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The Cost of Freemium Games

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It was a routine mission: I'd already fended off an attack on my supply depot, repelled an aerial assault and cut off the enemy's supply route. But when it came to a reconnaissance in force, I found my left flank collapsing and my right flank outmaneuvered by a swift formation of light tanks. I dug in and called up my supply truck, but realized (too late) that I'd already spent all my funds securing reinforcements.

I assessed my options: face the slaughter, surrender or pony up for an infusion of gold. For $2.49, I could get 25,000 bits, $9.99 would net me 125,000 or I could go for the big money with $49.99 for 700,000. Considering I wouldn't even pay 99 cents to remove the ads from Frozen Front 1941, Stalingrad would have to be taken by some other panzer commander.

It's called "freemium" gaming, defined as providing a game to players free of charge, but levying fees for special features, powers or content, and it's taking over--specifically on mobile platforms where, it accounts for 90 percent of all U.S. mobile app spending, according to Techi.com.

The biggest, best example of this trend would be Candy Crush, from British software company King. This past summer, there was a flurry of reporting on Candy Crush and its eye-popping analytics: About 45 million people played the game on Facebook each month during the first half of 2013, making it the most popular game on the site. At the same time, it was the most downloaded and highest grossing game on Android and Apple devices. Like Frozen Front 1941, players can make micropayments for things like additional lives. Those micropayments add up to macro revenue: $230 million a year, or, in the case of Candy Crush, about $633,000 per day.

Analysts see peril and promise in the rise of the freemium: It allows more users to experience more games, but can also cause ruin. Reports abound relating to people who have unthinkingly sunk fortunes into things like Candy Crush lives, My Little Pony gems and Smurf Village smurfberries.

Techi reports that the average user spends almost $13 a month on "virtual goods"--and that adds up. One hundred of those gems on My Little Pony might cost $10 or so, but, according to CNET, you're going to need 2,555 of them to complete the storyline. Don't want to pay for them? Get ready to ride those ponies every day for 10 years.