Why is Free-to-Play becoming popular all of a sudden?
The continual letdown from subscription games has also given a large rise to the popularity of the free-to-play mechanic. Who can blame gamers, after titles like Final Fantasy XIV, Star Wars Galaxies, Dragon Age II, Call of Duty: Black Ops and numerous other terrible releases, for not wanting to drop their hard-earned money on a mediocre title? FF14 even had the nerve to charge people to pay by the month while the game was being fixed, despite it being so bad that the developers even apologized to their fanbase for it.
There are games like Madden or Dynasty Warriors which don’t even try to hide that they’re selling you the same game every year, with all but the most miniscule modifications from the previous installment. One new weapon? Two new characters? A new mode that isn’t really a new mode because it was removed four installments ago but is now being reintroduced as a new mode (with no additional improvements made to it in those four years)? Let’s not praise the paid-for games entirely either!
On top of the paid-for games’ failures, technology has become an enabler for these games. While all of the titles I’ve mentioned up until now are “hard” games (hard in the sense that you own them, install them, etc.) there are plenty of “soft” games out there which take full advantage of the free-to-play mechanics. Anyone who has a Facebook account can log-on and see thousands of apps and games readily accessible. Many of these are free-to-play, but require money for speed boosts, item unlocks, mode unlocks, map packs, etc.
There are sites like www.koramgames.com, which offer dozens of free-to-play games for anyone with an email address and yet if you aren’t sinking hundreds of dollars into these games, you’ll never be able to compete with the “top player” (i.e. those with the biggest bank rolls). Many people can’t play their PC, PS3, or XBOX360 at work, but they can play these types of “soft” games from their phones, on their iPads, in their browser, etc. As such, there is a larger audience of new players available due to their simple accessibility with tertiary devices.
What has been the result of the shift to free-to-play?
One of the biggest plights on the industry being introduced by the free-to-play games, without a doubt, is the irreparable damage being done to the online gaming community. Say that word to yourself, and think for a minute. Community. Ask yourself “Hmmm… when was the last time I played a game where I didn’t enjoy just the game, but the community as well?”. I suspect you’ll be hard-pressed to come up with an answer. The reason is because the overall community related to online gaming has deteriorated at a rate that I would have once deemed “impossible” over the past few years. This is largely in part associated with the complete disregard for quality assurance or customer satisfaction, in my opinion. When your business model shifts from “Attract a solid player base, keep them happy, make a profit through repeat customers” to “Grab as many new players as possible at a time; keep grabbing new players, forget the old ones, nickel and dime in every way possible” it’s an inevitable course of action. Further food for thought: Can you think of a time when customer service in the gaming industry was less then deplorable? You get what you pay for.
If there is one business trend I experience in all online games nowadays, it’s the notion of “Oh well, f**k it, on to the next game.” Ironically, the player base has begun to mimic the corporate environment. “You don’t care about us, so why should we care about you?” When you paid for your games, you didn’t see endless trolling and flaming; that player would be banned. The online player-base has become utterly fearless when it comes to moderation of any kind. When you’re not paying for a product, you don’t care what happens to it. Let’s consult some of the more popular games out there, such as League of Legends. Anyone who has ever played LoL can likely recount at some highly negative experiences: be it a raging player, a trolling team, a racist, or a profanity-spewing preteen.
The risk for this negative behavior is being reported; get reported enough and you’ll be put up for trial on the Tribunal. Pending further review, you will be suspended (multiple times likely) before a ban is finally set into effect. After that entirely redundant process, a player can simply create a new, free account, and play the game yet again. There’s Diablo 3, where gold-farmers and botters are buying and running multiple accounts that are actively farming gold and items 24/7 with carefully crafted scripts and macros. Even when being banned, the rate at which they are being banned is often too slow to prevent the exploitation of the game’s mechanics from being profitable enough to deter them from simply purchasing new copies of the game. There is no filter in place to remove trash from the free online community and to keep it out.
I grew up playing video games online, and I remember a time when this simply wasn’t the case. Don’t misunderstand me; trolls, ragers, flamers, cheaters and the like have always existed… but there was a time when they were a very, very miniscule portion of the population, and often treated with contempt and disdain. These people could be ignored, and that was the end of them, and as they developed a reputation for being a player with a terrible attitude, they would be excluded by the community. Nowadays, they seem to be a very proud, very vocal minority, and they have no problem ruining your gaming experience.
You can’t win; it’s just losing at every corner, and with minimal moderation or policing of both the growth rate of new players into free-to-play games as well as the current player base, it’s a problem I don’t suspect we’ll see an end to any time soon. Furthermore, even gamers seem torn on the issue. On the one hand, some say: “It’s a free game, you can’t complain!” While the other hand says: “Only part of the game is free, and I’m at an innate disadvantage for not spending money on the game, therefore, I can and will complain.”
Many developers will argue that the free-to-play is designed with the gamers’ interests in mind. Yet, if it is truly a model designed for gamers, why are certain fan-made games shut down? A fantastic example is that of Chrono Resurrection; a fan-made, 3D remake of Chrono Trigger that was being programmed by a makeshift team of extraordinarily capable and gifted fans of the Square-Enix series. It looked absolutely amazing (Don’t believe me? Check it out.) Years ago, they received a cease-and-desist order from Square, and the project died out. Despite public outcry and clamoring for remakes and sequels, there has been no activity in the franchise for nearly a decade, yet SE has gone out of their way to shut down non-profit fan-based games that are tied to the series.
While this article may seem polarized, I am not completely against free-to-play. I think that conceptually it provides a door for new ideas to be entered into the mix amongst higher-budgeted titles that might otherwise be ignored. What I am against is the way that the industry is gutting titles, butchering content that should be included in a game at release to “double-tax” gamers. With the rise in popularity of this new business model, I see more and more grotesque violations at every turn, and it honestly sickens me as both a gamer and a consumer. I write this not to bash, but to shed light on the serious implications this abrupt shift is having on the industry, and to remind players and developers alike of practices to be wary of.
In my humble opinion, there is a small light at the end of the tunnel, and only time will tell if it’s truly going to make a noticeable difference. Programs like Kickstarter are actually removing the business aspect from games, and putting power back into the gamers’ hands. By independently raising funds via donations, small-time development studios aren’t going to have their creativity curved by investor’s budgets, or have their realistic timetables rushed by money-hungry CEOs and corporate boards. It’s putting some semblance of power back into the gaming community’s hands, allowing them to invest money out of their own pocket to perpetuate the growth and development of the games they want to see come to light. It is my sincerest hope that up-and-coming titles being funded by gamers, such as The Repopulation will inspire awe amongst the gaming community, by doing something that many game studios aren’t doing these days; building a title with passion, a soul, and an unwavering commitment to the player (and not the board).