Free mobile games often suck. They suck because they compensate for being free by sucking cash out of players through in-game transactions, and they suck because that fact almost always sucks the fun out of the game. That’s why players are concerned that a new smartphone version of the classic game The Sims is looking like it will be another “free to play” cash grab.
When EA released screenshots and video of gameplay for The Sims Mobile, some Sims fans noticed what appeared to be two types of in-game currency. In the upper right of the screen, both classic simoleons (what Sims calls its regular money) and a secondary currency indicated by a stack of dollars are sometimes visible. An EA spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the game’s payment model.
“They would rather focus on an App that will generate more revenue through in-app purchases than finish off the Sims 4,” one player wrote on Reddit, referring to the 2014 game which received mixed reviews. “Please don't tell me it's going to be like In-app purchase of $20,000 Simoleons for $9.99,” a commenter wrote at MacRumors. “I simply hate that kind of model.”
Many free-to-play games rely on convincing players to spend money throughout the game rather than buy the game up front. This works differently in different games. There may be content that’s gated behind payment, lengthy waits that can be sped up with money, or an in-game currency that players can use to buy nice things. The problem with these schemes is that it means the game is designed around being addictive and pressuring the player into spending money, rather than to provide the player with enjoyment or satisfaction.
Longtime players of The Sims know the franchise charges players for in-game items, such as clothing, furniture, and new worlds. The Sims 3 used SimPoints, a currency that players had to buy with real money. It was unpopular in part because players couldn’t just purchase as many SimPoints as they needed to then buy whatever in-game item they wanted; instead, they had to buy bundles of SimPoints at a time. So if you needed, say 4,050 SimPoints, you had to buy the 5,000-pack. The leftover balance creates profit for EA and encourages players to spend even more to use up their balances, similar to the spending cycles seen with retail gift cards. In Sims 4, EA did away with the SimPoints system, instead letting players simply buy expansion packs for cash — a more straightforward system that some players tend to prefer.
“Free” games are designed to be addictive and pressure the player into spending money as they go
The Sims Mobile seems to be turning back in the direction of nudging players to make in-app purchases as they go along. It’s actually just the latest mobile version from EA — The Sims Freeplay, released in 2011, forced in-app purchases for everything from in-game currency to automatic pool cleaners — but it wasn’t a full Sims experience like The Sims Mobile appears to be.
Sims fans fear EA will screw up this mobile version of a classic game, as it did with 2014’s mobile Dungeon Keeper. That game was lambasted at launch for its money-gouging monetization and soulless mobile conversion.
Why are there microtransactions if they’re, by and large, awful? Because they work. Take, for example, Nintendo’s two major forays into mobile games: Super Mario Run and Fire Emblem Heroes. Both are free, but Super Mario Run has a one-time $9.99 payment to upgrade to the full version, whereas Fire Emblem Heroes features microtransactions in the form of purchasable Orbs that can then be traded for characters, “stamina” — a meter that fills up over time and determines how many actions you can take in the game — and more.
According to reports in April, Fire Emblem Heroes outperformed Super Mario Run in terms of revenue despite the fact that Heroes had just 1/10th the number of downloads that Mario did. Even though they were both free to download, the percentage of players who ended up spending money on Fire Emblem Heroes was higher. At the time, Nintendo also reported total earnings of 21.1 billion yen, or about $184 million, for smartphone games and related materials. Both games had, at the time, been out less than a year.
It’s not shocking then to see indications that The Sims Mobile will be more like Fire Emblem Heroes and less like Super Mario Run.
To be clear, there’s no guarantee that The Sims Mobile is going to be hot garbage, and we don’t know how aggressive its in-app purchases will be. Some games, like Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, are basically unplayable without spending money, while others are more judicious in when and how you’re prompted to pay up. Candy Crush sucked money out of addicted users by charging for extra lives, which otherwise would take 30 minutes each to refill. Fire Emblem Heroes, on the other hand, is totally playable without ever spending a dime.
The Sims has never been about winning or losing; you just keep living a simulated life with consumerism as the only true goal. The basic gameplay cycle within The Sims is make money, spend money, and train to make more money. Pairing that with money-grubbing micro-charges sounds more depressing and expensive than it does fun.