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When did something being free become a bad thing?

It's a comment I've seen countless times, in numerous iterations. "'It's free-to-play' And there goes my interest." And every time I read it, I'm perplexed by the unwillingness to acknowledge the stark reality of the free-to-play market. F2P games have to try even harder to make sure you have a good time, because no one will spend money to enhance an experience that they loathe. But it seems like somewhere down the line, having zero barriers to entry became a bad thing.

A F2P game must be worthwhile before it can make profits, because that progression simply doesn't work the other way around. They're like restaurants, where the only path to sustainable success is customer satisfaction. No one will excitedly recommend crappy food to their friends, or pay for the rest of a subpar meal after you've provided a sample for free. Restaurateurs and F2P developers know that the only way they can make money is to ensure that you have a good time, one that you'd want to share with others. A slew of bad Steam user reviews or a red tint on Metacritic will be just as impactful to a game as a low score on Yelp is to an eatery.

Further, there are dozens upon dozens of F2P games out there, all vying for your attention. And the only way they can stand out from the pack--to justify and prolong their existence--is to offer something that's unique or of quality. F2P efforts can't be merely decent if they want to grow; they need to match or exceed the current standards that players have come to expect, or no one will see a reason to stick around and spend the money that keeps servers online. That kind of ever-present competition ensures that the F2P market is survival of the fittest, where only the most polished games prosper. If quality isn't hitting new players in the face within minutes, nothing's stopping them from leaving and never coming back. 

Contrast this with the AAA, big-budget space. What matters most is your perception of a game before you buy it--because once you've shelled out $60, the enjoyment you get from a game can't immediately impact profits (unless you have a habit of buying multiple copies of your favorite games). The only way to get more money from an established fan is to crank out DLC or full-fledged sequels, which is why so many modern AAA franchises are struggling to combat the fatigue inherent to annualized releases. Word-of-mouth endorsements are important, but those don't pertain to sales at launch, which is what publishers seem to value most.

When free-to-play experiences start to align with the negative stereotype--that of an exploitative, boring, or poorly balanced game--it's adapt or die. Tribes: Ascend soured its incredible jetpack-centric gunplay with ludicrous costs for new gear, and the negative response from players was so forceful that the pricing structure got entirely reworked. If The Mighty Quest For Epic Loot can't turn around its public image as a buggy, tedious, money-grubbing mess, it is destined to wither until it dies. You can decry a bad $60 game all you want, but besides bug-squashing patches, nothing you do will change the product you own for the better. But the fate of F2P games is in the players' collective hands, and their opinions can effect real improvements on these constantly evolving games.

Yes, there will always be those F2P games looking to exploit the lowest common denominator. But that mindset is slowly and surely becoming a thing of the past; a clearly untenable strategy for long-term growth. With powerhouses like Apple taking measures to stamp out underhanded microtransactions, fewer and fewer companies will have the audacity to charge you $5 extra for five seconds of entertainment. Or maybe they'll still try--but rest assured, they will inevitably fail.

Your attention span and gratification means everything to the income of a F2P developer. Don't assume that you'll be exploited; go in with the assumption that the game will cater to you in every possible way. Success in the F2P market doesn't come from bad, formulaic, or predictable design--these games have to put forward their best content first and constantly keep you hooked, in the hopes that you'll leave a tip by purchasing a hero skin or convenience boost. League of Legends and Dota 2 thrive because they put game design first, not because they scammed a few hundred thousand players with microtransactions. People spend money in these free games because they want to support them and see them grow. And the first step towards that is to actually start playing. What have you got to lose?

34 comments

  • Waldo - April 1, 2014 8:05 a.m.

    I will try to keep a more open mind in the future, for my own game choices. I will, however, continue to steer my children away from this gaming model, as they are more likely to make poor choices with their very limited money. They can enter this debate if they want when they are older. Thanks for writing this and stirring some discussion.
  • Shigeruken - April 1, 2014 4:30 a.m.

    I play a lot of free games regularly, like Mechwarrior Online, Planetside, The Old Republic etc. The only real issue I find with f2p is that I waste so much money on games I'll never play that I often feel guilty for sinking an hour or two into a f2p one.
  • SanosukeEiji - April 1, 2014 1:06 a.m.

    As someone who enjoys F2P games, most of the commenters are misinformed especially the ones assuming things like "F2P quality is usually crap." The F2P business model has gotten huge over the past 2 years and there are now different types of it. Most of the comments are only talking about a certain few and specific ones such as games that require money to advance or unlock certain features. Most recent F2P games are not like this now, which only goes to show how little most of the people here know about F2P games in general and how misinformed their opinions are. tl;dr you guys are missing out.
  • FoxdenRacing - March 31, 2014 3:28 p.m.

    I don't think it's fair to compare F2P to AAA in the sense of 'why does only one get a free pass?', as these days they're both rife with shameless piss-taking from the audience, and the gall to ask the prices they do, for the things they do. They both need to be held accountable. My biggest problem with it, truth be told, is the conflict of interest inherent in releasing a game under the paradigm. There aren't enough good-natured people in the world for these kinds of games to subsist purely on the 'That was fun, I should pay for it after the fact' reaction...and so there has to be a compromise somewhere, and it's the extremely rare studio that strikes the balance. Not because they can't...but because the siren song of trading their dignity for quick cash now, even if it means making less later, is too strong. For every TF2, there's at least a dozen Dungeon Keepers. Add to it that games of all tiers are continuing to get leaner and leaner, as what us old farts used to take for granted...unlocks, hidden secrets, even in-game progression...are now being carved out and sold off for extra cash. A game with an economy, even if it's as simple as 'collect widgets to buy upgrades', can and often is compromised to..."encourage"...the acquisition of earn-rate multipliers, straight chunks of said currency, or even an alternative paid currency. Typically, it's done by requiring paid currency to do anything worthwhile, or making the earn rate so painful it's unbearable. Psychological abuse is rampant; companies, most famously Zynga, explicitly design their "games" to trigger addictions and fallacies...sunk cost via a common yet useless 'earned' currency, addiction, habit-forming, boiling the frog...to companies like that, players aren't customers, they're animals to be herded. And that disgusts me. I am not a consumer. I do not mindlessly consume. I am a customer; I give custom to projects whose premise intrigues me, to companies who have earned my trust...and will hold very, very long grudges against companies who routinely attempt to betray or abuse that trust, or worse, expect me to give them money no matter what they do. I would rather buy pizza or beer for a shop, send them gifts, or even send them a check, rather than support a publisher I disagree with. But...this is the result of gaming, all kinds of gaming, going from a cottage industry to big business. It's no longer good enough for a game to recover its costs, and have enough left over to find the next project. Now there's investors to placate, and even worse a generation of investors [and businessmen] brought up to believe that nothing but the next quarter matters, and that the myth of perpetual, ever-accelerating growth is not only possible but also realistic. It's no longer good enough to sell well and be profitable; 5-million sellers are now 'disappointing' and 'under-performing'. It's no longer good enough to release it when it's done; with the advent of broadband, the attitude all over the industry is now 'squirt it out, finish it later'...we're seeing it with F2P, with AAA, and even with the latest industry darling, 'Early Access'. It's no longer good enough for the devs to make what they want to make, or to refine a franchise to address weak spots and things that could be done better...now focus groups are involved, and the only way a sequel can be 'better' is to have more 'mainstream appeal'...flirting with the disastrous consequence of driving away they customers they have, in the name of attracting potential customers that don't want it anyway. It's no longer acceptable for a game-maker to have agency; engineering decisions get made by marketing, or by accounting, and then when the inevitable backlash comes, the developers are expected to sacrifice themselves to the masses, pretending it was their idea all along to shield corporate from the consequences of corporate's actions [See: Simcity 5, Forza 5]. Expansions, now called DLC, are no longer reactions to a game which sells well, but are planned and worked into the spreadsheets before the project even begins. With the rise of pre-order culture and store exclusives, where practically every game has a 'Pre-order at Gamestop to receive...' [while the company no doubt gets a fat kickback] attached, they're asking me to trust them more and more...and yet are doing less and less to justify, let alone earn, that trust. SR3's season pass, Battlefield 4 and Forza 5's shoddy state at launch, the debacle that was Aliens: Colonial Marines...this is where F2P is supposed to shine, to be the happy alternative...yet all we do is trade the frying pan for the skillet. F2P and even DLC are awful not just for their customer-abusive practices...but also, and perhaps more importantly...for their wasted potential. Concepts full of potential, whose souls were sold for a quick buck. They could have been evolutions of the demo and the expansion pack, but have instead become shameless cash-grabs.
  • FoxdenRacing - March 31, 2014 3:34 p.m.

    Continued: I wept when I saw Champions Online fail, as with it went any chance of the hybrid business model from being adopted. Under their paradigm, if you spent a month's subscription rate in a given month, you got treated as if you just bought the subscription. If you spent the price of an expansion pack on that pack's items, they gave you the rest of the pack for free. Instead, now we get GDCs full of panels such as 'How to Monetize Whales' and 'Effectively Containing Backlash'. So sad.
  • Waldo - April 1, 2014 8:11 a.m.

    This is why this is a hot topic; good arguments on both sides. I lean more in your direction though. Must be the old fart in me, assuming my product is complete when I purchase it and the experience is fair and equal compared to the others I may play with or against. Hang in there bud and try not to let the suits totally wreck it for you.
  • GR_LucasSullivan - March 31, 2014 9:50 a.m.

    Thanks for sharing, everyone! This will sound corny, but it's great seeing so many thoughtful, articulate responses :)
  • pimlicosound - March 31, 2014 4:13 a.m.

    I think you need to make a distinction between F2P games where you pay to unlock content and ones where you pay for consumable resources. I will happily pay to unlock content in chunks, and I suspect most traditional gamers would be open to this model. Extra content will expand or improve a game, and will be a permanent addition to the game. But I will not spend money on consumables, an expendable resource that will disappear forever after a bit of game time. Consumables don't expand or improve a game, they merely enable it to continue, and only for a short while. I honestly can't see the point on paying for something that will soon vanish. A game would have to be exceptionally, extraordinarily good to tempt me to pay for consumables. As such, the barrier to entry for games with this payment model is much, much higher.
  • brickman409 - March 30, 2014 7:41 p.m.

    Nothing wrong with free to play, it's just that most free to play games tend to be crap. Also in a weird way, a game is more enjoyable when you have to pay for it. I know that sounds plain stupid, but paying for something kind of pushes you to get as much enjoyment out of it as possible. Kind of like how people say food tastes better when you have to ration it. I remember when I was a kid I'd only get one game every couple of months, and because of that I would squeeze as much entertainment out of them as possible. But today, now that I have money and steam sales, I usually only spend a couple of minutes on a game before getting bored and moving onto the next one. heck I haven't even installed some of the games in my steam library. But I do like those short indie games that are free to play like, Gravity Bone, that was a cool little game that I never would have payed for.
  • DeeEss - March 30, 2014 12:52 p.m.

    The problem I always have in the back of my mind, and the reason I don't like free-to-play is the thought that the game is constantly trying to bleed me. I'd much much rather pay a set fee beforehand, rather than have to wait and see how the game wants to leech money off me as I play. I'd even go along with it if I knew there was an unbreakable ceiling for how much you can spend before you have everything in the game. What kills it for me is consumables and ingame rentals. Strangely, because of that, my barrier to entry is lower for a set priced game.
  • JustAnotherRogueAI - March 30, 2014 5:22 a.m.

    I'm going to be honest here, I've spent far more time playing Warframe than I have playing any full priced game. I've only spent about $10 on it, and I've still obtained at least one version of every Warframe and a very large amount of the available weapons in the game. Keep in mind, I never bought any of those with the in-game currency that I purchased, that went towards small boosters and cosmetics. I absolutely loved the game, so I wanted to support the developers. See, the reason why Warframe's free to play model is fine to me is that everything in the game is obtainable without spending a dime, aside from cosmetics (even quite a large amount of those can be obtained for free, as well). So, for me, the acceptability of a F2P game is entirely dependent on the ease of obtaining new items and actually progressing. Games like Planetside 2, while amazing in the gameplay department, require you to play for ages just to get a new weapon or upgrade. I try not to run away as fast as possible once I see the term F2P, but as soon as I see players complaining about grind times and Pay to Win, I'm out.
  • MikeJazzfaceTheDancingSquirrel - March 30, 2014 4:36 a.m.

    any half decent f2p game makes you pay extra money to advance through it... so you're basically trapped in a web of in-game purchases if you want to do well.... id rather just pay for a high quality game and not worry about having to pay anything else
  • Trollkitten - March 31, 2014 9:49 a.m.

    "any half decent" is a generalization (and a poorly capitalized one at that). Have you played EVERY SINGLE "half decent" F2P game on the market? I know I haven't -- ain't nobody got time for that.
  • MikeJazzfaceTheDancingSquirrel - April 7, 2014 2:09 a.m.

    so by the same principle you don't know if my statement is true either... all the ones I have seen just scream pay to win... i hate the idea of having to pay for stuff you'd normally get with the game anyway!! oh look at that cool sword, i wonder how much i have to pay???? GET OUTTA HERE
  • Justlilme - March 29, 2014 4:05 p.m.

    When it`s not that free - would be a short answer. Some will crucify me for this, but SWTOR is anything but free. Limited trial would be the term it would describe it better.
  • jmcgrotty - March 29, 2014 2:38 p.m.

    Count me in the category of not willing to give F2P a shot. The quality is too often crap to take the time to find one or two that are worth your time, and I don't want to be asked to pay for something just to advance in a game. It's why I don't do any gaming that is a subscription service either, and if I get DLC, it better be massive {which is why I have never bought any}. I would rather risk $60 on a game that I might end up not liking than even support glorified demos {that's all that F2P are. Demos, with no/a higher cap on the final game cost}. My bigger question is who are the assholes spending any money on monetized games? They're the ones hurting the industry, if by rep alone.
  • DFX2KX - March 29, 2014 10:40 p.m.

    Well, probably the assholes who are enjoying the F2P game in question. You'll find the low barrier to entry is extremely attractive to people, but unless they really like it, players will leave. And given the rising cost of making games, continual revenue of some sort is becoming near-necessity. The F2P concept is certainly not for every gamer, and games abusing the concept deserve a special place in hell next to folks who talk at the movie theater, but that doesn't mean there are not plenty of good examples out there. I'd go as far as to say that most F2P games are at least decent. There are a few fantastic examples, even. I'll offer a few I've played: Their ups and downs Mabonagi: There's a pay aspect here, but I've never needed to use it. Allows for things like animal characters, and extra character slots. Some cosmetic stuff and pets. A bit grindy, but the pay people are suffering though that, too. It offers to sell you things, but it's notable in not being all that obnoxious about it, which is nice. Air Rivals: This one does dip it's toes in asshole-ery with upgrades that come with an equipment breakage chance. There are items to (partially) protect you from complete loss, but it can get expensive if you wanna min-max. People still pay, and play, because the game is mindlessly good fun, as damned dated as it is. (Not that they can really improve much, it's complicated). The most fun I've ever had in gaming can be found here, so many laughs. Never payed a dime here, thought about it, though. War Thunder: Like Air Rivals, it's a flying game, but it's much more skill-dependent then Air Rivals. It's like AR, but fixes most of the flaws in AR's monetization scheme. A free player can (and many do) get to the top tier aircraft such as jets before the premium players who use cash as a substitute for skill. Gaijin gives premium credits away now and again, too, so you can save up and get aircraft others just pay cash for. However, if there is one genre where the F2P model almost always hurts more then it helps, it's First person shooters. I liked CrossFire, and Combat Arms, but damn...
  • DarthPunk - March 29, 2014 10:48 a.m.

    Given my comment somewhat inspired this article I probably should respond. My problem is with F2P is that they're either extremely tedious, pay to win or just outright scams where cumulatively you end up paying more than you would for a $60 game. Stuff like Tribes however does work better than other F2Ps because your success in it is still more down to your ability as a player rather than how much cash you've spent
  • Manguy17 - March 29, 2014 8:30 a.m.

    tldr: most f2p games arent good enough to worth any money in the first place. I simply find f2p games to either be bad, or of a genre that I have no interest in (any MOBA). Generally they lack any interesting progression system to encourage me to play a little more and instead just throw items at me and tell me to buy them. Also, the cost to actually get a decent amount of gear is almost always huge. (A while back I crunched the numbers for Blacklight retribution, and it would set you back around £200+ to get all the content). Or you could just grind for hours with default gear to finally afford a rifle (and normally you can only loan it out for a couple days rather than get it permanently). While it's true in theory that f2p devs have to work harder to keep the players involved, the reality is that there are very, very few f2p games that are as good as a p2p counterpart. If you were to take the average f2p game. unlock a good selection of the content and charge people £45 hardly anyone would buy them because most simply aren't that good. MOBA's and a select few MMO's and card games are the only sorts which seem to flourish.
  • crswaites - March 29, 2014 8:28 a.m.

    I am definitely one of those people who sees the letters "F2P" and my interest immediately disappears, and it's not because I think the quality of the game will be bad, it could be mind blowing. It's that the concept of free to play has evolved into having specific gameplay pacing that I do not enjoy whatsoever, and often paying money doesn't alleviate that. I don't play DOTA, have never tried it, but I love the idea of a game where the only thing I'm paying for is cosmetic, because that wouldn't change the pace of the game. There are other games that sound interesting that have these types of F2P rules that seem refreshing and fascinating, but they are almost all multiplayer games and I don't play multiplayer games because I have no interest in dedicating myself to playing one game for extended periods of time. The single player F2P games are miserable because they just aren't paced the way I want to play them, or are so casual as to be meaningless. I don't begrudge the quality F2P games or their fans, but even if they're genres I enjoy playing, they, at this point in time, are not for me.

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