Free-to-Play Games, Here to Stay

Free-to-play (aka F2P) gaming has been around for almost 20 years, and it’s clear that it’s here to stay. By now many categories of monetization have been firmly established. There was a time when free-to-play games were synonymous with shallow games with super sleazy money-making tactics, and the various app stores are still littered with thousands of such games. But even though you could avoid free-to-play games completely, doing so would be missing out on many games that are actually worthwhile.

The gentlemen of the manor have teamed up to discuss the good, bad, and the ugly of free-to-play games, and pick out a few games you should definitely check out, as well as those you should avoid at all costs (literally!). We’ve discussed the games by monetization type, although keep in mind that many games adopt multiple monetization types.

Free to play, but pay to unlock more content

Professor GreilMercs: “Shareware” was a term for games released in the early days of computer games that basically amounts to a demo and you pay to unlock the rest of the game or additional levels. A number of modern games have adopted this strategy, although Nintendo in particular got a lot of flak for releasing Super Mario Run this way.

Lucius P. Merriweather: But I loved Super Mario Run! Although Nintendo definitely didn’t make enough of the game free to play at the start. I probably wouldn’t have gone on to pay for the full game based on those three short levels unless I’d read the glowing reviews. I guess that’s the dilemma with this model – how much of the game do you give away for free?

PGM: I’m okay with paying for extra levels in general (although Super Mario Run took it to an extreme), and in some cases the extra content is more like DLC to a full release of a game. But for me, with a lot of free-to-play games like this that I’ve tried, by the time I get to the end of the free levels I’ve had enough since the games tend to be pretty shallow.

Another variation is to release the first game in a series for free, with the hope that you’ll get hooked and you’ll buy the sequels. In particular, there have been a lot of games that have adopted a TV-like approach where the game is broken up into chunks and released as “episodes”, and making the first episode free seems like a reasonable way to draw people in. The adventure game Life is Strange is a good example of this and has gotten a lot of good reviews, although I haven’t played it myself yet.

LPM: Ghost Trick was an excellent game that went with this type of model , and which I’d thoroughly recommend [although it was also released on DS as a complete game].

PGM: League of Legends, which I’ve played a bit of, also has a similar setup. They rotate free characters and you can play with them as much as  you want within that specific time period, but you have to pay to keep one permanently. This seems smart and fair, since that lets you try out all the characters before committing to one in particular.

Free to play, but so many !@#$ ads!

PGM: Most of the games that adopt this strategy are pretty shallow, but I have played and enjoyed free versions of the various Cut the Rope games that presumably make their money from the ads or inviting friends to try it (although that mechanic seems to be less common these days). The gameplay is simple but fun (swipe or touch various parts of the stage in order to get candies into the mouth of the cute green monster), and the ads aren’t too intrusive.

LPM: Yeah, this one seems fairly innocuous to me. Many games that feature ads have an option to pay to remove them, a bit like Spotify. Really Bad Chess, described as “chess with totally random pieces”, was an excellent game from last year that went with the pay-to-remove-ads option, and I happily stumped up the paltry amount of cash to get rid of them. I find it difficult to argue with this kind of model; the game is free, so the developers have access to a huge audience but still make cash from the ads. But if you find them too irritating, it’s usually pretty cheap to get rid of them. Win/win, I reckon.

Free to play, but pay for unique items or gear

PGM: In the earlier days of free-to-play games, it seems like a lot of games fully embraced “pay to win” mechanics, i.e. pay for the best weapons, armor, etc. Nowadays, probably due to strong negative feedback of pay-to-win mechanics, developers avoid such grubby monetization, or at least make it much less obvious. Instead they focus on selling unique but not overpowered gear, which oftentimes have purely cosmetic differences such as alternate costumes.

LPM: These types of games can suck you into a money-draining black hole, where you can only really progress by investing in the latest gear. But it looks like developers have generally realised how unpopular this model is with players, and lots of modern games just offer purely cosmetic items for sale to avoid ruining the balance of the game. Buying new skins in Overwatch is a good example. If people want to buy fancy hats, then let them – just don’t let them buy a massively overpowered gun.

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PGM: This type of monetization seems like a happy medium to me, as long as the items for sale are purely cosmetic or don’t give a significant advantage.

Baron Richenbaum Fotchenstein: I’m told that Path of Exile is one of a small group of benign F2P games that only offer entirely optional cosmetic items for purchase, but I have yet to try it out for myself.

Free to play, but pay to progress more quickly

PGM: Another way game developers have incorporated monetization is to only let you play for  limited amounts of time each day unless you pay up, or have you pay for items that you could earn by playing for free, but at a much slower rate.

A lot of great Nintendo games, such as the Animal Crossing series and the Brain Age games, had gotten me acclimated to the idea of only playing games for a few minutes per session, so I was well prepared for slower-paced games such as Neko Atsume and Pokemon Go when they rolled around. I was addicted to Neko Atsume, a game in which you buy objects in the in-game shop to put in your yard to attract cats, for a while. But since the game has such a leisurely pace to begin with (and the cats you attract are based largely on luck), I never felt any need to pay any real world money.

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Similarly, Pokemon Go is fun and also a game designed to be played over a long span of time. Living in a city it’s easy for me to stock up on Pokemon Balls and other items for free by visiting PokeStops, but the one item that would speed things along but that you have to buy is the incubator. Incubators let you hatch Pokemon eggs after walking a certain distance in the real world. The game gives you one incubator with infinite uses, but being able to incubate many eggs at once to hatch rarer or more powerful Pokemon is a little tempting.

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There are a number of other Pokemon games that have been released that take the “pay to continue playing” monetization to more distasteful levels. Pokemon Shuffle is a match-three game in which you catch Pokemon, and basically the Pokemon Company’s version of the Candy Crush games. Like those games you’re given a number of free plays that slowly recharge over real-world time. The gameplay is so luck-based and includes so many Pokemon that are only available for a limited time (including what seems like hundreds of variations of Pokemon, like a Pikachu with a hat or whatever) that it’s impossible to “collect ‘em all” without ponying up money on a regular basis. Although I got hooked on the game for a while when it first came out, this was one I was happy to abandon.

Alexander Connington: I’m ashamed to say that I’m an avid player of Puzzle & Dragons, better known as PAD, a mobile game that falls into this category. The game itself is both free to play and quite casual – just a simple match-the-colors puzzle game at its core that only takes a few minutes out of my day to play. However, you can also roll for “eggs” that contain new monsters with special skills that affect the board in various ways, and I’m convinced that this feature has caused players to go bankrupt, because rolls require that the player spend “magic stones.” These stones can be earned through playing the game and are even given away all the time, but extra stones can also be bought with real money. And the nature of the game is such that some players, popularly known as “whales”, spend ridiculous amounts of money on stones to chase after rare monsters.  

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It’s entirely possible to play PAD without spending a dime – I’ve done so myself – but the developers of this game know exactly what they’re doing, and I’m positive they wring an enormous amount of money out of their player base every month. If you have an addictive personality, don’t get within ten miles of this game.

BRF: I used to play Marvel Puzzle Quest, which is basically the exact same game as the one Alexander just described, just with different art, and it seems like there are quite a few variations of this exact same money-trap. My assessment is much the same, that these particular types of free to play games are very meticulously designed to herd the player towards spending money at every possible opportunity. While you can get some free play out of it, you will always hit that wall eventually, where the need for various in-game resources just keeps rising and rising and you just cannot possibly keep up with it and remain a free player at the same time. Once you’ve convinced yourself it’s okay to spend money on something like this once, it almost certainly won’t be the last time, and that’s what these companies are praying for.

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I started out as an entirely free player myself, then found that eventually you need to get in a guild (or alliances as they were called in MPQ) if you want to keep going, and we all kept telling ourselves “we don’t need to spend any money on this. It’ll be fine!”, but we all ended up doing it eventually. I stuck around for so long that I actually ended up taking over the group and things just got more and more complicated from there, to the point that I started re-arranging my schedule so I could make it to the end of important puzzle events in time. I finally realized how ridiculous it was that I was spending so much time, effort, and stress on a silly phone game that essentially just has you running in place for eternity under the illusion that you’re making some kind of progress, and quit before I became one of those dreaded whales myself.

And man, Alexander isn’t kidding at all about those whales. It can become basically like a full-on gambling addiction to some people. I talked to people that were spending literally HUNDREDS of dollars PER WEEK to maintain their perpetual status as one of the top groups in the game. This is not healthy behavior and companies that run these kinds of games are specifically targeting these people, which looking back on it all, is really pretty damn disgusting.

LPM: I must admit, I was pretty sceptical of Pokemon Shuffle and its slowly recharging hearts when it first arrived. Paying to play for more than 15 minutes or so at a time or stumping up for powerful, game-breaking power-ups seemed a particularly egregious form of free to play – why not let me just buy the damn game and play as much as I want?

However, the game dropped at about the same time my son was born, and it turned out to be the perfect short-break gaming experience at a time when the idea of hours-long gaming sessions was but a distant memory. I would happily drop in and play for a few minutes during breaks between crying/nappy-changing/more crying, and I progressed pretty far.

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In the end though, I came up against that brick wall so frequently encountered in these types of game – the point where it becomes too hard to progress for free, and paid-for power ups became pretty much essential. I put it down at that point, but that’s also the point where the “whales” would keep going – and the idea that a game’s model relies on small numbers of individuals paying huge amounts of cash is pretty distasteful. It’s essentially targeting the people who enjoy your game the most and rinsing them down for all they’re worth.

Free to start, but subscriptions required

PGM: In my mind committing to a game that requires a subscription is almost like deciding to get married: once committed, you’ve invested so much into it that abandoning it would be unthinkable. I’ve been so commitment averse that I haven’t gotten into any games that require subscriptions, especially since a large chunk of games of this genre are MMOs and I prefer to play solo in general. If I had a regular group of gaming buddies I could see myself getting into MMOs, but haven’t thus far.

BRF: I’m generally a solo-only player too, but back in the day some friends talked me into trying World of Warcraft and whoaaaaaa into the downward spiral of MMO disappointment I went! They’re actually really fun if you do happen to know people to team up with, but in my case, all my friends would end up quitting until I was the last one remaining, and then I’d just be stuck there alone. I’d try to carry on with strangers, but it was never the same. I actually went through this same cycle through several more games after that, from Dungeons & Dragons Online to Lord of the Rings Online to Age of Conan and finally Warhammer Online, where I finally had enough of the cycle of disappointment and swore them off forever. Personally, I came to think of these games as temporarily fun, but ultimately disappointing time sinks. I have to give them credit for offering a lot more content and variety for your money than you get for dumping the same into some soul-sucking match-three phone game though.

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Percival Smythe-Pipton: My experience of F2P has been pretty much contained to MMOs, with the occasional exception of the odd iPhone app and browser-based time waste. In games whose very point is to create an expansive and immersive environment, the concept of advertising is something that doesn’t really sit well; after all, no one wants their foray into a top-end dungeon interrupted by a pop-up for Wonga. With my choice of games having started with the classic pay-to-play model followed by subscription (a la World of Warcraft), the others have moved to F2P with a couple doing it fairly soon after release. The reason for this conversion is usually along the lines of, “We want to reach a wider audience”, which in translation means, “No one wants to pay.” After all, there aren’t a great many people who’ll shell out £40-odd on a game only to pay a tenner a month to keep it running.

The seemingly unique exception to this rule is the the pervasive World of Warcraft, which at its height had a subscription base of over 12 million Azeroth-loving souls. That’s an awful lot of tenners per month. Still, even this mighty bastion of gaming has taken a hit in this area, with the most recent figures from creator Blizzard giving the numbers at somewhere around 5.5 million. Since this announcement in 2015, Blizzard have stopped making them, but estimates from around the interwebs give the current total at about 4-5 million, which is still very respectable by itself, let alone adding the fact that that’s millions of people paying every month.

People moan, and lord they do moan, about WoW as a model and how much they hate Blizzard, wishing upon them boils, locusts, and the common cold. And yet it’s almost completely microtransaction fee. I mean, if you must have that one fancy mount, or that shiny new pet, then you can pay a little bit of money and it’s worth noting that said little bit of money often goes on to charity. With your sub comes the fact that nearly everything is achievable in game: every item, every mount, every weapon, all of it. Sure some are restricted to certain events etc. but the point is you don’t have to pay any additional fees, and when you consider that a measly amount of tokens or gems or whatever in another game can start at around £4.99 per pack, this is actually a pretty nice deal in my opinion.

Have fun, but don’t be a whale! 

BRF: It seems that it is possible to be free-to-play without being a soul-sucking pit of despair. I think that the best thing is for players to do some research before jumping into any of these games so you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into before it’s too late.

PGM: I definitely agree. Despite all the negative experiences we’ve described, there are still plenty of worthwhile free-to-play experiences to be had, especially if you take the time to do a bit of homework beforehand. One of the key points is to always remember that these game developers are in this business to make money, so if you can see yourself getting addicted to a game and getting roped into spending large sums of money on a regular basis and not being able to let go, you should definitely avoid games that are pay to win. Be on the watch for the warning signs of greedy mechanics that are clearly designed to make money, and read reviews and user comments about games you’re interested in before committing, especially for games that require regular payments to stay current. Have fun, but make sure that your free-to-play experience doesn’t leave your wallet hurting!

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