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South Park “Freemium Isn’t Free” – Review

by Kevin M. Scrima

  The sixth episode of South Park’s Season 18, “Freemium Isn’t Free,” may be the best of the season yet. The episode satirized free mobile app games and addiction in general, using parallels to alcohol, drugs, and gambling, resulting in a hilarious storyline about how companies exploit the public.

The episode starts with Jimmy introducing a free mobile app game to Kyle. “And the most unbelievable part—it’s totally free!” Kyle, appreciating the seemingly innocuous gesture, downloads the game titled, “Terrance & Phillip: Give Us Your Money.”

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   The screen of the game is almost an exact replica of “Family Guy The Quest for Stuff,” where the start of the app description reads, “Play for FREE.” Apparently, people can progress through the game faster by paying real-world money for in-game currency. One reviewer of the game, Martin Appleby, wrote: “[It] takes far to long to progress through game unless you have money to burn and won’t waste it on buying ‘Clams.’ I for one don’t so I used a method to get Clams by other means and now my account has been ‘flagged’ with a warning!!!! Wouldn’t have to use other methods if it was easier to EARN more CLAMS. [sic]” Another reviewer, Jolene Campbell, wrote, “im all for paying money here and there on a mobile game but sadly I seem to be missing out on a lot, the ratio between real money and what it can get you in the game is unbalanced. [sic]”

In other words, the writers of South Park have exposed the “charade” (as the Minister in the show would say) of free mobile gaming in plain sight, and they seem to be almost ruthless, if not meticulously blatant. They dedicate most of the episode to how the “charade” works by having the “Minister of Mobile Gaming,” who is secretly disguised as the Canadian Devil, explain on a white board how it works, after Terrance and Phillip explain that it’s not actually a free game.

“This is stupid,” Kyle says. Butters replies, “Well, it’s just $.49 for the cheapest one.” Kyle buys it anyway, earning 200 Canadian coins. The game tells him how amazing he is for doing so.

The writers even arranged various other explanations as to how the scam works with various whiteboards: “Make highest $ Seem Like Best Deal”—“Game Must Be Playable in 2 Minutes”—“Simple Gameplay. Able To Play On The Toilet.” Unfortunately, these can only be seen when paused, as they disappear in a quick second and are hard to read, in itself a nod to how sneaky the creators behind mobile game apps can be. “Freemium – The “Mium” is Latin for “not really.” The Minister explains the RPG Loop to freemium gaming: “Explore, Collect, Spend, Improve.” In another scene, a blocked message on the whiteboard behind the Minister’s head reads: “Push Notifications (Keep Them Random).” And in the final scene where Satan fights the Canadian Devil, one whiteboard reads, “Use fake campaign to feign concern i.e. ‘Drink Responsibly,’” and the left one shows an 8-step chart on manipulating emotional pain so they can feel temporary relief by numbing the pain.

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   Freemium.org explains what freemium is: “It describes a business model in which you give a core product away for free to a large group of users and sell premium products to a smaller fraction of this user base… apps with freemium models account for 98% of the revenue in googles app store and 95 % in apples app store.”

It seems that the writers of South Park are exposing a very effective business model, or at least trying to make their audiences aware of it, with this episode.

Stan starts becoming addicted to buying things for the game, and his father repeatedly approaches him with bills about his spending. A callback to this season’s previous episodes where he’s portrayed as the famous singer Lorde, Randy asks, “Do you know how many songs I have to write to make back that much money?” Stan replies, “One.” It shows how easy it can be for certain people (like gaming companies) to make a lot of money, whereas bills like these are quite expensive for the average person.

The writers have repeatedly brought back the joke that Randy is Lorde since episode two, and it’s still funny every time. It may be one of the longest and most consistent callbacks yet. Another recurring joke is “gluten free” from their second episode, “Gluten Free Ebola.” Randy’s wine is gluten free, and Satan also mentions gluten later on in the episode. The callbacks are great, and hopefully the writers continue them throughout the remainder of the season.

Stan innocently replies to his father, “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I spent that much.” Many of these gamers are just kids, and so they don’t seem the harm or realize the cost when they buy downloadable content (DLC) for a game. His father then likens Stan to his grandfather who has “addiction tendencies.” Later, the grandfather is seen at a Casino, gambling at a slot machine. “Could he have somehow passed those demons down to Stan?” Stan’s father asks.

The Minister explains The Five Principles of successful Freemium Games: Simplicity (a simple game), Compliments (praising the player to make him or her feel good), Fake currency (“Train the players to spend your fake currency,” as he says), Switcheroo (spend real currency for fake currency), Waiting Game (make them wait [for content?]). Phillip asks if the game can at least be fun. “No,” the Minister responds, “It has to be just barely fun. If the game was too fun, then there would be no reason to Micro-Pay in order to make it more fun.” Unfortunately, this is all true. When a player buys more content after the game grows dull, it’s supposed to make the game more fun, for a certain duration, until the next DLC.

Rinse and repeat.

Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny approach Stan about his addiction, and discover that Jimmy is the one who told them all about the game. In the next scene, Jimmy is portrayed as a drug dealer, except instead of dealing drugs, he’s dealing games, perhaps showing that companies giving away “free” games isn’t honest work.

Stan and his grandpa are being scolded by Randy, and the grandpa implies Randy’s an addict, as well. “I’m not having a glass of wine!” Randy shouts. “I’m having six. It’s called a tasting, and it’s classy.” Later, when Stan asks Satan why companies put addictive things out there, Satan gives an insightful and profound message on addiction and justification: “Everyone has their own justifications and thinks what they’re doing is okay.”

The sub-plot with Jimmy was interesting and subtly clever in many ways in regards to how it ties in to the main plot. He explains that he needed the money—turns out he was a victim of freemium, as well, and spent all of his money on downloads for “Yum Yum Sparkly Gem Forest.” Jimmy explains that text notifications are a trigger: “A quick image to trigger the addict’s brain.” In the next scenes, Stan falls victim to these notifications.

Satan explains, “it’s easy for them to overdo it and have dopamine problems.” Then he parallels it with being diabetic, how eating wrong can make someone diabetic; if someone does too much of a good thing, it results “in a dopamine fuck up. And you’re kinda screwed up for life” Very true, and insightful fact of the current human condition.

It’s rare that there’s so much explaining in one episode, but the writers are using it to try and teach their audience something. They want them to learn, whereas most entertainment is just pure, stupid entertainment, another reason to love South Park. Depending on who you are, you may like this or you may not. The entire episode is very educational, insightful to humans and addiction, and also entertaining and comical.

All the need for detailed explanations on how freemium gaming and addictions works in itself is hilarious. Phillip may even address the audience’s concerns about all of the explanations when he exclaims from all the Minister’s explaining, “Oh, god, he just doesn’t stop!” You might be saying the same about this review, but it accurately reflects the nature of the episode.

Long story short, Satan possesses Stan to fight the Canadian Devil in an epic, fiery battle.

This is one of South Park’s greatest episodes of the season, and it shows that the writers are above-and-beyond the top of their game. A must-watch episode.

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