The Cost of Nothing: Free-To-Play Games Are Changing the Industry

By | 2 years ago 
Screenshot from free-to-play game League of Legends

League of Legends uses the free-to-play game model well, letting players pay for skins and new champions without gaining an in-game advantage. Photo from

Piracy has long been a scourge of gaming, affecting and frustrating both developers and players, for intertwined but different reasons. Game distributors have tried many things to combat piracy. It started with CD keys and progressed to DRM that limits the possible number of installations or requires internet access at all times. Some developers even include code that will glitch pirated games, leading to some truly hilarious results.

Other developers try downloadable content. To combat profit loss from piracy, developers continue to work on a game after its release and provide extra content to those who are willing to pay. You can pay $60 upfront for a game and continue to pay later if you want more. Unfortunately, this draws a fair amount of criticism, especially when games started coming out with day-one DLC—if the content was ready at the time of release, gamers asked, why not just include it in the game? Further, what was to stop developers from holding back content gamers wanted so they could ask for more money later on? Out of this has come a new trend of free-to-play games, which on the surface seems greats, but whose implementation is proving aggravating and even alienating for gamers and developers alike.

Free-to-play Games Take the Stage

Enter free-to-play games. Though free-to-play isn’t an entirely new business model—in fact, it originated in early MMOs often targeted towards children and casual gamers, such as Neopets and MapleStory—its implementation is spreading. Rather than asking for an expensive sum upfront, as the traditional sales model does, free-to-play games are free but include advertisements, microtransactions, or in-game purchases that expand the players’ experience, such as League of Legends‘ additional champions or Hearthstone‘s card packs.

Hearthstone Hero Power

Many free-to-play games have in-game currency that can be purchased with real money, giving those who are willing to shell out actual money a reward. That’s all well and good, but many gamers feel it sets the stage for unbalanced play, as people willing to spend real cash may get better weapons or more play time to level up.

Not all free-to-play models are bad; League Of Legends does it well with rotating champions and monetized skins that add customization but no significant advantage. Mobile games are known for particularly exploitative models, and psychologists have even made connections between particularly devious free-to-play games and gambling addictions.

Not All Fun and Games

As games like League of Legends succeed, developers and distributors look towards their success and analyze how it can be applied to their products. H1Z1 attracted a lot of recent attention for going back on their initial statement that in-game payments could not be applied to ammo or guns by implementing airdrops, a system that would allow players to pay a fee and have a plane drop off supplies that may contain weapons and ammo. The developers say that the possible consequences of these drops—attracting zombie attention, possible raiding by other players,and the rare drop rate of weapons—even out the potential for unbalancing the game. But players weren’t satisfied, and many asked for refunds when the airdrops were announced.

League of Legends Malware Header

H1Z1‘s developers aren’t the only ones pursuing this avenue. Peter Moore, COO of EA, told Kotaku that he believes that microtransactions will one day be a part of every game, and that this shift is a difficult time for both developers and gamers alike. “We’re just picking our way through and nobody is any way trying to gouge anybody,” Moore said.

Even if microtransactions might be backed by good intentions, that doesn’t change the way they feel to gamers. EA’s own Mass Effect 3‘s day-one DLC had many fans up in arms—if the DLC was ready at launch, why wasn’t it included in game, especially since it contained a character many long-time fans of the series were dying to see? It’s easy to be cynical; EA knew players wanted to know more about the mysterious Protheans and knew they’d be willing to pay money for it, so it’s possible they changed their business model for more profit. That, coupled with the introduction of war resources that required multiplayer grinding for the best ending, microtransactions to get better weapons and characters in multiplayer, and the controversial ending, left fans of the series feeling exploited and skeptical for the future.

Nintendo, on the other hand, finds the free-to-play model frustrating. Nintendo’s president Satoru Iwata, in a Q&A with investors, said, “As with games that are free-to-play, or ‘free-to-start’ as we like to call it, there is a tendency within the entertainment industry to make gaming as easy as possible to start playing.” Because Nintendo uses an integrated hardware-software model, unlike many companies, they require a hardware purchase before their games are playable, making the free-to-play model unrealistic unless they completely overhaul their current strategy.

Looking Forward

So what’s the future business model for games? It depends on the individual company and the product they’re producing. A single-player RPG seems like fixed price is the right model, but considering the popularity of online multiplayer, we’re seeing fewer and fewer of them. As time goes on, the purely single-player experience may fall by the wayside—already, we’re seeing more games implement multiplayer modes in previously single-player games.

Crazy Taxi City Rush Free-To-Play

And it’s hard on gamers to just not buy games that use microtransactions; some of our most beloved series are heading down this path and whether or not the content is worth the extra money is an individual decision. Counting on big-name distributors not to do whatever they can to make money doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for hope, but, short of boycotting popular series and supporting games that do it right, there’s little gamers can do to stop the waves of change.

How do you feel about the free-to-play model? Do you think it’s the way of the future?