The Free-to-Play Gaming Evolution

Games have come a long way since when they cost $80 and came in cardboard boxes with terrible cover art. The mechanism of funding (Kickstarter), the development process (ranging from tiny one-person indie shops to global studios), the medium (disc to download to app to web), and their business models all have evolved rapidly over the past 3-4 years.

But I want to focus on the free-to-play model, which has touched so many gaming mediums – from console to PC to Facebook to mobile – and whose implementation ranges from relatively benign to malevolently deceptive. It grew in popularity in the last few years[1] as an alternative model to the buy-and-play standard; free has been an attractive technique to get users for a long time, but it was with Facebook games where that resistance-to-pay barrier finally shattered. Now more than ever, we’re seeing both indie and big-budget games embrace “free – at first.”

Of the many ways these games ask for money, there are a few broad categories. From the most player-friendly to the least:

  • Pay for flair. If the core game is good enough and its community passionate enough, adding paid skins or decals or avatars can prompt some players to fork over a few dollars. Famously, Team Fortress 2 became F2P on the account of its hats.
  • Pay for more. This is effectively using the free game as a demo, and after giving the player a taste, putting a paywall behind additional functionality or new levels. Of course, conversion from free to paying customers still relies on the strength of the gameplay. Letterpress is a great example of paying to unlock additional functionality.
  • Pay for skill. I wanted to separate out the rare occurrence of designing and balancing a game where if the player doesn’t have quite the skill level to make progress, they have the option of paying to continue on. Usually, this means throwing down a few dollars for consumables or additional resources that’d ease the gameplay; Jet Pack Joyride is a great game that sold an optional but useful coin doubler to ease upgrades.
  • Pay for time. These games employ timers to entice players to speed up their gameplay and get “just another turn” by throwing down a few dollars. It has proven to be a lucrative business model, studied in-depth and producing designs that are less game and more addiction. The vast majority of Facebook games use this model, so picking one at random…Simcity Social.
  • Pay for theoretical skill. Sadly, it’s possible and even common to take skill-based payments a few steps too far. There are a class of games that are designed to seem like a good player can make good progress, but have inherent constraints or add unfair difficulty spikes. The insidious part of this business model is that it’s kind of a bait-and-switch; it gives the player the impression that they can get through the game, if only they were good enough, but of course that’s an unrealistic outcome. Dungeon Hunter 4 is one recent game guilty of imbalanced resources.

Most reasonable people understand that game development costs money and game developers and publishers deserve to be compensated for their hard work. Leading with “free” gives game designers freedom to experiment with ideas that most players wouldn’t pay for off the bat, but it has also given rise to anti-game-design patterns that suck players into a loop of continuous payment for progress. I still think the maturation of the F2P model is a net positive, but we’ll likely have to work through all its shady depths before settling on a fair and sustainable system of paying for our games.

Footnotes    (↑ returns to text)
  1. Beyond Asian countries anyway; free-to-play has been a staple in Asia, where piracy rates are high and gamers have been known to be completely addicted to games.
  • Loïc

    As a consume, i prefer the Demo+paid game. I don’t like hidden costs, or pay-to-play, and as such, i often never try “free” games.

    On the contrary, i’m quite happy to try out demos, and if i like the game enough, to buy it, for 3 to 10 dollars.

    • http://allenc.com Allen Cheung

      Agreed – it seems like pay-to-play games do make more, which is why so many companies are preferring them nowadays.