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

MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES
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Why Prince wanted to make his listeners feel inadequate

Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals.

Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, by Ben Greenman
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £17.99

During his mid-Eighties imperial phase, stretching from the eruption of “When Doves Cry” to the corruption of “Alphabet St”, Prince was a global object of desire: hyper-talented, cool, funny and charming. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to have him or be him. Have him or be him, covetousness or envy – those two reactions are more than a little negative. And more than a little negative is how I felt about both Prince and Ben Greenman when I got to the end of Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, a book as cumbersome as its title. Published a year after his death, it didn’t make me hate Prince as much as Blake Bailey’s monumental takedown Cheever: a Life made me despise John Cheever, but it came close.

The Prince we meet in anecdotes and legal depositions from both before and after his imperial phase is cranky, petty-minded and grasping. This may be because Greenman, who contributes to the New Yorker and has assisted George Clinton and Brian Wilson with their memoirs, is a much more entertaining writer when ripping Prince to bits than when attempting to build a shrine from his mortal remains. Here Greenman is, in flat-footed praise mode yet inadvertently dissing his subject: “From Stevie Wonder, he took mastery. From David Bowie, he took mystery. All of these influences were ingested and digested until Prince, nourished, went about making something new.” Follow that metaphor through and Prince’s “something new” can only be faecal.

But here is Greenman criticising the fall-from-grace album Graffiti Bridge. “The only thing holding back these epics from unconditional greatness is their poor aerodynamics,” he writes. “They’re like ­giant whiteboards filled with flow charts and equations: diagrams of how to make a Prince song work at top speed without actually working at top speed.” That simile, of subsonic flying whiteboards, is ridiculous but accurate – and captures something of what Prince is like when he is his diagrammatic rather than his funky self.

There are great insights here. Some are offhand, such as, “What is Purple Rain, the movie, but an argument for collaboration?” Others are more laboured but worthwhile as mini-obituaries: “Prince was a flamboyant star with a penchant for intellectual ­exploration, but he was also a sly comedian, a critic of existing soul music stereotypes, and a massive egomaniac.”

Elsewhere, the prose is pretentious, bathetic and nonsensical in equal measure. Of Prince’s alter ego Camille, ­Greenman writes, “This pitch-shifted version of Prince hovered between male and female and, in the process, cracked open previously conventional issues of power, sexuality, ego and
id.” Clearly, Prince/Camille had no issue with the superego – or, at least, didn’t feel the need to hover and in the process crack it.

By the end, I felt that this book was a fitting monument to Prince: glib and unsatisfying. When I listen to his music, I feel that something is being taken from me rather than given. At best, I end a song such as “Kiss” feeling disburdened, floating, freer; at worst, I feel hungry, swizzed, abused. And I think this is deliberate. Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals. Making them feel inadequate was the whole point.

There is a clip of him performing Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” with three members of the band. Each time the chorus comes up and everyone in the room sings, “I-i am everyday people,” you can see Prince struggling to join in, because he’s thinking, “You may be, but I’m not.”

I don’t doubt that the latter-day Prince could be a magnificent performer. The fewer musicians he had with him, the better he got. Fans left his concerts feeling that they’d been at the greatest gig in their life, but Prince was the inventor of the after-show after-show. For super-fans, there was always another gig at a smaller, more obscure venue, starting at three or five o’clock in the morning. Just when it looked like he could give no more, it turned out – wearyingly – that he was inexhaustible. There was always more of the same. More 15-minute funk jams. More cheeky covers intended to prove that Prince was a more talented musician than the songs’ composers, because he could insert a half-diminished seventh chord where they’d strummed E minor. Worst of all, there were more and more muso excursions into 1970s fusion. It’s a fundamental question: if Prince was such a great musician, why did he play such God-awful jazz?

In the end, as a fan who had adored every­thing he did up to Lovesexy, I became angry with him and stopped listening. So did Greenman: “When I started working on this book, I promised myself that I would listen only to Prince’s music. I had enough to last me months. But about six weeks in, the Prince-only diet started to feel claustrophobic and maybe even a little ghoulish . . .” What Greenman found, I think, is that in Prince’s musical world the space gets perpetually smaller, because ultimately all the singer wants you to concentrate on is his self-aggrandisement. It’s fitting that Prince kept his unreleased recordings in “the vault” – a place for miserly hoarding of surplus value.

The ghoulishness of the Prince diet is that it gives no proper nourishment. It’s there in the lyrics to one of his offhand masterpieces: “Starfish and coffee/Maple syrup and jam/Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine/And a side order of ham”. This isn’t soul food. You’ll be hungry an hour later.

Greenman’s most revealing footnote – about himself and about his subject – concerns another creepy, slave-driving manufacturer of confectionery. “The movie side of Warner Bros had [in the early 1990s] just acquired the rights to remake Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory . . . Prince, I thought, would be perfect for the part . . . I wrote a long letter to Warner making the case but was too shy to send it.”

In this book, that long letter is finally delivered. Prince was a perfect Wonka. 

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

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