The title of this editorial was designed to catch your eye. Before you even take a moment to read through this editorial, whether it’s to praise and agree or condemn and dissent, you immediately had an opinion form in your head. In today’s gaming world, everyone has an opinion on “What could have been done better? X-solution would have fixed Y-game! How could X-company be so stupid as to have done Y-mistake?!?”. There’s no doubt that, in the MMO genre especially, that there have been many lapses over the past decade; titles that failed to meet expectations, titles that started strong and withered away, titles that never even made it to their target release date. We’ve seen all sorts of various approaches in the last decade to try and stimulate consumer interest and retain their hearts and minds; everything ranging from contests and giveaways to paid-prize tournaments and pre-order bonuses. Yet, try as they might, there hasn’t been a title that has left a lasting impact on the genre since World of Warcraft came out. In the last 2 years especially, a new trend has begun to arise in the online gaming industry, and that trend is the switch from pay-to-play to free-to-play. I’m writing this article because I believe that free-to-play is slowly-but-surely killing off the industry, and I want to illustrate the problems arising with the free-to-play experience.
Why Make a Game Free-To-Play in the First Place? (History Lesson)
In the past decade, game development companies have tried to come up with multiple ways to maximize their profit. Concepts such as downloadable content (DLC) became available, which allowed players to purchase voluntary add-ons to their favorite games. This gained immense popularity when the original version of The Sims was first released. Who else remembers NEEDING that new living room furniture set, or just having to have those exclusive kitchen chairs? The concept was a wonderful idea; make some additional profit on your already-purchased game by releasing little miniature expansions that players could choose to purchase or ignore. This still allowed the company to release full expansion packs every few months, while making side income in-between development time.
On the online front, games likes Diablo 2 had surged in popularity. Players were smashing through Mephisto and Baal for several hours a day, every day, and a little company by the name of Blizzard started to gain immense popularity. Other online-only titles also gained popularity, such as Everquest, Ultima Online, and Asheron’s Call. These were very gear-dependent games that required immense amounts of time and dedication in order to excel at or succeed. However, many players wanted to reap the rewards associated with playing the game without actually putting in the necessary time to be successful, and with the desire for shortcuts came the rise of RMT (real money trade); the concept of trading real money for in-game goods or services. 3rd party providers offered services such as power-leveling, the sale of in-game currency and items, and in-game services that allowed players to remain competitive and relevant to their peers without requiring them to dedicate the hours or the labor themselves. Complimented with 24/7/365 farming factories, bots, exploits, and hacks, the in-game economy became so over-saturated that the game needed repeat rollbacks just to get the game back to a playable state for players who weren’t using RMT. In a sense, companies were losing money they hadn’t even thought about to competitors they weren’t sure even existed at the game’s conception.
As more online titles and MMORPG’s began production, companies sought new ways to maximize their profits in relation to these new challenges. There were many free-to-play MMO’s that you still had to purchase initially, but had no monthly subscription fees. These games opted to offer goods and services that were in place to counter RMT; players could purchase experience point boosts, extra buffs for their character, bonus stat points, bonus items, and various other boosts. Often referred to as “cash shops”, they allowed the player to spend cash to purchase boosts, buffs, and other in-game amenities without fear of being banned or reprimanded for unruly practices. From the developer’s perspectives, it’s a win-win situation; reduce the use of RMT practices, and gain additional profit by tapping into your player base’s demand for shortcuts.
Finally, there’s the issue of online piracy. While I can’t pinpoint the exact date that I started seeing games being downloaded illegally, my first memory would be roughly 9 years ago when Kazaa first arrived on the scene. Digital piracy had migrated from just music to movies and then to video games. Game developers had utilized all sorts of protective measures to prevent digital theft; CD-keys, DRM tools on their discs, requiring an internet connection to play, online registration forms, limiting the number of computers you could install any 1 game on, etc etc. Try as they might, players continued to be more and more resourceful about illegally acquiring and running games; modding/hacking their consoles, downloading patches and hotfixes to circumvent built-in security measures, the use of torrents, etc etc.
In short, free-to-play has evolved as a primary style for game developers to reduce loss while maximizing their profits. Changes were introduced in order to accommodate players, to enhance their gameplay experience, and to promote a fair and balanced gaming environment.
Where Did It All Go Wrong?
While it’s hard to label specifically who started the downfall of such a concept, the first example of abusing the system that came to mind for me, ironically, was also one of the pioneers of DLC; The Sims. With literally hundreds of fan-sites, the game was a smash hit with a huge fan base. Players simply could not get enough of The Sims. They wanted more features, more furniture, more emotes, more actions, more possibilities, and they wanted it all at a pace that Maxis simply could not (or would not) yield. User-generated content become popular, and soon enough, there were free-to-download sites releasing color-swapped textures on the net. While they often were not always as professionally done as official content, they were passable enough that you were willing to download them and try it out; if it didn’t work or if it corrupted your game, you could simply re-install it and all would be well again.
It wasn’t long before Maxis and other fan-based sites realized something; they could release individually downloadable content, and charge anywhere from $0.50 - $4.99 for the content. Believe me, they did, and the goods sold like funnel cake at the fairgrounds. New refrigerator? WANT. Red leather couch? NEED. New wall and floor colors? MUST HAVE! People wanted to separate their Sim’s house from other players’ homes, and if that meant spending a few extra dollars to do so, then so be it. These sites capitalized on their players’ vanity and desire to be exclusive. While I don’t frown upon discovering an untapped market, I do frown upon the steps that followed after making this discovery.
Fast forward a few months past this phenomenon, and we get to the point where we started seeing very, very half-assed expansion packs. Despite pumping out hundreds of customizable pieces of content on an individual basis, expansion packs were often barebones and minimalistic. They just kept coming, and coming, and coming, and coming, with each one being less impressive than the last. In fact, we ended up with over a dozen expansion packs. This is, of course, on top of the by-then thousands of pieces of user-generated content that had been pumped out. Could Maxis truly not have consolidated some of these expansion packs? Was it really a bargain to buy an expansion pack that contained a few new items at all, some of which you wouldn’t even use, when you could hand-pick the content you wanted from the 3rd party sites for less money?
But I digress; this isn’t intended to be a “Let’s-bash-The-Sims” session. They weren’t the only ones who started manipulating and abusing the system of DLC. Just off the top of my head, I can think of a few titles which provided absolutely terrible expansion packs; Planetside: Core Combat was and is, without a doubt in my mind, the most over-priced and under-delivering expansion pack ever produced (and arguably even a game-killer). With the inception of DLC, expansion packs started packing less of a bang for their buck. We also started seeing a shift from well-planned, well-funded expansion packs to smaller, optional DLC packs. Why make a 30 hour add-on that sells for $20, when you could make a 3 hour $5.99 DLC that can be digitally downloaded?
Next week, we’ll take a look at why F2P has become so popular as of late, and what it means for the gaming industry as a whole. What do you think of the trend? Leave us a comment below!