Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Free to Play. The Future of Online Gaming?

I think we can all agree that free stuff is awesome. Tell me a new fast food chain has opened near my house and I will probably not be that bothered. Give me a book of vouchers for it that includes offers of free stuff and I am there. Even if I know the food is terrible. Even if the company has been outed as anti gay and is inundated by self righteous types with signs.
Your protest is lame and I will punch through you for free chicken
We all want free stuff and in a perfect world everything would be free but this is the capitalist western world. Perfect it aint. On that subject few aspects of our lives are more dominated by the whims of global mega corps than gaming, especially online gaming. MMO's are a global phenomenon that have become a massive part of our generation's culture and they don't come much bigger than World of Warcraft (WoW) an MMO with an 8 year pedigree, a sinister relationship with rodent behavioral studies and an annual turnover that makes a great deal of medium sized companies look like lemonade stands. WoW is immersive, addictive and  apparently massive amounts of fun. It is also paid for via subscription. I have always had an issue with this. As a teenager I was heavily into Runescape and for a time I paid a subscription fee monthly to be a full member so I could play the other 75% of the game that was denied to free to play members. I know what it's like to play an MMO like WoW. That's probably why I will never play it.
Well that and this guy

Microtransactions Vs Subscriptions: Innovation Vs. Addiction

It would appear however that recent years have seen the rise of a new business model for online gaming: free to pay (with microtransactions). Essentially the developer makes their game free to play but adds in game items/ currency that the players use real cash to buy. An old boss of mine from Games Workshop always used to say something that has stuck with me to this day: "a good business decision is one that makes us (the retailer) and the customers happy". I feel that free to play is a step in the right direction for us customers in terms of the amount of control we have over the online gaming industry. If WoW is an angry landlord that you have to pay rent to every week with the constant threat of eviction then games like League of Legends, Team Fortress 2 and Star Trek Online are genial comic book shop owners. I don't go out of my way to buy my yu-gi-oh cards and hobby supplies from the small independent comic book store in my local village because they have the best choice; I do it because I respect the guy who runs the place. He's a pillar in the community. He even DM's games of Dungeons and Dragons during school holidays because the local kids can't DM a game themselves.
You gotta go where everyone knows your name
The free to play business model forces companies to put us first as customers instead of acting like drug dealers. Subscription based online gaming relies on keeping people addicted not keeping them happy. Free to play games however rely on patronage; they need you to enjoy things enough to invest money in them as a kind of thank you. Take League of Legends (LoL) for example; it has an in game currency (Influence Points) which you can earn by playing the game (the better you play the more you make) and a separate currency you can buy (Riot Points). Riot Points and Influence Points can be spent on new characters to use in the game while only Riot Points can be spent on skins for your characters; superficial improvements that make you look cooler on the battlefield.
Some of which look insanely rad
While you can buy a cooler look for your favorite character however, you can't buy power. There are items called glyphs which give you an early game boost in power and these can only be bought by Influence Points. In short you can't buy your way to the top, that takes skill, experience and a bit of grinding. You win because you can look cool, Riot (the company that makes LoL) wins because they may make some money and you win again because putting lots of money into the game can't buy n00bs an easy victory. I have played LoL for 3 to 4 years and recently gave up on it in favour of DotA2 (I was always a DotA boy from the beginning). In those 3 to 4 years Riot has made over £200 out of me. Not through subscriptions but because I wanted to give them money. They created a world and I played in it and had fun. So I bought some stuff in game because I could. No tricks. No creepy psychological exploitation to keep me addicted to their product. Just good honest fun. That's how this industry should work.

Stay Crunchy Internet


  1. I'd say: Yes. But we'd inevitably have to take the good with the bad, I believe. F2P IS the progression for gaming rather than the future, in my opinion; even for then non-MMO arena (Ubisoft's boss mentioned it becoming an anti-piracy measure; Squenix are considering games that you 'buy' by earning minutes through advertising).

    I think that if the floodgates for F2P being the standard were released, we'd still 'not' have an overall standard in the payment models employed in general for a while (If ever?) - i.e. EA F2P would be vastly different to Riot which would be different to Valve etc. Something we already witness in the lower ends of the F2P game market with a plethora of MMOs and casual games where some models would be fair and others are just hopelessly broken (And continue to do so...) by 'Pay2Win'.

  2. I agree with Jase - you've cherry-picked some nice exmaples of F2P games where the model is a "good business decision" as your employer would say, with the company happy and the gamers happy (which I am sure is, to some extent, due to the fact that the companies are probably largely composed of gamers). But while League of Legends is a F2P game, so is FarmVille. The model is slightly different there - my understanding is that FarmVille and the lot let you buy things with real money that do make the game easier - it remains to be seen in which form f2p is going to thrive. The FarmVille model is really toxic for game design, as it's not based on making something awesome like your examples, but rather something contrived to make it as easy as possible for the developers to churn out new content without having to think too much about it, and the game is never actually any good. Luckily, their business numbers are't looking so good.

    So it reamins to be seen which model of F2P games finally spreads, but I hope it's not the Zynga/FarmVille model.

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