Like most people who play games, I took several months of indoor isolation as an opportunity to play a lot more of them. I went through the biggies: Cyberpunk, Doom Eternal, the much-appreciated PC release of Horizon: Zero Dawn. But all of them eventually reached their end, either at the conclusion of the game or the point where the shine simply wore off.
The games that I kept coming back to during the dreary, stressful stretch of lockdown were the ones I had already played for years. And to my surprise, they were the ones that were “free.” The conspicuous quotes are there because, as most of us know by now, games designed as free-to-play always cost either a massive amount of time, as the player grinds through the slow lane of gameplay, or money, as they pay to skip it.
But I found a strange solace in three such games during the pandemic. In particular I discovered myself looking forward to fulfilling their daily challenges and bonuses, despite knowing that these are yet another wrench in the freemium toolbox, designed to inspire addictive behavior and regular returns.
First let’s examine Brawlhalla, a freemium take on platform fighters like Smash Bros. that's available on pretty much every console and operating system. Brawlhalla's developers told WIRED that they measured a considerable increase in daily players during the pandemic, and attributed that jump to more people at home wanting to play with friends.
The game offers a variety of competitive modes and an absolute smorgasbord of cosmetic additions to buy, but I chose to focus on unlocking all the fighters. At present there are a shocking 53 of them, not counting a myriad of crossovers covering a smattering of pop culture from WWE wrestling stars to Steven Universe. Each one can be bought with the free currency, coins, while the premium currency is reserved for the fancier cosmetics. Alternately, you can spend about $20 to open up all of them—avoiding this rather reasonable fee was my goal.
While some fighters are discounted, at the average rate of coins earned per fight, you’d have to play for about 10 hours straight to unlock just one of the more expensive characters. A handful are open to use at any given time, and they rotate every few days, but getting all of them in a straightforward way represents a massive grind.
Here’s where the daily challenges come in. In addition to a bonus of 50 to 250 coins for logging into the game once per day (bonuses stack for concurrent days), you can earn 250 coins for completing specific challenges—say, winning three rounds or knocking out eight opponents with a spear fighter. Since you’re also racking up gold after each fight, it adds up quickly if you play strategically. And that’s not counting the frequent in-game events that offer even more in-game currency.
"Daily missions are a great way to earn Gold, and players pay attention to that whether they're looking to unlock a new favorite Legend or are saving up for a particular color scheme," says Joshua Kenneth, the international project manager on Brawlhalla.
Daily bonuses and missions are a common component of freemium games, encouraging the player to log in frequently and catch up on the latest promotions. But it’s the small adjustments to the formula that make the grind more palatable and which kept me coming back. In Brawlhalla you can bank up to three of those daily challenges at a time, and assuming they overlap, it’s possible to complete them concurrently. On top of that, you can reroll one challenge a day, trying for something easier, more enjoyable, or one that matches another challenge. "We try to make sure the missions strike a good balance between variety and play styles so that there is something interesting for everyone," says Kenneth.
Between all of these, and choosing your battles carefully, it’s fairly simple to earn thousands of coins a week playing just a few minutes a day. For an old Smash fan like me, it’s a fair enough compromise.
The time investment still doesn’t make sense if you look at it like a chore or a job, as many freemium games can become. I could spend $20 to unlock all of the fighters at once, and in terms of pure time, I probably should. Plenty of my fellow players do, according to Kenneth. "Once you have several Legends you play frequently, the All Legends Pack that unlocks all current and future Legends becomes an obvious choice. It is such a good deal and often seen as ‘buying the game,’ so it's quite popular."
At my self-imposed goal of 500 coins a day, it’s still going to take me the better part of a year to unlock everyone. But as a target I’ve assigned to myself, at a value I’ve decided, it adds a meta layer of challenge to the game and gives me a reason to keep coming back.
Hearthstone and Pokémon Go
The combination of daily bonuses and challenges, as well as the option for the player to skip or replace some of them, is often deployed for freemium game structures. Blizzard initially earned the ire of fans of its World of Warcraft-themed trading card game, Hearthstone, when a new seasonal battle pass system was introduced. But after reshuffling the rewards and the rate at which one earns them, they’ve found a good middle ground.
Like Brawlhalla, Hearthstone gives you a daily challenge you can unlock, which takes between 10 and 30 minutes to complete. And here again you can reroll the challenge if it isn’t to your liking, and daily challenges stack for up to four days. On top of this, Hearthstone gives you three meatier weekly challenges which offer about three times as much in-game currency to exchange for card packs or cosmetics, again with a maximum bank of four and the option to reroll one a day. All of these challenges can be completed concurrently, and most don’t actually require you to win any given match, so a lunch break’s worth of daily play is enough to beat them all, even if you’re on a losing streak.
Pokémon Go has no less than three different weekly challenges at any given time: stacking daily bonuses for catching one Pokémon, another daily bonus for spinning the location-based Pokestops, and semi-randomized challenges like catching three bug-type Pokémon or getting an excellent throw. Once again, players can reroll the randomized challenges (though it requires another Pokestop spin).
Complete any challenge for seven days in a row, and you get a huge multiplier bonus in experience and loot, and the chance to catch rare critters. Keep on top of all three of them and you’ll be raking in the in-game bonuses without ever spending a cent, in addition to extra rewards for walking distance achievements or trading digital gifts with friends.
Checking in on my regular freemium games became a ritual, giving structure to long samey days, and offering a blessed alternative to doomscrolling news of my country’s mismanagement. I looked forward to my daily melees on my lunch break or a quick Battlegrounds run after a long meeting, and my nearby Pokegyms are all maxed out on refreshing dog walks. Intellectually, I know that the developers are hoping for—indeed, counting on—that habit-forming behavior. But in these specific titles, I found that the rewards they offered were worth the time they asked of me. I even indulged in the occasional purchase of a few dollars, because I felt that the enjoyment I’d received was worth at least that much.
The Dark Side of the Freemium Grind
The recurring rewards were certainly more enticing than any of the flashy cosmetics or battle passes that the developers would prefer me to strive for. As much as I enjoyed them, it was impossible to forget the more sinister psychological aspects of these titles. All three of these games have fairly deep freemium holes one could dive down, but let's examine Brawlhalla.
Aside from unlocking fighters or climbing the competitive ranks, Brawlhalla's tertiary goal is collecting cosmetics. Some of those gaudy add-ons are reasonable; I’ve spent $10 on two skins for two of my favorite fighters. But the most impressive skins and other cosmetics are all locked away in “chests,” randomized loot boxes that are mostly full of items for characters you won’t play.
For example, to get the Iron Man–style Infinite Wu Shang skin, I’d have to wait for the “Cosmic” chest to come back into rotation in the store, where it only appears once a month. I’d then have to spend approximately $4 on the chest … with only a one in 21 chance of actually getting the skin I wanted. And not only are the other 20 skins in the chest for other characters, 18 of them are skins that I could have bought individually with that $4.
The random nature of the chest, and its appearance of timed scarcity in the in-game store, almost begs the player to keep buying chests on that day until they get the one they want. Assuming the worst luck and at a maximum possible price of 2,940 premium coins, getting that one skin might cost more than $100 in real money. (And that's among the more forgiving loot box systems, compared to gacha games like Genshin Impact.) It makes my disrespect of my own time unlocking all the characters the slow way seem downright frugal.
That's why it's crucial to choose your battles when it comes to freemium games. Unlocking characters in Brawlhalla, getting the Battlegrounds premium unlock in Hearthstone, and just generally catching cool monsters (not necessarily "'em all") in Pokémon, are attainable goals. And crucially, they remain doable in a reasonable amount of time, without necessarily spending any money.
The trick is to find games that are weighted more toward the player in the rewards they dole out, and setting your own terms for what represents victory.