You're Free to Play
I remember the first "free-to-play" game I ever encountered. It was 2002, I was about 14, and Runescape finally launched the paid service that they'd been teasing for a while. They told users that they wouldn't force anyone to upgrade to the new paid service, and that the free servers would continue running. Of course the free servers wouldn't have access to all the paid user content they introduced. This was the first time I remember the free/paid pricing model in a game, and it blew my mind. I had been playing Runescape pretty often (read: obsessively) since its launch. I'd played Everquest and Ultima before this, and in defense of how someone could go from those to Runescape, I will only say that I blame my friends. I'm a sucker for playing games with friends and that's that. Both Everquest and Ultima had a traditional pricing model, i.e. you've got to buy the game itself, and then pay monthly fees, which was part of what also made the decision to play some Runescape with friends an easy decision. With no price required for entry there was much less reason NOT to try it.
It was a decently long time before free-to-play reared its head again. The next time I realized I was playing a tiered payment game it was with Gunbound. It also was the first time I played a game that was from a South Korean company. It was a pretty simple turn-based artillery game. Anyhow, I remember that you had to pay real cash if you wanted to buy the very best upgrades. This felt totally foreign at the time, though now I realize that this has been a common practice in that gaming market for a very long time, and I was just behind the curve of being exposed to it as an American.
Free-to-play has really progressed out of it's infancy with regard to the Western game markets. The large-scale heralds of the movement are the oft-maligned Facebook games. Obviously the player-base was much wider than the gaming community, and as a result the profits to be made were much more attractive. This is the same case with the ur-game of mobile "free-to-play" Candy Crush, which was born from taking a simple game concept that is familiar to many, and finding a way to monetize it. It might seem arbitrary, but there is a very specific divide in what feels okay, and what feels exploitative to me with regard to free to play.
…games shouldn't be a game-like veneer for a money-generating Skinner Box. Players are consumers, not test subjects.
Intent is what matters. If the entire game itself exists only to train users to create a habit-forming addiction to the game, that feels evil. Obviously games need to make a profit to be able to self-support. It’s not wrong at all to try to be paid for your work, nor is that something you should have to defend. That being said, games shouldn't be a game-like veneer for a money-generating Skinner Box. Players are consumers, not test subjects. So there's the line I draw. If you happen to make a game where you offer some things for free, but others are pay-gated, that is totally your prerogative. If you offer a different play experience to users in exchange for money, that's where it can get muddy. There are some shining luminaries in the field of doing free-to-play right. Team Fortress 2, often joked about for the copious hats, is the kind of game where I paid for it when it wasn't free, and then proceeded to spend even more money later on new weapons. I probably paid more AFTER it was free than I did to buy it. Am I mad about it? Hell no. I'm the one who was impatient and knew exactly what weapons I wanted to play with. I did the math, saw how long it might take to randomly drop, and realized it was worth $2 to not wait weeks for something. They didn't condition me to need that, I just wanted it because it seemed fun. No amount of anything I ever bought in TF2 ever made me any better at it. Some weapons fit my play style better, but I continued to be roflstomped regularly by more dedicated TF2 players.
I realize that there is a whole other topic that's not getting addressed here, which is Pay to Win. Le's save that one for later, there's a lot of meat on that bone, and it would be a shame to make that more of an afterthought in a post.
How do you feel about free to play? Do you ever spend money on in-game purchases? I'm curious to know how you feel when you realize a game may or may not be designed to make you behave in a way that the creator wanted. Voice your thoughts in the comments!
[P.S. On the topic of free to play games, we've been getting some hands on time with the Everquest Next:Landmark Alpha. SOE is a brave company to be showing the world the innards of their game, but I'm happy to report that it's pretty damn cool.]