We all love something for nothing, don’t we? Personally I love being given free games to review and free mocktails at game launches; I love those free chocolates hotel maids leave on pillows, or free pretzels you get on planes. Or Free, the ’70s rock band. I also love it when games PRs send free cakes to Official Xbox Magazine Towers to publicise their titles, even that hideously disturbing Agony naked-demon cake that once turned up at the office. Free cake, even that one, is good.
But free-to-play games? Hmm. These things are more popular than ever, with publishers making money from selling lootboxes or in-game currency. Which is fine – you can spend if you want to, but you can still play for nothing. Being from the north of England, specifically the stereotypically spendthrift county of Yorkshire, it should be in my blood to like anything that doesn’t cost money. So why is it I’m still so wary of games that are free-to-play?
I’m loving the free-to-play Apex Legends, like everyone else, and I love action RPG Path Of Exile. I love Fortnite, and I’m still a big fan of Fortnite: Save The World, where, thanks to V-Bucks being rewarded for playing, I haven’t actually needed to part with a single real-world penny in two years. So far, so good, right? Yay, free-to-play!
However, I was also a huge fan of Marvel Heroes Omega. As a devotee of dungeon-crawlers like Diablo III, and Marvel, I loved everything about it – its roster of heroes, having Asgard, New York and more to hack-and-slash around in, and it was free-to-play. You could unlock more heroes with currency collected by playing, but I was also happy to part with a little real money, too, reasoning it was no more really than I would have spent on a full-priced game. The outlay seemed justified to get skins for Guardians Of The Galaxy’s movie-Rocket, Deadpool, Black Cat and more. It was an MMO, but I didn’t care about that. I just loved the fact that it was couch co-op, as did my young daughter, and she and I spent months playing the game together… only to be utterly, devastatingly heartbroken when Disney severed ties with publishers Gazillion, and the game just stopped existing. It was as if Thanos himself had clicked his fingers. Just… gone.
And that’s the rub. Free-to-play games tend to be MMOs or battle royales that only exist in some ‘cloud’ of nebulous cyberspace, on servers whose continued existence are predicated on a) the game’s popularity, and b) the permission of licence owners and commitment of the publishers themselves. When a game stops bringing in the numbers, the servers could be shut down, regardless of the feelings of its fanbase. Just ask players of Paragon, Epic’s MOBA title that the Fortnite creator shut down last year to focus on its smash hit. For all I know, there may have been only two Paragon players left in the world, and I don’t knock the business sense of that – the games industry has to make money. But still, those Paragon fans lost their game.
For every game sitting neglected on my shelves, there’s always the option to dust it off and return to it. But Marvel Heroes Omega is gone forever. And it makes me sad. And I didn’t need it to be free, or even online in the first place. Even without updates and daily quests, I would still be enjoying the game if only I had actually owned it. The money I spent in-game was refunded by Microsoft, which to its credit did not hesitate to reimburse the many players finding themselves with nothing at all to show for their purchases. But it demonstrated to me how precarious a thing free-to-play can be. I’m wary of getting too much into any free-to-play game now, because I fear it could one day just be taken away from me. Yeah, it’s free, but it’s not mine. It’s a bit like the old saying, “you can’t have your cake and eat it”. Unless it’s free booby-demon cake, in which case you can have it and eat it. Even if it feels so very, very wrong.