“The first thing I want to emphasise is that our game isn’t
pay-to-win,” says every free-to-play developer we’ve spoken to over the past
year. The free-to-play market is huge--in the UK alone it was worth £216
million as of December 2012--but it has something of a tarnished reputation
among serious gamers, as many see F2P as being ‘pay-to-win’. That
basically means that players who spend more cash on in-game items are more
likely to win games because they have a significant advantage over lower-paying
players. Sure, several years ago--when free-to-play was in its infancy--that
was largely true, but do these same criticisms hold up today?
Generally speaking, free-to-play games come in three
different flavours. The first is the true free game, where you’re competitive
right from the start and only really pay for extra stuff. The best examples are
titles like Team Fortress 2, Lord of the Rings Online and Planetside 2 – where
you can happily play for hours without ever hitting a wall that can only be
broken using hard cash. In other words, forking out dollars doesn’t offer
significant advantages over players who play for free. Definitely not
pay-to-win, then. Good.
We spoke to a more traditional gamer from the GamesRadar
community, Olly, who mixes his time and money between £40 games and
free-to-play titles. “I purchased Promethium keys in DC Universe Online twice,
in a bundle of 5 keys at a time because I figured they would last me quite a
long time,” he says. “I paid real money for digital items because I feel I am
getting a massive amount of value out of a free game and therefore do not
begrudge ‘donating’ some of my hard earned cash towards the developers. It was
great of them to release this massive and deep game for free and therefore I
don’t feel bad in the slightest about paying a relatively small amount of
money.” This is free-to-play working for the hardcore, a relatively new phenomenon.
Problem is, most games can’t afford to be this generous. So,
the second--and newest--F2P model is what we’ll call pay-to-advance. Here
your gameplay time is either limited or artificially slowed down unless you
part with cash. The Settlers Online is a great example. You get the whole game
for free, in your browser, and can play from start to finish without ever
spending a bean. However, as you get deeper into the game the process of
building structures and armies takes ever-increasing amounts of time. Now, you
can just log-off and wait for your projects to complete, or you can spend
in-game gems (which cost real money) to finish them instantly.
These kinds of game pose the question: how much is your time worth? EA is experimenting with the pay-to-advance model in not only
free-to-play titles like Real Racing 3 on mobile, but on full boxed games like
Dead Space 3 (where you can pay real money to unlock in-game items) and FIFA 13.
We spoke to another GamesRadar reader, Dave, who regularly plays the player-collecting phenomenon, FIFA Ultimate
“Within the first 6 weeks of FIFA 13's launch I reckon I
spent over £100 on MS points to download new player packs in Ultimate Team,” he
says. “Simply put, if you want to succeed in this mode - you have to spend. You
start off with a completely useless team and the matchmaking (which in Seasons
is excellent) is almost non-existent meaning you'll probably get a good beating
off anyone you come across when you first take FUT online. Adding to this, the
in-game currency you do get for trading player cards and winning games and
tournaments is miniscule in comparison to how much it takes to build a winning
team - unless you somehow come across an in-form Lionel Messi or Cristiano
Ronaldo card that you can sell for 100,000s of coins.”
Like many other players, Dave uses money to save time.
Technically, you can grind your way to a superstar team in FIFA UT, but if you
want to be competitive straight away (and who doesn’t?) then you need the right
tools. In that sense, FIFA Ultimate Team really is a prime example of the
pay-to-win model. Yes, you can spend hours getting humiliated by your
opponents to scrape together the cash for a decent midfielder, or you could
drop real money to save time and torment. “I started buying packs on FUT for a
variety of reasons--firstly, I'm a gamer and have a deep rooted compulsion to
explore every mode in a game I buy. Secondly I'm a football fanatic. Thirdly,
it’s because I hate losing…” admits Dave.
While 99% of games no longer offer a ‘magic money bullet’
that virtually guarantees victory, many place such heavy restrictions on players
that they’re either forced to pay or give up on a game entirely. In Star Wars:
The Old Republic, for example, you can’t sprint without paying for a
Our third and final GR community interviewee, Neil, picks
out another great example: “Some items are ridiculously overpriced, especially
in The Simpsons Tapped Out on iOS. You use donuts to either speed up tasks or
to acquire new items or buildings etc and you can earn donuts by leveling up.
But when you level up you only get one or two donuts. So, basically if you want
access to things quicker, then you /have to buy donuts; and they have 2400
donuts for £69.99. That is utterly ridiculous, I can't believe people would
even consider buying that.”
Basically, whenever a game offers significant advantages for
paying money, it becomes pay-to-win. No, you don’t actually pay to win, but you
do stack the odds significantly in your favour. Not such a problem when you’re
playing on your own--hey, no-one likes to lose--but when you’re online and interacting
with other players in The Old Republic and Tapped Out it does unbalance the
experience to the game’s detriment.
So, is free-to-play still pay-to-win? Well, most F2P games
are now pay-to-advance, with the amount of stuff given away for free varying
wildly from game-to-game. While there are many high-profile examples of games
that give away the majority of their swag for next-to-nothing, there’s still a
thriving stable of games that don’t want you to succeed without payment. Fair
enough--games cost money to make, and developers need to feed their families
too--but let’s not pretend that paying players don’t have the edge.
You know that kid at parties who talks too much? Drink in hand, way too enthusiastic, ponderously well-educated in topics no one in their right mind should know about? Loud? Well, that kid’s occasionally us. GR Editorials is a semi-regular feature where we share our informed insights on the news at hand. Sharp, funny, and finger-on-the-pulse, it’s the information you need to know even when you don’t know you need it.