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Freemium Economies Mirror Real Ones in Odd Ways

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By Nelson Schneider - 07/22/18 at 04:20 PM CT

As much as we may try to avoid them like the plague, the MJ Crew has become entrapped by a handful of Freemium entertainment software – that is to say, games and apps that are ostensibly “free,” but in actuality have a cost tied to them, be it paid in time or macrotransactions. Some of us are more invested in these than others.

One of the more interesting meta-game things that has revealed itself to me in the mobile app “Star Trek: Timelines” is the way its variety of Freemium currencies mirror the real world.

For those who are mercifully ignorant, Freemium currencies are the eternal plague of Freemium games. An array of these made-up monies are present in every Freemium game with the end goal of confusing the player/user/customer into no longer understanding the value proposition of any of the available macrotransactions.

In “Star Trek: Timelines,” the basic unit of currency is the Federation Credit, which, like all basic Freemium currencies, is absolutely worthless. I’m sitting on hundreds of millions of these things, and they can’t be used to buy very many things of very much value. Alongside these Credits exist Merits, which come in much smaller quantities and can be used to buy more interesting things, but are still ultimately given away for free in large enough amounts to render them functionally useless. I’m sitting on around 70,000 of these. Next there’s Dilithium, the official Pay2Win currency that used to be available solely in exchange for real money. That’s changed somewhat over the years the MJ Crew has been maintaining the Deep Space Opera fleet, so it is now possible to earn small quantities of Dilithium by completing extremely grueling, long-term achievements, like immortalizing a huge number of crew members. There are certain, very important things that can only be purchased with Dilithium, such as more crew slots or more shuttle bays (as well as numerous ways to piss-away Dilithium for no tangible gain), so one would think that Dilithium, and therefore real cash, is the most important currency in the game. They’d only be half-right.

There is another currency, one inspired by Korean MMOs, that is even more fundamental to “Star Trek: Timelines” and so many apps like it. Most of these game-like apps limit the amount of stuff the user can do by employing some form of stamina system, such as that seen in “Dragon Nest.” Unlike the older Korean model, though, these mobile macrotransaction engines don’t reduce the rewards earned when the player is out of stamina, gently encouraging them to do something else for the rest of the day and come back tomorrow, but allowing the truly obsessed to continue playing regardless. No, stamina systems in mobile apps, exemplified by Chronitons in “Star Trek: Timelines,” actively force the user to stop and wait for them to recharge, which happens slowly in real-time.

Since Chronitons are required to do ANYTHING at all in “Star Trek: Timelines,” I think they are actually the most valuable Freemium currency in that particular app – and, surprise, surprise, they can be purchased with Dilithium in the event a user runs out but wants to keep going. These stamina currencies are also the only form of Freemium currency that is capped, only allowing a user to accumulate so much by waiting before they need to start spending it to earn more.

Oddly enough, Chronitons are also the primary source of reimbursement handed out by Disruptor Beam, the developer behind “Star Trek: Timelines,” in the event of server issues, bungled events, account snafus, etc. However, when Chronitons/stamina come from sources outside of waiting, they can go over the cap… by quite a bit. My Chroniton cap in “Star Trek: Timelines” is around 240… but I haven’t earned a single Chroniton via the waiting method in nearly a year because I’m currently sitting on over 10,000 Chronitons that came from other sources. Gifts from the developer, accumulated with the app’s other reward systems… yeah, I can do pretty much anything I want in-app because I have so many Chronitons, making it a trivial pursuit, in most cases, to clean out the entire slate of prizes in the app’s weekly events. No, I’ll never finish at the top of the leaderboards because I’m not spending thousands of dollars on Dilithium, but that’s not the point.

The point is that Chronitons and the management thereof are painfully analogous to real-world wealth and the management thereof. With my huge stockpile of Chronitons, I’m wealthy, but I don’t have a paycheck dribbling a Chroniton into my account every 5 minutes with a hilariously small cap. Players who spend all of their Chronitons, then wait for them to recharge, are literally wage slaves, dependent on a meager source of in-game income to experience, well, anything. I, with my fat Chroniton stash, am like Mitt Romney: Unemployed and living the good life. Nick, MeltedJoystick’s CTO, doesn’t seem to understand why I don’t spend all of my Chronitons so I can start collecting my free one every few minutes again, but it would be just as nonsensical for Warren Buffett to spend ALL of his money in order to go on Welfare or pick up a part-time gig and McDonald’s. Chronitons/Wealth equates to freedom, and I have the freedom to pursue the weekly events in “Star Trek: Timelines” at my leisure, just as the wealthy have the freedom to pursue their own interests instead of spending all of their time punching a clock. When events come along each Thursday, I spend enough Chronitons to clean ‘em out when I’m ready, instead of having to bite my nails and hope that I accumulate enough Chronitons to essentially ‘make rent’ before the events run out each Monday at Noon. And like with actual wealth, having it begets more of it. I may spend a couple thousand Chronitons clearing out an event (for this week’s, I only spent about 700), but I can accumulate them from sources other than that slow, minimum-wage-paycheck-like drip feed, rebuilding my stash, and ultimately growing it by not wasting it frivolously or in disadvantageous situations.

Wealth begets wealth and poverty begets poverty. I wisely took a few Chroniton handouts and used them to elevate my Admiral to great wealth by spending them wisely. My Deep Space Opera Lieutenants, however, have received the same handouts, but squandered them out of fear of missing out on that piddly, wait-driven drip-feed. The meta-game of exploiting Freemium currencies to get the most for the least is thus a painful analog to the free-wheeling Capitalism that produced the predatory practices seen in Freemium software to begin with.

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