Free you say? I have a hard time believing that. (But actually, yeah, it's pretty much free.)

Free you say? I have a hard time believing that. (But actually, yeah, it’s pretty much free.)


Let’s talk about one of gaming’s most-hated terms.

The Bare-Bones Explanation

What is “free-to-play”? It’s the kind of game that doesn’t ask for a penny before you start playing. That’s right—completely free. Usually they require a smart phone or computer, and some access to the internet, but the game itself doesn’t cost anything.

“How can people make games for free?” you ask. Games that are free-to-play (F2P) are made for many purposes. Free publicity, for instance. Getting a name out there. Advertising a bigger product. Or maybe the developer just thinks that what they’ve made isn’t good enough for people to spend money on. There are lots of reasons.

The Hate

Free! If they’re so free (a generally much-liked thing), why do so many attack them? Well, because most of these experiences are anything but free. The two biggest criticisms of F2P are their use of obstructive ads and, more notoriously, their use of microtransactions.

Obstructive ads might make someone stop playing if they block the action. It’s as frustrating as a bad UI. Sometimes playing is less about enjoying the game and the clean, consistent aesthetic it has and more about trying not to be bothered by something. Like a fly at a picnic. The picnic could be great, but one lousy fly and everyone’s considering going home.

Hard to blame ads though. If that’s the only way the developer can make money to keep making games, then at least having the game with ads is better than the developer not making more games. Sometimes, people like the creator of Threes! manage to come up with less-intrusive ads on their free versions. Perhaps we can look at new methods.

Microtransactions are the real culprit, and the reason F2P games have tried to distance themselves from the moniker. The idea is that a game will be playable, but paying for extra features (usually without limit) will make the game better.

Typical ways microtransactions are used:

  • Limited number of plays per [time period]. Pay to get more plays.
  • Game is very difficult. Pay to get help, like better weapons and characters (often random).
  • Game is very difficult. Pay to skip something difficult.
  • Game isn’t very fun. Pay to get some unique feature.

As an aside, the common Japanese term for F2P is アイテム課金, or “charging for items”. Pretty much what microtransactions are. And probably a more damning way to refer to the model as a whole.

I think it’s worth distinguishing microtransactions from downloadable content (DLC). In general, DLC is a one-time purchase. It’s often in addition to a game, and not needed to enjoy the main experience. DLC often comes in the form of extra areas, missions, or costumes/skins for characters. Once you’ve bought all the DLC for the game, there’s usually nothing else you can buy. In contrast, microtransactions are usually without limit, and someone could theoretically spend thousands and thousands of dollars in a single day.

The big gripe about ads is that they make the game hard to play. The big gripe about microtransactions is that the game isn’t as fun until some money is spent. Or, often in multiplayer games, that paying gives an advantage to certain people and no advantage to others, making money (and not player skill) the main factor in success.

There are a lot of problems with the current model. But the system isn’t bad by default.


One unique feature of free-to-play games is that they have a low barrier of entry. On the acquisition side, this means almost anyone can enjoy it. To say nothing of the fact that these games often make the beginning very beginner friendly.

A cynic would look at the above and say that, “it’s just to make sure they can hook the largest number of people.” Well, cynic, that’s very true. But if microtransactions were out of the mix, the above traits are something all games should strive for. We should be working to make our games playable to as many people as possible, and for those people to be eased into the game at a good pace.

Now, I’m not deep into the business, so I can’t say for sure whether or not a F2P game without microtransactions could ever become significantly profitable. But the artist in me says that all games should be free on some level. Not 100% free, but at least partially free. Games should be for everyone, even those who can’t afford them.

The Future

Imagine a new game. Free to play. Everyone gets it on their console. Let’s look back and imagine Super Mario 64. When you boot it up, you have the option of paying the full price right off the bat. Similar, perhaps, to a demo. The opening part is free, up until the first boss. After you beat the boss, you can enter the lower part of the castle. Now, if you didn’t pay the full price, you have the option too. Or you can pay by the level. Each new area is like DLC. Pay for it or don’t. Choose what you want. Let individual people decide what content they consume. The full price basically allows players to not worry about the hassle of getting each area.

Unlike the current models, there would be a limit on how much you can spend. Once you’ve paid the “game price”, everything else becomes free. There’s a hard cap on how much money you can spend.

Someone who has money and heard good things would probably pay right away. Someone who’s skeptical might see how the “demo” section plays before they go and pay.

I’m actually a big fan of DLC, when used right. Games that are complete from the get-go. In spite of the general opinion that games are released broken and buggy, I actually think most games are complete. I don’t think it’s crazy to have to pay for an extra quest. If you don’t want it, don’t pay for it.

If the game doesn’t work or you can’t get past a certain point, I can see the reason to hate on modern practices. But looking back to most games, I wish there was DLC in the past. I would love a new area or quest added to an old Final Fantasy game. Indeed, the remakes do just that.

Let’s stop thinking of free-to-play as a universally bad thing. It opens up games to a whole lot of people. People who might not be able to play games traditionally. Indeed, more people are playing games than ever before.

Let’s also be more specific and demonize those things that make the model hated. Limiting playtime. Randomizing what the paid content does. Banner ads that obstruct gameplay. The ability to throw money into the game infinitely. Take away the elements that make the user experience worse.

Because ultimately, the more people playing games—and enjoying their experience—the better.


3 thoughts on “Free-To-Play

  1. Interesting post about a important topic these days in gaming.

    Though I am annoyed by several of the elements you mentioned about DLC/microtransactions, if I think about it with a level head I don’t think there is any problem with any of these systems.

    While ads are annoying, I see them used less these days and usually they are not that obtrusive. Any add that obscures gameplay badly will likely push users away and will become extinct quickly.

    You are separating DLC and micro transactions, but to me the fact MT can be done infinitely is a minor point, since there could be a large amount of DLC as well. So I consider these mostly in the same category.

    If a game decides to allow infinite purchases of some item and a user decides to buy this like crazy, they may be getting their money’s worth and therefore it is a win-win situation. If they are not getting their money’s worth then they is as a bad decision on their part, not a problem with the system. For example, if they end up paying $1000 vs a $10-50 one-time purchase, where their experience is over the same period of time, this could be seen as a waste of money. Sure there are some people who could be seen as having a psychological problem and can’t control themselves (similar to gambling addiction), but that is a different issue altogether (:

    Your idea about setting a limit is already mostly supported by the existing system, since developers can decide to make one time fees for all content or infinite use of a weapon. However, if there are many users that go crazy with the “unlimited” purchases, then it probably doesn’t make economical sense to add these deals.

    Personally, I am frustrated by all the low-quality or derivative free games I’ve played on iOS (probably over 100 games). However, if all those were made as one-time purchases I probably would never have played them, so one can argue I am profiting by the F2P system.

    For one who really is annoyed by the F2P system, they can just choose to select great quality one-type-payment games. Some app stores have specific lists of these games (like iOS) to help customers find the type of games they want.

    • Limit on money spent: Really thinking about games aimed at children or generally complete games. I’m very fine with a game like League of Legends selling tons of skins and in-game cash for boatloads. Depends on how the game works.

      But oh man. Derivative games. That’s up there with the biggest problems in modern gaming. But it’s always been a problem in every field, hasn’t it? Store-brand foods. Different brands of electronics. Any blatant ripoff in the world of books. Even early games had tens of ripoffs. The hope is that the ones that were made with passion are the ones that succeed.

      One of my friends worked on a game that started as a blatant copy of a game that evolved into something very different. But he was always in it to see where something could go and what he could do with it. I think my feeling is that most copies are just there to make a buck. And as someone invested in the idea of gaming as passion and art, it always hurts to think someone out there is just doing it to make money.

      Especially when poorly made games have the destructive power to turn people off games as a whole. And that’s where any of these debates stem from. Because you want good practices–ones that help and benefit consumers and innovators–to be the ones that succeed.

      Unfortunately, just as many people are ready to chop down the whole forest to sell the lumber without planting anything in its stead. They’ll get rich, but the whole environment will suffer. As often as not, they’ll too suffer in the long term.

      • I guess derivative games are like the ‘spam’ of the game world. If they can be made cheaply, even if only a few people buy them then the developer makes money. I think now with easier to use platforms (at least regarding mobile) and many frameworks available, it is even easier to create derivative games these days. And like all art, there can be a fine line between “inspiration” or “influence” and a “pakuri” (:

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