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It’s time to talk about a trend in modern gaming that I find extremely troubling, and of particular concern to Asian gamers, who seem to be forced to deal with it more than most: the stamina system in “free” games.
Stamina system is just one name for it, of course. It gets called a power system, an energy system, a health system, etc. and it might be represented as hearts or lighting bolts or anything else depending on the game. But the basic fundamentals of these systems are always the same: you have a a preset amount of stamina (often five), and each time you play the game, one unit of stamina is consumed. When you run out, you have to either pay money to purchase additional stamina or wait a set period of time (often 10-15 minutes per unit) for the stamina to regenerate.
But take a second to reflect on what that actually means. At its most base level, a stamina system is something that developers implement to stop you from playing their game. It is a game element that is designed to keep you from gaming, at least until you pay up. And of course, there is never a “buy the game” option that allows you to pay a higher price once and then play the game at your leisure without having to worry about the stamina system again. These developers don’t want you to be able to own the game, after all, they want you to rent it forever.
But perhaps even more concerning is that many developers don’t seem to want you to know what actually costs to rent the game. Many games that use stamina systems also use a complicated in-game currency scheme that’s designed to make it difficult for you to easily figure out what another five stamina is actually going to cost you. Often, you’re made to figure out what your real dollars are equal to in one in-game currency, and then what that fake currency is equivalent to in another fake in-game currency. Does this result in more sales by helping divorce people from the idea that they’re spending a lot of money? I’m certain it does. But it’s also pretty goddamn cynical.
Crunching the numbers
And the thing is, when you work out what you’re actually paying if you want to play one of these stamina games like you owned it, the price is ridiculous. Let’s take, for example, Tiantian Kupao, one of China’s highest-grossing freemium mobile games. Its monetization system is actually comparatively simple: you use real money to buy diamonds, and then diamonds to purchase stamina (represented by hearts). If we assume you’re buying the largest possible volume of diamonds and hearts (this is where you get the best discounts), then it works out to around 0.22 RMB ($0.04) per heart.
That sounds like a pretty cheap rate, and it is, but the thing is that in Tiantian Kupao, as in many games with these kinds of systems — cough, Angry Birds Go! — you can burn through hearts pretty fast. I tend to average between 1 and 2 minutes per life, which means that for me, playing Tiantian Kupao like I owned it for an hour would cost around $2. So, let’s say I want to play the game for a half hour during my commute each day. Suddenly, after just a month I’ve spent upwards of twenty bucks on a game that’s basically a glorified version of Super Mario Brothers. Given that full games with incredible production values like The Witcher 2 are regularly on sale on Steam and elsewhere for like $5, spending $20 to rent a half-decent mobile platformer for a month is a terrible value.
And like I said, Tiantian Kupao is actually better than plenty of the other games I’ve looked at over the years.
Mobile monetization: there are many roads, but this one is terrible
Look, I don’t begrudge developers their attempts at monetization. If games didn’t make money, then we’d have nothing to play, and I recognize that in Asia in particular the “freemium” model is by far the most viable when it comes to games. But developers, please monetize in some other way. Run ads. Sell in-game items. Restrict players to the first few levels and ask them to pay to unlock more. Do anything but implement another stupid stamina system.
Imagine the concept of the stamina system applied to another industry. Let’s say, for example, you see a flyer for a free concert and decide to check it out. Are you going to get angry because they’re selling food, drinks and merch to make some money off of the event? Of course not. Are you going to be upset that the logos of companies sponsoring the concert are hanging onstage behind the band? Of course not.
But wouldn’t you be annoyed if the band stops after two songs and tells you that you all need to pay $3 to hear an additional 7 minutes of music? Wouldn’t you be especially annoyed if the band told you that to hear 7 more minutes you all needed to pay with bandbucks, which can be purchased with musicash, which in turn must be purchased with real dollars? You can buy 20 musicash for $3.75, and bandbucks are bought in packs of 100 for 60 musicash each. Sounds like a fun concert, huh?
That’s exactly what developers are doing with these in-game stamina systems, and it’s time we stopped being OK with it. Intentionally confusing in-app currency conversions are a cheap trick, and forcing customers not to play your game is just bad design.
We’ve been here before
The tech world in general seems to be shifting toward subscription and micro-transaction based services. I understand the move from a corporate balance sheet’s perspective, but from the point of view of a consumer, this is objectively terrible. Increasingly, we are being told that we cannot own copies of the games we love. Instead, stamina systems are forcing us to choose between paying absurd prices to essentially “rent” games in perpetuity, or only be permitted to play them during extremely limited windows a few times a day.
Gamers of my generation may feel inclined to point out that this system is pretty similar to what we used to have in arcades, where you had to pay a quarter for every round you played. That’s certainly true, stamina systems and the pay-to-play arcades of yore are essentially the same thing. But my retort is always: do you want to go back to those days? There’s a reason why arcades pretty much die out everywhere when home consoles and PC gaming become something middle-class families can afford pretty easily: owning your own games is way better than renting them.
Of course, the fact that PC and console games can be played comfortably from one’s own home helps a lot, too. But let’s be honest: would you have played Super Mario Brothers as much as you did as a kid if every time you died you had to cough up another quarter to keep playing? Would games like CrossFire or League of Legends be as popular and profitable as they are if players had to pay a per-round fee or wait an hour after every few rounds for their “stamina” to regenerate?
Here’s what I’m getting at
I’ve probably gone on for too long here, and what I’m trying to say is actually something very simple: stamina systems suck. Needlessly complex in-game currency systems tied into stamina systems suck even more. If you’re a developer and you put those things into your game, I hate you. And if you’re a gamer, you shouldn’t give your money to these games. There are plenty of fun games out there that you can own, for one flat fee, forever. And if you don’t want to pay a cent, there are plenty of truly free freemium games that you can enjoy without ever spending a dime. Here’s one to start you off.