The Land of the Free: Getting your money's worth from free to play games

More and more games are setting their stall out for free right off the bat, and then finding ways of taking your money later on. Why does it work?

 

There is a simple genius to the idea of the free to play game, but you have to wonder how many people were laughed out of the room for suggesting it a few years back. It is a revolutionary attitude and a brave one, because to offer up your game to the players without asking for money up front, you’re relying on your game to sell itself, not the marketing and not the review scores. You are expecting that not only will your players play the game, but that they will play it and want to support it and pay for further content. The success of the model flies in the face of those developers who would rather drop a digital deuce onto your hard drive and hope you forget all about it before they release their follow up to Homeworld.

Free to play isn’t something particularly new, but it is something that is growing. A lot of Massive Multiplayer Online (MMO) games have gone free to play as the subscription model is, outside of hardy perennial World of Warcraft, proving harder and harder to sustain beyond the first month. More and more games are setting their stall out for free right off the bat, usually player vs player games, but also plenty of MMO games that benefit from higher player numbers.

Games that have gone free to play, as opposed to being built for it, sometimes feel as though the monetisation process is intrusive, exploitative and needlessly greedy. The most overt example of these flaws is Bioware’s $200m white space elephant Star Wars: The Old Republic. This is a game that feels the need to punish freeloading players by not allowing them to run fast.

The Old Republic is an interesting example of a game that missed the point of how free to play is supposed to work. Ideally, the theory goes, you want your players to play the game, fall in love with it, and then spend money to get more out of it. It is hard to fall in love with a game when it’s eyeballing you like a snooty maître d'.

For all the accusations of nickel and diming though it is hard to complain about being able to play one of the best presented MMOs ever made for free. The Old Republic never really measured up in terms of delivering a great game, but seeing the work that went into it you can imagine how painful the decision to just give it away must have been. This is perhaps ironic since the transition to a free to play model usually means more money for a struggling MMO, not less.

The games that typically thrive in the free to play market are the games that offer something innovative that players perhaps have not tried before. We all like to pretend we like new ideas, but commercially it’s clear that the safe bets do best. Players might be reluctant to take a gamble on a game at full price but an intriguing free to play game will usually be given the chance to prove itself. If the game is good then a foot in the door might be all it needs.

For League of Legends, existing in a hitherto obscure genre, the ability to hook new players en masse without the barrier of an initial buy-in allowed the game to become ridiculously popular. With over thirty million active players, League of Legends is easily bigger than World of Warcraft and if the claims of the developers are to be believed, it boasts around five million concurrent players. That’s almost twice as many as you’d find on the entire Xbox Live network after a new Call of Duty comes out, for a game that came out in 2009.

League of Legends is the obvious go-to example of a free to play game that has become a huge success by doing something new, but it is not alone. World of Tanks has also carved respectable a niche for itself, out of some twenty million player accounts created it has built up a much larger and more robust player base than you would ever expect to see in a game of that type. Other games currently in open beta such as Mechwarrior: Online or War Thunder use a similar model, casting the net far and wide for potential players and hoping they stick around long enough to spend some money.

Planetside 2 is another game that offers something new. In this case it achieves that by taking a fairly traditional approach to the first person shooter and scaling the number of players up by a few orders of magnitude. Seeing hundreds of players in the same area shooting each other is nothing short of epic at first, as though you’re in the middle of a gigantic cut scene happening in real time, which in some ways is pretty close to the truth. Like so many free to play games Planetside 2 does suffer somewhat from a painful learning curve, perhaps because the "tutorial" bears a striking resemblance to this scene from Futurama.

For all the good that free to play games have brought however there are some problems which have yet to be uniformly resolved.

The first of these flaws is the cynical way in which in game items are sold. Nearly all online games for example will feature some kind of go-between currency. You buy the currency that the game or that particular developer uses with real money and then you buy the items in-game with that currency. This serves to obfuscate what you are actually spending and is such a transparent and shameless ploy that it feels a little insulting that so many companies actually do it. Even the newly coined term ‘micro-transaction’ feels a little optimistic when in most games you’re actually parting with quite noticeable amounts of money for whatever digital object you’ve just acquired. Team Fortress 2 is one game that sells items without hiding the prices behind a filter in this way and it has made plenty of money doing it, by treating the players with respect the developers benefit from greater respect from the players.

The second flaw is the problem of "Pay to Win". Any free to play game benefits from a high population but when the paying players get a significant and direct advantage it can feel a lot like those players who are playing for free are simply the ducks in the shooting gallery. Refinements to the way that games are balanced have reduced this problem to an extent, but it still rears its ugly head from time to time. In Planetside 2 for instance any new weapon that arrives in the in-game store will generally start off overpowered and then be patched down to fairer levels once sales have dropped off.

This problem is mitigated fairly successfully by games that offer access to items faster in return for money, rather offering a systemic bias to the paying player. If a player can choose to earn their in game items by playing for them or paying for them then balance is achieved between those who play the game obsessively and those who waste their time with families and careers.

It can often seem like gaming is a struggling medium, with innovative but underfunded indie games on one side and steadfastly unambitious AAA titles on the other. Free to play however seems to offer a tempting middle ground, one where larger development funds are available but where bold creative choices and distinct design are necessary to survive. It may not be a perfect situation, but it’s one that merits close examination, particularly since it costs nothing to do so.

League of Legends, a free to play game that's become an enormous success.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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