Forgotten Cousins: Free-to-Play Games and Arcade Games

Why do we get boiling mad over free-to-play games when their methods of monetization are similar to arcade games of old?

Analysis by Nadia Oxford, .

The video game industry has undergone several furious upheavals. Not bad for a pastime that's only had a widespread commercial presence for maybe half a century. But for all the trends that have come and gone, few have been as divisive or as rage-inducing as the free-to-play formula that currently dominates the mobile gaming market.

The poster child for free-to-play mobile games: Candy Crush.

"Free-to-play" is a bit of a misnomer, as the format's critics are quick to point out. The game usually is free to download, sure, but things can get a bit muddy from there. Depending on the game, you may be required to spend money in order to bypass wait times, refill vital items that let you keep playing, or gear up with weapons that let you surmount challenges that are explicitly tailored to keep you from succeeding unless you pay up.

In fact, game fans with a few years behind them may look at free-to-play games and be reminded of machines from a past age: Arcade games. Many arcade titles were likewise packed with challenges that were borderline unfair so that players would be enticed into feeding a constant stream of silver into the cabinet.

But whereas twenty- and- thirty-somethings look back fondly on the smoke-holes of our childhood and smile about getting blatantly ripped off, we tend to fly into a rage when we encounter the words "free-to-play." Why are we so tolerant of one money-making method, but prepared to start a war over the other?

Remembering Good Times at Ye Olde Arcade

One of the easiest and more obvious answers is "nostalgia." Going to an arcade was an experience. It was a thrill to be surrounded by like-minded gamers, even if you had to endure cabinet-hogs, joysticks made forever flaccid by rough handling, and games that hoovered quarters by the roll.

Philipp Seifried, the developer of the mobile space shooter Ace Ferrara & the Dino-Menace, also believes we're more forgiving towards arcades because for a long time, home consoles couldn't match up.

"In the heyday of arcades, there was a gigantic gap between the capabilities of arcade machines and the gaming systems you might have at home," he says. "Compare the visual fidelity of the arcade version of Ghosts 'n Goblins to its NES port. When you were feeding these machines with coins, you were buying experiences that you couldn’t get anywhere else."

Multimedia personality Patrick Scott Patterson likewise thinks nostalgia is a big reason why we don't rail on arcade games as much as we do free-to-play games. More specifically, we look back on our arcade quarters as money well spent.

"In hindsight, that $30 a gamer spent to push through Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in Aladdin's Castle in 1993 is long gone. Only a fun-filled memory remains," he says. "However, that $30 they are being asked to spend to play a game that's right in front of them now is money they are being asked to part with in the modern day. Nobody wants to do that."

Games like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ate many, many quarters back in the day.

The Ownership Question

That said, irritation with the free-to-play formula is strong enough to reach beyond our rose-tinted lenses. There is, for instance, the matter of ownership. When playing games at the arcade, we never felt like we owned the cabinet (though we often wished we did own it), so getting ripped off felt less personal. By contrast, the act of downloading a game onto your mobile device instills you with a sense of ownership that the free-to-play formula may quickly betray.

"Nobody felt like they owned an arcade game," says Patterson, "but if a game is on someone's device or computer there is a sense of ownership that is going to make some people upset when they have to pour money into something they already own."

Seifried agrees. He also believes shifts in the market have made people hesitant to welcome the free-to-play formula.

"In the 80s, it was normal to pay for arcade games. For a long time that was the only way people consumed video games," he says. "Now gamers are used to thinking of games as products that we own, and from that perspective, not knowing in advance how much you’ll have to spend until you’re done with a game can feel like you’re being nickel-and-dimed, even if you’re paying less for the experience than you would if it were a paid game."

Crossy Road doesn't "get in people's faces" about in-app purchases. EA's Dungeon Keeper is a slightly different story.

I Don't Trust You

But when talking about the automatic hatred towards free-to-play games, it's important to address the EA-sized elephant in the room: Trust issues.

As we play these free games, we tense up as we play and wait for "the wall" — that moment when we're not likely to progress unless we grind for hours, endure exasperating wait times, or pay to get past whatever's in our way. When we're proven right, we get angry.

It's an unfortunate attitude that causes many independent developers to suffer (they literally have to give their game away for free to get noticed in the crowded marketplace), but said attitude didn't develop in a vacuum.

See, most small developers try to be fair about their panhandling for in-app purchases. And some of them succeed in winning a magnanimous audience. Hipster Whale's endless crossing game Crossy Road quickly made over $1 million via video ads and in-app purchases. At the beginning of the year, the game's creators told The Guardian that they credit the warm reception to "not getting in people's faces" about monetization.

Larger publishers, however, tend to opt for a more market-tested and researched method of coaxing people into paying up for free games. Upon its initial release, EA's mobile remake of the classic puzzle / action game Dungeon Keeper contained unbelievable wait times that made it glaringly obvious the game existed primarily as a cash-grab


In fact, in February 2014 the UK's Advertising Standards Authority determined Dungeon Keeper could no longer be marketed as a "free" game (Dungeon Keeper is no longer on the UK App Store).

There's since been a push in Europe and elsewhere to move away from the word "free." Even the App Store has replaced its "FREE" download button with a "GET" button. A controversial monetization scheme by any other name is still controversial, however.

It's all pretty complicated and headache-inducing when compared to arcades, which just prompted us to pop our money into the machines, play, and leave when we were finished.

Gaze upon the future of nostalgia.

Today's Rage is Tomorrow's Nostalgia

When all's said and done, free-to-play's shortcomings may be moot. The formula is here to stay, and it's what today's kids are familiar with. The nostalgia machine is always churning. Older generations have a hard time believing kids can derive any kind of enjoyment out of whatever's popular at the time because "TV shows and games are total crap these days, not like when I was a kid."

Regardless, that's what happens. In the '80s and '90s, parents despaired over our arcade-slumming. They saw no value in the time and money we spent with the Ninja Turtles, the World Warriors, or Cody and Guy. We knew better, and we still hold these games and characters close to our hearts.

We don't even want to consider that children today have the same kind of reverence for Angry Birds, Candy Crush, and Puzzle & Dragons. And whatever method of payment replaces free-to-play years from now, they'll tell each other, "Man, remember when we were little and we could play all these amazing games for free?" They'll give a pass to the panhandling, the paywalls, and everything else that makes today's twenty- and- thirty-somethings rail against free-to-play games.

It's all part of the mighty Circle of Life: Digital Edition.

This article may contain links to online retail stores. If you click on one and buy the product we may receive a small commission. For more information, go here.

Comments 28

  • Avatar for Monkey-Tamer #1 Monkey-Tamer 2 years ago
    In all fairness, after going back and replaying several arcade favorites, the rosy tint of nostalgia has been wiped away. Few games hold up well over time.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Mikki-Saturn #2 Mikki-Saturn 2 years ago
    @nimzy Exactly, I'm surprised this didn't come up. By far the biggest difference to me is that arcade games were transparent transactions - put in 25c, play until you die. How long that is depends entirely on you - your skill, your expertise, your endurance, etc. Played at a high enough skill level arcade games are short, sweet, dense little nuggets of entertainment that cost a few dollars at most. Its very different from free-to-play, which actively wastes your time and if anything actually punishes you for being skilled. Now certainly there were old arcade games that were so difficult and unfair as to be essentially exploitative, but these were always understood as bad games.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for SigurdVolsung #3 SigurdVolsung 2 years ago
    I wouldn't say that I get boiling mad about either. But I didn't like that aspect of arcade cabinets either. I only ever played cabinets of games that weren't on the systems that I own. I just want to pay a reasonable price up front and then be able to play and replay a game to my heart's content. And I don't mind some new development dlc/expansions that they work on after the game was certified gold and shipped. But locking out content in order to nickle and dime consumers or convince them to go through a specific outlet does not make me happy either.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for bVork #4 bVork 2 years ago
    It's not just graphical fidelity that kept arcade games popular despite the existence of home games. Other parts of the experience also couldn't be replicated, like unique control setups or multiplayer with people other than your close friends. F2P games provide absolutely none of that, and they can't, because they are made for the same home systems that every other game is made for.

    To put it another way, imagine asking a kid in 1980 whether they'd rather pay 25 cents per play of Tempest, or pay $20 ($60 in 1980 dollars) to own it forever. Which do you think they'd choose? Why would anyone ever choose the former with any decent game?
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for yuberus #5 yuberus 2 years ago
    Yeah, I feel like the key difference IS in game design. An arcade game needed to be fun enough to hook you, to make you want to spend more money. If it didn't, then it would pretty much fail and get replaced for not being a moneymaker, and as such they usually were fair enough to let you progress based on your own skill. And yeah, if you got good enough at the game, you could play for quite a long time on credit.

    With a free to play game, some of them are set up that way - you can legitimately get good enough at Doctor Who's gem game to power through and unlock everyone without ever spending a dime - but there's plenty that just expect you to pay up to progress by making things too brutally unfair. It's as though you're playing Pac-Man, get past the first intermission, and can only progress a little ways into the third stage before all the ghosts line up and just bum rush you... unless you spend some money to get a power pellet to beat that rush. Now have that happen regularly. You can't really improve and break down a game to stretch your money's worth with a lot of FTP games, whereas that seems to be a thing for a fair amount of arcade machines.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for ravikanodia79 #6 ravikanodia79 2 years ago
    You missed the most important point about ownership: in arcades, the manufacturer does not charge the player each time they play. In fact, the machine that they sell can be set to require 1 quarter, or 2 quarters, or more, or none at all, *at the discretion of its owner*. The manufacturer sells the hardware to an arcade operator, and the arcade operator is effectively renting the machine out to you at 25 cents (or whatever) a pop. The arcade operator pays the up-front cost of the hardware, and is also responsible for maintaining it, and then they collect rent on it.

    If Zynga wants to send me a flagship phone in the mail for free, then they can charge me each time I play Farm Clans Saga. But this is my hardware that I paid for with my own money. They aren't entitled to charge me for the use of it.Edited March 2015 by ravikanodia79
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Daryoon #7 Daryoon 2 years ago
    The thing with arcade games is that they were as much about the experience and the environment as they were the game itself. F2P games have replaced all that - the social element, the watching others play while waiting your turn, the banter with your mates - with, well, Farcebook. Now everyone is sitting in a lounge glued to their own little screen. It's soulless.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for riderkicker #8 riderkicker 2 years ago
    The only thing kept me from wasting all my money at the arcade was knowing that I had a limited supply of quarters on hand. I can't say the same for a game that has your credit card/paypal information.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Damman #9 Damman 2 years ago
    I think there is at least one particular design difference between old arcade games and today's free 2 play. With the arcade machines they attract the player upfront and get them playing. It's tough. You'll die eventually and have the option to plug in more money to play further, or you can walk away. Let the timer run out and the game end. Once it's over, it's over.

    With F2P games, the aim is to suck you in for the long haul. It sits on your own personal device sending periodic notifications to "Come play!" or "Buy this special item for a limited time!". They seek to get you invested with persistence, ever filling progression bars, and unspent in game currency (in 4+ different formats). They play against the psychology of leaving something unfinished when there is no defined finish line, whether you're succeeding or failing.

    I wonder how much longer we can use the phrase "nickel and dime" when the generations coming up have likely never spent just a nickel or a dime on anything.Edited March 2015 by Damman
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Nazo #10 Nazo 2 years ago
    What nonsense, they really have very little in common. With an arcade machine you are effectively renting some time on someone else's hardware, it's difficult to see how else it could work from a business point-of-view. It's fundamentally an honest business model though: you pay your money for your 3 lives or whatever and your skill determines how long you play for.
    A lot of free to play games have more in common with a crack dealer: they give you a sample of the product for 'free' then use every psychological trick at their disposal to try to wring some money out of you. A lot of the time you are paying to skip boring stuff; you literally get less than nothing for your money. It's a manipulative and dishonest business model that is encroaching more and more into all areas of gaming and sucking the fun out of it.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for nadiaoxford #11 nadiaoxford 2 years ago
    @Mikki-Saturn Yep, you're both right! And even in the '90s, you could survive Street Fighter II on a single token if you had the skills. But for the twenty- and- thirty-somethings I talk about in the article, I believe we tend to think of side-scrollers and beat-em-ups when we think of arcades. And some of those titles could be pretty brutal.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Captain-Gonru #12 Captain-Gonru 2 years ago
    I agree with most of the posters. There's a fundamental difference between a hard arcade game that you keep pumping quarters into and a F2P game that requires more money regardless of how you've played. In fact, the only arcade game that closely fits the F2P mold is Gauntlet. You can avoid every enemy, and your health bar will still slowly deplete, requiring more money. Which is the short version of why I almost never played in anywhere but at home.
    And btw, the old cartoons sucked too. Go watch the original Transformers again. Even if you get past the shoddy animation and poor voice synching, the basic storylines are garbage.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #13 LBD_Nytetrayn 2 years ago
    @Captain-Gonru Gauntlet was one I was thinking of, but how about those 90s arcade racers like Daytona and Cruis'n USA? It didn't matter how good you were, one credit was one race, whether you reached the finish line or not.

    Other games would boot you out on completion, too. Finish Donkey Kong? You keep going with harder difficulty. Finish some fighters/brawlers, and skill doesn't matter-- you're still rewarded with a Game Over screen and have to pay to play more (the downside of piggybacking on someone who leaves at the final boss).
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Captain-Gonru #14 Captain-Gonru 2 years ago
    @LBD_Nytetrayn I would counter (though not wholly disagree with the notion) that racing games offer you a race for a credit. The fighting games, however, are somewhat indefensible with the same argument.
    Donkey Kong, at least, is theoretically playable infinitely, so long as you have the necessary skill to not die. The home version is identical in this (ignoring the missing level, of course).
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #15 SatelliteOfLove 2 years ago
    Mobile came swiftly to that vapid, cynical morass it's juuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuust begining to get out of below those arcade titles of yesteryear (not Outrun or SF2 or Defender but Bad Dudes or the Midway sports games) that actively eroded skill-based 1CC.

    Worse still, this has been actively cultivated by the clientele, who bedraggledly whine when asked for money upfront instead of trickery (ask the Monument Valley guy).

    Mobile is also MUCH more modest in tech than the best gaming devices today. Major difference.

    Mobile is 90% for Whales (the real customers of these ilk) paying for the rest, and the fact the mobile device is nigh standard nowadays for modern living, so it's a Good Enough to disincintivize the purchase of the Good that is additional gaming hardware (and in gaming, Bad is not the worst enemy of good, nor is sometimes Better, but Good Enough).

    The vast trend in Mobile is asocial behavior, mere voyeuerism and exhibitionism rather than the face-to-face interaction (alotta MMOs suffer from this...oh how they suffer...)

    The more you look, the less overlap that Venn diagram has; a shaky correllation.Edited March 2015 by SatelliteOfLove
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #16 LBD_Nytetrayn 2 years ago
    @Captain-Gonru Right; DK was meant as an earlier example of the opposite. As for the others, I don't remember seeing anything to indicate it was a single race for a credit, just that I felt cheated in the end.

    Not to say they didn't say as much, but I can't imagine they went out of their way to draw the distinction.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for SEGASHIRO #17 SEGASHIRO 2 years ago
    As fan of NEO GEO arcade titles and SEGA stuff...I feel that there is both spectacle and skill rewards missing from touch games.

    A one credit clear was a real thing as a skill reward. Also the arcade consistently provided the cutting edge in technology. Even more so the arcade was tactile...a proper modern racing or Afterburner unit moves and offers force feedback.

    I hope the "arcade" style of game - the on-rails shooter or arcade racer comes back in the VR push. Imagine the Namco Star Wars title from inside the Morpheus or STEAMVR? It would be incredible! I salivate at the thought of a new Starblade in VR or Daytona/SEGA Rally using VR.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for SevenBones #18 SevenBones 2 years ago
    I would say that free-to-play has more in common with gambling then arcade games. Sure the difficulty in arcades was ramped up in order for people to spend more and more money on them, but at the same time many of them were still fair to the customers in that if one was skillful or practiced enough it was possible for one to breeze through a game without blowing through stacks of quarters. The same can not be said for free-to-play where no matter how good one is one will inevitably hit that wall where they will be forced to spend money if they want any meaningful progress at all.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for nadiaoxford #19 nadiaoxford 2 years ago
    Shoutout to everyone that read my piece, and to the mostly positive and thoughtful responses about a topic (free-to-play) that typically makes people break out the swear words. Thanks USG community!
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for MetManMas #20 MetManMas 2 years ago
    @SevenBones Yeah, it's basically gambling but much more sinister. Instead of the possibility of winning more money, the games tempt you with temporary advantages.

    Arcade games have many differences from mobile games. You were paying money to play them at all, the arcades, bowling alleys, bars, and restaurants where you would find them are much more social settings, arcade games often had very high production values, and in many cases the arcade kiosk was more of an attraction than the game itself.

    Sports and racing games would usually try to get more money out of the player by limiting things to one quarter of a game or race per credit, but in all fairness they're also the types of games players are likely to be playing for a longer time than a beat-em-up or action game. Freemium games lack all that stuff. I mean, freemium games can have respectful ways to earn money, but the big names set a horrible precedent by charging cash for trivial temporary nonsense.

    If anyone asked me for puzzle game recommendations I'd suggest Bejeweled 2 over Candy Crush Saga. It may cost money, but better to pay the cash for a full game experience than play a "free" one that uses cutesy cartoon characters to tempt you into bad spending habits.

    tl;dr King is the new Joe Camel.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Active-ate #21 Active-ate 2 years ago
    Great to see a piece by Nadia, always very thoughtful and interesting. I would imagine this one hits very close to the hearts of most of the USG community.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for VotesForCows #22 VotesForCows 2 years ago
    Great piece, thanks for it. The question of ownerships wasn't something I'd previously considered at all, that's interesting. Its a shame F2P gets so much hate, because there are a few quality games that have fair business models, but just get tarred with the same brush.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for hal9k #23 hal9k 2 years ago
    Excellent article. My first thought in reading it was, "Well, there's a reason why arcades are all but extinct..." I think that arcades fell from prominence due to competition from more convenient, cost-effective media - consoles and computers, specifically. Another factor was the shrinking gap between the experience you could get in the arcade and the experience you could get at home. Arcades were able to stave off death for a few years with bigger, more physical installations like DDR, but it was too late to reverse the trend by then.

    Unfortunately, I think that many people now see the same advantages in free-to-play and mobile games that they once saw in consoles (and particularly handhelds). Apparently, there's a large market that perceives those games as both more convenient (since you need a cell phone anyway) and more cost-effective than paying for full releases and a console to play them on. In the case of scams like King games, of course, that "cost-effective" part is a lie. I'm not saying I agree with that perception or that it's in any way true, but I think that's what the traditional games industry is up against and needs to find a strategy to combat.
    @yuberus made a good point that not all free-to-play games are scams, and there are some worthwhile ones out there. I hate to take EA's side in anything, but credit where it's due: I think Plants vs. Zombies 2 does the concept right. You can play through all of the content by skill alone, without spending a dime or grinding. My girlfriend is absolutely addicted to it (I'm not really into tower defense, but it's fun to watch sometimes), and has done just that - she's missing nothing but some costumes and optional "premium" plants that aren't necessary to beat the game. The notifications are obnoxious, but can be turned off.

    Also, blame where it's due: Zynga pioneered that energy timer bs, right? I'd like to think that nonsense wouldn't fly in the arcades. I suppose racing games did occasionally limit your time, but the good ones gave you more for your money than those Facebook-style games, and I don't think that time limiting model was ever widespread in arcades. Probably because players knew it was unfair.Edited March 2015 by hal9k
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for KaiserWarrior #24 KaiserWarrior 2 years ago
    The thing is, old arcade games aren't in any way comparable to modern F2P detritus.

    Pacman munched quarters if you didn't know how to play it. If you did, you could go for hours on a single credit. If you had thoroughly memorized the patterns and had good reactions, you could plunk in one credit and play that machine until you hit level 256 and corrupted the memory. As you played the game and got better at it, the cost went down. It didn't bilk you for coins, it challenged you. That's not even remotely close to something like Dungeon Keeper, which outright forces you to stop playing until you pay up, regardless of how good you may be at the game.

    TMNT, Final Fight -- they're the same way. They are legitimate games that actually involve some kind of skill. You can learn them, you can improve at them. Yes, they're crushingly hard, even downright unfair at times, but they are not impossible. With enough dedication, you can go for a long time on just one credit. Compare this to any of the modern F2P games with their energy bars or "you cannot defeat this level until you purchase X item in the shop" mechanics. It's simply not comparable.

    And that's discounting games like Street Fighter or Virtual On; competitive multiplayer games where it was your credit against the other person's, both of you fighting for the right to keep playing on that credit. It was a wager against the other player's skill. If they beat you, you lost your coin(s). There is simply no F2P game like that on the market. They're not interested in being tests of skill that reward you for getting good at their game. They're only interested in milking as much money out of you as possible.

    Making games to make money, or making money to make games. It's a fundamental difference in philosophy.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Captain-Gonru #25 Captain-Gonru 2 years ago
    @LBD_Nytetrayn Ah, I see. I misread your post a bit, I think. Sorry about that.
    I guess what it comes down to, for me, is that the arcade model ultimately died because we were given a better alternative. If they still made money in a competitive arena, they'd still be around. There was a time when you paid by the minute for internet access. Competition eventually drove everyone to a flat monthly fee. I guess the closest analogue for me would be accepting the "free" games with pop-up ads and little to no (or at least balanced) in-app purchases, and shun the ones that all but require you to pony up some dough.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Daikaiju #26 Daikaiju 2 years ago
    @Mikki-Saturn Spot on. We learned to avoid the the quarter suckers quickly.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Daikaiju #27 Daikaiju 2 years ago
    @Mikki-Saturn Spot on. We learned to avoid the the quarter suckers quickly.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Thad #28 Thad 2 years ago
    @nimzy True, but that seems a little illusory. If you're that skilled, it's because you went through a lot of quarters getting that good. It's an achievement of the persistence it took to gain that skill.

    Of course, the big difference is that when you get good at a game, you not only keep that advantage, but it's transferable to other, similar games.
    Sign in to Reply