Freemium is Not New

Mayor launches tube busking contest

When buskers play their music in the London Underground, they don’t expect everyone within earshot to give them money. Some people offer a paltry token or two. Others are intensely moved because that piece of music means something to them and there is something about the way that it is being played that resonates with them. These people are what you might nowadays refer to somewhat disparagingly as “whales”. What you don’t have is some lawyer going after everyone in ear shot to try and extort a few thousands pounds out of them, but that’s another story. The fact remains that the market for the busker is open and available. They occupy their spot, and they get paid to do what they love and to better their craft. (Let’s face it, much if it will never qualify as art and most of it is crap.)

Artists now freely upload their music to YouTube and reap the benefit of an even larger audience. Some of that audience, like myself, will seek out their work and buy it. Witness some of the great Canadian guitarists of today, like Antoine Dufour for example. I’ve bought several of his albums from iTunes without hesitation, because I’ve watched his YouTube videos entranced. I’m his whale. Had he not made his music freely available, I’d never, and I mean never have bought his music and would have been poorer for it. Fair trade.

We live in a world of continuous partial attention. So the same trick is not as easy to pull with games, but I really would like to see the faces of people who make free games. I want to know why they do what they do. I’m not interested in those who turn it into a science and I’m not interested in cow clickers, though I was momentarily suckered by the “double your grind speed” mechanic in Jetpack Joyride for a paltry 69p. Not every game needs the artist on the cover, just as I neither know, nor care what Robert Plant looks like to appreciate Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir, one of the greatest songs ever made.

Sooner or later, we are going to realise that there is a skill to making video games that is evidence directly in the gameplay and results in an experience that is shared and valued by many people, consistently, and that is where the value truly lies. Such people should be valued. Those people should never need to busk, nor should they be asked to. Those people should, like Robert Plant and Led Zeppelin, be able to command a price, never release a single and be able to command universal respect.

Freemium is not new, and I do wish people wouldn’t bang on about it as if it was some revolution. All that’s happened is that a market exists that is large enough to support it. We never had the dynamics to support the model and when the dynamics change, new models will also spring up. It’s not like the people at the top are stupid. You can’t turn around huge organisations that are responsible for the livelihoods of thousands of people on a sixpence without incurring massive suffering, pain and upheaval.

Things are changing. People I know and respect are working really, bloody hard and do understand the dynamics. It’s just that they’re not going to lead their staff into a chasm that doesn’t suit the business and might in fact kill it. Steering a supertanker takes time, but you can bet that supertankers do get steered and are capable of withstanding much heavier seas than tug boats.


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