Real Racing 3’s bastardized free to play model

EA’s mobile driving game Real Racing 3 has gotten a lot of flak since its debut last week. The primary controversy surrounds the game’s free to play model that leverages artificial timers to generate revenue. Repair or upgrade a car and it’s unavailable to play for a set amount of time, anywhere from 5 to 25 minutes (in rare cases, far longer). Of course by spending real money you can end a timer early, and EA clearly hopes you will. Many tech and gaming journalists on my Twitter feed have called the practice “abominable” and refuse to play. Others have taken the exact opposite stance: it’s a free game on your phone, relax and wait a few minutes! I disagree with a one sided position on RR3; the right answer for me lies somewhere in the middle.

One aspect RR3‘s critics get decidedly wrong is the impact timers have on gameplay. Many make the mistake of judging RR3 from the perspective of a traditional console or PC game, not a mobile title. Console and PC games tend to be played in longer sessions of at least an hour; in that context a twenty minute repair timer would be catastrophic. In contrast, mobile games are usually played for far shorter intervals, which minimizes the impact of RR3’s timers. Furthermore, early on in the game (in my case, with less than an hour of gameplay) you start acquiring multiple cars. By just shuffling between cars that are not in repair, you can nullify a timer’s effect. Already I’m at four cars and timers are effectively a non issue.

The real problem with RR3‘s economic model is less about actual gameplay than principle. Traditional games charge for extra content, not to pay off an arbitrary delay timer. Normally games give you the full package for a set price, while the equivalent with RR3 (to unlock all tracks and cars) costs hundreds of hours or dollars. Overall RR3‘s timers are, as Alex Navarro over at Giant Bomb wrote, just plain invasive. It’s applying a Zenga or Farmville like min-max model on what should be a fun racing game.

While RR3 is a mobile game, it’s also an AAA game on all levels: polished graphics, depth, varied gameplay and a big budget. I want to hold the game to a similar standard as a full console title and expect a more traditional pricing model, or at least free to play with real enhancements, not repair timers.

But that didn’t happen, and the larger root problem here wasn’t EA or RR3. Instead we should direct more blame to the mobile app store market as a whole. Over the last few years, a race to the bottom price mentality has eliminated almost any iOS or Android game that’s more than $3, and the app store supervisors, most notably Apple, haven’t done a thing to slow or stop it. EA knows $1 or $2 purchases en masse couldn’t come close to matching their high budget; free to play was the only viable option. Even the “traditional” free to play (e.g. paying money for more cars and tracks) that we’re use to on mobile wouldn’t cut it. Only invasive timers, in EA’s mind, ensures profitability. In short, timers may be wrong on principle, but given the mobile app store climate, they are likely a sound economical bet for EA.

Overall RR3‘s strange free to play model is a clear signal that gaming is in a tricky, experimental and indeterminate state. Yet as gamers we can vote with our dollars. We should support games financially that are fun and worth the investment, from assorted free to play or cheap iOS diversions to $60 console games and everything in between. I’m conflicted over RR3, a solid game with a sketchy business model; I’ll continue to play but I’ll minimize how much I spend on it.