Steam outs five 'freemium' games

Valve has announced the release of five 'free-to-play' titles on its Steam gaming platform.

There's nothing new about 'freemium' games where players are given access to basic play without charge, but are then forced to make additional payments in order to progress.

Titles like Zynga's Farmville - and a giant herd of shameless copycats - have made millions for their creators by making it nigh-on impossible to move on to higher levels without breaking out the credit card in order to buy in-game items or currency.

Tales of woe in which account-holders' offspring have unwittingly clocked up wallet-worrying bills by buying such content are all too common, to such an extent that governments worldwide have put pressure on game-makers to make those transactions more difficult to carry out 'accidentally'.

Valve's announcement that it has released five of these games which follow the time-honoured 'heroin dealer' commercial principle - whereby users are given their first taste for free and are subsequently encouraged to empty their bank accounts once they are hooked - will almost certainly lead to more cases of abuse, and more controversy.

Even the 'Free to Play' (F2P) label attached to the five titles - Spiral Knights, Forsaken Worlds, Champions Online: Free for All, Global Agenda: Free Agent, and Alliance of Valliant Arms - is highly misleading. The games, which are all PC only, apart from Spiral Knights which lets Mac Users get in on the action, all require players to make micro-payments handled by Valve's Steam Wallet back end at some point in the gameplay.

If those transactions are handled in the same way as purchasing full games, users will not be required to re-enter a password once they are logged in - and on our Steam-powered Mac even that is handled by the password keychain meaning a password is never required - so it's frighteningly easy for massive bills to be racked up by anyone with access to the computer.

Don't get us wrong... we like Steam. It's a fantastic service which has changed the way PC games are played very much for the better. But this cynical move has a faint whiff of money-grubbing about it, and we're pretty certain the eventual backlash will come back to bite Valve on the bum.

Paying real-world cash for in-game items and additional content is a way of life for gamers nowadays. It allows game developers to distribute their wares to the masses at a cheaper initial price, and pay for continuing development of both those games generating the cash and new titles.

Smart developers are careful to make sure that their games don't become unbalanced by gaming 'twinks' - those with the financial means to equip their in-game personas with all of the best gear - and gamers who are willing to grind for hours on end in order to 'earn' those items.

And that's the problem with most freemium titles. There's no mechanism whereby those with slimmer wallets can progress to higher levels without paying for the privilege.

And it's this iniquity which irks us. We don't have any objection to Valve and its third-party developers turning a buck. And we see nothing wrong with in-app micro-payments if they are handled well and don't unbalance the game in question.

Just don't tell us something is free and then insist we pay for it at a later date.