For quite a while, the signature audio cue that a video game ad was about to air was the ESRB rating tag and a gruff voice saying “RATED M FOR MATURE.” Recently, though, some of the larger cell phone game producers have seen their revenues run high enough that they can start cutting into that dance.
A new report from iSpot.tv shows that four of the top five big spenders for TV game ads recently were from freemium-focused companies. King.com has been running advertising for their new puzzle offerings since last year. This year’s Super Bowl saw the introduction of Kate Upton in Evony-like Game of War spots (Kate is not in the actual game, nor is anyone who looks like her). Supercell’s Clash of Clans has been running ads since last March (that I don’t mind, since those ads have been entertaining at least).
Maybe it’s just my skewed perspective as someone who’s been gaming for most of his life, and was gaming at a time when consoles were the dominant choice…..but I’m really uncomfortable about the threat of freemium titles becoming the dominant definition of a video game in the zeitgeist. It would be not unlike the situation for animation in the 1970’s….since just about every cartoon made for the mass market sucked, the popular opinion was that the medium ITSELF was bad.
Freemium games are usually shallow, only hold your attention for a few minutes and employ psychological techniques right out of the gambling industry. For many kids today, this is their first introduction to a game. This wouldn’t be a problem if phone games were good. But instead of their being a gateway that can lead to more depth-filled experiences on consoles or Nintendo’s handhelds, they might lose interest in the medium right away and dismiss it from that point forward.
From that perspective, the future of video games as an art form doesn’t look good. Consoles have painted themselves into a corner with extremely expensive production values that can only be maintained by avoiding all risks and innovation. Instead all the innovation has been on Steam and the digital download market, but very few game creators are making serious money from it. Japanese companies, once at the forefront of quality in game making, are abandoning their big lavish JRPG factories one by one in favor of cheapie freemium productions. The only saving grace is Nintendo, but nobody’s buying the Wii U.
Unless something changes, quality is in danger of becoming niche.