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What's in a Name?

Jon Wood Posted:
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After reading some of the comments brought on by our Best Free to Play MMO of 2009 Editor's Choice Award, I got to thinking about the term Free to Play. You see, on a daily basis I read about people complaining about the intrusion of the free to play genre into a land that was once the sole territory of subscription based MMOs.

As with most things on this grand old internet of ours, some of the arguments against F2P games are well thought out and presented while others are stream of consciousness rants. It's just the nature of the beast. Still, there's one argument that pops up over and over again every time that this is debated. I've brought it up before, because I think that it's a complaint that's based on a miscommunication and easily fixed. Simply put, the term Free to Play has to go. The argument, so it goes, is that these games aren't free as the name of the business model might indicate, but rather require players to spend money over time in the inevitable item shop that is available to players. This inevitably opens up the floodgates of people complaining about the "false advertising" that's being committed and the tirade against the "greedy" companies that dare to charge for their products.

Let's all get one thing straight here folks, almost no MMO is ever going to be completely free to play. Yes, there are exceptions but by and large whatever company developed the game in the first place did it in order to make a profit. The people that company employed to build the game didn't do it out of charity, they did it to put food on their tables, pay their bills and presumably feed an expensive video game habit.

That's just a fact. We could spend all day blustering about how this isn't how things should be, and how developers and studios shouldn't worry about how they're going to make a profit when they could be worrying about how to make the most awesomest game that ever awesomed, but we won't because that's not how the world works on the grand scale and it's going to change any time soon.

That shouldn't be news to anybody, least of all the studios and publishers that are producing these games, so I have to ask myself a few simple questions: Why do these businesses continue to perpetuate the idea that their games are free when they very clearly are not? Why does the industry as a whole continue to call games that are not free, free to play? Would it really be so hard to acknowledge the fact that this is a stupid designation and that it should be changed? In the end, I think it really comes down to marketing language. "Free" is a good word. People see the word free and they start to salivate, while they see words like item shop or microtransactions and reach protectvely for their wallets.

This sort of thing is common in marketing in the same way that the terms downsizing and streamlining sound a lot more palletable than terms like mass firings. It doesn't change the situation for people that are in the know: Someone who is downsized, for example, doesn't feel any less fired in the same way that MMO players already know that F2P doesn't really mean free. It's all for the benefit of the outside observer, for the next person who might come along, lured in by the shiny word "free" only to find themselves enjoying the game enough to start spending in the "optional" item shop.

Sure, it might be good marketing, but at the same time it just feels hinky to some people, myself included. Even though I know better, the idea of paying money for a game that by its very definition is supposed to be free, bothers me. Call it optional if you want to (it usually isn't), call it a harmless naming convention if that helps (it's not), but in the end, I think that the term is hurting the credibility of an industry that is growing on a daily basis, yet still struggles to be taken seriously.

For my money, if you want to be taken seriously, call a spade a spade. If these games are truly good enough to stand on their own merits and attract players who are willing to pay for in-game items then why not change the name? It won't solve all of your PR problems, players will still have their own personal issues, legitimate and not, but at least you could rid yourselves of this particular stigma.


Jon Wood