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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?

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

 

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.