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Why I haven’t bought Frozen Synapse on iPad for £4.99 yet

By on May 17, 2013
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Frozen Synapse from Mode 7 Games is by all accounts a great game. It is in my preferred genre (strategy), on my preferred device (iPad). Why haven’t I played it yet?

iPad Screenshot 1

Because it costs £4.99.

I’m now going to talk about why I haven’t bought it as a way of helping me (and hopefully you) understand the changing dynamics of entertainment industries. Let’s see if that works.

I have realised that my relationship with content creators is changing. I want the people who seek to entertain me to earn my money, not to expect it. The iPad games I have struggled with recently (Ridiculous Fishing, Baldur’s Gate, Star Command), all started their relationship by insisting that I pay for the game before I knew if I was going to have a good time. This set me off on the wrong foot.

“Alright then, if you think you are so much better than all the other free games out there, prove it to me. Quickly. Come on now. No, you aren’t better, sorry, and I’m now in a bad mood with you.”

I rapidly started resenting the money I had spent, tiny as it was, and found it very hard for the game to earn back my respect, my love or my money.

Of course, this is ridiculous. I have paid more for a bad cup of coffee than I have paid for these games. They’re not even terrible games. Ridiculous Fishing just isn’t for me. Baldur’s Gate just isn’t for the iPad and has a staggeringly slow start. Star Command shows what happens when a team is filled with artists but no game designers. Game design is an actual, difficult skill, you know. Yet the competitive environment and human expectations are very different for digital games than for physical coffees.

Dan Ariely’s Hershey’s Kiss experiment famously shows how important the power of free is. It draws people in like moths to a flame. A key element is that free eliminates the risk of loss. I had to put more “risk” into the decision to download a paid game than a free game. I will feel more stupid if I don’t enjoy it than if the only cost to me was some all-you-can-eat bandwidth on my wifi. I will *resent* the game much more quickly if it makes me think that I am foolish for having spent the money.

In the marvellous Mistakes were Made, but not by me, psychologists Carol Tavris and Eliot Aronson explain the concept of cognitive dissonance. In essence, we don’t like holding two contradictory opinions in our head. For example, if we start a fight with someone, we can either believe that we were a bad person for starting the fight, or that the other guy deserved it. Since we don’t like believing that we are a bad person, it becomes easier to demonise the other side.

The equivalent works for paying for a game. If I am not enjoying a game that I paid for, either the game sucks, or I am an idiot for paying for it. Since I don’t want to admit that I am an idiot, it must be that the game sucks. There is an alternative, of course. It might be that *because* I paid for, I believe that it is a good game, because admitting that it is not a good game would make me admit I was an idiot for paying for it.

This is obviously a very abbreviated way of thinking about the psychology of free and paid titles. The essence is that I feel that games now need to earn my money, rather than feeling that they deserve it before I know if I will enjoy the game. My fear of loss is sufficiently strong that I will resent paying for a game upfront. (Demos don’t cut it either; a demo is time wasted not playing the game – more in another post).

Which is why I have not yet bought Frozen Synapse . I love the Mode 7 Games guys. I am sure I will get over my loss aversion soon. But in the meantime, go and check it out. I am sure it is an excellent game.

Download it on the

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve:
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  • Fine, I’ll bite.

    There are two different components of cost. The first is the fixed cost: the cost to make thing that has to spent no matter whether you sell one unit or a million units. For a shoe, that cost would include the cost of the factory, the designer and all the overheads to finance, construct and maintain a factory.

    Then there is the marginal cost. The cost to make one more copy. So for the shoe factory, it is the cost of the leather, the stitching and the electricity to pay the machine that makes it.

    There are two competing economic theories: Cournot and Bertrand. The simple version is that Bertrand competition posits that when two businesses are in competition, the price will fall to the marginal cost. In the case of our shoe manufacturers, if the marginal cost is $1, and one factory is selling shoes for $5, it’s rival will get no business unless it undercuts the $5 fee. And so they go on undercutting each other until they get to the marginal cost, which in their case is $1, making no contribution to the fixed costs of the factory etc.

    Bertrand Competition was long thought of as a theoretical construct because it didn’t include things like distribution costs, the difficulty of consumers making accurate comparisons and whether any normal human would travel 10 miles to save a dollar.

    But in the digital world, where the marginal cost is zero, Bertrand Competition appears to be winning. The price IS trending towards zero. And smart companies are finding ways to make money even from a zero entry price, whether that is F2P game design, using free as a content marketing strategy or finding a way to enable superfans to spend 10x, 100x or 1,000x the average on things they really value.

    The reason Brendan’s argument is irrelevant is because he is basically saying “Boo-hoo, poor me. It costs me a lot of money to make a game so I deserve to get paid.” That’s not how it works. If he creates something that people don’t value. If economics and technology have moved against him so consumer expectations and competitive pressures favour free, bleating that it’s not fair is, to take my initial point, irrelevant.

    What he has to do is to keep making games, by all means, but sell things that people actually value. And they don’t give a stuff about how much it cost to make.

  • Andreas Ahrlund

    I think thats very honest of you. Another way is to accept donations 🙂 Just remembered I promised a guy one!”

  • Andreas Ahrlund

    How is it irrelevant?(saying something is irrelevant without pointing out why is rather demeaning, if your “opponent” new his argument was flawed he wouldnt have used it)

    Its just another way to pay the producers of the product- difference is you get the safety of knowing you can play your CQB-chess without having to pay for cooler shit on your chessboard to keep up with everyone else.

  • Andreas Ahrlund

    Im very happy you havent bought the game. There is no point in having a clean, beautiful game, thats meant to be a single-purchase, all included, intellectual challenge. Why would I want to be forced to buy new weapons and guns to enjoy a game? The beauty of frozen synapse is that the absolute best players, and the absolute worst, still use the same units, and play on the same terms. You will never get that if the game feels it needs to charge you money elsewhere.

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  • Marketing has changed from ‘Promise’ to ‘Proof’. So this is the new reality which is something to build in your strategy going forward.

  • Unfortunately, I think that argument is irrelevant. I would like it not to be, but it is.

  • Brendan McGuire

    And yet that product didn’t come into existance for free. All the skills required to make a game take years of training and often expensive university degrees. On top of that, people have to make a living. Even a small team of 5 people getting paid 50k a year, if a game takes a year to complete, that’s 250k for just the staff – and nothing else.

    It’s really difficult to pay for projects with nothing.

  • I avoid loss-aversion by averaging my experience over several similar purchases rather than having every £5 game be a life-and-death decision. If, after a dozen or so purchases at the £5 level, I don’t feel I’ve got as much total value as I would have from buying a couple of £30 games, I get more picky. If I buy a dozen cheap games, two are lemons, 9 are okay, but not something I feel a need to replay, and the last is one I spend hundreds of hours on, overall, I feel pretty good about my frog-kissing strategy. If none of the games are rubbish/not to my taste then (assuming I’m not spending all my free time on the games I already have), I’ll be less choosy about future purchases.

    The key point here is that a £5 game isn’t a major purchase for me – it’s more like buying a lottery ticket (or a raffle ticket) for a lottery where the customer usually wins. An occasional loss is just part of the price of winning.

  • .

    “consumers increasingly expect content to earn their money, rather than assuming they have the right too.”

    First I’d like to know what you base that on. If there’s some compelling evidence for it, I’d be genuinely interested in reading it. Otherwise, it sounds a bit vague and convenient to the angle you’re coming from.

    Personally, I always thought quality of product which shines through in the marketing and then the reviews and then the word of mouth is how “content” earned my money, and still is. I’m not sure how else a product someone has made would earn your money.

    I don’t think just because free casual apps with hateful expendable IAP models are suddenly popular on the App Store that you can then assume this is because all consumers are universally adjusting their values regarding worth.

    I just think there’s a lot of people happy to put up with shitty game mechanics for free, and a few who are happy to pay through the nose to avoid those mechanics, and that this is creating a feedback loop where the more FREE price tags appear on the store, the more PAID tags look less appealing.

    Correlation is not causation, and all that.

    Frankly I hate most free-to-play/freemium games because of the fact I’ll never be free of the ‘rent’ they charge to get rid of the hateful timers/currency.

  • .

    (I used my currently-dormant twitter account to comment – if you want to reply to me here use @myglasseye 🙂 )

    I understand how you feel when you purchase something that turns out to be, subjectively, rubbish. That’s exactly how I felt about Star Command, for example. But then I figured, it costs me more than SC cost just to get the tube to work. The sandwich I buy for lunch costs 50% more than SC. I didn’t read many reviews before I bought it, just the one at Touch Arcade, and I’ve got to stop making the mistake of believing them, they hype so much stuff beyond what it deserves in my opinion.

    So, I don’t feel that bad about the purchase on balance.

    With Frozen Synapse, if you want to give it a try, get the Mac or PC demo and give the tutorial a shot, then the first couple of demo missions, and you’ll know pretty quickly if you like it. Then check out a couple of reviews to see what they say about the iPad controls, and make your mind up: buy it, or not.

    Any argument you’ve got against demos really melts away in the face of this piece you’ve written – a demo would solve the issue of whether you think your money will be well-spent. I agree that demos which don’t save your progress and apply it to the full game if you go on to purchase it are annoying but frankly that’s a first world problem that doesn’t even register, compared to the alternative where you don’t buy games because you’re scared you’ll not like them.

  • At a physics level, maybe. In practical terms, totally not.

    A product made of atoms costs money to distribute and replicate. A product made of bits costs as close to zero as makes no odds to replicate (well, most do). In the case of iOS, Apple swallows that cost so the cost is actually zero.

    This is the fundamental distinction between bits and atoms. If you don’t get that, you will find the twenty-first century very, very confusing.

  • Notdan

    Are you aware that bits are made of atoms right?

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  • Nate

    Products made from “atoms” and “bits” are different and can’t be compared the same and I’ll suggest that Nicholas would not expect to get a fridge for free as it is made from atoms and at the beginning of his article he says his relationship with “content creators” is changing which we can assume from the theme of this blog means games or other digital content. Read Chris Anderson’s books “Free: The Future of a Radical Price” and “The Long Tail” for a very in depth and enjoyable read on the subject.

    I’m with you Nicholas, after reading the above two books I fully expect anything digital to eventually have a price tag of free with monetization coming from other avenues than what is used today although I’m sure some of the “old” ways will still be around.

    We’re in a transitional period still with friction from the old guard but “free” is where the ball will eventually rest.

  • I think we need a link to your book….

  • Atoms and bits, Dan. Atoms and bits.

  • This is ironically an argument I can see both sides of (cognitive dissonance?)

    As a gamer I would rather just pay once for a game and then avoid all the nagging boxes asking if I would rather grind for 200 hours for 10 coins or buy them now for 0.99c. Plus I already bought the $20 PC version of FS and played the heck out of it so an extra $7 was a no brainer to be able to play from the couch 🙂

    I think the issue here is more the freemium business model. Unfortunately the suits know that people download free games more, so they make their games free and then put in insurmountable pay walls that you just can’t get past. At they end of the day the game wasn’t free to make, and so they have to recoup their investment somehow. I like to know how much a game is going to cost me upfront, i don’t want to be paying $5 to put fuel in my virtual car every time I want to race!

    However, as a writer (and an unknown one) I’m not yet comfortable asking people to pay me for my work as I feel I have to earn that right, so my book is free with the thoughts that if enough people like it I will write a sequel and charge for it. Note that I don’t give them the first 5 chapters and then charge them 0.99c a chapter after that, which would be the ‘freemium’ approach…

  • Kind of like your blanket representation of “consumers” above? 🙂

    I’m with “st4rdog” here. I am immediately suspicious of anything that claims to be “free” these days, because it inevitably isn’t. I am not alone in this viewpoint.

  • danthat

    Have you ever bought a fridge, Nicholas? Do you expect fridges to be free to pop in your house for a couple of days to check you liked its features, and then you buy the drawers one by one? Or did you just read reviews and make a best guess?

  • My issue isn’t that FS is £4.99 versus £1.99. I advise all my clients that if they are not going to be free, they should expensive. Looks like Mode 7 has come to the same conclusion (expensive in terms of iOS games anyway).

    And I love your blanket representation of “serious gamers”.

  • I owe you the post on why I think Lets Plays and demos and reviews are not the same as experiencing the game, and indeed fail to solve the loss aversion problem, possibly making it worse.

    I have free books and not-free books. 🙂 I increasingly think that free is inevitable, but there is no point in hurrying it until you have the -mium bit of your service, product or entertainment offering sorted out.

  • I agree they have no obligation to provide their product for free. I just think that the social contract is changing: consumers increasingly expect content to earn their money, rather than assuming they have the right too.

    Interestingly (for me), this wasn’t a post about why Frozen Synapse should be Free to play, but simply one about why I haven’t bought it yet

  • Exactly. If Frozen Synapse was free, any serious gamer would immediately assume it was crippled in some way. Carmageddon just released. If it was free I’d assume I’d have to pay for each car/level and not even bother to play it.

    And £4.99 only looks expensive when all the other games are £1.99 or less. There are some companies that do $19.99 games and their sales stats backup their insistence on staying at that price.

  • I was going to leave a comment, but Dan here has already said everything I think I would have wanted to. I agree entirely with all his points — particularly the fact that I now actively AVOID “free” games because of all the grinding, large glowing “Get More Coins!” buttons and the advertising that the experience is inevitably riddled with. I play games to be entertained, not to be immersed in some suit’s business model.

    Frozen Synapse is a great game — and that is a well-established fact from the PC version. £5 is not a lot of money. It is considerably cheaper than the PC version’s full price. It is a game designed to be enjoyed as a “pay once, play forever” game rather than continually extorting money from you on a regular basis.

    Developers such as Mode 7 deserve your support by buying their game regardless of whether or not you end up enjoying it, because they are creating original experiences that aren’t members of the endless knockoff parade that makes up the majority of mobile gaming.

    It is not Mode 7’s job to “earn” your money. They have no obligation to provide the product they have worked hard on for free. If you think you might enjoy it, buy it and take the risk. If you don’t, don’t. Simple as that. It’s not the job of developers to help you get over your risk aversion. And again… £5.

  • danthat

    If you’re worried about not liking it, Nicholas, you could watch some Let’s Plays on youTube or try the PC demo ( or read some of the many, many reviews. That’s how people tend to decide whether or not product is to their tastes.

    Better that than Mode7 crowbar in a load of F2P rot into the finely-honed mechanics.

    Personally, I’d have skipped it if it was free. I’ve stopped downloading free games because all the psychological ‘big glowing button’ and grinding bullshit is now a bigger barrier than a one-off cost.

    Is your book free yet, Nicholas?