Free To Play: Is It The Future Or A Fad?

There is only one move left, and after quickly scanning the board, I realize there is no way to win. Painfully, I then swipe across the screen to take the last step towards the inevitable loss of my last life. As soon as the input is finished, a window splays itself across the screen of my phone, bursting a newly aligned brightly colored candy trio against a defeatist background as the stage predictably fails to clear. The box, chirpily full of itself, tells me that I can purchase a few more lives for a small fee and try again, or I can gloomily wait 20 minutes while I wait for them to replenish themselves. Obviously, I’m referring to Candy Crush Saga, the Bejewelled-inspired mobile free-to-play phenomenon.

Even a few years ago, it was largely unheard of to download a game like Candy Crush for free. Today, a large number of games, especially those that are Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) and those that are released on mobile platforms, offer themselves for free, choosing instead to later charge players for optional extras in the form of microtransactions. This is known as the “Freemium” pay model. The rise in popularity of social networks like Facebook and the smartphone platforms where they thrive are major contributors to the growing use of freemium. Even oligopolistic publishers like EA have started experimenting with free-to-play mechanics in home console releases; recent games like Dead Space 3 and Mass Effect 3 have optional microtransactions. Despite its success, the movement has encountered harsh criticism from traditional gamers, who are the group least inclined to stray from conventional one-time payment models.

To comprehend the popularity of free-to-play models and their upward trend, you must first recognize that gamers—and thus the market—are primarily divided into two very different audiences, the so-called core and casual. The majority are traditional players who typically favor dedicated gaming hardware like PCs and consoles as their preferred platforms; neither MMO nor mobile generally pique their interest more than briefly. They are the market that publishers typically target because they regularly purchase a variety of games every year, from blockbusters to smaller indie games. The casual players, who comprise essentially the entire population and don’t spend tens of hours exploring Skyrim, are the opposite. They primarily play games on gadgets they already own for other purposes, such as Facebook, smartphones, or tablets. Unless they can provide something distinctive, like Wii’s motion control, PS2’s DVD player, or Xbox360’s Kinect, this audience rarely purchases dedicated gaming devices. Nearly every issue, including free to play, has created a rift between the two groups.

There is a clear correlation between the rise in popularity of free to play and the rise in casual gaming. Back then, there was no casual audience; only the most ardent gamers purchased NES consoles (*ahem* with the exception of my mother). Since everyone could now access games as a result of owning another device thanks to the internet and mobile phones, this situation has changed. Who hasn’t played snake? Even the ancient, by today’s standards, Nokia phones predicted this outcome. Later still, Facebook started to offer games, and in previously unheard-of quantities, people who had never owned a console began playing games like Bejeweled against their friends online. What did these games all share? All of them came as gifts with a device that was purchased for another purpose.

They had to be free, which is another clear reason why they were. Imagine attempting to sell the average person a £40/$60 retail game on top of a dedicated video game console. It would be difficult, but for core gamers, that would be acceptable. If we were to follow the traditional model and try to sell them Candy Crush for £10/$15, it would still be very difficult. However, let’s say they’ve already purchased a smartphone for another reason. If you employed a Trojan horse, such as giving it away for free, you might be able to convince them to purchase it. Just take a look at the Nintendo Wii to see how effective these strategies are. The Wii’s capabilities were essentially demoed for free at first because Nintendo initially targeted the core who showed the system to their casual friends and family. Then, if they desired it, they could purchase it, which they did in large numbers. Nintendo successfully inserted themselves as a Trojan horse into the lives of casuals by selling them a product they weren’t even aware they wanted until they played it. It should, as free to play employs the same strategy of giving something away for free with the expectation that the user will pay for it later.

Sadly, Wii was destined to be a fad; despite its phenomenal hardware sales, software sales started to slow down as disillusioned core gamers left the system and the casual market failed to successfully replace them. The tale of the formerly hugely popular Facebook game Farmville is comparable to this one and is more pertinent to the free-to-play experiences of today. As you probably already know, Farmville was a farming sim. Real-time clocks were used to monitor the players’ crop growth and harvest. The game could be played 100% for free but players who didn’t pay would start finding themselves at a disadvantage as their friends who did pony up cash farms expanded much quicker – exemplifying the worrying “pay to win” problem whereby those who pay are tactically better off resulting in free players being treat as second class citizens. The publisher Zynga made billions from millions of microtransactions over the course of a year, but like Wii, the craze fizzled out almost as quickly as it began, and Farmville is now largely forgotten.

Farmville invented the freemium model, which is now widely used, and, like all fads, it made incredible sums of money during its brief reign of fame. Getting an audience to download a free to play game is now simpler than ever thanks to the widespread use of smartphones, tablets, Android devices, and Facebook accounts. As a result, the likelihood that the game will be profitable is increased. The argument that free-to-play fads can only exist for a limited period of time is kind of pointless in any case. Traditional full retail games also have a shelf life, albeit a shorter one, with an average of 80% of sales occurring during the first week. The traditional one-time payment method and free-to-play games can only be sustained for so long because each caters to a different audience better.

Sadly, we live in a world where people must be paid; video games are not created out of the goodness of their creators’ hearts. The ability to continue creating the games we love depends on them and their publishers recovering their investment and turning a profit. When marketing to a casual audience, it is a smart business decision to release a game using a freemium model or with microtransactions. Theoretically, that’s very appealing since you’ll still be making money even if only one in ten players pays the small amounts for optional content. Everyone benefits from free games for players and increased revenue for publishers, right? While it is entirely possible to finish a game like Candy Crush without ever spending a penny, doing so is extremely difficult and time-consuming.

Though it isn’t typically challenging, free games frequently erect pay walls that players must pay to get past. Players in Candy Crush are given a choice to buy boosters or more lives for a small fee after a few failures, which is a relatively short period of time, or wait for them to replenish after 20 minutes. To achieve this, the game sells time and persuasion, but logically, in order to sell convenience, one must first acknowledge that inconvenience is a fundamental element of gameplay design. How can the player save time without wasting it first? The game seems to actively get in your way, pressuring you to give in and spend money. It’s also not uncommon for free games to cost more to purchase all of the content than a comparable retail version would cost in a single payment.

That’s acceptable for recreational gamers who would never pay for a full game. For the most part, though, this is a little concerning. Since people tend to be intelligent and notoriously hard to trick, they click on things before realizing the game is just trying to get them to pay more over time than it would if they paid it all at once. That’s a deal-breaker at best, similar to how Plants vs. Zombies 2 made many core gamers feel, and an insult at worst. Games are a form of escapism; who wants to escape to a world where they have to think about real-life money? Most core players would simply prefer to buy the game upfront, never hitting pay walls or paying as they go.

Free to play is a tricky beast, though; while it can be executed poorly, it can also be done successfully in a way that the core can support. Planetside 2 is an excellent illustration of a massively multiplayer PC first-person shooter that does not penalize players for choosing to charge for customisation options. There are other options, yes, but none seem to be out to rip you off; instead, they charge reasonable prices for permanent content. Another good example of free-to-play is Team Fortress 2 by Valve, which was once a full retail game but is now playable for free with only the cost of customization options.

Was free to play a fad or the wave of the future when I started writing this article? In actuality, it combines elements of both. While publishers have tinkered with the model, it has become abundantly clear that, while it benefits the casual audience, it is less friendly to the savvy core who are well aware of its Trojan horse tactics and actively oppose the model. Regardless of the opinions of the core, free to play is a profitable payment model that will undoubtedly be present in the future. In fact, I’d wager that it will soon overtake traditional methods as the main way to generate income on social networks, mobile devices, and tablet PCs – the preferred platforms for casual users. Even with some good examples of free-to-play systems in core games, it seems like it’ll take some time before they become a force in the core market – however long it takes for the core to consistently receive good deals. In the end, the core shouldn’t feel threatened by free to play’s success in the casual market affecting them because of their uncanny ability to avoid being taken advantage of. Is free to play the way of the future? Certainly casually, and for the core? Free to play and traditional games will likely coexist in the future, but not right now.

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