The “free to play” space is a weird one. If you are charging a traditional monthly fee for something other than World of Warcraft you probably won’t be doing so for too much longer; your subscriber numbers inevitably dry up. Free to play games are nothing new, but with the rise of the iOS and Android marketplace games, there are more games using this model than ever before. Because of this flood, there is a wide range of quality throughout these games. In some cases the free to play model is used intelligently and is not obviously different from the full game. In many cases, these games offer useful bonuses for a reasonable price. Unfortunately, other games using this model all but force you to subscribe to a monthly fee or toss some change the developer’s way to have any fun in the game.
It all depends. It’s easy to lump all free to play games into one large group and shun them because you are a more “traditional hardcore gamer” who pays their $60 for a full price game (along with whatever you may spend on DLC.) Regrettably, by taking this course, you are limiting yourself and missing out on unique gaming experiences simply because you’re not opening your mind to new ideas and concepts. When it comes to these free to play games, properly criticizing them and their business model is a case by case scenario. I am less likely to put money towards a free to play game if it features in-app purchases (or other similar unlocks), because you can end up spending upwards of 100 dollars doing that. Even if I were to spend over $100 or more, I could still be missing out on content because it would seem that so much is hidden behind a pay wall. This idea is especially irksome if the developers consider $100 to be a reasonable price for an unlock pack. My personal experience with games using that model is that they are more of a money sink than an actual engaging and fun video game. This is not true in all cases, but certainly in some. In those instances, I’m also less likely to keep playing the game, as I have no interest in spending money on overpriced unlockable content. Worse still, many of the “full versions” of these games contain very little interesting gameplay. I am mostly referring to micro-transactions and in-app purchases, but everything I have written can also be applied to traditional monthly fee MMO subscriptions. Spending money in free to play games is perfectly fine and I will not stop you, but you know what The Notorious B.I.G always said, “mo money mo problems.”
You see, one thing that can drive me crazy (regardless of whether the free to play model is properly used or not) is the “other” currency. I’m talking about the in-game currency that is different from your actual money but, paradoxically, is also much more uncommon. This in-game currency often gives you access to much better content. The currency usually comes in the form of diamonds, special coins, or donuts if you are still playing that bloody Simpsons game (I’m sure your re-creation of Springfield is very nice or whatever.) This special currency requires more grinding to earn and is not unlocked as frequently as the normal game currency. The catch-22 is that this currency inevitably unlocks cooler gear, items to make the game more enjoyable, or just easier. In some cases, the special currency system is used well and doesn’t distract from the game. When that happens, the game can offer an excellent experience without distracting you from the bottom-line business going on in the background. It’s when the special currency system is poorly used that an ostensibly free to play game can become an absolute nightmare: Every menu you see in-game is advertising easy unlocks and cool bonus items you can only get with the special currency. And there are no options to unlock that content otherwise. That, my friends is when I turn the game off and walk away. If the gameplay grind is not good enough to be enjoyable, then the game fails in terms of its mechanics. But when the gameplay grind is not even good enough to unlock all the content, it is then that the game is an absolute mess.
My desire to see all the content unlocked through normal gameplay is at the heart of why it’s so important to be discriminating about free to play games. I need a relatively engaging game that allows me to access content the way I want. In that case, the experience is worth my time. I don’t want a generic first person shooter that gets better once I grind to unlock better gear or pay to have that equipment given to me instantly. The gameplay needs to be good enough to incentivize players to continue to play the game and potentially spend real money. The gameplay and the business fall apart as soon as players are allowed to pay for content that gives them an unfair advantage. You don’t see that as often anymore in competitive games, as developers and publishers have realized that an unbalanced and broken free to play game is actually worse than a broken and unbalanced $60 game. Therefore, you see it more commonly now in mobile games. The game’s difficulty will ratchet up to the point of insanity for no good reason other than a blatant attempt to sell you perks that would make that final level easier. In almost every one of those cases, I look at the hand the game has shown…and fold. I am almost never invested enough in a free to play game to ever feel the need to constantly play and discover every inch of the game. I believe a game like that could exist, and I feel like I speak for many when I say that I’d love to find a game that grips me despite being free to play.
Free to play games are getting better, not just in terms of gameplay but in terms of having a smarter business supporting the game. Be it indie titles or games with a bigger budget, more free to play games are coming out that are both fun and engaging and have a business model that doesn’t give you the feeling you need to sell your soul in order to gain a new set of armor. You can still find those games that seem like the evil Monopoly man put a gun to a developer’s heads until a functional but ultimately soul crushing game was farted out, but the nature of word of mouth, the best games usually rise to the top. As the consumer and the player you have more power over what free to play games survive more than almost any other type of game. There isn’t even anything to “kickstart” (at least not yet.) Because the barrier to entry is so low with an initial price of free, free to play games can capture a potentially larger audience, the trick is convincing that audience to stay. If you are sick of generic tower defense games for Android or iOS let them fade away as quick as they came. If a game comes along that sets up an interesting universe, offers fun and unique gameplay, or intrigues you in anyway, support the game. You don’t have to get a loan and show up at the developer’s office, sack with a dollar sign on it full of gold bars to pay for their operation and development costs. Simply playing the game, talking to community members on the forums, and providing useful feedback to the developers can go a long way. There are some great free to play games out there, but even free comes at a cost. You just need to find a game that is worth your time and potentially your money.