Free to play games are a misnomer

I play Warcraft which is subscription based, I buy the game and then pay a monthly fee for access to the servers. My friend plays Guild Wars 2 which is a buy to play game, you buy it and then it’s free to play on their servers after that. I also play Marvel Heroes which is completely free and whether you pay anything is your choice. These are are all PC games, there’s known Facebook games like Candy Crush, also games like Marvel Puzzle Quest which can be played on the iphone or through steam. These mobile games are completely free, like Marvel Heroes, and instead rely on microtransactions.

There’s the saying that there’s nothing free in life. On the surface there are some games that claim to be free, is that really the case? After all if no-one ever paid any money then the games companies would go bankrupt, so is there such a thing as a completely free to play game? Let’s look at the free to play games, that I play.

Star Wars: The Old Republic
This game started off on the same finance system as Warcraft. I bought the game and paid a subscription. I only played for a few months before I unsubbed as I wasn’t playing it enough. Every play session I was choosing to login to Warcraft instead so it wasn’t worth paying for Swtor as well. When it went free to play I eventually went back to it and I enjoy the game, and the class storyline experience, as much as ever. Due to having bought the game I counted as a preferred player, so I had things a little easier than a true f2p player.

However, recently I resubbed for a month. Why? Why would I do that as it’s a free game. Well, I did it so I could play my way. I wanted to just be able to quest, I didn’t want to have to group for heroic quests, I didn’t want to have to run flashpoints. I basically play Swtor as a single player game, I like it that way. However, I ran into a problem as there’s an xp debuff for non-subscribers. I ran out of quests to do and I wasn’t a high enough level to continue. I resubbed to get over that xp hurdle. There’s other benefits to subscribing too as all the race/class options are available which are sharply limited otherwise. Also, I could have more than 3 characters etc.

I unsubbed, or rather only subbed for a limited time, because I was playing a lot of Marvel Heroes. There’s no point in paying a fee if it’s going to go unused. In the future I may well resub again, it’ll be sporadic, a month here and a month there. I do it because it means I can play the game how I want to, I play that particular intensively for that time and it’s worth it.

Marvel Heroes
This game has no optional subscription system. It claims that everything that can be bought in the shop, can be found for free in game. Heroes are easily enough obtained through Eternity Splinters. Costumes are a random drop and so extremely rare, they are almost non-existent but they do drop once in a blue moon. The buffs and boosts, some of which I believe can be found randomly from mark 1 fortune cards, which drop in game and can be bought with Cube Shards.

So why have I spent money on Marvel Heroes? Well, I’ve had nearly 200 hours worth of entertainment so far, which means my conscience dictates I should give some support to the dev team. Aside from that there’s the question of convenience. I’ve bought 2 additional stash spaces (bank space) as I had more things to store than would fit in the default free one. Then there’s Hawkeye who I got as a free hero, I can’t stand his default purple regalia. I wanted to play him but I couldn’t bear to look at him, so I bought a costume which meant I could enjoy playing him. I think that, while cosmetic, is worth it.

Marvel Heroes plays on patience. They have frequent sales so you feel like you are getting a good deal, as it’s not full price. You also get the lure of immediate access to that new hero, rather than waiting to grind out the splinters. It’s instant gratification, you get it now rather than waiting. I like now, I think a lot of people do and it’s how games like these make their money. How despite giving it away for free, why people do still pay. Sticking to playing for free requires self control and discipline. I do think it would be difficult to manage with just one stash space but it’s perfectly possible. You don’t have to pay anything to play Marvel Heroes, it’s just easier and ‘potentially’ more fun if you do.

Marvel Puzzle Quest
This is a match three game, like Candy Crush. You start off with just a couple of roster spaces. Through playing the story mode you win character covers, you use these heroes to battle in the match three. When you get more character covers of the same hero, you use it to train their powers. I think from the very beginning you can play the events but you don’t have much hope of winning anything till you’ve levelled the characters up a bit.

There’s two currencies in this game, Hero Points and ISO-8, both can be won/earned through playing the game and both can be bought in the store. Hero Points buy additional roster spaces and can be used for other things. ISO-8 levels up the heroes. I have bought a couple of packs of Hero Points. Why? A time issue. I won some new character covers, for heroes I didn’t have. I knew that I would be unable to gain enough Hero Points, to unlock more roster spots, before the character covers expire. You get six days usually, but the cost for roster spaces increases the larger your roster is, and you can’t earn the points in game that quickly.

I’m not sure if this is a patience thing or a convenience or what. I basically didn’t want to lose what I’d been lucky enough to win/find, so I paid a little in order to keep it. I have never bought ISO-8 to level up my heroes, I just grind that out in game, it’s slow but steady and the gameplay never changes, it’s always match 3, so playing the game for the ISO-8 is just what I’d do anyway. Given that I play this game at least twice a day everyday, first thing in the morning and last thing at night, and often a couple of times in between, paying a little to support it doesn’t seem unreasonable anyway.

Candy Crush
I have never paid anything for Candy Crush and I never will. However, I can understand how people get sucked into spending a little. I have hovered over the ‘extra moves’ 99p on occasion, when I can see I just need one more move to pass the level. However, I don’t care enough to bother, it is frustrating sure but I’ll get past it sooner or later if I play. I don’t play all that much, usually when I’m bored and waiting around for something.

This plays very much on the lure of instant gratification. There’s more lives, boosts to make levels easier, extra moves when you are almost there etc. The game is hugely popular and given it’s microtransaction model, I suspect it’s also extremely profitable. The price for a boost ‘just this once’ is so small, that it would be easy to justify it, and then do so again and again, until actually you wind up spending more than you’d imagined. Like I said this particular game hasn’t sucked me in to paying anything, but that doesn’t mean I can’t see how their financial model works.

Incentives to pay
So let’s add it up. There’s patience, convenience and choice. The games might be free, but in order to play how you want, when you want, what you want etc. you need to pay a little.

So is there such a thing as a true free game? Well I suppose I treat Candy Crush that way as I’ve never paid a penny towards it. However, I’m sure that a lot of people spend something. If they didn’t then the game wouldn’t survive or exist. I read a lot on the Marvel Heroes forum that the people that do buy things, they support the game and enable those that don’t pay anything to enjoy it. I think that’s perhaps not the most diplomatic way of putting it, as the game needs all sorts of players, especially for a multiplayer game as people need people to play with. Therefore free to play players are just as valuable as the paying ones, in their own way. However, it is true. Free to play games wouldn’t exist without some form of cash shop to finance them.

My friend that plays Guild Wars 2 doesn’t understand why I pay a subscription for Warcraft. I don’t know how Guild Wars 2 makes it’s money. I’m assuming that on top of the box price, there is also some form of cash shop to buy in game items. I don’t know that for sure though. However, if I compare Swtor and Warcraft, I believe that Swtor is what Warcraft would be should Warcraft ever go free to play. It would have all kinds of restrictions on how often you could raid, run dungeons, maybe pet battle. There might be some xp throttling and then boosts sold to make up for that. The class/race options would be limited unless you paid for unlocks, maybe bankspace would be limited, guild perks would be turned off etc. They would never just say “ok you don’t have to pay a sub now but you get to keep everything as it is”, they would need to incentivise people to pay through a cash shop and they’d do that by restricting things.

So in a way I pay a Warcraft subscription, just as I paid for a swtor one briefly, so that I’m not restricted, so that I have access to everything all the time. Otherwise you could wind up paying a lot more than a monthly sub, through unlocking things in the cash shop. Subs might be a monthly payment but the amount is always the same. I’ve read somewhere that some people wind up spending a lot more on ‘free to play’ games than they do on subscription based ones. I find that crazy but I can see how easy it would be for that to happen.

There’s the argument as well that investing a little into a game makes you more attached, after all you have to play to get your money’s worth. Sometimes if it turns out you don’t like the game as much as you thought, then you feel cheated and like you’ve wasted money. On the more positive aspect I think it can give you a rose tinted glasses perspective. I think it’s possible that you might see the positives in a game more than the negatives. It’s just psychological, perhaps because you want to justify the investment. I could also be completely mistaken here but there is something to be said for investing a little in the game of your choice.

I actually wish, now more than ever, that Warcraft was free to play and the sub was optional. I used to wish the opposite, when I first started playing Marvel Heroes, I wished it had a sub option that would just unlock everything. However, now I appreciate the control that a free to play game gives me. I can pay when I want to and not when I don’t, I can enjoy the game regardless of if I’m paying money or not. Like with Marvel Heroes, I can buy something this month and then not pay anything for a year, I can still play the game as much or as little as I like, I never lose access to it because I’m not paying. With Warcraft it’s all or nothing and, particularly now, I’m really resenting that.

Can you play games for free? Sure. Are you cheating yourself by not investing anything? That is entirely up to you. That is the beauty of free to play games. The choice is yours. I do however think that if you really like a game, then free to play is a bit of a misnomer because it’s really hard to keep your wallet in your pocket. The lure of instant gratification, of choice, of convenience, is a hard siren song to ignore.

3 thoughts on “Free to play games are a misnomer

  1. For a F2P game that’s actually making money (which I’m not sure is typical), the few (whales) support the many (leeches). That’s one of the reasons I don’t play F2P games, the model is rarely fair for any one person, either you’re paying more than your share or you’re paying less, I suspect very few are actually at the balance point.

    Even the leechiest of leeches in WoW at least paid their sub and covered their cost. Makes me feel a bit better when I’m carrying them through the actual content… 😉

    • I don’t share the same sentiment. I guess my feeling is that I pay what I’m happy with. My comfort level with what I pay/don’t pay isn’t contingent on what anyone else pays/doesn’t pay. For me I could be the only player to ever pay any money, but if I felt I got what I wanted for it and that it was good value, then that would be ok.

      I have a similar philosophy when it comes to progress. I don’t care where we rank on the realm or in the world. So long as the guild is happy, which generally makes me happy, with where we are at, then I don’t care if we’re 1st, or 50th. My comfort level with progress or money, isn’t based on a comparison with what other people’s progress or payment is. I realise that is probably a minority viewpoint, most people are a lot more competitive than I am.

      • The utopian, perfect world view of F2P is definitely along your lines, the problem is that you aren’t the majority and you may not even be the small minority. That type of “pay what you think is fair” paradigm is interesting as a social experiment and I don’t really have an issue with it when it’s used for things like music sales that are one-off purchases… but that’s a much different type of product than F2P video games that are always trying to sell you things and always have more to buy. There’s a subset of the population who have a hard time saying no and they’re the ones who foot the huge majority of the bill.

        I found a relatively recent (within the past year or two, I can track it down again if you’d like a reference) article about Zynga that indicated that 93% of the players in their games don’t pay a cent and that their paying fraction (7%) is more than TWICE the industry average… generally it’s closer to 3%, basically. Those numbers creep me out immensely. While you may pay what’s fair to you it doesn’t appear that even a small %age of the overall player base for that type of game do likewise. If we separate out players like you who pay their way it won’t really dent those numbers, it’s still 7% paying for 93%. What other industry in the entire whole of the world operates on that type of pinciple, where you’re abusing the hell out of your actual paying customers so the rest can mooch at will? And that 3%/7% is anyone who has ever paid anything, ever, even once. What small %age of those 3%/7% actually pay the more-than-fair amount that’s required to support everyone else? I’d guess 10%… so 0.3%/0.7% of the whole.

        Going a bit further and into admittedly sketchier territory, making the assumption that the game-playing demographic roughly mirrors actual society, half of the players are below-average intelligence (sounds bad but is technically correct) and a small but significantly percentage are significantly below average.

        What’s the chance that a pretty significant proportion of those in the 3%-7% paying category are also in the 2.3% <=70 IQ or 15% <=80 IQ category? How many of the 0.3%/0.7% whale category fit in there? Why would any intelligent, rational person who also pays F2P games decide to foot the bill for everyone else? People don't accumulate disposable money by throwing it away.

        In a lot of ways I get a similar vibe from F2P games that I do from things like casinos and lotteries and payday loan stores, things that are fundamentally designed to prey on those who are susceptible in some key way, whatever it is. Would anyone invest in a bank that offered -10% interest (casinos) or -50% interest (lotteries) for long-term investments?

        I think part of my own discomfort is also that I likely wouldn't pay much/anything for a F2P game which technically puts me into my own "leech" category but I'm anything but, normally… I tend not to care or bother paying for optional content in games period regardless of their type, I don't feel more obligated in a F2P game. Yet, I don't want to feel the pressure, subtle or not, to buy optional content that I don't want just because it's necessary to support the game. I don't need that extra layer of hassle, I want my games to either be box price only or subscription (or in the case of WoW, both), I don't need or want it to become a philosophical issue. Either it's worth paying the price or it isn't, that's how I make my purchase decisions in everything, including games.

        Alright, that went longer than I expected so I'll leave it there. Hopefully my point was clear even if you don't agree. 🙂

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