Everyone likes to get something for free. I should know; I’ve written about Essential Free Software for Your New PC, and even Microsoft’s Free Alternatives to iLife. There are a lot of free things that I recommend.
The problem is, free things are always “free” for a reason. Sometimes it’s a good reason: Free / Open-Source Software like the Ubuntu operating system is free because of countless hours of volunteer labor. But other free things are free because someone is using them to make money off of you. Gilette gives away free razors, because they make money off of disposable blades. And Microsoft gives away free software that only runs in Microsoft Windows, to make sure that you always use Windows and don’t even think of switching to a Mac or an Ubuntu PC.
In order to know whether an online game is truly free or not, you need to find out why the people who make it are letting you play for free. Let’s take a look at two “free” online games that are popular with kids, Runescape and Maple Story, and figure out why these games are free.
Maple Story is a free online game run by Nexon, a company based in South Korea. It runs on any Windows PC, and lets players of all ages create animated characters and play in a fantasy world. Once you’ve created a Maple Story character, you can “dye your hair” and “get away with murder,” one of its ads proclaims, and shows cartoony characters chasing each other with fantasy weaponry.
The ad is played for laughs, but Maple Story is serious business: The company has made hundreds of millions of dollars off of Maple Story since its launch. How do they make money off of a free online game? By selling items from their “Cash Shop,” an online store which sells virtual items for real money. But these items disappear after 90 days, meaning that you have to buy them again … or buy the latest new thing, in order to keep up with friends.
Wikipedia mentions a TV news report, about children who stole their parents’ credit cards in order to buy these items. I suspect that the fault was not only the game’s. The parents should have paid more attention to what their children were doing online, and the children should not have gotten so obsessed with having the latest fashions — whether in real life or online. But the fact that the game’s business model is so centered around paying for these temporary fads might give parents pause. There’s no limit to how much you can spend, and you have to keep spending to keep your items.
Runescape was started by a UK Internet startup called Jagex, during the late 90’s. It quickly became popular, and today has millions of players, putting it in the same league as the legendary World of Warcraft. It’s more family-friendly than World of Warcraft, however, and while some features — such as its British humor, with at least one Hitchhiker’s Guide reference — are certainly meant to be appreciated by adults, the game as a whole (like Maple Story) is mostly played by children and teenagers. It can be accessed from any computing platform, including Ubuntu PCs and Macs.
Runescape is not a “free” game in the strictest sense of the word. People who play Runescape for free have to watch advertisements before playing the game, and are subject to banner ads above the game window. There is no Runescape “Cash Shop,” though; paying $6 a month removes the ads, and lets players access a whole slew of extra features. They lose access to these features if they stop paying, but they don’t have to stop playing the game altogether.
Runescape’s Wikipedia article does not mention any controversy related to the game, and a quick Google search doesn’t turn up any news reports, either. Meanwhile, in a feature on the Runescape website where players mail in questions to the game’s characters, one of them advises a player looking for ways to afford the $6 a month to “embark on a quest;” like the “car-washing” quest, or the “extra-chores” quest.
Not all free games are created equally. Some, like Runescape, are free in the sense of letting you try it out for free, and then charging a fair price for full access to the game. Others, like Maple Story, encourage players to become addicted to buying new things. And while most people probably play games like Maple Story responsibly, it’s in their creators’ best interests to encourage their players not to.
Letting your kids play this kind of free online game just because it’s “free” is like giving them “free” toys at fast food restaurants. It shuts them up for a little while, but you know they’re going to beg you to go back to that restaurant. It’s part of that restaurant’s business model.
By taking a closer look at what kind of games your children are playing over the Internet, you can see whether they’re designed to give a fair value for money put into them, or whether they’re designed to extract as much money as possible. Probably the best way to find out is to listen to your children … but that’s a subject for a whole ‘nother article. Have fun!