There’s that saying about things being too good to be true, and it’s something we’ve all been wary about at some point of another. Whether it’s hidden fees, contracts, or a free item with $54.99 shipping and handling, “If it’s too good to be true, it probably is” isn’t a bad motto to live by. However, a recent trend in game has proven that sometimes, free really is free, unless you want to be the best dressed kid on the block. The recent advent of the Free-To-Play market has led to some interesting development calls, some great games, and a lot of negative associations with the word “free.”
Free-To-Play games, often referred to as F2P, are just that: Free. You download the game, make an account through whatever platform the game goes through, and play. Simple as that. A lot of these games aren’t your “Candy Crush Saga” style Bejeweled rip-offs, either. There are a lot of very nice, almost triple-A quality games that you can pick up and play. Some of Steam’s most popular games, including Dota 2 and Team Fortress 2, have been free-to-play for quite a while now. It sounds like a great deal, yet even the notion of free-to-play is a very maligned term amongst some people.
The problem with the free-to-play system is much like a problem that arises with any system given enough time: someone will eventually take advantage of it. There are a number of games that have a notorious infamy when it comes to their business model. Star Wars: The Old Republic garnered a lot of negative attention for their piecemealing of most of the games later features into microtransactions, or small store purchases. A free account in Star Wars: The Old Republic lets you play through your main storyline and a vast majority of the side missions. And that’s about it. Looking at a comparison chart on their website, free accounts are somehow restricted with nearly every other aspect of the game, from available Auction House listings to available chat channels to even what kind of gear you can equip late-game. Any in-game purchase of $4.99 or higher bumps you to preferred status, which is a little less locked down, but still not great. The only way to play as much as you’d like and not worry about any sort of restrictions it to pay $14.99 every month for all the perks.
Nexon’s free-to-play shooter Combat Arms also has a bad reputation amongst the gaming community as well. Oftentimes called pay-to-win as opposed to free-to-play, Combat Arms has had notorious issues with game balance and overpriced items as a result. Basically, the game has literally hundreds of weapons to use, but of all the weapons in the game, you’ll only see maybe a dozen guns and their variants because of how overpowered they are in comparison. This is a problem the plagues Call of Duty, sure, but the difference between them is Call of Duty doesn’t charge you roughly $25 to $30 to keep your new gun permanently.
Needless to say, though, there are some positive example of free-to-play done right. Dota 2, one of the largest free-to-play games out there right now, gives you access to all 107 unique characters from the get go to play and experiment with. However, because all games have to make money somewhere, you can buy things like new match announcers, heads-up displays, and customizations items for your favorite heroes. Warframe, a cooperative shooter, introduced a trading system in the game a while back that basically allows you to get everything in the game through trading items for Platinum, the game’s cash currency. Guild Wars 2, a very large MMO, recently made the switch to free-to-play in anticipation of their new expansion next month. It has some restrictions on free, but it’s nothing like what can be seen in Star Wars: The Old Republic. Unrestricted access comes with a certain dollar amount spent on the game, or purchase of the new expansion.
The economics of game development is in a really interesting place. The Free-To-Play business model was initially thought to be an awful system for cheaply produced mobile games, but now it has evolved into a highly profitable, and common, way of making money. The bad gems do exist, sure, but that’s true with almost everything. Will every game be free at one point? No, not at all. But the landscape of that part of the market is slowly but surely becoming the landscape of the free.