Gaming My Way

02 May

How I View Free to Play Games

Free to play games can be designed in a number of different ways. Some are poorly disguised cash grabs with no value to offer whatsoever. These games should be avoided like the plague. On the other end of the spectrum, we have games that are so complete with the free offering, that you have a complete, full featured game with no need to purchase anything. Leaning toward the full-fledged game approach, you also have games that give you a pretty fun game from the start, but lock some important features away until you pay for them (or in some cases earn them buy playing the game for a ridiculous amount of time). I like to think of this last set of games as awesome free trials that are able to give me a good idea if I want to spend any money on it to get the features I want to make it a full game.

I’m not going to cite specific examples of cash grabs here. However, I’d say if you have to spend more than $60, the price of a full retail game, in order to enjoy an F2P offering, the game is definitely a cash grab to be avoided, and will likely not be much more fun with the added features anyway. I’d probably even go so far as saying if the game isn’t fun before your first real money purchase, it’s probably not worth paying anything for. After all, as an F2P game, the goal is to be enjoyable to the free players, and somehow translate that enjoyment into sales, though the method of making those sales will vary from game to game.

Let’s begin the good part of this discussion with F2P games that function as awesome free trials. I’d place games like League of Legends and Star Wars: The Old Republic in this category, though they both use very different strategies. LoL has opted to take the approach of making every feature that effects gameplay unlockable by playing the game for a long enough period of time, though probably far longer than anyone but the first early adopters of the game could ever hope to play. SW:TOR has opted to put important, but not wholly necessary, features behind a paywall, so while you can play the whole story without paying a dime, many staple features, such as the ability to equip the best gear in the game or access your bank are only available to subscribers or those who buy the features they would like a la carte. Both approaches have their benefits and drawbacks, both to players and the companies putting out the games.

League of Legends makes everything mechanically important to the game unlockable with in game currency, and cosmetic items are available only with real money. However, most of the mechanically important things (like champions and rune pages) can be unlocked with real money as well, giving those who are willing to pay access to more options more quickly. Runes are an exception to this, and must be bought with in game currency. While it is possible to play and enjoy League of Legends with no money at all, it is far more practical to buy some rune pages and your favorite champions with real money, while spending your in game currency on runes and possibly other champions.

Star Wars: The Old Republic takes a different approach. Many key features are locked behind a paywall. Want to have more than two characters, equip the best gear in the game, use your bank, or any number of other basic MMORPG features? You’ll have to pay up. Many of the basics can be attained by making a real money purchase of 5 dollars or more, so you really don’t have to pay out a lot. But you will still be missing a lot of things you may be used to. Possibly the most important item to unlock is the ability to use artifacts, as they are the best gear in the game. Making any real money purchase will also get you access to your bank, and up yollur total of allowed characters to six, so making that first purchase isn’t so bad. It will also unlock a number of other basic MMO features, though there are still a number that will remain locked or limited, most notably raids and Warzones (SWTOR’s pvp battlegrounds). It is in fact possible to get many of these features without real money indirectly through the Galactic Trading Network, SWTOR’s auction house. However, someone has to buy them with real money to put them up for auction, so it’s not really free, so much as someone else essentially buying credits for real money. This does however make it possible to get most features free for some people, but either way, EA will get their money from the purchases.

Then, there are games that give you the whole thing for free, and make up the difference in sales of cosmetic items, and perhaps a couple premium features. Perhaps one of the better known of these games is Team Fortress 2, which makes gobs of money from selling hats to players. I actually quite dislike Team Fortress 2, as it just does not fall into the type of game I typically enjoy, and will not talk much about it here beyond noting it’s success in the F2P space. Instead, I’d like to bring in a lesser known game called Path of Exile. First thing to know, it’s a Diablo clone. Second thing to know, it does character advancement with systems that very closely resemble materia from Final Fantasy VII (Path of Exile’s skill gems) and the sphere grid from Final Fantasy X (Path of Exile’s passive skill tree). Third, and the most important thing to know for the purpose of this piece, is that you can get the entire package for free, and it is awesome. Probably the best upgrade that is not purely cosmetic is more stash space, but you start the game with four generously sized stash tabs, and would be hard pressed to fill them unless you’re a collector. By the time you need more, you’ll know if you want to kick these guys some cash for their game or not. You can also buy additional character slots should you need them, but with 24 free character slots to begin with, I don’t think anyone will be running out anytime soon. Aside from those two things, all other upgrades are purely cosmetic. These guys have really taken the approach of make a great product, and people will want to throw money at them for features based on their cool factor. As they put it, they do not do any form of pay to win, and instead want to focus on what they call “ethical microtransactions.”

I think the purely free model used by Path of Exile is probably the hardest to pull off, because you’re already giving away the awesome game, and hoping people are interested in the other cool stuff that let’s them customize their characters and accounts. That said, I also think that, if successful, games of this type have the greatest potential, because it’s a great way to build a fan base that wants to give back. The free trial method utilized by LoL and SWTOR has much better short term success because once people know they like the game, they’ll shell out for the features they want included in their copy of the game. That said, regardless of the approach taken, well done F2P games are well worth some money to get the most out of them, and to support the developers who make them possible.

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