely broached the topic in one of his most recent blogs. Mobile gaming and the free-to-play market really have become the ultimate guilty pleasure. Even if you like the stuff, there seems to be a universal understanding that you DON'T talk abut it. If there is one sure way to get roasted with angry comments, try gushing about your latest obsession on your iPad.

And yet, despite the taboo associated with mobile gaming, we are all doing it, and apparently... a lot of us REALLY like it. You simply cannot imagine that the numbers driving the success of games like Angry Birds, Jetpack Joyride, Candy Crush, or the now legendary  Flappy Bird is a fluke. And I would really be willing to suggest that many of the people buying, playing and loving these games also represent a sizeable portion of the "hardcore" set. In other words, your average Plants vs. Zombie fan is probably also an Xbox Oone or PS4 lover as well.

This idea that true love for gaming has to be on one side or the other is one of life's little big lies. Ofcourse like anything, mobile and free-to-play gaming does have it's very legitimate problems as well as strengths. The experience of each gamer will vary, but I personally have come to be quite fond of both, and my enjoyment of them was not without learning some lessons first.

In The Beginning...

I started my mobile gaming craze on an iOS device. There wasn't any single reason why. For starters, I am a gamer who likes to play games with an easy, methodical pace. My favorite genres tend to be stealth-action, real-time and turn-based strategy, and simulations. The casual nature of mobile games seemed to be a natural fit for that. Second, the fact that most mobile games could be had for less than $10 or even $5 was VERY appealing to me. Especially because in general, I rarely pay more than $20 for a game... EVER! What can I say? I'm a penny pincher. I don't see the sense in letting my hobby send me to the poorhouse.

Anyways, back on topic.I filled up my little iPod with probably 15 to 30 games just within my first week. Occasionally, I broke down and paid .99 cents here $2.99 there. But all together, I never spent more than $60, wich just happens to be the average price of ONE new console game.

Now... you might be inclined to believe that most of the games I got were crap due to the low price. But keep in mind, one man's garbage is another man's treasure. Bottom line, I had a blast with these games. And among my absolute favorites was a simple little game called Zombie Farm.

My mobile gaming obsession. Once upon a time.


The Honeymoon

Around the time I was getting into mobile gaming, Warcraft was one of the big internet crazes, and Farmville was another. I never played either, but I joyfully scoffed at the people who would play Farmville. I mean, after all... who could be so dumb, right? It's funny how things change.

No, I never got into Farmville. But when I found Zombie Farm, I was inexplicably, embarrasingly hooked. As the title screen loaded, a simple folk sounding medley would play in the background. The original loading screen featured a bright colorful patch of fall leaves with a lone zombie arm reaching up and out of the ground.  The graphics were predictably cute, and it was clear that the game intended to relax you, not agitate.

I spent every minute I could playing that damn game, checking for updates, and obsessing over the condition of my farm, crops, zombies, and little else. I didn't even TOUCH my PC or my consoles for months. And you need to understand... I have a TON of games. No honestly. A ton.

Ever grow pork chops in a garden? Thought so.


It was just too easy to pick that little device up, carry it with me everywhere I go, and get lost in it. And therein lies a big part of the appeal of mobile gaming as well. It's for the no-hassles gamer. There are no settings to configure or tweak. No components to upgrade, no accessories to buy, in most cases zero load time. It's a no fuss solution to your immediate gaming needs. AND, it is impossible to ignore the convenience of being able to take your gaming device with you everywhere, and have it look like a perfectly legitimate, not in the least bit juvenile, gadget.

Recently, Joaquin Phoenix did a movie titled "Her" where he plays a man who falls in love with the digital assistant on his phone (think Siri or Google Now). This to me, is indicative of what drives the success of mobile entertainment as a whole. Whether consciously or unconsciously, people form relationships with the things closest to them. And what could be closer than the mobile device in your pocket.

Is this a sad commentary on modern society? Perhaps. Or maybe it's just our way of coping/adapting to such a fast paced world.

Fascinating, and eerily relevant.


Trouble In Paradise

Eventually, the game that I had come to love changed. As time went on, I found myself doing more and more grinding just trying to level up through some highly artificial, and not too rewarding goals. The game became less of an opportunity to enjoy simple challenges and more about merely collecting "special items". I grew tired of the non-stop barrage of virtual goods that could easily set you back $100 or more... per week. That's IF one was that foolish. I was not.

Much has been said about Free-To-Play, but for me the problems with that business model are fairly clear. By it's very nature, Free-To-Play games force designers of said games to walk a razor thin line in trying to balance two objectives. One, to create an enjoyable user experience. Second, to make money.

Since free games onbviously don't make any money upfront, game designers are forced to contrive elements in the game that compel you to pay. It's not about fun, it's not about enjoying something uniquely creative. It's about someone's desire to be paid.

It's a tough situation for the developer of the game, and I do empathize to some extent. After all, people do have a right to be paid for their hard work. But, I also tend to feel that the dilemma faced by mobile developers is one they put themselves into.

As much as I may love the idea of getting something for free, my adult life has taught me all too well that NOTHING  ever is. That being said, rather than dancing around the illusion of getting some impossible deal, I prefer to just know the cost of things upfront. That is why I actually  favor the .99 cents price point. If that minimal cost of entry would keep me from being nickeled and dimed to death just to play my favorite game, than I'm all for it.

The idea of having to constantly pay for weapons, upgrades, costumes, power-ups and whatever else grates on my nerves like nothing else.


The Bright Side

Mobile and Free-To-Play Gaming is not all bad. But it isn't for the impatient or the uninformed. I find that the best way to enjoy most free-to-play games is to realize from the very beginning that you are not going to get the premium console or PC experience. And you would be extremely lucky if you get more than a steady hour of gameplay. These aren't games for someone craving a meal. These are bite-sized snacks.

Nowadays, when I download a game app, I go into it with two immediate considerations. What is the maximum amount of money I am willing to spend, if any. And, what are the objectives of the game. Understanding the mechanics of the gameplay will have a great impact on how much joy you get out of it. Some games reward you for playing more frequently, while others seem to punish you.

And to be perfectly honest, you gotta remember... IT"S JUST A GAME. And if that game gets to be too much of a pain, I am all for hacking the hell out of it, or using whatever cheats are at my disposal. Side Tip: I've also discovered that playing several games at once, tends to drastically reduce the monotony of grindging through one game.

The Final Word

In my opinion, free-to-play gaming and mobile gaming are on two seperate curves. While I believe mobile is trending upwards, I ultimately think free-to-play will trend downwards. Eventually you reach a point of market saturation where enough people realize that free isn't really free, and they begin to look elsewhere. And perhaps this why dedicated machines and PC's still do so well. No one really ASKED for free gaming. People are okay with paying for games. But, they want a premium experience that feels worthy of their investment. Free-to-play developers would do well to realize that consumers aren't as stupid as they might like them to be.