The high cost of free games

Feature Opinion

Sniper Assassin: Shoot To Kill is a free-to-play mobile game in which you select a gun from hundreds of options and shoot people from a long distance.

That’s pretty much it. You cannot run, or duck, or move at all other than taking aim. You cannot speak, and other than single-sentence mission briefings and offers of new weapons, no-one speaks to you. There is no strategy other than deciding who to shoot first, and whether you should aim for him or for the explosive barrel he happens to be standing next to. (These bright orange barrels, situated prominently on busy street corners, are as obvious as they are inexplicable).

The more people you shoot, the more upgrades you can buy for your guns, but there’s no need to think too hard about which upgrades to choose—the game makes recommendations for you. (You can also buy new weapons with real money.) Once you’ve maxed out your gun’s stats, it’s back to shooting people.

Summarised succinctly by the game’s official screenshots.

In the first mission, you are instructed to kill a double agent who is selling secrets to the enemy. In mission two, you’re supposed to kill the perpetrator of a massacre. Mission three just says, “A tourist had his backpack stolen right at the next corner,” so it’s your job to shoot an apparently unarmed black man wearing a backpack. (His race may have been randomly determined.) If you succeed, a message flashes up next to his corpse: “Crime solved!” You get $40 extra if you managed to hit him in the head.

In mission six, a gunman is holding a woman hostage outside a building described only as “Womann Co.” According to the briefing, “the cops are too scared to take the shot.”

Wait, I thought. Am I not a cop? Nothing is revealed about the player’s character. Gordon Freeman didn’t have much depth, but at least we knew what his job was and what he looked like.

Sniper Assassin is a bad game, but I don’t mean to imply that it’s uniquely bad. In fact, the game pauses every couple of missions to show you ads for other indistinguishable (and free!) games, such as Modern SniperSniper Arena: PvP Army ShooterSniper Fury: Best Shooter Game and more.

I downloaded some of those, too. I’m a sucker for free stuff.

It’s not new to complain about violence in games, and it’s not new to criticise free-to-play, pay-to-win games either. But I think one problem is feeding off the other. Games have always been violent, but thanks to gamers like me who refuse to play anything that isn’t free, the violence is becoming especially mindless.

The Grand Theft Auto franchise is now twenty years old. (I know, right?) In GTA2 (1999) one mission requires the player to steal a bus, pick up some unsuspecting passengers and drop them off at a meat processing plant so the Russian mafia can turn them into hot dogs.

This is ghastly, but it’s deliberately ghastly. It’s supposed to shock you, and make you laugh. (“Please don’t take me! I’m all saturated fat!” one ill-fated passenger cries, while another says “This is an outrageous violation of health and safety regulations!”)

The Last Of Us, the best game of 2013 according to everyone who played it, was rated R18+ for high impact violence. Rather than making you laugh, the violence makes you cry. Like GTA, it provoked an intense emotional response from the players.

Even Hatred (2015), which was almost universally loathed and condemned, was at least deliberately shocking. It was trying to be subversive.

I really want to stress “trying”.

Sniper Assassin: Shoot To Kill doesn’t try to be anything. It was made mindlessly, to be played mindlessly. It’s the sort of game people play at the bus stop, or on the toilet. Like a bloodier version of Candy Crush, without the strategy. That’s right—it’s actually dumber than Candy Crush.

I am one of those people, by the way. I have played it at the bus stop and on the toilet. My current score is $85,203, because I’m pretty good at headshots (humble brag). I make sure that I open the game every day—you get extra coins if you do.

And I’m not the only one. At time of writing, Sniper Assassin: Shoot To Kill (or Sniper 3D Assassin Gun Shooter, to use the SEO-friendly title on the Google Play store) has more than 50 million downloads on Android and an average rating of 4.6 stars out of 5. The game is free to play, but weapons cost money and it’s full of ads. The development company (whose name, “Fun Games For Free”, is as imaginative as the game) must be making a killing, so to speak.

The word “free” has a way of making us act against our own interests. In a classic social science experiment, participants were offered either a Lindt truffle for 26 cents or a Hershey’s Kiss for 1 cent. Less than half of people picked the Hershey’s Kiss. But when the price of both dropped by 1 cent, 90 percent of people picked the Hershey’s kiss, even though the price difference was the same.. Yes, the Lindt is delicious. Yes, the Hershey’s Kiss might give you lead poisoning. But it’s free.

Imagine the possibly-toxic Hershey’s kisses had ads on the wrappers, making it profitable to give them away for nothing. Lindt might go out of business.

Could really go a Lindt ball now. (Photo by: Warrenski. Copyright)

That’s what is happening in mobile gaming. The music, graphics and gameplay in Sniper Assassin are all fine, so the developers have skills. They could have used those skills to make great art—a game with characters and emotions and an actual story. There’s no reason that mobile games can’t be sophisticated. In fact, given the screen size, processing power and limited control options, the mobile platform might be more suited to character-driven stories than gameplay or graphics-heavy ones.

But great art doesn’t give you much space for ad-breaks, or opportunities to sell upgrades. Imagine if Metal Gear Solid had given players the option to pay real money in order to save Meryl. Imagine if Portal took you out of the game to watch an ad after each puzzle you solved, or if the “cake” had been an ice-cold can of Pepsi. Imagine if you could only get to the end of BioShock by buying the Big Daddy suit with real cash. Great art probably has to be sold, rather than stuffed with ads and given away for free.

Who would pay for a mobile game when there are so many free ones out there? Not the 50 million people who downloaded Sniper Assassin, that’s for sure. And the more cheapskates like me there are, the more developers make things like Sniper Assassin, instead of things like The Last Of Us. We’ll never know what pay-to-play product the “Fun Games For Free” team would have produced instead of Sniper Assassin, had it been profitable for them to do so. It might have been pretty good.

At the moment, this is primarily a mobile game problem. Mindless ad-supported games have suffocated their pay-to-play competition in app stores. But it could easily spill over into PCs and consoles, where downloads are fast replacing physical media and where the free-to-play business model is looking increasingly viable.

Our addiction to free stuff is killing gaming. And if we don’t do something about it, there’ll be no tasty truffles for anyone.

Jack Heath is the author of twenty action-packed novels including 500 Minutes Of Danger and The Cut Out. He is also a voice actor in the dangerously addictive mobile game Rodeo Stampede, which is free to play and stuffed with ads. For free ebooks, subscribe to his ad-filled newsletter at jackheath.com.au.

  • I just want to thank LoadScreen for publishing my article. They are awesome people with a rigorous editorial process, and their site is remarkably comprehensive given the size of their team. Good job!

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