Freeish to play
A big problem with the attempt to offer a game that is free to play (aka F2P), is the reasonable requirement that money must be generated somehow to support the game itself. Games do not code themselves, server bandwidth isn’t free, nor is the electricity to power them. In the case of PC games, where admittedly most of this post applies, there have been almost no 100% actually free games, especially ones made by a professional game studio, not as a mod or side project. Mods kind of skirt the issue of being “free-to-play” as they generally require owning the base game they modify. Since there has to be some source of money to fund bug fixes, server bandwidth, etc. we can all agree that it’s logical that the development of the free-to-play movement has really been the development of new and divergent methods of monetizing games outside of the traditional up-front purchase.
Let’s talk about games that in fact do cost money up-front, and have ongoing costs. Historically, MMO’s have relied on the subscription model to keep the lights on. There have been attempts made to defy this pricing structure, but it has proved difficult to keep a property afloat without a subscription system. While some see the monthly cost as prohibitive, it’s important to consider that without (monetary) incentive and means, a company is likely to provide poor support for a game. Obviously there becomes a time where in the later life of a game like World of Warcraft when buying each expansion at retail would be a serious up-front investment. Blizzard realizes this, which they’ve taken impressive measures to counteract this and bring in new players. There are obviously games out there like SW:TOR, Rift, and Planetside 2 that are played and enjoyed by many, so it’s totally possible to have some iteration of a F2P payment system in an MMO.
If you want a great example of free to play done well, League of Legends kills it.
Where there starts to be problems with F2P games in general is what I was talking about in the previous post, which is where each company decides to draw the line of monetization. It’s totally possible to fund a game, not actually force people into paying anything to have a good time, and feel like the experience is “fair”. There’s a single aspect of any game that it’s 100% safe to monetize, and has been shown to be historically successful. I can sum it up in one word: VANITY.
Keeping balance between paying and non-paying participants should always be the forefront of design philosophy for a game that purports to be free to play.
If you offer visual customizations that don’t effect mechanical gameplay, you’re never going to actually unbalance a damn thing. Sure, you can talk all you want about how all the goofy hats have ruined Team Fortress 2, and other than being no fun, you’re kind of wrong. Team Fortress still has an active community, and remains relevant in the gaming zeitgeist to this day. It’s a six year old FPS that arguably has better content this day than it ever did before going free to play. So many things that make it an interesting experience were INTRODUCED with free to play. Path of Exile has also done an admirable job of catering to what seems to be a niche market of people looking for a specific gaming experience, and yet finding a way to make enough to continue development without making the users feel forced into payment. I’d also like to give a nod here to DOTA 2 for following a mostly vanity-based money-making system. Keeping balance between paying and non-paying participants should always be the forefront of design philosophy for a game that purports to be free to play. If the experience offered is so different between those that throw down money and those that do not, it’s misleading to say a game is free to play. A version of that game may be free, but it’s not really the same game the paying customers are playing.
It’s fine to charge real money for an in-game weapon or item as long as anyone can ALSO buy it using something earned in the course of playing the game.
When you find yourself genuinely feeling like there is no way you can compete on the level of people who are paying money without paying money yourself, that’s a huge red alarm that the game may be intended more to generate money as a direct goal, as opposed to generating money to stay afloat and as a consequence of fan approval. I don’t need to go dragging specific games through the mud for the sake of my argument, but I can point out experiences I’ve had that felt more questionable. A big one that I remember disliking was the concept of tiered buying. It’s fine to charge real money for an in-game weapon or item as long as anyone can ALSO buy it using something earned in the course of playing the game. It obviously is going to take a lot of time commitment to earn the in-game currency to purchase items, such as buying champions in League of Legends with IP. It takes a pretty decent amount of games to earn enough to buy a new champion, but it’s totally possible, and everyone has an equal opportunity to buy them without any money changing hands.
You can complain all day about people who choose to put down cash to speed up the process of acquiring these in game items (I’m 100% guilty.), but that doesn’t mean that they’re going to know how to do anything useful with a lot of the things they bought (I don’t.). When a game says that something that gives an actual in-game advantage to only those paying money that game is no longer playing fair. Let that player gather resources quicker, or enjoy some perks, but don’t let them be more powerful by virtue of money. Again, the only items that can affect your play before the match starts in League of Legends can ONLY be bought with the in-game currency, which you can gain at a boosted rate with money, but you can’t outright buy. Everyone has to play the game if they want to unlock runes.
I’ve had long conversations with a lot of people about what they consider right and wrong with regards to F2P game balance, and it’s endlessly fascinating to me. Mixing the concepts of ethics, commerce, and gaming is a rare opportunity to get more than usually philosophical about what makes a game worth playing, and what exactly has to be earned by hard work to be respected. Thoughts anyone?
Keep up on what's happening at the J!NX Stronghold when we can tear ourselves away from a game long enough to blog about it. Updated Fridays.