Epic is giving away 5 games next week... and that's a good thing?
It might be at first glance, but a closer look at the situation raises some questions
Few words turn more heads or generate more clicks nowadays than "FREE!". Most people have less disposable income than they would like, so every opportunity to get something for nothing is not to be missed, right? But "free" is hardly ever costless and it often takes a while to understand what the actual cost of "free" is in specific situations. Once it becomes apparent, though, the thought of "not costless after all" stakes a claim in one's mind - and that's exactly what can happen to people with the Epic Games Store's "free games".
Case in point: Epic is giving away free games next week through its digital storefront. But instead of the usual one or two that PC gamers might get in a week (a total of four every month is the usual number), starting April 15th they will get no less than five: Deponia, Chaos on Deponia, Deponia Doomsday, The Pillars of the Earth and The First Tree. Yes, these are not recent releases and yes, they are not the kind of AAA blockbusters that world-class publishers arrange investor calls for. But they are very good games, far better than most similar titles, that would cost €65 to get on Steam. So… great for gamers, no?
Well, yes and no. Yes because sure, free quality entertainment is never a bad idea - many hours of that, in fact. We could all use some. No, though, because this notion of "free" is detrimental to both the actual and the perceived value of those five games. These are works or labor and love that many people poured a lot of time into in order to make. Epic compensates developers for the games it offers through its Games Store at no cost, yes. But the impression that if something is given away to hundreds of millions of consumers, then it must not be that good, or that it wasn't selling well anyway, lingers.
Taking this a step further, one realizes that if "free games for everyone" becomes a thing - and, in some ways, it already has - then the perceived value of all games is diminished somewhat. Especially as far as indie productions are concerned, which are often strange, experimental games that fall into the "nice to have" rather than the "must play" category: why buy such games at full price upon release or even on discount later on, when chances are that someone will give them away for free at some point? It's not a line of thinking that people who do understand what goes into the making of a modern video game are inclined to follow, but most consumers do not.
The "free games for everyone" thing has long-term side effects, too: either "backlog fatigue" or "collector's disinterest". When Epic gives away so many games on a permanent basis - it handed out no less than 103 in 2020 and it's keeping up the same pace in 2021 - consumers are able to build extensive game libraries quickly, sure. But the numbers show that not only most of those consumers don't play these games much, but that many of them don’t play them at all. They just add them to their libraries as they are offered for free in the Games Store, maybe thinking that they will get around to checking them out at some point, but they mostly don't. The fact that they got them without paying a dime in the first place might have something to do with it or it might not - but the very fact that they do not play them definitely diminishes those games' value in their minds even further.
The end result: so much choice between so many games, yes, but very little joy out of them at the end of the day. And that is the cost of "free": the mental shrugging of shoulders whenever a new game is added to a pile of other games, regardless of quality. Most consumers do not feel that way about titles that they cherrypicked themselves and paid for, but with so many games offered at no cost so often by a number of publishers - Epic is far from the only one, it's just the most consistent - it's hard not to get even a little jaded by all this. Which is the exact opposite of what game developers and publishers alike would prefer people to be towards the result of their efforts: excited. No?
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