[Disclaimer: The Friday Night Rant is just that, a rant. It contains extemporaneous remarks which are not to be confused with this site’s journalism or editorial opinions. It is meant to be an entertaining take on the industry and may be divisive in nature.]
What do you think when you hear “free to play”? Do you think “Yay, a free game where I don’t have to pay for any extras I don’t want!”? Or maybe you just cringe like me.
You should cringe. If people want to chime in and give props to those who use the model well like with Team Fortress 2 that’s fine, but in general I see the practice as poisonous. You can take the “it’s a business” argument and leave town with it, I’m strictly ranting about the problems for us gamers.
Have you ever noticed that after people buy a game they will often defend it to their dying breath even if a whole pile of horrible review scores fall on top of it? We do that because we are hard wired not to admit to ourselves that we were wrong or that we had bad judgment during the whole time we followed the lead up to the release and built an opinion. If the game is actually bad then we were mistaken about something and that doesn’t compute. If we bought the game on a whim and knew little about it it’s easier to dismiss as a bad buy. So just because we chose it and invested ourselves emotionally in it, it has value and we score it a little higher in our own head than we normally would if it had been borrowed or free.
This concept applies to the F2P model on a number of fronts. In an MMO the people who either payed for the game before it transferred payment models or the ones who have invested a great deal of money in the game assign a higher value to it. When they do this it causes them to take the experience more seriously and rely on it more for full gaming experience than someone who has invested no money into it. The free player has nothing invested and often intends to invest nothing or little, so the game becomes a novelty. It is a virtual world in which to screw around and behave foolishly rather than a second home where relationships matter and fantasies are lived out through dedication. It may be difficult to pretend you are a superhero or supervillain when there are six people dressing and behaving like they are at a fraternity Halloween party.
While a flood of idiots is detrimental to the committed players, the seriously interested free player also runs into problems. With the free, bare bones product on their hard drive the free player immediately becomes aware that he or she is undervalued. Their participation in the game, no matter how dedicated or helpful, is limited by how much money they are able to spend on it. If they are only able to spend some money (and this may well be the case or they would be buying expensive games) then they need to put in extra time, a lot of extra time, in order to get to where others can get by flashing some cash around. Why would anyone want to participate in a system that views them as a second or third class citizen? And if they do, then why shouldn’t they run amok like knuckleheads disturbing the more determined players? .
For the most part F2P is a tactic used in MMOs, but the practice can be lucrative so it is starting to invade other games. Recently we saw some fighters like Dead Or Alive and Soul Calibur embrace the terrifying scheme. For DOA5 you get a handful of fighters and a couple of modes, sans-story, including online. You get to fight with the full roster of characters with all their regalia just so you know what you’re missing, and the free folks are welcome to mix with those who bought the game.
The problem? It’s a scam. If you want to have what the people who bought the game have you have to pay a lot more. That horror happens incrementally though, so it’s a slow motion car crash. Once you have bought a couple of things it would seem a waste to go out and get the full retail version so you keep upgrading. What will happen when the online players who see a F2P game as having no value are using the same four characters? Who knows, but it probably won’t be good.
So what? You can still get your retail version and enjoy it, no sweat off your back right? Free to play opens it up for special content that isn’t available, making your full retail purchase less valuable. Now you must never mind the fact that you put your money where your mouth was on day one, if you want the whole experience you must also get the bits and pieces of the free version together and create the right Frankenstein while your disc collects dust.
The bigger thing at stake I think is the potential for single player only games to adopt this model. We used to have shareware, which was the first few levels, then you bought the rest in episodes. It was actually a pretty cool model, and is the same as F2P in a way, but things are different now. Now we have seen the depths of greed that publishers will go to to reach into our wallets. Those depths are dark and without end. We now have pay to win or just pay to do better along with pay to save time.
I believe that when these carrots are at the end of the stick of free to play the temptation to microtransact us to death is just too much. Look how that went over in Dead Space 3. A free to play game suddenly doesn’t need to have the same quality we are accustomed to, it doesn’t have to debut as a cohesive experience, it doesn’t have to be complete, hell it doesn’t even have to have an end! Do I need to remind anyone what it was like to have the end of FFXIII-2 sold as DLC? Now imagine they did that with a good game. Now think of that but imagine that every few months they just keep adding to the story with more content. What is the value of a game that begins free but charges you more and more for a story that the developers have absolutely no motivation to end?
There has been a lot of hullabaloo over whether or not games are art but I think we can all agree that they are part art and part commercial entertainment property. Free to play begins from a place of brokenness and then adds layers that attempt to add both monetary and personal value on top of what a product that has been asserted by its own creators to be worthless. The goal of making any game with this model in mind is then to simply add as many things as possible that can be charged for. This removes the art portion, which is what I like the most.