With my wife and I homeschooling our seven-year-old daughter, most every activity we do has the potential for being educational. (It's important that we make the most of any such “teachable moments.”)
My daughter and I play the Zynga game Hidden Chronicles on my Facebook account. The main game-play part of Hidden Chronicles is finding objects hidden within various pictures. Each scene has dozens or even a hundred or more objects that can be found, but each game involves finding only a few of them. Since the objects to find are written out, it's a good opportunity for my daughter to read and learn more words.
Free games with a throttle
My daughter is also learning about the wonderful world of the “freemium.” Hidden Chronicles, like many other social games on Facebook and Google+, are free … to a point. We can indeed play for free, but with catches:
- We can't play as much as we want. Each time we play the game, we lose “energy.” When our energy is gone, we have to wait anywhere from 15-45 minutes depending on what we want to do while our energy gets “recharged” (This by itself isn't a bad thing for me, because it gives me an excuse for moving on to something else.) Zynga is especially good at getting new players hooked on their games by the way they structure when players “level up” and get an instant recharge of energy. The leveling up happens more frequently at the lower levels, so new players get to play more before the throttling becomes apparent. Very clever.
- We can't play all of the scenes immediately. Unlocking the new scenes requires fulfilling quests like building certain structures on our virtual estates. These tasks can't be accomplishing for free unless we wait, or to get my friends to “help” build my whatever. This is how Zynga and its competitors increase their player base, since to advance in the game (for free) we have to talk about the game publicly and keep our friends engaged in the game, which encourages more talk about the game.
All of the waiting and the tedious “spamming my friends,” of course, can be bypassed if I engage in affiliate offers that throw real money Zynga's way, or if I purchase credits directly. I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't tempted. The business model is very, very good at pulling the wallet out of your back pocket. If I were to unlock everything available in the game right now, I could easily spend more than a thousand dollars of real money doing it.
What is really extraordinary about this business model is that even if Zynga never sees a dime from me personally, we can play the game on equal footing with other players. In other words, the paying players don't get super powers. Chris Anderson, author of Free: How Today's Smartest Businesses Profit by Giving Something for Nothing, puts it this way with regard to buying virtual goods: “You don't have to pay, but you may want to.”
Free for profit: This will just get bigger
While my daughter and I are playing the game, we talk about the different aspects of the game. She understands that when the game bugs me to share things with my friends, ask them for help, etc., that it's the way we can unlock more scenes without paying money. She also understands that we can only play so many times in a row without paying money.
Part of discussing this with her is to get her used to looking at how the games work. The “making money off of free” is only going to get more widespread as bandwidth, storage, and processing power get cheaper and cheaper. This kind of marketing is going to be for her what commercials during Saturday morning cartoons were for me.
Now, can anyone help build my wedding gazebo? My daughter wants to play another scene. 🙂