The free-to-play (or f2p, or freemium, as may suit your fancy) business model has been kicking around the gaming industry for a number of years, but it has never before achieved the level of prominence it enjoys today, and its influence only seems to be trending upward. Major titles including DotA 2, League of Legends, Team Fortress 2, Hawken, MapleStory (whose enduring success over the past several years can probably be considered the f2p gold standard) and the recently f2p-converted Star Wars: The Old Republic and Everquest have all experience varying levels of success by going f2p. While the (admittedly situational-based) financial viability of the model will keep it afloat in gaming for years to come, especially in the MMO genre, there remains a core group of gamers fundamentally opposed to this growing trend. Why? Let’s take a look.
IGN’s Justin Davis explored this issue a few weeks ago, observing that simple perception plays a significant role in contributing to the negativity some perceive around the f2p model, and the notion certainly has merit. For one, f2p is the OCD gamer’s nightmare. Many players like the certainty that comes with the finality of owning a piece of $60 software, and enjoy the fact that what they achieve and find within their game, they will have earned. There are no doubts creeping in and around the edges of their minds; no second-guessing, no thoughts of “if I spend $5 more to upgrade my battlehammer, I’ll be able to handle the next bossfight in an hour rather than six” or “if I don’t spend money gearing up, I’m going to get my ass kicked online by gamers who spent hundreds of dollars on microtransactions.”
Relating to perception is the thought that f2p elements such as Real Money Auction Houses are an example of nickel-and-diming gamers, especially when they are used in conjunction with traditional pricing models. Diablo III is the poster child for this perspective, as after the game’s first few months of critical and customer acclaim passed by and a true sense of the game’s long-term economy became realized, the Diablo community became split right down the middle. Many gamers felt the presence of a Real Money Auction House—in which developer Blizzard Entertainment took a cut of every microtransaction made—tainted and cheapened the gaming experience, as the mere presence of the RMAH weakened the in-game gold economy, creating the fundamental problem that f2p gamers face: grind it out for eight hours to gather 10 million in gold, or pay $5, $20, or $250 to save your time and move on. The main issue here was that Diablo III created an f2p mentality for a game that was never f2p to begin with, nor had gamers any cause to perceive it as such when it came attached with a $60 price tag. This quickly disenchanted no small amount of franchise fans, and for many, soured their perception of Blizzard, as well.
There is also a general apprehension surrounding the heightened presence of Day 1 DLCs because of this strategy’s similar mix-and-match approach between f2p and pay models. An ever-increasing number of first day, first month, and first year DLCs has elevated the suspicion of those who argue that DLCs, especially those launched close to a game’s initial release date, are just a way to hold back pieces of a complete game in order to charge gamers more money. While DLCs still, for the most part, fall under traditional pay structure, there is potential for the lines to blur, which is an ominous thought.
Finally, there is the issue of game balance. While some games have f2p game balance down to a science, others... well, others do not. Punch Quest’s biggest failing was offering too much for free; however, most games skew in the other direction. While one of the goals of the business model is, of course, to set up the classic f2p choice between hours of time vs. a small out-of-pocket expense which then repeats over and over and over, some developers become overprotective of their content and use cheap artificial barriers to shoehorn players into this decision. When this happens inorganically, navigating a f2p game becomes virtually impossible, and worse from an industry perspective, tedious, which can color the reputation of a developer for quite some time. Another prevalent factor is how developers deal with equalizing in-game power between paying players and free players. Maintaining a fair pay:play ratio can be difficult; paying players need to be rewarded, but not at the expense of being placed head-and-shoulders ahead of free casual players. Balance issues also tend to foster gamer suspicion and paranoia, especially in the aforementioned games that tend to mix-and-match pay models—conspiracy theories regarding item drop rates and game economies begin to make the rounds, further affecting developer perception. The success and reputation of a f2p game, or a game that possesses f2p elements, hinges on community trust, which can be a tricky balance to maintain.
The f2p model has one undeniable strength, and that is its ability to resurrect (and in many cases, maintain) general interest in franchises thought to be on the verge of death. Everquest’s f2p transition generated a massive increase in account creation and accordingly, brand awareness, and Star Wars: The Old Republic has reportedly found some success in its transition to f2p as well. Other franchises, like MapleStory, DotA, LoL, and TF succeed through community goodwill and fantastic game balance. There are certainly merits to a successfully implemented f2p model—which is a good thing, as the model is here to stay.
And so we wish to turn it over to you, Dear Reader. What have your experiences been with f2p games in the past? Do you still play any? What are your thoughts? Let us know below.
In other gaming news this week, Valve accidentally confirms Left 4 Dead 3, Neil Gaiman enters the gaming realm, the Elder Scrolls Online bounces back, and whispers emerge of Red Dead Redemption 2. Read on!
- It appears Valve may have unintentionally confirmed the existence of their next project: Left 4 Dead 3. Whoops... and hooray! Also, you can announce Half-Life 3 any day now, Valve. Any day...
- Here’s something cool. If you own an Oculus Rift, you can go visit Mars. Virtually, at least. NASA has created a VR simulation for the OR that enables users to virtually experience traversing the terrain of the Red Planet.
- Nevermore let it be said that video games are a waste of time. Mario Kart saves lives, people.
- Neil Gaiman is taking the video game plunge for the first time with the upcoming Wayward Manor. The Gaiman-penned game is set in a 1920s Victorian Gothic estate, and situates the player as a ghost attempting to find innovative ways to scare off a pack of unwelcome guests.
- When Elder Scrolls Online was first announced, it was met with a healthy dose of skepticism, and the early teaser trailers did it no favors. However, according to IGN, the game has come a long, long way in a few short months and could very well be the worthy Skyrim sequel we’re all waiting for.
- Did you beat The Last of Us? Consider what might have been... (Warning: here there be spoilers.)
- Finally, a potential sequel to one of our favorite games of all-time? Oh. Hell. Yes. We’ve got all the time in the world for any news that hints at a Red Dead Redemption sequel.