Lions, Tigers, Free Games… Oh My!

I’ve been compiling a list of “free game types” in preparation for my GDC Lyon lecture. When I look at the list on a single page, its breadth and depth are a bit stunning. There’s already a mountain of free game content out there, and the mountain is growing fast.

  • Advergames – games designed primarily to advertise a product or brand. The first advergames appeared way back in the early 1980’s; examples range from web-based Pickwick Afternoon to the recently launched Yaris XBLA game.
  • Advertising-supported casual games – the zillions of polished casual games made available to consumers for free when accompanied by banner ads, pre-roll video ads, etc. Examples include: truckloads of content in portals like MSN Games,, etc…
  • Old AAA games re-released with ads – Publishers are now experimenting with the free, ad-supported release of old-but-not-yet-ancient hit titles such as Far Cry and Prince of Persia (Sands of Time). Publishers may come to see this as a natural stage in the evolution of big-budget games — much like how many films eventually find their way to broadcast television.
  • Games as Features / Promogames – Kim Pallister coins the phrase games as features, and Ian Bogost calls them promogames, but no matter how you slice it, there’s a bunch of games (with noticeably large and growing budgets) that are designed primarily to promote the sale of tangentially-related (if not barely-related) physical products. This includes the now-famous Burger King Xbox games, and the equally-impressive Webkinz toys-as-tickets-to-a-virtual-world. That these games probably also strengthen their sponsors’ brands (much like advergames are intended to) is just icing on the very rich cake. As these games continue to perform well, watch for a wide variety of advertisers (toy companies? gas stations? airlines?) to begin deploying them. This is the category of free game that I personally find most intriguing.
  • Microtransaction-supported games – rooted in Asia but quickly spreading to the rest of the globe, this includes all games that generate revenue primarily by selling virtual objects to customers. While they generally enable players to earn most virtual items for free (with extensive time investment), players with more money than time can buy their way to virtual happiness. From more “hardcore” games like Gunbound and Kart Rider (hardcore in quotes because these games are way less intimidating than Halo or Call of Duty) to social experiences like Habbo Hotel, this category is exploding.
  • Shareware & trials – Remember the original Doom shareware experience? Good times. Now more commonly labeled and marketed as “trials”, you find free content in tons of downloadable casual games and, of course, on XBLA. Unfortunately, this gigantic mass of free trial content can easily satisfy the full needs of certain potential buyers. People who are still playing the trial version of Bomberman Live… I’m talking to you! 😉
  • Premium-subscription (“upsell”) games – Not to be confused with shareware, trials, or virtual-object based games, these are full-featured free games that can be enjoyed forever without paying a dime, but which try to upsell you on a “premium” gaming experience. My favorite example is Travian — a web-based MMO that offers convenience (for example, a better UI) for cash. By offering unlimited playability and a business model that (unlike virtual objects) generally offends no one, these games can catch fire. Watch out for them.
    • And how do we categorize subscription services like Gametap and Pogo, which use free games to upsell entirely different premium games? These sites also feature ads, so at first I figured they were already accounted for, but on reflection, I decided they merited a separate note.
  • User-created games – The flood of game content being created by modders (i.e. Counterstrike), members of the XNA Creators Club, users of Kongregate, hobbyist game developers in Second Life, etc, etc. This category of free content deserves an entire book, not a couple sentences. But since I’m already writing a different book, best I can offer are the posts in my user-generated content page.
  • Transmedia content – Possibly a category that could be merged with “promogames”, but distinct enough that I broke it out. I lump experiences like Virtual Laguna Beach into here. The basic premise: media companies are looking for new ways to engage fans. Creating free virtual worlds, set within the fictional boundaries of their shows and movies, is one engagement strategy. As these virtual worlds become richer, there’s every reason to believe that they could compete with “more traditional” online games. (PS. More on VLB here.)
  • Alternate Reality Games – Another category that deserves a whole book. Most people have heard about the famous ARG I Love Bees, which served to promote Halo 2. I Love Bees proved a tremendous experience in and of itself — one that absorbed every waking minute of thousands of people. Since then, many other free ARGs have been launched; for more information, see ARGNet.

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