There is no such thing as free lunch. So goes the adage.
How about free beer?
If you know the history behind the saying, it comes from a time when free lunches were used to attract people in restaurants to boost activity and revenue. The reasoning was that offering free lunch would entice the customers to spend more money on drinks.
When it comes to beer, caution would be well advised. Even if no money is exchanged during the transaction, someone is paying for it, and the end user always pays their due, in one way or another. (Providing an answer to your own rhetorical question has a unique charm)
If you look at the Video Games industry, there is no reason why it would be any different. Every time something is given for 'free', there is a cost associated to it. And it is fascinating to see how the gaming community reacts in different ways to free gaming.
No matter how it is received or given, the appeal of a free item is often too hard to resist. This is a well-known and natural reaction, but it is interesting to take some time and have a look at the costs associated to those decisions as they are hardly ever considered or even acknowledged.
1. It makes you play games you wouldn't
Being given a free game you didn't have before, more often than not makes you play something you didn't plan to.
It's not necessarily a bad thing of course. There will be good surprises on occasion, plus a reasonable section of players can't actually afford all the games they'd like to play, so having free ones provides more opportunity and variety. But it also increases the chances of playing turds.
If we consider this cost being simply an increased risk of playing an awful game, it doesn't seem that bad. But the real cost rather is being made to do something you didn't want to, sometimes without realising it
. Why are so many gamers building up a 'backlog' that they complain keeps on ever increasing but never stop adding to, and further exacerbate their self-made plight by creating events to force themselves even harder to play them all?
Everyone these days would agree forcing someone to do something against their will is wrong; how do we feel about forcing someone to do something without them being aware of it?
An addendum to that is it can compel you to keep playing something you don't want to.
This only applies to freemium or trials that unlock achievements, and to people who are completionists. But in those cases, it can make you keep playing something you hate, or force you to find safeguards and use secondary accounts. In either case, it increases your legwork.
2. It affects your judgement
The recurring event of monthly free games with Games With Gold (GwG) is a great source of information and observation of reactions.
No matter how diametrically opposite some reactions may be, there are common factors that trigger them, one being the emotions of the players are being altered by the freeness of the gift.
One section of the community will always say things along the lines of 'Can't complain for free'. What happens is they have lowered their standards to such a low level that they have disappeared. All simply due to the fact the game is free. Now let's imagine the GwG was reducing games to $1/£1 instead, would the same people still claim you cannot complain no matter the quality? Would they themselves be closer to having the same expectations than at full price? Would the expectations be proportional? The answer is known and the 0 price tag is what creates the predictable anomaly.
On the other end of the spectrum, some will always complain how the free games are 'shit' and some will demand a recent AAA offering instead. I could go with the popular comment of a generation of entitlement, but as much as it may be a part of it, the principal cause is the free price tag generated higher expectations. If they are promised a gift and don't get one, they feel let down. Think about receiving a birthday or valentine present, would you feel different if you knew the giver got it for free as opposed to having bought it? If you knew the item you wanted just went on a 50% sale, would you now expect two of them? Price always impacts our judgement, and never as dramatically as when it's free
The effect can be slow burning and long lasting as well. Linked to the fact you may be playing a game you wouldn't have otherwise, forcing yourselves through it may feel like work instead of fun. In the long run, it may burn people out, impacting the enjoyment they get from playing any video game. And as your judgement may have been impacted, it can be something that is difficult to fight against.
3. It makes you forgo boundaries
Sometimes to get a free game, you need to queue at a shop, or provide personal information. Maybe you've had to create an account to a new website, retweet a post or authorise a Facebook app to your account's wall, or complete a survey for a chance at winning.
In each case you disclose some element of personal information in exchange of the 'free' item
, and although tech savvy people will know how to protect themselves, each occurrence is a new risk to make a mistake.
4. It makes you spend money
If you go back to the original saying's history and replace 'lunch' with 'game' and 'drinks' with 'DLC/microtransactions' (which you probably did instantly then) it's easy to work out.
This time it doesn't only apply to hardcore completionists who have to buy the DLC after being given a GwG. An even larger user base is likely to consider that given they didn't pay for the game itself, it is fine to spend a little on extras. Probably more often on freemium games and microtransactions than GwG and DLC, but in the end it is all the same.
Spending £5 on extending an experience you were given for free may not sound that bad, but the reality is that it is money you wouldn't have spent, had you not been given the game for free. The mistake made is comparing the money you have spent to the money you could have spent; so if full price+DLC was £25, it feels as if you've saved £20, and that sounds a lot better than realising you normally wouldn't have spent any and actually wasted
To be clear, note I'm not assessing if the spent is worth it or not (remember my objective here is to discuss the impact of 'free'), I'm merely acknowledging the effect.
Another expression of this effect is when a free exclusive item is offered with a pre-order. The incentive is meant to rush our decision into buying and losing the free item if we don't, which could make someone pay full price for something they'd otherwise been happy for wait a sale for.
Some say it is up to each of us to make up their mind and that nothing is forced on anyone.
I say if it rains, you will get wet whether you want it or not. But you can always get an umbrella.
So next time something will be given to you for free, don't forget to ask yourself one question: What is it going to cost me?