Free to Play, Pay to Stay

I am not naive enough to think that the gaming industry's primary desire is anything other than to make money. As an industry, they're really good at it, making more than the movie and music industries combined.

The past year has seen an explosion of "Free to Play" (F2P) games that are, well, free to play. Lately, storied titles like Tribes have been reborn in this model. More titles in development aim directly at this new pricing strategy.

But is it good for games, and more importantly, is it good for gamers?

I come at this topic as a reviewer and a long-time player of video games. The traditional model, paying X amount for a game that supplies Y amount of play, is the same as any other entertainment source. A $15 movie gives you 2 hours of entertainment, a $12 CD gives you an maybe an hour (many times over, of course), and so on.

Over the past decade we've seen the rise of the "MMO" or Massively Multiplayer Online game. These work on a subscription model. You pay for the game up front (usually), then pay a fee each month for continued access. The idea being the game's developers continue to produce new content for you, so you continue to pay for the game. This method has led to such cash cows as World of Warcraft, which now claims over 10 million subscribers - all paying about $15 a month.

Once a bastard niche of the market, we're seeing more and more mainstream companies and games move towards (or be developed for) an even more refined version of this model. The idea is simple, if not entirely intuitive: You download and play the game for free. Sometimes you get the entire game, other times just large pieces of it. To access new content - whether zones to quest in, better gear, certain classes, or unlocking higher levels - you have to pay money.

Like, I'm sure, a lot of you, initially I thought this pure folly. After all, how often would people pay money into a game they didn't care to buy in the first place? Turns out, I'm wrong. Apparently, by offering the game for free, your number of players skyrockets (obviously), and enough of them will actually pay money for some things.

So as a publisher, it goes something like this: you may not get a steady $15 a month from 100,000 people, but you are getting an average of $5 a month from 500,000 people. These so-called "microtransactions" make up in aggregate volume what they lack in individual quantity. Some games, such as Lord of the Rings Online, have reported massive increases in revenue when they went "free' to play.

On the surface, this doesn't seem like a bad thing. Causal players can play for free, while enough other people pay enough money to make the publisher (enough) money to keep offering the game.

However, it isn't quite that simple. In varying degrees, the purpose of the game changes. A traditional MMO's sole purpose is to keep you playing. They want to ensure that you always have something to do, a reason to re-up your subscription each month. Blizzard, the makers of WoW, are masters at keeping their long-time subscribers entertained with new content.

With the F2P model, the purpose is to get you to buy things. It may seem a minor difference, but it ends up changing how the game plays, and how you feel playing it.

The ultimate goal of both sales strategies is to get your money. However, in the traditional subscription model, getting your money is a result, in the F2P model, it's the action. Instead of creating content for you to enjoy so you'll want to continue playing, they create content you'll feel the need to buy.

The process is backwards. The experience of the game changes. Often it feels like you're constantly being hounded to upgrade, to pay for this, or pay for that. Mind you, I have no problem giving my money to software companies, I've given them thousands in my lifetime. If I'm playing a game, though, I want absorption into its world, not constant interruptions to be sold at.

The most recent F2P example is Tribes: Ascend, a remake/update of game I played in college, but never really loved. This was most likely because there were better options available for multi-player shooters. With T:A, you have access to all the maps for free, but not all the classes or weapons. Playing for free, as it often does in these games, feels like you're missing out. Of course, this is the point. They want you to get a taste, and then give them some money.

Let's compare T:A's F2P against a traditional first person shooter, like Battlefield 3. With BF3, you pay $60 to get the game. If you like it, maybe you'll pay additional $15 a few months later for a map pack. With this method, you get all the maps, all the classes, and as you play, you unlock more weapons.

With T:A you pay nothing up front, but only have access to a few classes and not all the weapons. If you want all the classes and all the weapons, you can either play for hours and hours and hours (much longer than with the near-continuous unlocks of BF3) or you have to pay over $150 to get everything. Yep, twice as much.

The counterargument is, of course: you don't have to buy everything. If you always play as a sniper, for example, you can just buy the sniper gear. But I don't always play as any one class, and on some maps certain classes are better than others. So assume you buy a few classes for different situations, the fact remains that you're likely paying more in piecemeal for what still only amounts to part of a game.

True, this is just one, fairly egregious, example. The problem is, there's money in it and it's a bad direction. It tells developers that they don't need to make a game good, they just need to make it "good enough" with options for people to buy stuff. Sure, a game's average player only plays for a few days, but if you get enough of them to buy something for a dollar, you'll make millions.

It feels like a cynical way to fleece more money out of fans of the game, and to sneak a little money out of casual users at the same time. It's a microtransaction generator masquerading as a game. I'd rather a game just be good enough that it generates money. But maybe that's just me.