"Free to Play." The name carries a lot of weight and very much of it is negative. Just hearing the term brings forth horrible images of shoddy World of Warcraft clones and bare-bones Counter-Strike ripoffs with horrifying "pay to win" pricing models. Sure, you might enjoy the game somewhat, but if you don't want to fork over the cash, you're in for a slow grind, limited features, or at the mercy of those willing to sign a check over to server domination. Gamers cringe when they hear those three unholy words, but, despite the stigma, the payment model is adapting and evolving. More and more games are releasing with the model and, for many, it's working very well. Are these games a dark harbinger of the end or are they glorious exemplars of a bright future? Well, let your good ol' Papa Haunts will clue you in.
Gaming is an expensive hobby and everyone is poor; that's the cold truth of the world (and is coincidentally the dark truth behind Gamestop's success). Not everyone has the financial leeway to spend $60 dollars for the newest titles the moment they drop.
Some of us have other expensive hobbies.
This is where Free to Play has stepped in and partially why it's began to succeed. While the world economy collectively goes to hell in preparation for the end of the world, people are more conservative towards what they throw their money at. Why risk investing your paycheck into the hot new sequel to a shitty game when you can just play a decent game for free? The option is more attractive when there's no upfront investment to deter you and is justified when you enjoy the time you enjoy for free.
I know what some of you kids are saying right about now. "But Papa Haunts, all f2p games are terrible! How do we know which ones are worth our time we aren't spending any money on and why do their payment models work? Also, you are handsome and I love you."
Given the history of Free to Play I understand your apprehension, but let me assure you that the evolution of the payment model is going a way that benefits the most important people: us, the gamers. Allow me to detail some of the models I like:
The "LoL" Model Several games have launched with a payment model where money only effects the rapidity you unlock content (which can be unlocked naturally over time) or cosmetic items that just make you beautiful.
As the name implies, it is the model used and popularized by League of Legends, but has since been seen popping up in other games such as Planetside 2, Firefall, and AirMech. The model revolves around the base game being free with some features requiring them to be unlocked and an accumulating currency awarded for playing the game. A secondary currency is available for real money that allows for the purchase of items that increase how quickly you gain the primary currency, cosmetic items, items such as characters or weapons (which can be unlocked by the primary currency), or player service items including name changes.
Why does this model work? Well, you given free reign to play the game and, provided you put the time in, you can unlock everything that's game changing permanently without ever paying a dime. You always have the option to pay a little if you want something right away, but it's never required. If you don't have the time to grind out the primary currency, you always have the option to simply buy a shortcut to that item you really want, or purchase that awesome Arcade Sona skin.
Awwww yeah, girl!
The "Dress Up" Model This model is somewhat similar to the "LoL" model, but has nothing truly locked in the game and only offers cosmetic items through their real money stores. The exemplars of this model are Team Fortress 2 and DotA 2 yet even they randomly give you items some times. I don't fully understand this model, but it seems to be working for Valve. And come on, who doesn't want to be the prettiest princess like the Heavy Weapons Guy?
Yes, this is in the game.
Why does this model work? Well, people seem to like the individuality their cosmetic items give them (even if they can't actively see them normally as in TF2). People are willing to pay a few dollars for a pair of virtual cowboy boots for their Soldier and some are even willing to pay over two thousand fucking dollars for a hat with a silly particle effect. That's more than my car.
The "Pay Once" Model Now, I'd be lying if I said this was something new. First person shooters have essentially always had this model, but they aren't what we're talking about today. We're gonna talk about the MMOs that use it. As far as I care to research, Guild Wars was the game that first made this work. You bought the game and that was it. No subscriptions that other MMOs force you into paying. The original Guild Wars in-game shop offers account upgrades (character slots, bank space, etc.), costumes, and expansion access. This model worked so well for them that they've copied it over to Guild Wars 2. Why fix what isn't broken, right?
Why does this model work? Well, it's the same basic concept as the "Dress Up" model, people like little bells and whistles to make themselves more distinct. This model also offers easy access to content expansions and storage capabilities if you want them. Convenience is nice. Guild Wars 2 has a few neat things in their store including the Cow Finisher which may be the greatest thing in any video game ever.
I didn't have anything funny for that last one, so here's a dog.
So there are some Free to Play models that are out there and working. Some are working so well, in, fact that games that originally launched with subscription models have reformatted themselves into various F2P models. Amongst them are Dungeons & Dragons Online, Lord of the Rings Online, Fallen Earth, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and, most recently, The Secret World (some with stripped down versions of the game, but that's not the point). We also have games in beta being slated to be released under F2P models such as Smite, End of Nations, and Firefall. Having the option to pay what you wish to enhance or enrich your experience is very appealing to people and doesn't look like it is the fad that many thought it would be.
I honestly don't see it going away and really don't want it to. Free to Play model variations are solidly looking to be the future of the industry in some areas. I find it wonderful and exciting as developers test the waters and attempt to refine this strange, evolving beast of a payment model. I always find myself getting intrigued when a developer starts talking about how they plan to utilize a Free to Play model in their new game. How different models are utilized will shape the world of gaming going forward.
We're at the end of an era and the world is coming to an end, what are you willing to pay for?