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

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The world has entered a new Cold War – what went wrong?

Peter Conradi’s Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War traces the accumulation of distrust between the West and Russia.

In March 1992 an alarmist “secret” memo written by Richard Nixon found its way on to the front page of the New York Times. “The hot-button issue of the 1950s was, ‘Who lost China?’ If Yeltsin goes down, the question ‘Who lost Russia?’ will be an infinitely more devastating issue in the 1990s,” the former US president wrote.

Nixon’s point was well made. At that time, Boris Yeltsin, who had acted as the wrecking ball of the Soviet Union, was desperately struggling to hold the splintering new Russian Federation together. An empire, a political system, an ideology and a planned economy had all been shattered in a matter of weeks. Western diplomats in Moscow feared that millions of starving people might flood out of the former Soviet Union and that the country’s vast nuclear arsenal might be left unguarded. Yet the West seemed incapable of rising to the scale of the historic challenge, providing only meagre – and often misguided – support to Yeltsin. Between 1993 and 1999, US aid to Russia amounted to no more than $2.50 per person. The Marshall Plan II it was not.

Even so, and rather remarkably, Russia was not “lost” during the 1990s. Yeltsin succeeded in stumbling through the decade, creating at least some semblance of a democracy and a market economy. Truly it was a case of “Armageddon averted”, as the historian Stephen Kotkin put it.

It seems hard to remember now, but for many Russians 1991 was a moment of liberation for them as much as it was for those in the Soviet Union’s other 14 republics. The Westernising strand of Russian thought briefly flourished. “Democratic Russia should and will be just as natural an ally of the democratic nations of the West as the totalitarian Soviet Union was a natural opponent of the West,” the country’s first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, proclaimed.

When Vladimir Putin emerged on the political scene in Moscow in 1999 he, too, made much of his Westernising outlook. When my editor and I went to interview him as prime minister, there was a portrait of Tsar Peter the Great, who had founded Putin’s home city of St Petersburg as Russia’s window on the West, hanging proudly on his office wall. President Putin, as he soon became, was strongly supportive of Washington following al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in 2001. “In the name of Russia, I want to say to the American people – we are with you,” he declared. Russian generals instructed their US counterparts in the lessons they had learned from their doomed intervention in Afghanistan.

Yet the sediment of distrust between the West and Russia accumulated steadily. The expansion of Nato to former countries of the Warsaw Pact, the bombing of Serbia, the invasion of Iraq and the West’s support for the “colour” revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine had all antagonised Moscow. But Putin’s increasing authoritarianism, hyperactive espionage and propaganda activities abroad drove the West away, as did his interventionism in Georgia and Ukraine.

Given the arc of Russian history, it was not surprising that the pendulum swung back so decisively towards the country’s Slavophiles. As a veteran foreign reporter for the Sunday Times and former Moscow correspondent, Peter Conradi is a cool-headed and even-handed guide to the past 25 years of Western-Russian relations. So much of what is written about Russia today is warped by polemics, displaying either an absurd naivety about the nature of Putin’s regime or a near-phobic hostility towards the country. It is refreshing to read so well-written and dispassionate an account – even if Conradi breaks little new ground.

The book concludes with the election of Donald Trump and the possibility of a new rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. Trump and Putin are indulging in a bizarre, if not grotesque, bromance. But as both men adhere to a zero-sum view of the world, it seems unlikely that their flirtation will lead to consummation.

For his part, Conradi does not hold out much hope for a fundamental realignment in Russia’s outlook. “Looking back another 25 years from now, it will doubtless be the Westward-looking Russia of the Yeltsin years that is seen as the aberration and the assertive, self-assured Putin era that is the norm,” he writes.

But the author gives the final word to the US diplomat George Kennan, a perpetual source of wisdom on all things Russian. “Of one thing we may be sure: no great and enduring change in the spirit and practice of Russia will ever come about primarily through foreign inspiration or advice,” Kennan wrote in 1951. “To be genuine, to be enduring, and to be worth the hopeful welcome of other peoples such a change would have to flow from the initiatives and efforts of the Russians themselves.”

Perhaps it is fanciful to believe that Russia has ever been “lost” to the West, because it has never been fully “won”.

John Thornhill is a former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times

Peter Conradi appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 23 April. cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi is published by One World (384pp, £18.99​)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times