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Recap / South Park S18 E6 "Freemium Isn't Free"

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Freemium games are put in Parker and Stone's satirical spotlight in an episode that also explores the psychology of addiction.

In the halls of South Park Elementary, Jimmy tells Kyle about a new free Terrance and Phillip mobile game. Kyle downloads it, but is unimpressed by the dull gameplay, which involves tapping the screen to collect "Canadough" to build buildings. He is even less impressed when the game offers him packages of Canadough coins for actual money, belying the idea that the game is free. Cartman and Kenny arrive, and Cartman says he spent $5 on the game before getting bored with it. Stan, by contrast, is hooked on the game, and Randy and Sharon confront him over spending $489 on in-game microtransactions. Randy is convinced Stan's addiction susceptibility comes from his gambling addict father Marvin, despite very obviously struggling with alcohol addiction himself.

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The Terrance and Phillip game is revealed to be the work of the Canadian Department of Mobile Gaming, and Terrance and Phillip themselves are angry about the damage to their brand. The Minister of Mobile Gaming admits that the game is freemium ("mium" is translated as "not really") rather than free, and he explains the underlying psychology of the addictive nature of mobile apps before pacifying the duo with a cut of the billions of dollars the game has raised, as well as making a token gesture to persuade people to play in moderation.

When Stan misses a day of school, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny find that he has spent the entire "sick day" playing the Terrance and Phillip game, and they all realise that the same person advertised the game to them: Jimmy. When confronted, Jimmy admits that he hasn't played the game and is being paid by the Canadian government to act as a pusher to pay off his own debts after getting addicted to a previous freemium app. Cartman gets the word out on Twitter, and when Terrance and Phillip confront the Minister of Mobile Gaming again, he reveals himself as Beelzaboot, the Canadian Devil, and takes the duo and the Prince of Canada hostage.

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With Stan now having spent $26,000 on microtransactions, he decides to ask his friends for help, but Jimmy tells him he needs to appeal to a higher power. That night, Stan prays for guidance and inadvertently summons Satan, who gives him a detailed explanation of how the brain's positive reaction to dopamine gets people addicted to pleasurable activities (whatever the danger), and how genetics can make people vulnerable to addiction. But when Stan shows him the game and says it is Canadian, Satan recognises it as Beelzaboot's handiwork. He temporarily possesses Stan and flies off to Ottawa, where, after an epic battle, Beelzaboot is defeated, and the Canadian government swears off raising money with scam freemium games. Meanwhile, Stan and Marvin have taken up board gaming to kick their financially ruinous addictions, but Randy, none the wiser for their experiences, suggests betting money on the outcome.

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"Freemium isn't Free" contains examples of:

  • Aesop Amnesia: Randy goes through the entire episode trying to break Stan and Marvin's addiction to gambling (while being in denial about his own alcohol addiction). At the end when they have found something else to do Randy asks if they want to put money down on the game. Stan Head Desks from this comment.
  • Allegedly Free Game: Jimmy may claim that Terrance and Phillip: Give Us Your Money is "totally free", but, if the title wasn't enough of a giveaway, the game baits players into spending actual money on the in-game currency required to build buildings. Kyle and Cartman give up on the game after spending a few dollars on it, but Stan ends up spending over $26,000 on microtransactions. The Minister of Mobile Gaming later deconstructs the freemium model, explaining how its reward system preys on the small percentage of people with strong addictive tendencies to pay for games they don't even enjoy.
  • Answer Cut: When Kyle plays the Terrance and Phillip game and asks, "Who makes this crap?", the show cuts to a scene at the Canadian Department of Mobile Gaming. The same thing happens when Kyle asks Jimmy, "Who pays you?"
  • Boring, but Practical: When trying to figure out how to let the world learn that the Terrance and Phillip game is being pushed on addicts, Kyle begins to run off a long, complex plan to break into a TV studio in disguise. After less than 10 seconds, Cartman informs him that he's already accomplished the task.
    Cartman: Okay, it's done.
    Kyle: W-what's done?
    Cartman: The word is out. [shows Kyle his phone, then reads off the screen] "Terrance and Phillip hire pushers to make money off addicts." [shows Kyle his phone again] I tweeted it. [checks the screen, then shows Kyle again] It's trending.
  • The Bus Came Back: Satan makes his first reappearance since season 10.
  • Canis Latinicus: When the Prince of Canada defines the word "Freemium":
    Prince of Canada: The "mium" is Latin for "not really".
  • Continuity Nod: Quite a few examples.
    • Randy only drinks wine and Gluten Free Beer.
    • Randy asks Stan how many songs he thinks he'll have to write to cover the money Stan paid on the Terrance and Phillip game, referencing that he's Lorde. (Stan's answer: "One.")
    • Jimmy's mentioning how he got help from a higher power is a callback to when Randy had to go to AA Meetings in "Bloody Mary" and how they were all about asking for help from a higher power.
    • The Three Feathers Indian Casino from "Red Man's Greed" makes a reappearance.
    • The phrase "This is a sad day for Canada and therefore the entire world." by the news reporter was used in "Royal Pudding" by a news reporter covering the Royal Wedding.
  • Deal with the Devil: Satan asks to borrow Stan's soul for a bit. Stan says yes. Justified as so far Satan has been a nice and informative fellow, so it's more like a friend asking him for a lift.
  • Demonic Possession: Satan borrows Stan's body to fight the Canadian Devil. Though he is nice enough to ask Stan's permission first, and sends him home when he's done.
  • Didn't See That Coming: When Stan is told he can be cured if he asks for the help from a Higher Power, he expected to hear from God, only for the Devil to appear in his bedroom since he is the ruler over temptation. Then subverted again when he is in fact able to help Stan with his addiction problems.
  • Do Not Do This Cool Thing: Parodied in-universe. The alcohol industry's penchant for mixed message advertising is mercilessly skewered when the Minister of Mobile Gaming holds them up as an example of how to push a product while paying lip service to promoting moderate use:
    Alcohol Ad Announcer: [over rapid fire images of alcoholic beverages, casinos, fast cars, and attractive men and women] You. Friends. Fun. Drink. Hot girls. You're hot. Drink more. Expensive cars. [steadily getting faster and louder] Ass, drink, ass, money, you in a tuxedo, threesome, vodka, pussy, drink, drink, drink, you, drink, Vegas, fun, pussy, you, in a tuxedo, fucking this girl, vodka, drink drink drink drink it all you fucking pussy! MORE TUXEDOS, MORE CARS, MORE PUSSY, MORE VODKA, DRINK DRINK DRINK! [the screen cuts to black with "Drink Responsibly" in white text] Please drink responsibly.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Satan is against the Canadian Devil using freemium games to blatantly manipulate addicts into buying Canadough due to its lack of nuance. While lack of nuance seems more like Pragmatic Evil, the Devil states the difference between temptation and exploiting human weakness.
    Satan: No, see, if something's addictive because it's fun, that's one thing. But this is just blatant Skinner box manipulation. Wait a minute. Who put this out?!
  • Exact Words:
    • Stan decides to follow Jimmy's advice and kneels to ask a "higher power" for help. Jimmy didn't say WHICH higher power Stan should ask, however.
      Stan: Please, help show me the way?
      [flash of light, then hellfire appears in his room]
      Satan: You have summoned the Prince of Temptation for what purpose!?
      Stan: Oh, shit. Uh... I have addiction demons and I don't understand them.
      Satan: Then allow me to explain the darkness of the human soul.
    • The ensuing conversation provides another example, with Satan literally explaining the scientific reasoning behind addictive behaviour.
  • Finishing Each Other's Sentences: When Stan's friends realise that Jimmy is pushing the game:
    Kyle: Dude, what...
    Cartman: ...the...
    Kenny: ...fuck?!
  • Foreshadowing:
    • It's clear from the beginning that there's something shady about Jimmy's recommendation of Terrance and Phillip: Give Us Your Money; he sounds as though he's reciting advertising copy, his enthusiasm is forced at best, and he stops smiling the second Kyle turns to leave. Sure enough, halfway through the episode, he admits he's being employed as a pusher by the Canadian government to work off debts he incurred from his own freemium addiction.
    • Randy claims that Stan has "demons inside him" as a reference to his addiction problem. However later Satan possesses him (with Stan's permission), which means he really does have a demon inside of him. Randy even points it out.
  • The Gambling Addict: Marvin is revealed to have a gambling problem.
  • G-Rated Drug: Freemium games are set up as a metaphor for addictive substances, with Jimmy pushing other students to play the game and the students spending thousands of dollars just for the brief high of the game's rewards.
  • Hypocrite: Every time Randy comments on Stan's addiction to freemium games or Marvin's gambling addiction, someone comments that his drinking might be a bit unhealthy and he tries to justify it by saying it's not a problem because he finds ways to present his drinking as a cultural activity.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Every time Randy gives a lecture to Stan and his grandpa about their addictive tendencies, he's shown guzzling alcohol and claiming that it's cultured.
  • It Runs in the Family: The Marsh men appear to have addictive personality problems passed down though while Stan and later Marvin (his grandpa) accept their flaws, Randy firmly remains in denial with excuses. It would also suggest that Shelley may also have an addiction problem with Social Media.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: Parodied where the Canadians are crossed on which Devil to root for during their fight. Some wish to root for the Canadian Devil (despite him now owning all their souls and promising to torment them for all eternity) solely because he is the Canadian Devil.
    Minister of Sports: Well of course, the patriotic thing to do would be to root for the Canadian Devil. But then again, he is the one who has promised us pain and servitude for a million years.
    Canadian Citizen: Screw that, go Canada!
  • Never My Fault: Randy blames Stan's addiction to the game on his father's gambling, believing that this addiction problem came from his father and passed onto his son. Anytime someone points out he too has an addiction, to alcohol, Randy always finds a way to weasel out of it.
  • Nobody Poops: Averted. As part of being the Canadian devil, instead of farting Beelzeboot will frequently poop fiery balls of crap.
  • Parody Commercial: Canada launches an ad campaign to get people to play their mobile game responsibly, and compare it to alcohol commercials, leading to one of these. It consists of showing rich, attractive people enjoying liquor while screaming at the viewer to drink and imagine having sex with hot women, or driving expensive cars, and then ends with a quiet and insincere plea to drink responsibly.
  • Pet the Dog: Satan's explaining genetics and addiction to Stan in a way that manages to be compassionate and understanding. Also, returning Stan home after possessing him (which he asked permission for) to fight the Canadian Devil.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Satan should not have been the one to give Stan a thorough and deep conversation about the hows and whys of addictive behaviors. Yet he did.
  • Satan is Good: Played fairly straight with Satan, but averted with the Canadian Devil.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Shown Their Work: Most of what Satan tells Stan during his "lecture" on addictions and how pleasure chemically works is accurate, though some of it is presented in Buffy Speak for easy understanding by people who don't have a background in biology or chemistry.
  • Space Whale Aesop: "We have all learned a tragic lesson together — that though many sins are out there, when you get involved with freemium gaming, you are making a deal with the Canadian Devil."
  • Stylistic Suck: Terrance & Phillip: Give Us Your Money, as a satire of freemium phone apps, is written to be as dull and unengaging as possible unless the player coughs up a fortune in microtransactions. Kyle and Cartman's reactions tell us all we need to know:
    Announcer: [over the title screen] The Terrance and Phillip mobile game! [fart sound; the screen cuts to a picture of Terrance and Phillip standing in front of a house labelled "T&P" in a largely empty grid of streets. The game's announcer appears bottom right, wearing a Canadian flag shirt] In this game, you are Terrance and Phillip! Can you collect all the Canadian coins? [he sinks below the screen again with another fart]
    [Kyle exchanges a dubious look with Butters, who is watching him play, then taps a coin on the screen]
    Announcer: That's one coin! Can you collect more? [Kyle taps the other nine coins on the screen; the number 10 appears in the centre of the screen] You've collected ten Canadian coins! Congratulations! Hey, you're really good at this, guy! [the word "Congratulations!" appears above the "10" and "You're really good at this!!!" appears below it]
    Kyle: [unimpressed] What!?...
    Butters: Congratulations, Kyle!
    Announcer: [appearing bottom right] With Canada coins, you can buy stuff, and help Terrance and Phillip re-build Canada! Run around and collect more coins, or better yet, buy them in bulk! [a list of numbers of coins and prices appears] How many Canadian coins would you like to buy?
    Kyle: This is stupid!
    Butters: Well, it's just 49 cents for the cheapest one.
    [Kyle taps "200 Canadian coins - $0.49"; a shower of coins falls from the icon]
    Announcer: You bought 200 Canadian coins for 49 cents! You're amazing! [a splash screen appears reading "You bought CANADOUGH! You're AMAZING!!!", flanked by maple leaves and dollar signs] Now use that Canadough to help re-build Canada! Click to build a hospital here! [an arrow labelled "Click here" appears on the block next to Terrance and Phillip's house; Kyle taps it, and a hospital appears with a fart sound]
    Terrance and Phillip: [jumping for joy] Yayyy!
    Kyle: It's still stupid and now I paid 49 cents for it!
    Cartman: [walking up with Kenny] What are you two boners doing?
    Butters: We're playin' the Terrance and Phillip freemium game.
    Cartman: I played that thing, it's fuckin' dumb! I ended up paying like five bucks!
    Kyle: Who makes this crap!?
  • Take That!:
    • The entire episode is an extended and vicious takedown aimed at those licensed "freemium" games (particularly The Simpsons: Tapped Out and Family Guy ["The Quest for Stuff"]) where players rebuild the town that the show is set in, with the game utilizing microtransactions to sell currency that is used to purchase some of the locations that need to be built. The episode notes that the games are unfun and deceptive on purpose, deliberately preying on human weaknesses out of sheer greed.
    • There's a couple of large jabs against the underhanded tactics of the alcohol industry. First, when the Minister of Mobile Gaming suggests they make a commercial to promote moderation in freemium games, he points to the alcohol industry as an example; we then see a blatant parody of commercials presented as meant to entice the people in drinking before tagging the obligatory "please drink responsibly," after the montage of exciting shots.
    • The game itself is heavily inspired by Trailer Park Boys: Greasy Money, a particularly uninspired freemium game where most of the game is about clicking on money to make more money. Even the "graphics" of the Terrance and Phillip game are rather similar to Greasy Money, from the three quarters perspective to the main characters standing around not doing anything.
    • When the ruse is revealed on how freemium games really work, the Minister of Mobile Gaming uses the alcohol industry as the example for exploiting people's psychological weaknesses and vulnerable individuals for profit.
      Minister of Mobile Gaming: You think the fucking alcohol industry cares?! They don't care that 10% are gonna get addicted. They're counting on it!
  • Truth in Television: Ottawa really is home to a lot of mobile game developers, many of which employ microtransactions. No Canadian Devil though, probably.
  • Unexplained Recovery: Satan (in Stan's body) vaporizes the entire building Beelzaboot was in, which at the time had Terrance, Phillip and the Prince of Canada chained inside. They're all shown without a mark later.
  • Unusual Euphemism: When Jimmy is talking about his own addiction to freemium gaming, says that after he lost all of his money he even lost his crutches. Kyle points out that he is using them right now, and he explains that it is a phrase for cripples; he'd say that he lost an arm and a leg, but they ain't worth much.
    Cartman: That makes sense.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight:
    • Kyle, Kenny, and Cartman show a lack of awe at Satan opening up the ground nearby to drop Stan off and sealing it back up, and casually ask Stan if he's okay.
    • Randy and Sharon are rather nonplussed when Satan!Stan walks out of the living room, looking all grizzled and shaggy.
      Sharon: Stan? Where are you going?
      Satan!Stan: I SHALL RETURN. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO STOP ME.
      [Satan!Stan walks out of the room]
      Randy: Told ya. Kid's got demons. I don't do that.
  • Writers Cannot Do Math: Whether this is a gaffe by Parker and Stone or an intentional in-universe invocation as part of the game's Stylistic Suck is unclear, but the price for 200 Canadian coins in Terrance & Phillip: Give Us Your Money is $0.49, while $5 buys 550 coins, $10 buys 1100 coins, $15 buys 1650 coins, $20 buys 2500 coins, and $50 buys 5700 coins (identified with a "BEST DEAL!" icon). However, if the player keeps buying 200 coins for $0.49, then they could buy 2000 coins for $4.90, 8000 coins for $19.60, and 20,400 coins for $49.98. That said, most Freemium games will sell the in-game currency for very cheap the first few times, and increase the price once the player has purchased that option a few times.
  • Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: Satan tells Beelzaboot, 'Thy end has come!' As 'end' starts with a vowel, it should have been 'thine', and the Early Modern English auxiliary verb to make the perfect aspect of 'come' was 'is'—so the correct form should be 'thine end is come'.
  • Zany Scheme: Subverted. Kyle starts brainstorming a way to to steal the news company's TV signal in order to spread their message about Canada targeting addicts, a plan which Cartman preempts by putting the message in social media. Kyle even explicitly says they need to disguise themselves as "something ridiculous" for his plan.

 
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The Freemium Model

The Canadian Prince and the Minister of Mobile Gaming explain how they encourage people to pay for cheap "free" games.

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