The Real Cost Of Free-To-Play
If the future of gaming is free, what are the issues the business model’s foremost developers are having to overcome?
We’ve all become jaded cynics, and it’s easy to see why. While society as a whole tumbles ever closer towards a permanent state of eye-rolling – one cleverly doctored image of a BBC news ticker at a time – it’s gamers in particular that are finding their trust egregiously chipped away by the machinations of the big publishers.
It’s hard to maintain your resolve in the face of faceless NPCs in Assassin’s Creed: Unity, of content torn from a game only to be fed back to us as pre-order bonuses and DLC or even of full-priced retail games that find themselves dulled by the inclusion of a quiet open-palm begging in the form of needless microtransactions.
Gamers are right to cast doubt over such blatant money-grabbing schemes, but such criticism comes with a fault. Now it’s become hard to find much positivity, with some even arguing the likes of CD Projekt Red’s lauded approach to post-release DLC – namely a guarantee of a ton of free extras, and a couple of expansion packs worth paying for – has been met with scepticism: was this nothing more than a positive PR stunt to boost consumer confidence, and therefore the initial sales to go with it? Perhaps so.
Free-to-play suffers a similarly unshifting stigma, but again it’s not without merit. These days we’re able to point to a number of free-to-play games where we’re not always being nickle and dimed out of our cash – the likes of Team Fortress 2, Hearthstone or the behemoth that is League Of Legends as quick examples – yet for all the positive proof that free-to-play games live up to the definition, there are considerably more examples otherwise. “It’s possibly not helped by the fact that on mobile free games are kind of ostensibly money-grabbing,” says Chris Wilson, lead developer on the popular Path Of Exile and one of the co-founders of its developer Grinding Gears Games.
“The scepticism these days seems to be related to the fact that you get a lot of free games that offer advantage for money,” he says. “They have to sell something so gameplay advantage is the thing to sell.” But Wilson is critical of such a method, believing that a game can’t sustain a player base – something that online games like Path Of Exile sorely need – if it’s always locking players out of content when they don’t pay.
“The example we often give is if you’re playing chess and one company is offering you the ability to reskin your chess set – you know, to spend a lot of money to get gold or diamond pieces – whereas the other company offers the ability to just repurchase your queen if she dies, the second one is corrupting the gameplay quite a lot more. And for our game being super competitive and hardcore, the players wouldn’t tolerate that.”
According to Todd Harris, co-founder of HiRez Studios, the developer behind third-person MOBA Smite, the concern surrounding free-to-play derives from the business model’s relative newness. “A lot comes down to what you grew up with,” he claims. “To many older gamers and many working within the game industry, free-to-play seems scary because it is disruptive. But look at the most popular games on PC: they are free-to-play. Look at the most popular games on mobile: they are free-to-play. I think that eventually top console games will be free-to-play as well. So the majority of gamers have already voted with their actions that they embrace free-to-play. As more quality free-to-play titles come out I do think even more gamers will be turned around.”
In fact, it’s only over the last few years that free-to-play has really begun to rise outside of the mobile gaming or the Asian markets, and so a lot of gamers are still only just beginning to understand what exactly free-to-play really means. Even so, HiRez’ Harris admits that there are some “awful free-to-play games out there”, adding that the competitive nature of Smite means the developer must avoid “pay-to-win or pay for power” elements.
The problem with free-to-play games, it seems, is that it’s easy for developers – particularly on mobile – to hook players into its systems early on, coaxing those ingrained with the gameplay into paying once it finally unveils just how long a certain building might take to construct or how difficult a particular boss is to defeat. These games inevitably hit a barrier, and few are willing to pay to unlock the power they need to continue.
However, while this is the case in the West, in Asian markets – where the model has had many more years to standardise – free-to-play works quite a bit differently. “They kind of have their own separate economy,” says David Brevik of the differences in free-to-play between East and West, “because what is acceptable to sell and what the players want to buy there is very different than the situation here. It’s okay that they go out and they buy some of the really awesome items or whatever, it’s just socially acceptable.”
Brevik’s work on Marvel Heroes 2015 has turned it into a significant free-to-play title, one that he and Gazillion were keen to ensure became an international game. “The important part is to separate them,” he laughs, “and make sure the two don’t meet – because then you’ll have a lot of irate players if they’re all on one particular realm!”
Brevik tells us that it was necessary to make Marvel Heroes 2015 a global product to enable as low a barrier to entry as possible; the higher the number of players, the more potential there is for revenue through microtransaction purchases. Much like Path Of Exile and Smite, however, Brevik insists that any kind of pay-to-win feature does not make for a good free-to-play title: “I’m very opposed to buying power,” he says, “that’s not something that I’m particularly fond of. So I felt like a lot of the stuff that we were going to do was maybe some time-saving things as well as cosmetic stuff.”
There’s an insistence among developers of free-to-play games that to help release the business model from its embedded cynicism there has to be a focus on making your free game fun to play in the first place. It might seem obvious but can be, especially in the mobile space, all too rare. Developer Firefly Studios knows this very well with the MMO-like take on its castle-building strategy franchise, Stronghold Kingdoms.
Much like those derided mobile games, Stronghold Kingdoms relies on timed construction and limited resources to guide players towards its microtransactions – but differs in that it is not selling a considerable advantage, instead giving players the option to play for longer rather than earn any considerable gain. This is an online world, after all, and if a player could decimate all you’ve built up simply by paying for the glory it would infuriate more players than it would reward.
“We’ve tried to make a good game first and foremost,” says Simon Bradbury, one of the co-founders of Firefly Studios, “and then we kind of went ‘Okay, how are we going to make some money from it?’ and we did a lot more work with the strategy cards. That’s what we’ve done with Kingdoms and that’s what we’re trying to do going forward. I think if you’re doing anything else then you’re kind of not making a game, you’re making something else and trying to make a game out of a monetisation system – which is wrong.”
This is all well and good, of course, but if this was entirely the case why is there still such negativity attached to free-to-play games? The truth is that those “bad apples”, as one developer puts it, sully the business model for the rest, and players are automatically hesitant to try something that is advertised as free-to-play. “When people hear that the game is free, it’s off-putting,” says Path Of Exile’s Chris Wilson. “We try very much to market the game as ‘this is what the game is’ and later on when they’re interested they happen to find out that it’s free or expected to be free, but we try not to shove the word ‘free’ down their throat as much as we used to.”
In fact, David Brevik agrees, but adds that if players hear that your game is free-to-play then you’ll need to convince them it’s not predatory about your cash, claiming that “in a sea of all these free-to-play games and these wildly different business models it’s important to try and tout your message and to make it as clear as possible.”
This means ensuring your players know – before they’ve even downloaded the game – that you’re not going to force them to reach for their wallet at any point. That’s a difficult message to get across when gamers – on the whole – refuse to acknowledge anything free-to-play. This is an especially important point for Jon Chey, one part of the team behind collectible card game Card Hunter.