Many gamers would agree that nothing could be better than a world where Pokémon are real, Gabe Newell is president, and games are free. While the first two aren’t likely to happen, the latter is actually becoming reality at quite an alarming pace. The recent influx of free-to-play games has players rejoicing the world over as anyone with a home computer and an Internet connection is now able to play quality titles completely free of charge. After years of sinking countless, hard-earned dollars into addicting subscription-based behemoths such as the ever-popular World of Warcraft, people can now turn to other options among the same tier and not have to pay a cent. Sounds like a dream come true, right?
As great as I think it is that gamers now have these options, I wonder if it’s going to benefit the industry in the long run or possibly even harm it. There are clearly several benefits to having a pool of quality free-to-play games available to the masses, benefits I’m sure we all know of. The obvious advantage is that the size of your wallet won’t diminish over months of gaming as it would if you were still playing WoW. But as attractive as loads of free-to-play games to choose from sounds, there are some concerns I’d like to mention.
“You Can’t Buy Your Way to Victory, We Promise!”
This is what we’ve been told many times by the developers of free-to-play titles when concerns emerge of whether players who don’t spend any money on a game will still be able to enjoy it. And many times, it’s true. Developers have to make money. You can’t expect a great “freemium” game to emerge and not be asked to pay real money for some feature you wouldn’t see otherwise. This is how companies maintain a business. However, there’s a difference between asking players to pay for aesthetic or arbitrary items and telling them the only way to win is to fork over some cash.
The trend is growing. Developers of free-to-play games may claim that players can’t buy their way to victory, but then the leaderboards become dominated by those with the fattest wallets. As annoying as it was to get fragged over and over in Call of Duty because you were a Private against a team of Colonels with better weapons and perks, it’s only more frustrating to get obliterated in a free-to-play title simply because your opponent spent more real money than you. Developers are allowed to design their games in any way they choose; if that means spending tons of cash on an otherwise free game means you have an advantage over others, that’s their decision. Likewise, it’s players that choose what they spend their money on, and if they want to throw down their greens for a chance at the top ten, I say go for it. But when a developer claims a game is free-to-play when its description is closer to pay-to-win, there’s a problem.
Spending More in the Long Run
Gamers need to be careful in what freemium games they choose to spend their cash on. The sometimes addictive and obsessive nature of hardcore players can lead to some frightening results if they’re not cautious. According to Forbes, games such as Hawken can be disastrous for players who would rather pay to win. In a pay-as-you-go type of model, Hawken tries to coax players into spending money into unlocking the next part of the game in order to advance rather than tediously grind for hours to get the same result. This means players will spend money to win simply because they’re not patient, and before they know it, they’ve spent more on the game than they would have had it cost the standard 60 bucks of most retail games. In the end, the developers win and the player feels cheated but too far in to go back, so they end up spending more. The unsportsmanlike model of paying bit by bit as you go along to secure a win means in the end the developers line their pockets while the gamers fall right into their trap and spend more than they ever planned to in the first place.
Wading Through the Crap to Find the Gems
An issue besides money that the free-to-play method brings to the table is the idea of quality. For every good freemium game that’s out there, there’s a handful of gimmicks just trying to make a quick buck. While titles like League of Legends don’t punish anyone who doesn’t pay, games like Hawken that I just mentioned seem more like devious business schemes to make money than pieces of entertainment made to be fun. This presents players with a problem: Which games do they give their attention to? Sure, it’s easy to Google around and find out what’s worthwhile, but different people find different games attractive. People are going to get 20 hours into an RPG before they realize that the only true way to enjoy it is to spend money they’re not willing to, and then what? That time is wasted, and that gamer feels burned. Quality free-to-play games are great, but the freemium model brings up a problem that was never an issue when all games cost money to play.
The final point I want to mention has to do with the story of the games themselves. Imagine you’re in a mystical, sprawling world full of magic and wonder. You’re completely entranced by the beauty and awe you’re experiencing as you roam the lands. Suddenly, a giant monster attacks you. Flanked by the enemy, you’re clearly outmatched. Just before the beast delivers its final blow, the action pauses and a screen pops up reading, “Buy a health potion for only 99 cents!”
This might sound far-fetched and humorous, but I don’t think we’re far off from this point. RPGs are all about role-playing, and should the free-to-play industry ever get to the point where you can buy your way out of a sticky situation at a moment’s notice, the role-playing is gone, as is the immersion into the fictional world you’re supposed to enveloped in. I think of games as art, but how can you respect a title that values making money over its artistic integrity? The greatest games of this generation were crafted out of a passion and love for games, and that’s why they’re popular and well-received. However, traveling down this dark road of paying to win could lead to some consequences I’m not sure anyone wants to see.
I’m not against free-to-play games. I think they have great potential and can be used in a way that honors the players while still giving developers the money they deserve. Titles like League of Legends certainly give me hope for what a freemium game is capable of; I just shudder to think of what might happen should we let things get out of control.