I can’t remember the last time I spent an hour staring at a game trying to decide whether I think it’s utterly brilliant or completely rubbish. Last night I was doing just that, though, my eyes transfixed on Real Racing 3′s plethora of buttons and options, most of which seemed to point to a method of me handing over real cash. The UI is smart (if a little cluttered): the buttons to RACE and SPEND ALL YOUR MONEY are devilishly similar, a stray tap resulting in yet another microtransaction.
And some of them aren’t so micro. Much has been written about Real Racing 3′s payment model, and although a fair chunk of the criticism seems to have stemmed from authors a tad unfamiliar with how smartphone gaming is being financed, there’s some truth to the notion that EA have, with this otherwise exemplary slice of gaming, locked down the model for everyone else for years to come. If you’re making a racing game on a smartphone or tablet from this day onwards, chances are you’ll want to emulate Real Racing 3.
The first two Real Racing games didn’t subscribe to this methodology so adroitly, despite hints of it in the second game – it’s only really with this third game that developers Firemonkeys and publisher EA have so definitely moved down the freemium model. It’s a delicate balancing act that is seeing constant tweaking (with so-called hotfixes apparently possible) in order to get the game flowing and the cash trickling in at rates that are suitable for both shareholders and gamers.
In essence, the game features wear and tear on your cars. This is twofold: cars need servicing (oil, and so on) but they also feature damage modeling and thus require post-race fixing. These can be managed with in-game money but doing so, like a lot of the progress in the game, comes with a real-world wait. Just replacing your oil takes five minutes on a Focus RS, but installing engine parts and tweaking your tyres present a similar pause. If the upgrades aren’t related they’re done in parallel, but there’s still that waiting time.
Unless, of course, you spend some of your in-game coins. Coins that are in short supply and can – as you might have guessed – be topped up (like you can with in-game cash) with real money. We’ve seen this elsewhere of course (in fact, in-app purchases have pushed mobile gaming down this route steadily for the last couple of years) and some games are hugely successful at it (look at EA’s Simpsons: Tapped Out for a shining example) but apart from a few notable exceptions (hi again, Dead Space 3) publishers have stayed clear of trying this with living-room console games.
It’s because, quite simply, that this is the norm for on the go gaming where a five minute wait isn’t a big deal (chances are you’re playing the game whilst commuting, so just flip to the web browser and check on the latest news around the world whilst the mechanics do their job) but at home, in front of the TV, being presented with a screen that says “wait five minutes or give us 69p” would result in a sudden, forceful uproar across every website and forum on the planet. It’s just not done, it’s unusual, and it’s going to take someone with real balls to try it.
EA, perhaps? I can’t think of anyone with more experience across the two very distinct formats. But if they do, they’re going to have to dramatically review the entry price points: Real Racing 3 is free - it costs nothing to play until you decide to buy some currency or skip a waiting screen – when was the last time you came across a free PS3 game? Some publishers have tried to offer half a game and then pile on DLC on top of it, but that’s not what I’m talking about here: freemium gaming is a very unique model, and so far it’s been left out of the main console space.
Not that I necessarily agree with what EA and Firemonkeys have done with Real Racing 3 – I’m unlikely to really stick with the game long-term despite that fact that it looks absolutely stunning and handles brilliantly – but you’ve got to admire their collective courage. I don’t know whether the PS Vita is technically on par with the iPhone 5, but if it is and EA decided to bring Real Racing 3 to Sony’s latest portable without the in-app purchases I’d happily pay £30 for it. It’s a game that would work just as well with a single one-off high level purchase, and it would immediately trump anything else on the platform. It’s a seriously good racer.
The issue is (and the rationale behind EA’s decision) is that nobody’s going to pay £30 for an iPhone game. It’s just not done – the pricing of the App Store took a dive a long time ago – but by the same token EA are unlikely to offer the game for free on PlayStation platforms because the gaming market is so massively different that they’d probably struggle to make anything back. PS3 gamers aren’t used to forking over continuous trickles of money to keep progress going, and they’re not used to free games – the two together would probably be disastrous for the publisher.
It’s going to be interesting to see how Ouya does. Running off Android will mean the games library will be substantial, but financed by what are now normal smartphone pricing models. But Ouya is a TV-based console. If it works, perhaps we’ll see some tentative steps in this direction on PlayStation and Xbox devices (there were some strong hints from Andrew House last week regarding new ways to monetise games on PS4) and, who knows, a year or two down the line we’ll be seeing free (or very cheap) games being propped up in a similar manner to Real Racing 3 but running on a regular console, not a smartphone.
Until then, I’m back to staring at this game and trying to decide whether it’s a future I’m really keen on, or not. I get the idea, and I can see how it works for gamers happy to fund this growing market, but I’m not sure it’s for me. Not yet, anyway. The day that Gran Turismo 6 asks me to do the same I’ll maybe be forced to think differently, but until then I’d much rather pay a set fee and know that I’m getting the full game and won’t be pressured into parting with more cash every other day. How long that oddly Utopian view of the industry can last is anyone’s guess.