In recent times a trend is forming in the gaming industry, a trend that, if implemented as it should be, I think is really beneficial to the consumer. That trend is to implement a free to play – or freemium – business model.
The concept, for those of you unfamiliar, is that a developer makes a game available to download for free and the gamer/consumer can spend money purchasing in-game content. As I say if this is done correctly then both sides of the table are rewarded, the consumer gets said game for nothing and, if they like it, they can show the dev some love by giving some money via a micro-transaction. This way the dev gets some appreciation as well as that all important injection of cash to pour into their next project, as far as we the humble gamer are concerned we get a game gratis and technically ‘donate’ what we want to the dev. A feeling of joy toward the developer should usually ensue and thus make us more likely to get other games from them.
I am not just talking theoretically here either, a few games I have played using this model have done it pretty damn well. As mentioned on our inaugural podcast Lord of the Rings Online uses this model in a nice way, giving the frugal player access to a fair amount of content for free whilst letting them purchase extra story-lines if so desired, but if not then the tight stringed gamer can progress to the end-game content without loosening the old coin-purse.
Similarly Valve’s Team Fortress 2 on the PC is also free to play and applies the model with style, offering a bona-fide multiplayer, in fact in their words “the entire game can be played without making a purchase. All game modes, classes, and maps are available. Nearly every weapon is available through achievements, drops, or crafting.” If you, like millions of others, have a penchant for hats (yes hats are big business in TF2) then you can buy as many as you like on the Mann Co. Store.
The PS3’s Dust 514 is another example of a game that is free to play. You can play this game perfectly fine without spending a penny, earning credits the hard way by shooting clones and buying your upgrades that way, or if you fancy parting with your hard-earned IRL moon bucks then you can buy items and boosters in-store no problem.
These games, in my opinion, are all good specimens of the free to play paradigm in the fact that they let you play unhindered and purchases are purely optional. Of course as with every idea there are those who look to exploit and pervert the whole concept. Case in point is Dead Space 3….Whats that? Yes I do know this is a triple A title and not F2P at all, and that’s my point, micro transactions, in my opinion, really should be the reserve of games that need to make money in this manner and this manner alone. The element of micro-transactions should not really be part of a game that the average Jo-Schmo has already paid out a chunk money for. Sure , the nature of these micro-transactions do not prohibit the player from progressing through the title, but it’s more the shady nature of the system to which I object. Like a man with a large overcoat approaching you to reveal shiny knock-off watches attached to the lining, even though you have a perfectly good watch already, the temptation is there to pick up a ‘bargain’.
Now I am not saying the gaming public are powerless to the whispers of in-game micro-transactions, quite the opposite in fact. Take Star Wars – The Old Republic, the most expensive game ever made which became the fastest growing MMO ever, it promised so much but ultimately shed subscribers due to a massive deficit in servers during and after launch and invalid preorder codes for a fair share of disgruntled customers. So given its rocky start, in their wisdom Bioware decided that just under a year after release they would move from the classic subscription based model and make SWTOR free to play in order to garner more players. Well, this went down about as well as a dog shit martini, the move left those faithful players who had shelled out a ruck of cash on subscriptions and the purchase of the game prior to the switch shaken (not stirred) and ultimately alienated them. Then Bioware who seemed so intent on trying to kick themselves really bloody hard in the testicles totally cocked up the whole idea of free to play by making the game pretty much unplayable. Sure you can explore the Star Wars universe, except if you wanted to use a mount, chat to other players, have a hotbar for your skills, have any type of customer support or merely sprint etc, all of these features were only available on subscription (full list of subscription only features can be found in this article on forbes.com – it is ridiculously long). Really though, pay to sprint? To Sprint!?
My point being that, just like that martini I mentioned earlier, the concept no matter how pure can be leave a really bad taste in your mouth if you get the formula wrong. But when the model is applied correctly and does not restrict game play then the benefits for us as a consumer are evident and, as I have heard from a couple of readers, as long as we don’t give our kids our iPad to play on then can be a pretty inexpensive way to game.
I have been chewing this one over for a couple of weeks and the whole idea of free to play games has captured my imagination for some, I would love to here your thoughts on the subject matter, do you like the model or do you think that its merely a way fleecing the gamer. Share your experiences and thoughts in the comments. Oh and dont forget to check out the podcast! If you have an iPhone search “Teabag or Die” on iTunes, if you are a Droid user then download OneCast and get us that way, or just listen directly from the site. Thanks.
-The Quim Ninja