As suggested by the title, I’ve decided to seriously ponder this question:
Does any fair and honest Free-to-Play model currently exist?
That’s because I’ve tried several free to play games lately, after having been quite detached from that side of the market in the last two years.
So I’ve decided to try a few MMORPGs, Shooters and MOBA’s. Most likely this remission to a younger version of myself, one who stayed up until 5AM with a Coke bottle and a mug of coffee on hand, in games like Dungeon and Dragons, Mu Online or Silk Road, is due to one fact: Increasingly often, people complain that the free-to-play model is unfair, that it exploits players and encourages them to buy game items in order to win a match.
Essentially, I took a look at a few recent headliners as well as some older games that aged well, such as Dirty Bomb, League of Legends, Dota 2 and Warframe. These games are currently extremely popular, with extremely large player bases. I deliberately omitted titles like War of the Rosses and other titles that have started out with an official, paid launch version and only then switched to free-to-play.
One of the least addressed issues is the difference between free-to-play mobile games and free-to-play games on any other kind of platform.
Mobile gaming is still a Wild West full of less-than orthodox practices. The PC and Console markets have grown out of this, with educated and experienced gamers being cautious against such tactics, although console users seem to have become convinced that they have to pay to play online or access Netflix, thus resulting in massive differences between Free-to-Play on PC’s vs Consoles.
When someone complains of a free to play model, generally they’ll be talking about the mobile market. PC Gamers will very quickly abandon a game if a trust-fund kid purchased a few hundred dollars worth of gear and the unfair advantage that comes along with it.
On the other hand, those hundreds of dollars of gear are given to you in smaller installments, with the combined total ending up at similar levels, but paid off over the course of a year, under the umbrella of Season Passes. At risk of being Captain Obvious, that gear is a contextual analogue, not necessarily an object in itself. Items, DLC’s, skins, multiplayer access – anything is “fair game”.
Cutting back to the free-to-play model. Here, things are grim, because a lot of games, especially those of Korean origin, tend to introduce micro-transactions into almost any mechanic, even playtime has become part and parcel of the slaughter, forcing players to play only X hours, and then either wait for the timer to recharge or pay up. Over the years this system has been disguised as a limited life or respawn-points system, but that is another thing. PC’s and Consoles have their own defective free-to-play models.
However, is there any Utopian parallel universe in which a functional, fair and honest free-to-play model exists? Apparently we live in one.
Games like League of Legends, Dota 2, Warframe or Dirty Bomb practice it now. All offer a solid foundation on which a solid gaming experience is based, they don’t bottleneck the player artificially, they allow the player to play and win in-game currency, cash or points they can use to purchase new characters, weapons or other in-game products.
That it may take you hundreds of others to grind a particularly popular skin or weapon is another thing. But you have the option to get anything essential for free, while in the meantime experiencing the game and learning to explore every nook and cranny. Meanwhile, the real cash is usually spent by loyal players on cosmetic features, or the occasional character or weapon bundle.
Actually, this kind of free to play model should be encouraged, with League of Legends bringing it to popularity – though they didn’t pioneer it – by offering extensive character skin packs exclusively for real currency, while the champions, runes and rune pages could be purchased with in-game currency.
The player is thus more involved and invested in the game, rightfully recognizing that he is not being pressured to make a purchase, but instead considers the choice justified, as a reward to the developer for creating enjoyable content, and will probably give free publicity by word-of-mouth (or facebook shares). That sense of belonging to the Free to Play games is quite recent in appearance.
When we discuss players of Dota 2, League of Legends, Warframe or Dirty Bomb, the communities are so tight-knit partially because they have experimented the games ever since beta development, and in so doing have developed an attachment to the game.
By contrast, if you buy some 3-figure in-game armor in the first weeks of some Pay2Win game, or some laser-firing gun that won’t miss even a pet, you’ll get bored of the game very very fast.
The player checking every bush and corner is the most involved, because some strategy that won him a match also got him a cool Weapon X. Or Armor Y in a second game, or Card Z in yet another.
Memories and feelings of achievement are bound together by symbolism, and this builds communities, which we may sometimes downright call armies.
Lately I’m seeing violent Reddit clashes between League of Legends and Dota 2 players, in the comments sections of YouTube clips and so on. Because they are dedicated fans. Dedicated fans who have been won by a fair free to play system, by sanded and well-polished games that offer diversity and simplicity at the same time, but mostly, fans that were won over without overly aggressive marketing schemes.
When you build a model of micro-transactions that allows the player honestly appreciate your work, you do risk taking a few blows at first, but if you separate the wheat from the chaff and make use of constructive criticism, then you earn the right to have fans.
That’s because a company prepared to learn from its mistakes, is a company made by gamers for gamers. Not by guys in 4-figure suits sitting in his office seeing the users as statistics.
But eventually, there has to be a market for everyone, right? The guy in the suit as well as gamers like us, who want to see a solid Free-to-Play concept, from time to time.
What’s your opinion? Please do share it with us in the comments section, or on our Facebook, Twitter or Google+ Page.