These Games Taught Me to Love the Freemium Grind

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.

Brawlhalla

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.

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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.

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