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Wasting My Life Away: Free-To-Play Confessions of Gaming Loser

by Matt Helgeson on Sep 28, 2012 at 07:00 AM

Americans, by nature, have very little self-control. I'm American to the core. The casual and mobile offers an intoxicating mix of free, fast, and easy that's hard for even a hardcore gamer to refuse.

I think I have a problem. My moment of clarity came a few minutes ago, when I realized I'd just wasted about 15 minutes playing a Kongregate "game" called Fingerless on my Android phone. I put "game" in scare quotes because it's about as much of a game as "bloody knuckles" or "pull my finger." You see a guillotine onscreen. You touch the opening at the bottom, where the unlucky royal subject's head would go, and hold it there until the blade falls. You get points based on how long you can hold your finger in the spot without getting it cut off. To recap, this is how an adult man -- with a mortgage, marriage, and child -- has been spending his time: holding his finger on a spot on his phone and then removing it quickly over and over again. (Also, said adult male probably should have been doing some, you know, actual work at the time, but let's not tell Andy or Reiner).

That was today. Last night it was some retro-looking racing game called Vector Stunt Mobile that implements MP3s from your phone into the track layouts in some way I couldn't really understand. The best thing you could say about it is that it's playable. It works, but that's about it. But again, it was free…and fast…and right there in my phone. Meanwhile, that copy of Transformers: The Fall of Cybertron (which looks great and got an 9/10 from my colleague Matt Miller) went unplayed one more night.

I've already written about my now-cooling fascination with NimbleBit's Tiny Tower. I'll be honest; if I tracked the hours I dumped into that game versus some actually well-made console games this year, I'd probably want to puke. All these 15 minute chunks of time end up adding up to a lot of time that might have been better spent on a more robust gaming experience. That's not to say that there aren't plenty of free, micro transaction-based, or $0.99 games which offer a lot of depth and great gameplay -- it's just hard to wade through all the detritus. Half the time I end up playing something that's really not worth my time just because I clicked on it randomly.

While there's nothing wrong with free-to-play, mobile, or browser-based games, there is an inherent danger in them to people like myself. Frankly, I'm lazy and often make terrible use of my time. If you put something in front of my face that's marginally entertaining, I'll probably get stuck on it for awhile. I play Fingerless for the same reason that I end up watching the last 40 minutes of Hall Pass instead of The Tree of Life like I planned. I play Tiny Tower for the same reason I end up watching part two of a Real Housewives of Orange County reunion episode instead of finally starting Breaking Bad. Remember how I was going to get up early and work out today? Neither do I.

The key appeal of trash television is simple: it's always on. You just press a button, and there you are, ticking off precious seconds of your life watching the Kardashians. As games become more mobile, easier to access, free of charge, and designed for quick play sessions, I think we're starting to see a similar dynamic forming in this industry.

Free-to-play and mobile games are designed to instantly hook you; and, in the time it takes you to boot up your Xbox, sign into Live, and load the game you've been playing, you'd already be a few minutes into whatever cookie cutter tower defense game you've been playing on your iPad. Also, I think even some of today's best games, like the excellent Borderlands 2, could learn something from these emerging markets about starting a game fast. Frankly, the first couple hours of Borderlands 2 are a slog of tutorials. I wouldn't doubt if there are a good number of more casual gamers that just turned the game off before getting to the good stuff.

The takeaway point here is that I shouldn't be allowed to make my own decisions a world of unlimited free games. A $60 price point and DVD disc might soon be a thing of the past, but something about a physical object (and a decent amount of money spent) makes one more likely to make better choices.

I've often heard developers say, "You've just got to trust the intelligence of the audience -- if you make a great game they'll come." Sometimes, I wonder if they give us too much credit. But don't worry about me -- I'm going to get it together tomorrow and quit wasting my life away. I promise.