Opinion: Online free-to-play done right (and wrong)

There are few terms within the gaming community which are as likely to stir up a storm of debate as the infamous three-pronged phrase “free-to-play.” Some bemoan the practice as a thinly-veiled cash grab from greedy developers while others praise the idea of trying a game and playing it for as long as they like without having to pay a cent. As someone who has played a fair number of free-to-play games myself, I find the whole “F2P good/bad” debate to be a mostly moot point, since there isn’t a set template by which all free-to-play games adhere. In fact, I’d say that anyone who claims all free-to-play games are the same clearly hasn’t played said games and I’ve listed some prime examples below to prove just how diverse the free-to-play model can be.

Free-To-Play Done Well

League of Legends:

It’s hard to imagine the amount of success Riot Games’ free-to-play MOBA title League of Legends has managed to garner considering how non-intrusive its monetization methods are but one cannot argue with the results. Downloading and playing League of Legends (or “LoL”) is absolutely free and Riot uses a clever balance of both in-game and cash-purchasable currency to let players decide how much they want to invest in the game. Playing matches in LoL earns players Influence Points (or “IP”) which can be saved up to purchase new playable champions, boosts, stat bonuses, and other items. Players can also purchase Riot Points (“RP”) for real cash which can in turn be used to purchase in-game items more quickly.

While there are certain items which can only be purchased with RP, such items are merely cosmetic and include new player profile backgrounds, profile icons, and new outfits or “skins” for a specific champion. By offering a monetization model that doesn’t force casual players to spend real cash but also offers more dedicated players a way to show their support and get fun cosmetic bonuses in return, Riot has created an online environment that is inviting to all and yet restrictive to none. When combined with Riot’s constant efforts to improve both the game and its community, LoL’s non-restrictive monetization model stands as a shining example of free-to-play done right.   


Yet another story of surprise success, the slick third-person online cooperative shooter Warframe was developed by the relatively small development studio Digital Extremes and has garnered a fair amount of recognition since its open beta launch last year. The game has proven to be so popular that a PlayStation 4 port was made available alongside the console’s launch late last year and an Xbox One port is in development.

Much like League of Legends, Warframe uses both an in-game currency and real-world currency monetization system. While the ethics of offering paid services for a game that’s still technically in open beta are a little shaky, Warframe manages to do so in a non-intrusive way that affords players a wealth of freedom no matter how much or how little they’re willing to fork over. New playable characters, weapons, item skins, boosts, and other bonuses can either be purchased directly with the game’s premium “Platinum” currency or crafted using a combination of blueprints purchased with in-game credits and items which can be obtained through play.

While both methods tend to favor more dedicated players (crafting often required several different resources which are scattered throughout the game’s large number of levels), Warframe still offers a robust amount of content right out of the gate, which means casual players will rarely feel like they’re missing out if they don’t decide to pony up. Warframe’s monetization model may not appeal to more casual free-to-play gamers as League of Legends’ model, but it’s still a solid contender for free-to-play games that remain fun no matter how much (or how little) you spend on them.

DC Universe Online:

To give you an idea of just how casual-friendly and non-intrusive SOE’s hit MMO DC Universe Online (or “DCUO”) is, I’ll just say this: I managed to level a character all the way up to the maximum cap of level 50, partake in a robust quest-filled storyline that spanned my character’s entire leveling path, purchase and inhabit my own personal instanced lair, and access both instanced solo and group-oriented dungeons and PvP battlegrounds without spending a dime. While, like all other SOE MMO’s, DCUO does have an optional subscription fee, it is far less intrusive than some other free-to-play MMO’s (I’m looking at you Lord of the Rings Online).

There are naturally certain bits of optional content which have to be purchased using SOE’s premium “Station Cash” currency such as character services and unlocks, but not having them in no way detracts from the solid and well-rounded experience DCUO offers up absolutely free of charge. If you find yourself really enjoying the game, you can purchase some or all of the optional DLC add-on packs which unlock even more content such as new high-level areas to explore, new storylines to pursue, and even new character creation options such as additional weapons and superpowers. If you’ve always shied away from MMO’s that carried the free-to-play moniker, I’d suggest you at least give DCUO a shot since it offers a heroic-feeling experience for the even more heroic price of $0.   

Honorable Mention: Team Fortress 2:

For the sake of fairness, I decided to keep the number of games I listed in each category to three but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Valve’s hit team-based shooter Team Fortress 2. While TF2 wasn’t always a free-to-play game, its adoption of the free-to-play model back in 2011 led to some exciting new changes for the venerable title including some major revamps to the in-game item distribution system first introduced even further back in 2009.

Even today, TF2 supports a thriving community of players who trade, sell, and craft a staggeringly large amount of different weapons, costumes, accessories, and other items which can be equipped by TF2’s in-game character classes. The system allows players to acquire new items either through randomized drops or by purchasing special “Mann Co. Supply Crate” keys, again offering a great amount of flexibility that benefits both casuals and more dedicated players. Since the system extends into the digital market on Valve’s Steam service, players who are particularly item-savvy can even make a bit of money plying their trade, giving Team Fortress 2 one of the most unique free-to-play ecosystems of any game ever released.

Free-To-Play Done Not-So-Well

EA’s Dungeon Keeper:

Although I wanted to stick with PC/console games, Dungeon Keeper on mobile is simply too bad to ignore. Much has already been said about EA’s infamous mobile port of the Dungeon Keeper series (including an excellent opinion editorial from ShackNews writer Steve Watts) but the lessons learned from the game’s highly-intrusive monetization model bear repeating. EA has often been vilified and condemned for its habit of injecting real-world purchases of DLC “shortcuts” into games such as Mass Effect 3, Dead Space 3, and recent Battlefield titles but what the company attempted to do with Dungeon Keeper took the intrusive nature of these so-called “optional” purchases to a whole new level.

In a nutshell, EA’s Dungeon Keeper utilizes a free-to-play model that limits a player’s total number of actions using a timer that refreshes over time. Players can naturally bypass these limitations by purchasing premium currency if they don’t feel like waiting for the timer to refresh. However, as players work their way deeper and deeper into the game, the costs of bypassing the timers only increase, forcing the player to either continue purchasing premium currency or wait for longer and longer periods of time. Such a system inevitably creates a vicious cycle in which players are pretty much forced to pay in order to make any meaningful progress, making EA’s Dungeon Keeper an unappealing venture for more casual mobile gamers.

EA’s Dungeon Keeper has garnered so much negative reception that the UK's Advertising Standards Authority recently disallowed EA from advertising Dungeon Keeper as a free game. While EA has supposedly learned from its mistakes with Dungeon Keeper and intrusive microtransactions in general, it’s doubtful the gamer community will soon forget this particular stunt the publisher tried to pull.    


When one thinks of Crytek, they most likely think of the lauded Crysis trilogy or one of the many other games which utilize the company’s signature Crytek game engine. Among Crytek’s many pursuits is the recently-launched free-to-play online shooter with the unfortunate name of Warface and, sadly, the even more unfortunate circumstance of being labeled as a “Pay2Win” game. Like many other online free-to-play shooters, Warface comes with an in-game cash shop through which players can purchase various boosts, weapons, and pieces of equipment for their characters. Sadly, Warface’s cash shop embodies virtually everything that is wrong with the “Pay2Win” model.

When you purchase most items in Warface’s cash shop, you aren’t really purchasing them so much as renting them. This naturally makes sense for items such as XP boosts and bonuses to in-game currency earned (of which Warface actually has two of) but, in Warface’s case, it also applies to a large portion of the different guns and other items you can purchase as well. Most guns and equipment pieces, when purchased, only last for a set period of time (usually between 7-14 real-world days) forcing players to continuously purchase them over and over if they want to keep using them. While this isn’t such a huge deal in Warface’s cooperative modes, it can make all the difference in a competitive matchup where the better and more powerful gear goes to the players with the deepest wallets.

Considering how new it is and that it’s a free-to-play game, Warface offers a surprisingly hefty amount of content which includes four different playable soldier classes, six competitive modes, seven cooperative modes, and both a PC and Xbox 360 port. Unfortunately, the game’s robust veneer hides an extremely intrusive Pay2Win monetization model that forces co-op fans to either grind or pay for gear that is mostly temporary and all but cripples competitive-minded players who want to stay competitive without dipping into their wallets.    

The Mighty Quest for Epic Loot:

If EA’s and Crytek’s problems stemmed from intrusive real-world purchases, Ubisoft’s cheeky fantasy-themed online game The Mighty Quest for Epic Loot, suffers instead from a grind-centric gameplay formula that lacks depth or variety. While getting to construct and defend your own castle while raiding other players’ castles sounds fun on paper, sadly Ubisoft did a rather poor job of transferring such a fun-sounding concept into the reality of actually playing.

For what it’s worth, the optional DLC packs for The Mighty Quest actually aren’t that intrusive. Most of the items included in these packs are merely boosts that temporarily increase XP gain or the amount of in-game gold a player earns while the others are simply exclusive cosmetic items such as character skins or castle themes. However, even with all these nifty boosts and exclusive items, The Mighty Quest still can’t be stopped from turning into a mediocre grind-fest that never really moves past the “loot enemy castle, build up your castle, loot more enemy castles, build up your castle more, rinse repeat” formula.

Ubisoft has promised more content will be coming to the game in the future but unless the developer finds some way to spice up the gameplay variety while also toning down the grindy elements, I fear for The Mighty Quests’ future.   

More Gameplay, Less Grind

If the above examples prove anything, it’s that developers need to be careful about not putting their carts before their horses. It’s understandable that virtually all free-to-play games will have some sort of grinding/time-sink mechanic in place to subtlety encourage players to spend real money. Free-to-play developers still need to make money, after all. But when the grind outweighs the gameplay, that’s when problems start to crop up. Free-to-play developers have to ensure their games not only offer a fun introductory experience but that their games remain fun after an average player has sunk a few hours into them. If your game is fun, players will be much more willing to support it both financially and otherwise. If it’s not, then it’s sadly not doing much else other than contributing to the bad image the free-to-play model already has.

Nate Hohl has been working as a freelance writer and game journalist ever since he graduated college in 2011. He has written for a large number of different websites including freelancewriting.com and Newegg's gaming site gamecrate.com. While he enjoys writing news and reviews, he feels his skills are best applied when exploring relevant topics and engaging readers through opinion and editorial pieces.