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November 29, 2011

"Free"-to-play: Does the F2P Model Expand Audiences, or Rip Them Off?

It’s about two weeks before the release of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and as a huge Zelda fan I am counting the days. The next week, after paying all of my bills and buying groceries I come to the realization that I cannot afford the $50 price tag of the game right now. Naturally feeling a bit deflated, I try to focus on being satisfied with games I already own and play. I plunge myself into my Steam library and launch my favorite free-to-play game to ease my financial aggravation. It’s at this point an epiphany slaps me across the face. If I were to add up all the money I’ve spent on this “free” game, it would equal almost $100!

Free-to-play games are a lot more expensive than I thought.

The free-to-play (F2P) pay model is on the rise as of late. Even the MMO juggernaut Blizzard has adopted this pay model. Arguably the world’s most popular MMO, World of Warcraft is now free-to-play up to level 20. Although to continue playing it does switch to the subscription based gameplay we're most familiar with. This now makes WoW a hybrid and not a full F2P game. The common traits that set F2P games apart from others are usually three main areas of gameplay:

Money: Most, if not all, F2P games operate under dual monetary systems. The first and main system of money is always earned within the game and is the one that most resembles a standard dollar scheme. Some games integrate this basic monetary system well, while in others this system can seem quite useless. The second monetary system is always much more rare than the first. It can sometimes be earned within the game but at a very slow pace. This second monetary system is also almost exclusively increased by purchasing more with real cash.

Stamina/Energy: F2P games always have some kind of limited stamina system in play. This system is in place to limit the amount a person plays per day. Sometimes the overall amount can be increased but must be purchased with real cash. Certain stamina/energy systems even serve to limit access to portions of the full game.

Special Items: Special items can be found in just about every game ever made but, in F2P games these special items often cannot be earned. It’s safe to say that most special items and especially customizable elements in F2P games must be purchased and cannot be simply earned through gameplay.

As a marketing scheme the F2P model is proving to be very effective. The general purpose of the platform is to encourage and attract more players. With enough appeal, players will want to continue playing and eventually begin buying in-game items or energy to further their gaming experience. It’s essentially a bait and switch method of attracting users to a game. Indeed these developers and studios need to make money as much as they need people to play their games, but should this be a commonplace practice?

For the most part, the three major gaming companies treat gamers like disobedient step-children. They tell us what we want and how much we’re going to pay for it. This is wrong, yet, we as consumers blindly follow. This is the current ebb and flow of the gaming industry when dealing with Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft. Surely smaller/indie companies have to treat their customers better, right? It seems natural that implementing a F2P model really helps these developers gain a solid player following. They give back to gamers by giving us free access to their product.

The F2P model can be quite advantageous for game developers but is it also that way for gamers? Are we really getting more for our buck in this 'pay if you want' approach to games or are we just getting ripped off? One thing I know for sure is that breaking up the payments definitely helps a player justify the purchases instead of having a large one-time payment of $50 or $60. As consumers we like to feel like we're paying less for the same thing or something just as good. The bargain could all be in our heads, then again you could argue that an MMO just has a different pricing scale than your average console game.

I'm curious to know what you think and where you stand. Please feel free to let us know down below.