Is free-to-play still pay-to-win?

“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 Team.

“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 subscription. Er… 

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.




  • Nocchi575 - May 2, 2013 7:42 a.m.

    No matter how hard a video game tries to be pay to win, nothing will ever be more pay to win than the United States itself, the entire country revolves around the people who have the most money in every way. So as far as I see it, pay to win games are the natural evolution from American game developers, they look around and see the legal system and the government and think "Wow that's a good idea those guys are raking in the cash." When they see lawyers and the corporations and banks that lobby for lower taxes and such. This is just my cynical view on the matter, it seems to me like America itself breeds this kind of game, our enviornments shape our habits and our actions quite effectively, as well as the ridiculously competitive attitude our educational system promotes, everyone wants to be the best at ripping people off and gouging the most money out of them. This is why I think Pay to Win games exist, as well as Free to Play games as a whole.
  • WildBill - April 30, 2013 3:57 p.m.

    Games do not have to use pay to win models to be successful. Too many of them are ruining what would be awesome games with absurd premium store items. The majority of pay to win games do not deserve a penny from anyone, what they deserve is to go bankrupt for casting a bad shadow over the gaming world. Some are worse than others and especially when it comes to browser based games. A good example would be COT "YeepGame". While I was a GM for them shortly they paid me massive amounts of game currency adding up to thousands of dollars if I had to actually buy it. "around $8,500 " The issue with that though was it still was nowhere close to maxing out my char. I'm not saying anything bad about the people that work there because they are all good people and very nice. I even managed to get them to cut their currency price by almost 70 percent. FOS "LeKool" Another great game but required massive spending if you ever wanted to max. They were giving me massive doses of currency as well, sadly lack of updates ruined it and no way to actually max out as a free player. CO "TQ" Conquer online was awesome and was always pay to win but at a controlled point where legit players could get ahead from hard work. They eventually killed that system though and ruined it.. What took me 4 years to get my friend acquired in 2 weeks for just over 16 grand. Path of Exile has it right and I love it! They sell cosmetic only items with their ethical free to play buy to support them system. I've never spent a penny on a free to play game until POE and it's only because I respect the hell out of their system that I do.
  • Cruddi - April 7, 2013 6:05 a.m.

    I stopped playing Star Wars because it went F2P, I am happy with subscription biased games because everyone has an even playing field and when it is even you feel more like helping, joining guilds, working as a team etc
  • haxxoromg - April 4, 2013 5:11 p.m.

    hmmmm i wouldnt list planetside as one of the best case scenario ones. new items are incredibly expensive - guns are like 7 to 10 bucks each - and you only get the gun for one single character. it's the same story for cosmetic upgrades like camo and armour.
  • BRiDeath - April 4, 2013 11:38 a.m.

    I can completely understand the concern of F2P. But between Planetside 2, Tribes Ascend, and Blacklight Retribution, I haven't spent more than 40 bucks on each game. To me, that money was like a 'donation' to the devs for the hard work they put in the game. For Tribes, it was the GOTY pack. For Planetside and Blacklight, it was the Starter packs. Every one of those games was more entertaining than the CoD's (or CoD-clones) released that same year, and I didn't have to pay $60 + tax just to enjoy a multiplayer FPS game.
  • EAC73 - April 3, 2013 1:07 p.m.

    F2P models are great for new developers who do it right, it's all about pleasing the gamer with a quality game. I also believe F2P is also a niche type of thing for certain genres, TF2 did successfully because they already made enough money off it. For me I play a lot of League of Legends, and i spent only 40 dollars on it, and this game provided me with thousands of hours of entertainment. F2P really only works if the company cares about their product while being active with it's community.
  • ObliqueZombie - April 3, 2013 10:38 a.m.

    I really, REALLY hate free-to-play. InSWTOR, for instance, this game that I love, when my sub runs out, I get reduced XP, reduced Warzone participation, and hardly any character slots. Yet the game is still bugged, but I guess they just wanna focus on what to add next (which are usually pretty sweet things). Planetside 2 is just as bad as the other crap F2P, too. Sure, I can acquire anything without real money, it at what cost? Dozens of hours I don't have?
  • sxh967 - April 3, 2013 9:10 a.m.

    In my opinion, the problem with F2P is that even if on average everybody spent around £40 on the game (about the price of a normal premium-priced game), people who have a lot more money (you know who you are) can spend more and be at an advantage instantly. If it were my decision, I would create the game in stepped price points. Example: 1) Pay nothing - you get the stripped down version of the full game but you can still finish it but it might be harder or take longer. 2) Pay £5 - same as above but with extra bag-space (for example) and no restrictions on character creation (for example) 3) Pay £20 - same as above but with very few restrictions. 4) Pay £40 - Get the full game without any restrictions plus some extra perks and free content that only the people who paid £40 will get access to. And there would be an option to upgrade without paying too much - e.g. If you pay £5.. you can pay an extra £15 to go up to the better level, or pay an extra £35 to go up. or just pay £40 up front or £20 upfront or play for free forever. I think this system could work well because people would have the chance to play it for free and then see the people who paid a bit extra and see if they are happy to pay the price and upgrade too. The key to the model is that nobody should be paying more than £40 (or £50) in total because otherwise you're just getting ripped off. Having said that, the definition of value and being ripped off will differ from person to person.. but that's just my opinion and view on things. Let me know what you think!
  • Eo1spy - April 3, 2013 9:08 a.m.

    To be fair to The Old Republic, you can sprint when you reach level 15, but it does seem to take a long time to reach that goal. The same goes for speeder bikes (mounts), you can either wait until level 25 to unlock them or buy something to become a preferred status player, so you unlock them at 15 like subscribers. I admit I bought something because the planets are massive and sprinting takes forever - but you could definitely complete the entire story without paying a penny.
  • Tronto13 - April 3, 2013 8:26 a.m.

    I think they are always going to be pay to win. Even if you look at titles that are supposedly not pay to win like Blacklight retribution the better weapons are ridiculously difficult to obtain without paying, needing crazy amounts of play-time and then with most guns you only get them for a 24hr period. I think if you play them a lot and it is the only game you really play it can be worth its while but if you play multiple games and dip in and out it is very grueling unless you pay.
  • djpray2k - April 3, 2013 8:03 a.m.

    Whoever you spoke to that plays FIFA needs their head looking at. Buying packs is the worst way to build a team. As for '13 EA made some big improvements and now cups and Seasons offer much bigger rewards. Sure, if you want Messi it will cost you but the best teams aren't built from expensive Barca players but building teams from lower profile clubs. My Serie A team is awesome and nobody cost me above 15k. For what some would pay for Messi I could build five amazing teams.
  • james-stevenson - April 3, 2013 8 a.m.

    I don't mind F2P games, as most of them are trying to avoid the pay-to-win portion of the game. I do have a problem with a full box game, at the cost of $60-$80, with a pay-to-play element. You mention FIFA, but I'm a hockey fan. And playing NHL online now, you can build your player up through time and games played, or you can pay money to boost your player right from the start, giving you a huge advantage at the start of the season. While it's not exactly pay-to-win, it does offer players who pay an opportunity to give themselves and advantage over those who don't. That's a full box game. Seems wrong to me. I don't mind additional DLC for some games, although i've never bought any. As it is, games are generally finished with by the time DLC rolls around. It also tends to feel like the DLC isn't an addon, but the rest of the game that just didn't get shipped with it.

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