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Free-to-Play Fatigue Part II: Bad News for Game Design

Neilie Johnson Posted:
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Last week I discussed how the free-to-play model has altered both game industry business practice and the collective profile of the gaming public, neither necessarily for the better. This week, I'd like to talk about the negative effect free-to-play is having on the creative side of the game industry.

For me, this goes back a ways, back to the time when the two Marks - Pincus and Zuckerberg - first rode in like the Two Horsemen of the Game Industry Apocalypse (Except when I picture them in my mind, the two of them are riding Segways.) It's not news to anyone that that match made in Hell was largely responsible for the metrics-driven game design trend. What might be less known is how many unemployed designers have learned the hard way that slapping faux game mechanics over micro-transactions is a crap way to earn a paycheck.

The game industry's a tough business; studios close and people are laid off every day. Developers have to take jobs where they can get them, and a few short years ago, Bay Area social game company Zynga was not only hiring, but was offering designers the big bucks. Consequently, designers flocked to Zynga, believing they could improve the company's shoddy, shallow games with their experience and hard-won knowledge. Within no time, the bloom was off the rose. Little did those designers realize that Zynga's data-centric design didn't allow room for creativity, and that their days would be spent not designing, but duplicating existing cash-generating formulas.

Of course, Zynga's not the only company that's subjected designers to these kinds of indignities; they're just the most visible. I've spent countless hours at games-related events listening to developer friends and acquaintances tell maudlin, alcohol-fueled stories of the time they've spent as grist for the collective social game/free-to-play/freemium MMO mill and it's no surprise these guys and gals are bitter. After years giving their life's blood to a difficult and often ungrateful industry, it's no doubt hard for veterans to accept that their livelihood's being threatened by fluffy, five-minute diversions made by people who don't even like games.

As a game critic, my plight is less dire than that of designers, but my reasons for complaint are just as many. I acknowledge that good free-to-play games exist, but they're definitely in the minority. For me, much of the last couple of years have been spent covering a mind-numbing array of “games” that amount to nothing more than boring repetition. Because of various MMO grindfests, hidden object “adventures” that make me search through the same piles of junk again and again, and simplistic building sims that make me engage in endless rounds of “click-and-wait”, my brain cells are on the edge of burnout. Games like these have little real entertainment to offer and ask nothing of players except that they have the patience to perform the same boring tasks again and again and the money to pay for the privilege.

Thankfully, among these awful things I have encountered some games with interesting concepts, but these too are undermined by free-to-play, albeit in a completely different way. For instance, take a game called Stardom: The A List. The idea in this RPG-lite is to work your way from lowly coffee shop barista to A-List Hollywood superstar and the mechanics of it are actually pretty clever. I was amazed (and horrified) to find myself developing a slimy, Kim Kardashian-like mentality, choosing clothes, jobs, friends and lovers solely according to how famous they'd make me. The psychological aspects of this game are entertaining and intriguing—at least for the five minutes at a time you're able to play it.

Like so many other freemium games, Stardom: The A List runs on an energy system (where each action you perform uses energy) and this means that in order to play for any normal length of time, you have to keep buying energy. This runs counter to the notion of paying for a game outright, something I would have gladly done, given the option. Stardom (and games like it) don't let you do that though. To me, that makes for a developer/player relationship that's exploitative on both sides. Developers risk not being compensated for their work while players accept that the aim of the game isn't so much to entertain them as to systematically suck their bank accounts dry. Who the hell wins in that situation?

As much as I hate the freemium model, I could tolerate it if it stayed on its own side of the fence. Unfortunately, it's become a buzz word among unimaginative publishers and as such, has come to affect the entire game industry. These days it's hard to find a video game company, publication or online site that hasn't been affected by it.

One consolation is that over the last couple of years as free-to-play's picked up steam, it's also evolved a little. Titles like League of Legends and Guild Wars 2 have incorporated free-to-play in less invasive, less insidious ways and have managed to attach it to good quality games. Still, publishers continue to operate under the impression that they should cater to a gaming public whose sense of entitlement is out of control and indicates an unhealthy tendency among publishers to undervalue creative work. When did we decide game developers should work for free? The free-to-play model is neither fair to game developers or conducive to a vibrant game industry. The main thing it's doing is making people scramble to churn out great smoking piles of digital dreck that's not really worth anyone's time or money.

Despite this depressing state of affairs, I'm holding out hope that the free-to-play fad is just that—a fad. Though retail game sales are down, things like World of Warcraft's subscription up-tick and the growing number of people playing Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn make me optimistic. It helps too that people seem increasingly willing to donate money to Kickstarter game projects. This all sounds like good news to me, and could spell the beginning of the end for free-to-play. In any case, whether free-to-play dies a slow death or sticks around forever, I maintain that I'll never have a problem spending money on good entertainment—and I'm hoping that I'm not alone.


Neilie Johnson

Neilie Johnson / Neilie Johnson is a freelance contributor to MMORPG.com. She's been writing about games since 2005, developing games since 2002, and playing them since the dawn of time. OK not really, but she's pretty sure she's got controllers older than you. Witness her game-related OCD on Twitter @bmunchausen.