Free-to-Play Systems Can Be OK When Done Right


The other day, I did the unthinkable. I broke my personal vow to never spend money in a free-to-play game. Frustrated at banging my head against the invisible progress barrier in Let It Die, I caved and bought enough credits (in-game "death metals") to pay my way past the problem.

The free-to-play business model has been around since the arcade days, but we just thought of it differently. If you wanted to play more Space Invaders or continue your X-Men run with your squad, you had to insert more quarters. Arcade game designers focused a lot of their time on tuning difficulty, reworking game systems, and programming enemy AI patterns based on whether or not you had recently inserted a coin. As such, one of the early benefits of playing console games was that these mechanics became moot, as running in to "Game Over" meant you could continue without added cost.  This eventually led to frequent checkpoints, allowing players to save progress at any time, and other minor design tweaks that made games generally easier over the past few decades. More recently, a resurgence of counter-culture "difficult games" fight these trends, such as Dark Souls and other roguelike games that end your progress after one run.

Since the arcade days, the realities of modern game development have forced companies to find new ways to charge players. Few game companies still count on the old-school "insert coin now to continue" revenue model. So now, we have microtransactions which come in the form of vague season passes for upcoming DLC and "gacha"-style blind boxes in multiplayer and mobile games. As a reaction, gamers now quantify ways to game these mechanics, finding ways to progress beyond the paywall and getting unlocks without paying the developers anything. I've had fun in this cat-and-mouse type of approach in the free-to-play games that feel particularly exploitative in this way; why bother giving my money to energy systems and character upgrades when my time is free? Leave the spending sprees to the "whales" to pay thousands (and sometimes millions) of dollars for gameplay shortcuts while the rest of us are happy to grind for progress.

As I've grown older, however, and my backlog of interesting games to play has grown, I find the value proposition with my time spent on a game has changed. Why continue playing games that don't respect my time investment, but urge me to open my wallet? Why slog through a 40-hour-long RPG when there are four easier, more interesting RPGs that are 10 hours long each? At some point, my thinking switched from the idea that the hours I've spent on long games meant I was getting more game for my dollar. Now, I believe that the quality contained within the hour count and the progress I make therein is more important to get the most out of my games. This was part of the uproar when the No Man's Sky controversy blew up last year, because the value or possibility of an infinite amount of content ran up against the reality of a shallow, randomly generated exploration simulator. The question here is "will I get enough enjoyment out of the X amount of dollars and amount of time I spend here?"

For me, Let It Die has been an interesting case study in both ends of the value spectrum and free-to-play business model. Its developers have been giving out free bonuses to players for logging in and even when server issues and bugs arise. On top of that, they've given players ways to earn in-game currency easily, while also offering the opportunity to expand item storage and giving shortcuts to players that do spend real money. You can technically progress and complete the game without spending anything. I've spent more than 60 hours climbing my way to floor 20 of the Tower of Barbs, and having a fun time while at it. I felt good about throwing them five dollars to overcome the difficulty hurdle I faced instead of spending another 60 hours trying to climb another 20 floors. To me, continuing was similar to making progress in the arcade version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles In Time, or playing another round of Donkey Kong. They're similar price-wise; the cost to continue in Let It Die when you lose a life equates to about 50 cents.

That being said, the threshold for spending money in games is going to be different for every genre and for every player. Some players have felt okay spending money on Blizzard's Overwatch unlocks, for example, which include cosmetic skins and sprays that have little gameplay relevance but are cool to have nonetheless. Even still, they can be earned by just playing the game for long enough. Others have felt misled or intrigued by Nintendo's Super Mario Run "free-to-start" three-level demo to either stop or continue playing the game. Well thought-out free-to-play games offer all players the way to invest their time or money how they choose: spend more time if you value your money, spend more money if you value your time. Games with poor approaches devolve into "pay-to-win" scenarios, which just frustrate everyone.

An interesting test for free-to-play mechanics' popularity is Nintendo's upcoming Fire Emblem Heroes, a popular franchise with lots of characters that people have grown individual attachments to, but whose mainline games also feature permadeath. Will progress in this mobile game be stymied by the need to revive your characters with money? Will it respect our time? Will the game's strategic elements be worth investing either in? Is this the direction Nintendo needs to go in to survive as a company?

Other recent mobile games have explored the limits of stamina systems and unlockable characters against the need to spend money (some more exploitative than others), but more mainstream developers like Nintendo jumping in the free-to-play pool means we'll finally find out whether or not the model is sustainable for how we pay to play games in the future. 

Despite rooting for its failure previously, I'm now open to spending money when the free-to-play trend is implemented well. Whether the trend lives or dies though is in the hands of players and developers finding the right balance. Hopefully, free-to-play won't devolve into fee-to-pay for games overall.