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

After checking out worthwhile free-to-play games on iOS and Android, Nate Hohl runs down the PC/Mac/Console F2P games that are worth your time, and a few to avoid.

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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.   

Warframe:

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.    

Warface:

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.

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From The Chatty

  • reply
    July 11, 2014 11:00 AM

    Nathaniel Hohl posted a new article, Opinion: Online free-to-play done right (and wrong).

    After checking out worthwhile free-to-play games on iOS and Android, Nate Hohl runs down the PC/Mac/Console F2P games that are worth your time, and a few to avoid.

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      July 11, 2014 11:12 AM

      I'm sad about The Mighty Quest for Epic Loot. They had a very enjoyable game back in December, but shortly before it entered Open Beta they released a major patch which completely reshuffled the gameplay. What's in place now is terribly gimmicky and feels cheap and annoying to play.

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      July 11, 2014 11:21 AM

      no mention of the fairest F2P games of them all? dota 2 and Path of exile have the fairest model i know-
      you have all the gameplay elements for free and only cosmetics are available for purchase

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        July 11, 2014 11:28 AM

        Yeah, I stopped with LoL at level 30 after I realized that the runes were a pay wall if I wanted to spec myself out in different ways. Buying characters isn't my favorite, but you're seriously handicapped in terms of your loadout without having dropped some money on runes.

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          July 11, 2014 12:45 PM

          unless you're looking to play competitively, you can get away with just 2 pages of general runes, i just have one for ap and ad.

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            July 11, 2014 3:41 PM

            Also, runes can only be purchased with ip and not rp. The same is true for rune pages.

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              July 11, 2014 4:10 PM

              you can buy rune pages with rp..

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          July 11, 2014 4:23 PM

          You can't spend money on runes, only rune pages (and yes, limiting rune pages is dumb)

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            July 11, 2014 4:44 PM

            That's true, but it would eventually all eat into my ability to buy characters with the in-game currency.

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            July 11, 2014 7:00 PM

            if only you had the power to do something about that. cough

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        July 11, 2014 4:56 PM

        ding ding ding. shit journalism detected. i'm sure he plays league, which has clouded his "journalism" lol

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        July 11, 2014 10:01 PM

        PoE is a good system, but the game isn't fun past the first couple acts, it becomes a mobfest, and unless you're geared for AoE damage, you're pretty well screwed. Even if you ARE geared that way, it becomes grindy, REALLY fast.

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        July 12, 2014 8:10 PM

        It is the most player-favored model. Does that mean it is fair? idk. You could easily go broke as a dev if you only sold cosmetic items and your name isn't valve.

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      July 11, 2014 11:27 AM

      Id like to add up that if you are a fan of tabletop P&P games but also like deckbuilding stuff, check out Card Hunter.
      http://www.cardhunter.com/

      Runs in a browser, tons to do without spending a dime. Its nice to hop into every once in a while and run something quick. Light and fun!

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        July 12, 2014 11:45 AM

        It's also pretty funny, which makes sense when you realize it has a number of the folks that made Freedom Force on the team.

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      July 11, 2014 11:45 AM

      How can you not include Dota 2. It's the epitome of F2P done right. You get every hero from the start unlike LoL where you have to buy heroes or grind them. New shack writers have league bias. Probably won't even cover the international 4 considering they didn't even know about the $10.5 million prize pool when asked.

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      July 11, 2014 12:00 PM

      While I agree with the negative examples I do have one point of criticism with League's business model. They release a new, slightly overpowered new hero and once the sales quiet down, the new addition gets balanced to fit in (at least somewhat) with the steadily growing menagerie.

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      July 11, 2014 12:16 PM

      DotA2 gives you every hero free, unlike LoL, lets release a new slightly OP hero so everyone buys it...then lets balance it before you release our next new OP hero!!!

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      July 11, 2014 1:37 PM

      I sort of imagine DOTA2 is left out because it's actually just free. I'm sure valve makes a significant amount of money off DOTA2, but I never felt like they were really trying to do so, it was more an attempt to grab a spot in the professional gaming world and they had enough money already that they could reduce the barrier of entry to zero (Other than the horrid learning period where everyone hates you).

      If I remember correctly the ONLY things in DOTA 2 you pay for are purely cosmetic and purely optional and have no influence on gameplay. Even TF2 teases you with crates you pay to open.

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      July 11, 2014 3:33 PM

      My favourite F2P title is Star Conflict.
      This game is a good space shooter which has expanded and evolved quite a bit over the last two years.
      Bought currency can be used for progression and for extra items but they are not needed and they don't tend to influence the game very much at all.

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      July 11, 2014 4:23 PM

      Lord Of The Rings Online awards Turbine Points for Deeds (pretty much Region/Class/Character-based achievements - Kill XX creatures, Discover XX Landmarks, etc), and EVERYTHING can be bought with Turbine points. In fact, when you spend real world money, you buy Turbine Points.

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      July 11, 2014 4:26 PM

      League's annoying pay wall was the reason I quit playing. Could not fucking stand grinding or paying for heroes. God bless Dota for not having any of that garbage.

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      July 11, 2014 4:40 PM

      I'm really curious how Planetside 2 is going to work on PS4. I honestly don't think that their F2P model the way that it is will work on console.They definitely need to tweek some things to make it less "pay to win" feeling.

      I'm also VERY surprised that this article didn't mention TERA,which is in my opinion,the best F2P MMO out there,provided that you have a good enough gaming rig.The crafting,that market,the gameplay is all top notch,and you don't have to spend a single dime on anything that isn't cosmetic,and feel like you aren't able to complete.

      I find that Warframe may have a good model for F2P,I find that game incredibly boring and just not very good overall,but that's just my opinion.

      I think you guys should have made mention of Blacklight:Retribution too.I personally don't like their model at all,as they have item rentals along with permanent items as well,except that everything that you actually pay for feels like it's a big improvement over the in game,super grindy stuff.Same goes for the game Hawken as well.

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        July 11, 2014 6:59 PM

        blacklight: retribution allowed me to unlock weapons with in-game currency (on pc that is), but the ps4 version will only let me rent them, unless I pay $5 to be given the option of using the in-game currency to unlock the same stuff that is already free (and very much grindy) on the pc.

        ghost recon online is fun too, and I understand they would like to charge for guns, but man the in-game prices a soooo high. Fun game though

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      July 11, 2014 5:08 PM

      I have to disagree about LoL. I think it's a decent F2P model in that it doesn't extort the player base, but it does restrict your own pool of champions to what you are willing to pay for or grind, and it affects the meta-game because even if you buy all champions, you'll be matchmaking with people who haven't and they will be playing either from the few they've unlocked or the week's free set.

      I've been a Dota2 player for several years now and in part it's because a brand new player can walk in for free and access the entire game and hero pool. Items are cosmetic only. I've spent money on Dota2, but only because I wanted completely optional stuff that didn't gate my gameplay in any way. The F2P model in Dota2 is even superior to the excellent approach that TF2 took. IMHO it's the best F2P story in the industry that I'm aware of, which is quite impressive considering the amount of money that pours into it still.

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      July 11, 2014 6:50 PM

      Didn't see Dota 2. Stopped reading.

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      July 11, 2014 6:52 PM

      did anyone play dungeon runners? that was a pretty good f2p model IMHO

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      July 11, 2014 8:04 PM

      World of Tanks is best at F2P!

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      July 11, 2014 8:44 PM

      Why is no one mentioning Marvel Heroes??

      It's F2P done right.

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        July 11, 2014 10:13 PM

        i agree.
        they've done a lot of things right with it recently.

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      July 11, 2014 9:59 PM

      I'd like to mention HAWKEN as a good F2P game.
      While you can buy the mechs in the cash shop as well as earning them with earned "hawken credits", you never really need to pay any money for anything unless you want some cash-shop cosmetic gear.

      The gameplay is fun, the mechs handle well (the lights are just a touch TOO fast IMHO) and it's relatively bug-free.

      If you want to avoid the MESS of Mechwarrior Online, but still crave mech combat, Hawken is a great alternative.

      "3305_Longscope" is my ingame

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      July 11, 2014 10:22 PM

      planetside 2 works pretty well. Mostly just cosmetic stuff, though one can buy XP boosts and stuff. Though once one has the guns and stuff one wants, who cares anymore

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        July 12, 2014 5:01 AM

        Planetside 2 is much more than cosmetics. Weapons, weapons, weapons. Most of them can be bought with real money.


        That said, I still think PS2 is a great F2P game.

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      July 14, 2014 2:43 AM

      One very good one is Raceroom Raceway Experience, I must say at first i tough their pricing a little off, But i played with what they had to offer and found a great experience. Then i waited for Sales and man oh man did i do good to wait. At half price their content is totally worth.

      This is pretty much the best sim racing you can get right now. Still in beta and some feature are in the work but totally worth the shot if your a gearhead