Opinion: Free to Play or Pay is a Matter of Free Choice

It's no secret that many free to play games employ some annoying practices to get their players to spend money. But there is a reason they're so successful, despite being shunned by many in the gaming community. At what point should we stop blaming the game and turn to the players?

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Should free-to-play games actually be free to play? It seems like a discussion that's worthy of a conference panel, since it's one that flares on a semi-regular basis. The most recent argument occurred over Twitter, mainly between Markus "Notch" Persson (creator of Minecraft) and George Broussard (maker of Duke Nukem 3D). The heated discussion seemed to hit its peak when Broussard wrote, "At some point, game developers who are elitist and anti-free to play games, will have to get over themselves." To which Persson replied, "F*ck that noise. Free-to-play is bait-and-switch and should be illegal."

A similar objection was raised last year, when the European Commission responded to complaints, and called for a broad re-categorization of what's "free" to play, and what isn't. Although many games are technically free to download and play, it might cost money to make any meaningful progression. Apple subsequently changed its "Free" game listings to "Get," even in countries not bound by the European ruling.

Both sides have reasonable arguments. "Bait-and-switch" practices like pay walls are found in a large number of free to play games, which gives the category a bad reputation. At the same time, there are plenty of games that can be truly be enjoyed for free, and players don't have to spend any money unless they want to. Examples include Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, League of Legends, Fallout Shelter and others. In truth, many of the most popular games on both mobile and PC platforms are free to play.

It's clear that free to play models are like any other aspect of game development. Some do it well and others don't. But the use of objectionable practices raise a bigger question. If they're so annoying, why do they work so well? If a huge number of people hate something in a game, then the most logical thing to do is to stop playing. At what point does personal responsibility come into consideration? When a structure requires 72 hours to build, you have a few options, among them being: 1. Wait three days for something mundane to happen. 2. Do something (like purchase a boost) to accelerate the process. 3. Stop playing. There are hundreds of other games that are worth playing.

Notch likens pulling people into shady to catering to gambling addicts, which does have some ring of truth to it. At the same time, it pretty much describes any game, free or not. Most games want to offer an experience that keeps people playing, and hopefully pay some money to have it. Therefore, if a game is enjoyable enough that players are willing to endure annoying features and spend money, then the game has successfully done its job. It's silly to blame a casino for attracting gamblers.

Free to play games and the variety of tactics used to get players to buy in with in-app purchases won't be going away anytime soon. It's likely that five years from now, many of the top played games around will be free. However, there's no reason to suppose that there won't be big number of premium games to balance things out. That way, everyone can stay in their respective camps and enjoy the what they like. At the same time, developers can decide which audience they'd prefer to cater towards. We already see a variety of games that avoid using annoying in-app purchases and advertisements as selling points. Over time, we can hope that the games that do free to play well end up being more successful than the ones that don't as a form of digital natural selection.

While that happens, players need to realize that they have all the power. If a game has a lousy pay wall, intrusive advertisements, or overpowered premium items, then stop playing. Leave a review in hopes of warning others, and praise the ones that do things well. Then let those who don't heed your recommendations do what they will.

When it comes down to it, there's a very good reason why free to play games generally have a bad reputation, but it's also hard to call a game that brings in thousands of dollars a day "bad." So long as it doesn't actively try to fool people into spending money, like using confusing currency systems, then playing and paying are strictly a matter of choice. In that sense, perhaps some consumer regulation is in order to avoid borderline fraud, since one bad game can ruin things for others. Otherwise, let gamers play (or pay) as they will.

Managing Editor

From The Chatty

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    July 10, 2015 2:00 PM

    Steven Wong posted a new article, Opinion: Free to Play or Pay is a Matter of Free Choice

    • reply
      July 12, 2015 10:01 PM

      maybe its the case of alpha and beta plus pre-ordering or kickstarting?
      q3test would have been 'free to play' but it was a beta.
      Star Citizen is not free to play.
      Fallout Shelter is free to play but you can enhance your game with extra paying.
      COD is pay to play and then you can enhance your game by playing more, or paying more to play for early or exclusive unlocked bonuses?

      it seems more complicated the online, charging, playing, micro-transactions than just the free to play concept.
      The old model of pay to get a game and thats it has changed. we want to pay to get a game, but then see some improvements over the life of the game. either we pay up-front for that (or really, really upfront like Star Citizen) or we pay as we go.

      Much like a movie we don't really know how much enjoyment we will get out of it for our upfront purchase.
      imagine paying half as much to see a film, but then halfway through having to pay to finish it. I would only watch half of a lot of movies.