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Lamenting the Stigma of Free-to-Play

“So yeah, I’ve been playing this new game, it’s really fun, you should try it, it’s free!”

“No thanks, I’ll give it a miss.”

“What? Why? It’s free, all it’ll cost you is time and bandwidth just to try it.”

“Those games are always won by the kids with the richest parents.”

That’s paraphrased from a few different conversations I’ve had, but the general theme is always the same; if it’s free it can’t be any good and it can’t possibly be anything other than Pay-to-Win. The counterpoint I usually hold up at this stage is the wildly popular Team Fortress 2 from Valve. Already a cult hit, the game moved to a free-to-play model almost a year ago. All non-cosmetic items in the game can be earned without ever spending a penny, and Valve’s dedication to balance among the game’s items mean almost nothing will give you an advantage, anyway. Sounds good, right? You’d think others might have adopted this model for themselves. They have. Plenty have.

Dude riding a levitating dugong? Free.

Valve, despite their sterling reputation for it, didn’t even pioneer this concept. The earliest example I’m familiar with of Free-to-Play, Pay-for-Hats is League of Legends. As a game I’ve covered before, I’ll jump straight to the business model. There are 99 champions to choose from to play but on any given week only 10 are available. You can permanently unlock a champion with currency in-game or, if you so desire, with real money. Each champion also has a number of alternative outfits available, which you can purchase with real money, and there’s also a few extra non-essential metagame things you can buy to make your life easier. So there’s nothing that’s absolutely integral to the game that can’t be earned for free.

Spiral Knights, in spite of recent DLC controversy, initially launched using a very similar model two months prior to TF2’s transition. My own personal vice, Super Monday Night Combat, uses an almost identical model to League of Legends. In my recent review of Moon Breakers I noted that while the accessibility of free content could use some rebalancing, it’s still all available to those who would put in the time.

Jelly King? Totally free!

So, in the light of so many demonstrably fun and balanced titles, irrespective of whether you’ve flashed the plastic or not, why are gamers, broadly speaking, still so opposed to the idea that a free product can be a good product?

While League of Legends may have been arguably the first to “do it right” so to speak, it was by no means the first to use free-to-play as a business model. There’s a long history of MMOs marketed as free-to-play and these have historically run the gamut of downright awful through to merely mediocre. I’d be lying if I said I knew the reasoning behind this, but these games have broadly speaking been of Korean origin. Keen followers of MMO games will likely have heard the term “Korean grindfest” thrown around. These are the ones I mean. Bland, slow-paced, mostly centring around the “kill 10 boars” type of questing, with no real effort to engage the player’s interest. The principal selling point being that unlike the big hitters out there it won’t be setting you back up to £10 per month, it’s completely free to play! Once upon a time, this would have been a unique selling point, drawing in a crowd just for the chance to get something for free. Those who stuck with it would find themselves inclined to invest, with exp boosts available to minimise the grind and a whole armory at their disposal for the right amount of money. These are the titles deserving of the moniker Pay-to-Win. Drop some cash and your character can have a glinting mithramantium sword, or that shiny diamontanium armour, then go hop into a game with those less fortunate souls.

These guys? They're free too!

The times, though, they are distinctly a-changin’. Developers, as they are wont to do (indies particularly), have seen where the Koreans went wrong and built upon that formula to create something a lot more friendly to the end-user, especially those with little or no money to burn. For the consumer, however, it’s a case of “once bitten, twice shy” and a lot of consumers have been bitten. Those wounds are going to need some healing before we see any degree of success in this area. The best any of us can hope to do is give them a shot. At the risk of repeating myself here, it’s free! Worst case scenario, you don’t enjoy it, wasted some time, but at least you took the time to try something new. In the best case, though, you might find something you absolutely love, purely by accident because you were open to trying new things.



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