Friday, August 17, 2012

An Excellent Critique of the Free-to-Play Model

The piece "There's Nothing to Steal: Why Everyone Hates the Free-to-Play Switch" by Kotaku's Owen Good is a terrific critique of the free-to-play model that's becoming increasingly popular with games. Free-to-play games are games in which there is no initial monetary investment required to play. This is usually supplemented by offering additional abilities for a cost. So, for example, a game might have a cool-down period, where you're only allowed to play for a certain amount of time. If you pay extra money you can buy extra time. I don't think it's a terrible system, and for certain games I think it works.

Take Angry Birds: it's free, but you can spend money for special powers and bonuses, but they're not at all required to enjoy the content of the game. The model breaks down at a certain point though, usually when the game is bigger in scope, or when a game is multiplayer focused, such as with an MMO (a genre that is increasingly becoming free-to-play). Good writes:
There's also some merit in the idea that a person who's participating in something for free isn't as invested in the experience as those who have paid for it. In massively multiplayer online games, this is a valid concern and expectation. Other players are teammates in raids, adversaries in PvP, and drivers of the in-world economy. And it's a role-playing game. While there are dozens of quest-givers and NPCs there to move the game's basic story along, a human community that's committed to playing along enriches the larger context of your superhero/science-fiction/dungeon-crawling fantasy. Someone showing up to a free buffet may socialize with others at the club; he might also be there just to stuff cocktail shrimp in his pants pockets.
Later he goes into an interesting idea that (supposedly) originated from Russell Simmons of Def Jam Records:
Human beings have an inherent need to steal. Deep down, customer satisfaction is rooted in the sense you are either getting something for nothing, something extra, or at least you're getting the better end of a bargain. It depends on a zero-sum system: I'm gaining or taking something, someone else is losing or giving it up. When a game goes free-to-play, even if there's a premium tier with extra features, the owner is declaring there is now nothing that can be stolen. And even if something is being offered for free, everyone can have it, making it less desirable. This truth of human nature is why people joke about leaving junked furniture on the curb with a sign on it saying "$20" to con someone into taking it away.
I think there's a truth to this argument. By giving away the product for free, you don't create a sense of investment in the player. There's no feeling of exclusivity, of being in a club. Also, it just seems bad from a game mechanics point of view. If I can pay extra to have the biggest sword on the battlefield, I'm essentially paying to win.

It's like the collectible card game Magic, if you can afford to buy more packs of cards than your opponent, you are more likely to have better cards and win more often. You remove any sense of progress, that idea of "hey, if I persist at this game, one day I too will have the Magic Sword of Unending Strength". In a free-to-play world all you're left with is, "ah shucks, I'll just pay the 99 cents so I can have the same sword." Doesn't sound like much fun.