Free to play

The best things in life are free… to an extent

Free to play games have been around for a long time. Early ‘Multi-User-Dungeon’ text based MMOs were generally free, and even mainstream titles like Runescape could be played for no up-front cost. Early first person shooters such as Doom and Quake even gave away their entire first act as a kind of demo for the game. More recently, free-to-play has come to mean something new, a new way of monetising games. Is this a good thing?

Farmville was probably the earliest popular and clear example of this new system. A browser-based game, you could play the game with no up-front cost, and experience most of the same things everyone else was. If you wanted to, however, you could use a little bit of real money to speed things up or gain some exclusive items. Many people derided the whole system, claiming that no-one in their right mind would pay good money to save time in a browser game, but they were wrong. People spent a lot of money on the game, and more started popping up all over the place.

MMOs soon followed suit with high profile games such as Lord of the Rings Online dropping the subscription plan in favour of a micro-transaction based system. In Lord of the Rings you can happily create a character and level up in the world for absolutely no cost. If you want some more dungeons you can buy them as a kind of expansion pack, you can pick up more character slots, experience boosts, and cosmetic items too. In some of these games you can earn the same items through a lot of playing (Eve Online allows you to swap in-game money for an equivalent of real money) but the general idea is you pay for what you want. It’s provided a massive boost to some struggling MMOs and the hugely expensive ‘Star Wars: The Old Republic’ has recently announced they will be adopting the model.

Up until recently free-to-play had always been reserved for either low-production value games or MMOs, but this has started to shift with the new wave of free to play. Tribes: Ascend, Team Fortress 2, Mechwarrior: Online and Ghost Recon: Online are all free to play and incredibly polished games. In a world where people are more used to paying 69p($1) on their iPhone for a game, it seems that putting up £39.99 ($63) is becoming unfavourable. Publishers can instead split their game into little morsels and sell those morsels for a lower price.

Many commentators have suggested that this means you don’t really ‘own’ any of the game and any sense of immersion is broken when the game asks you for some more money, but there’s an incredibly positive side to this too.

Taking Tribes as an example, I never would have played the game were it a retail product. It looks ostensibly like many other first-person multiplayer shooters, and on the PC there’s always worries about how a game will perform on your system and whether your internet connection will cope. Thanks to Tribes being free-to-play I could just download the client and give it a try, fully expecting to never spend a penny on the game.

Within two hours I had spent twenty pounds. The game is an absolute blast, but you see other people doing some cool things with different classes and weapons, and you want to try too. You can play for ages and grind your way up to them, but I wanted them now, so I bought a pack that gave me some in-game credit to unlock things and also boosted my experience for a while. This meant I could immediately have a lot of fun with the game. If someone else had joined me they too could spend some money to catch up instead of spending weeks while I waited patiently. For people who don’t have much time to commit, it lets you access far more of the game than you would normally.

There is a dark side to the system of course, and that (for me) is that it’s easy to lose track of how much you’re spending. This is a similar problem that faces DLC on the consoles, I might think of Modern Warfare 3 as a £40 ($63) game, but in reality I spent something like £90($141) on it. With micro-transactions it’s easy to buy something for one play sessions and forget about it the next, quickly racking up expenses. Thankfully the system are still in their infancy and this is improving with better understanding of exactly what you are paying for. Many games let you spend a set amount and you clearly see what that will give you in return. This means if you want to play Mechwarrior, you can enjoy it for a bit and then spend whatever you think it is worth.

It gives a huge amount of control to the consumer, and in my experience so far, the publishers aren’t really trying to rip you off. There’ll always be £45 ($70) monocles and horse armour about, but you have a clear choice of whether you buy it or not. Recently I bought Spec Ops:The Line (amazing game) and I didn’t touch the multiplayer. If it was free-to-play I could have chosen not to pay for that section, as it was retail I paid for it whether I wanted to or not.

So before any of you deride free-to-play systems, give them a try and spend a bit of money on them. Just keep track of it and make sure you don’t spend more than what you would on a retail game. You might be surprised at just how much you can get.

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