The Stigma of Free To Play, Part #1

Sep 11, 2013
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Ugh. Free to Play.


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Its a phrase that just sticks in your mouth, right? What once was a word that was supposed to elicit joy and happiness has turned into something that causes nose snubbing and mocking remarks. If you ever want to see a gamer lose their mind, tell your friend who plays Halo eight hours a day to try the new Free-To-Play shooter that you just downloaded. Hell, I know that when The Secret World, a MMO I was enjoying at the time, went free to play, part of me rolled my eyes in disgust as a knee jerk reaction.

Why is this? Why is it that this phrase turned into such a...a curse word in the gaming community as a whole? I for one find it hilarious that a group of people known for pirating copies of computer games gets so completely angry when this phrase turns up.

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Granted, Gamers like to rage for all sorts of reasons...but we'll get to that later.

The reasons are numerous, and range from well thought out to just knee jerk internet rants. They range from stating that "Free to Play" is synonymous with "Pay to Win", to how this growing business model of games is reducing its overall quality. An overarching theme is that this style of game is corrupting the style of game that we have come to love and cherish over the last few decades. We will get to this one later, as we could spend posts upon posts on this one.

For now, lets focus on the money.

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For right now, I want to focus another theme that I've been finding - that if you play Free to Play, you are a sucker. You paid 3 dollars for that plant in the new Plants Vs. Zombies 2? Sucker. You decided you wanted a different color scheme for your crew in Hero Academy? Sucker. You pay to win, or speed up your game, and every knows that the Facebook games like Farmville started mastering this practice years ago. You can build up your base/farm/aquarium/crystal monster collection with a low, low price of $30 dollars. That's a steal, right? Right?

There's truth to this, and there's a whole series of articles coming out in Psychology magazines and articles as the realm of video games becomes less taboo to academics to study. A great little video series called 'Reality Check' actually started a great series about it here, and in the middle it shows how games beg you for money to advance or speed up your progress. Let me make a concession here - I agree with a lot of this. I've had a few games on my Ipad for the last year and a half that I love to tinker on occasionally to pass a few minutes to build up a base or to play some silly scenario...and when it asks me to pay five dollars for a load of gemstones, I start shaking my head about obvious the cash grab is. I mean, real gamers don't fall for this right? This just preys on children, and maybe those lonely, horrible people not like me at all that play Farmville for hours on end. Right? Right?

Wrong. Turns out that many studies like this one point the idea that males that consider themselves gamers or play a lot of traditional games are often the big spenders. So lets just get that one out of the way right now - for every game we see a laughable 'pay to win' strategy for, there's another one that is managing to rake in the money.

This brings me to my next point, and in some ways more controversial - is it really bad that we spent money on 'free' games? The answer, at least to me, is "Eh, not really. Not always." See, there's this mentality that when you are seeing something free or playing something that's free, and then you give money anyway, you are being extorted. The example in this video really highlights that's how we approach free to play games - some guy that pretends to give us something nice, and then tries to swindle us for something completely unrelated. That's not what (good) free to play games do though - they give you the game, and then they ask for some compensation back for it, and usually with that compensation, you get something extra, like a new skin for a character, or a new packet of content.

Lets take the giant of free to play games, League of Legends, that detractors of the genre don't usually like to bring up. I mean, here's a huge, massive game - one that has grown so huge it has its own demographics charts. Its competitive, is one of the biggest E-sports out there, and its fan base is very devoted. When people see you using a skin for your favorite champion, they usually compliment you on it rather than dig into you about it being 'such a waste of money'.

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The fact of the matter is, League of Legends was one of the first real experiments of a 'serious' game being made with no upfront cost, and it works - no one asks you for money during the game, it cutting to adds until you get the premium edition. Things you purchase with real money are not unbalanced, and in fact, you can play for years without even dropping a dime. I would know, since that's exactly what I did - I played through the beta off and on, finding it a fun little game, and then played it for a while (badly, might I add) after it was released as something new and fun, and it reminded me of huddling around Warcraft III game editors. Then, suddenly, the game had been out for a year and a half, and I realized with a shock that I had sunk hundreds of hours into this game without so much as putting anything back into this wonderful and growing engine. So one day, while I was out shopping, I picked up a $20 gift card for the game, and threw down to get some skins and graphics upgrades on my favorite champions. When I logged into the game after a year break, there was my Coral Reef Malphite grinning up at me, and I got right back to playing and having a good old time.

Does this sound like extortion? It sounds more like Quid Quo Pro to me, and honestly, its just the normal market scheme in reverse. Typically, I have to go by hype or by reviews before running out to a store and buying my game new in retail before getting to truly play the brand new Halo or Devil May Cry, going on faith that it will be a good game.

...Wait, can we go and call old fashioned game demos a free to play strategy?

Lets not hold ourselves to some snob standard here - we buy games because we want to play them, and the purchase of any game material, whether free to play additions, a monthly subscription to an MMO, a new DLC expansion or that brand new AAA title fresh out the box in the end is done because we hope and guess that we will get enjoyment out of it. Bad Free-To-Play games...or ones that really do feel more like extortion, hold the real 'game' just out of reach until you go for your wallet. Good Free-To-Play games give you the game, and then hope to give you a more fulfilling experience once you purchase additions. If I really wanted to turn this whole issue on its head, I could say a game like League of Legends is more earnest and trusting of the player than a model like the new wave of consoles and AAA titles coming out to boot.

The answer of course, is somewhere in the middle. But, as with many things in the game industry, its easy to generalize your least favorite genre/console/developer and then build a Straw man argument out of it to shred. There's enough bad, no, terrible free to play games out there that do prey on psychological fallacies. But then there is the other side, where you find a game like Team Fortress 2 or League of Legends which is truly free to play, but people pay extra to heighten their experience and to show their appreciation for the game as a whole. And, as numbers would show, this model exists still because it works.

I'm hoping to come back to this theme a few more times in the upcoming months - there's plenty more to say, especially with the model constantly evolving and trying to adapt to mobile gaming and an always online culture. Thoughts? Questions? Angry, internet-trolls that wish to beat me upside the head for my presumptions? I'd love to hear them, since this is something that should be talked about, openly and freely - the best way to help change or influence something is to create a working dialogue and that's exactly what the gaming community needs in cases like this.

Or I could be just trying to justify the last twenty bucks I put into League of Legends skins, you be the judge.


Wyatt Krause

Editor-in-chief, Co-founder