Free-to-Play vs. Free-to-Win

A deeper, less biased, and less emotional look at the Free-to-Play model, and what it means to gamers and developers.

A deeper, less biased, and less emotional look at the Free-to-Play model, and what it means to gamers and developers.
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I have read a number of articles over the last year regarding the free-to-play model, in its various forms, and read a lot of mixed reviews, many of which seem to stem from some basic misunderstandings.  It is also worth mentioning that even among developers there are some major differences of opinion, which can be seen on dev sites like GamaSutra.  Why have all the games decided to go free to play now?  What exactly does that mean? And how does that affect the games and the gamers?

What Exactly Is Free-to-Play?

First, let’s start by looking at what free-to-play really means.  Obviously, it is not free to develop these games. Just as obviously, it is not free to advertise, host, upgrade, patch, or provide technical support for them.  If all of these things take money, how could a game survive if it were really 100% free to play? In short, it couldn’t. 

Games must make money.  They are a business just like any other. Whether their revenue stream comes from direct sales, donations, in-game or banner advertising, subscriptions, or in-game micro-transactions, a game must make money.  This is particularly true in the online arena where there is a continuous aftermarket cost of supporting the game, as opposed to the console market where developers would be well within their rights to ship the game as is and offer no support or updates of any type. 

So, the first term we need to do away with is ‘free’.  If you want something for nothing you should be prepared to get what you paid for.  These games are not free to create, so why should they be free for you?  The fact that any gamer out there expects to receive for free what costs sometimes millions of dollars to create is a sign of the overall immaturity of the game culture.  I mean, none of us would go to a Porsche dealership and expect a car for free, and they are significantly cheaper to produce than a game. 

If It Isn’t Free, How Does It Work?

Free to play is more aptly referred to as a ‘micro-transaction’ model.  In this business model, instead of charging every user a flat rate for a product, the company bets that players are going to enjoy the game enough after a free sample that they will continue to dribble money into the game a few dollars at a time.  The overall idea is one similar to the concept of “give away the razor so you can sell the blade.”  In short, you give people the base product for free, with just enough usability to get them to appreciate your product, so that they will continue to buy add-ons, extras, upgrades, subscriptions, and accessories. In essence it is no different to the guys standing in the aisles at the grocery store dishing out free samples.  They can afford to give it away twenty times because every purchase more than covers the cost of the sample to the other twenty. 

In the micro-transaction model, players are able to pay for the content that they want, and get the things that are most relevant to them.  For example, in the recent Guild Wars 2 MMO(which technically is a single purchase play forever model), they use a micro-transaction system to generate long term funds by offering players bank expansions, additional character slots, customizable clothing and other non-game-breaking features. 

This type of model can take several forms.  The original ground breakers such as Farmville and other Facebook games would offer you ‘energy’ or better ‘seeds’ which essentially allowed you to play longer or make a better profit off of your land and thus progress more quickly through the game.  For players who really got into the game, pay the few additional dollars to be able to clear out their entire farm, or to be able to buy the largest farm without hitting a level requirement was worth the investment of real money.  Since this game was not competitive in nature, there was no real problem with this use of the model because it would only affect the game balance for that one single user.  That user in turn, acted as advertisement as their friends came down with a bad case of “keeping up with the Jones” and put their money in the pot too. 

What Is In A Good in a F2P(Micro-Transaction) System:

  • Allows consumers to choose which aspects of the game to improve.
  • Allows for consumers to sample products before buying in.
  • Allows for consumers with variable schedules to pay WHEN they play.
  • Reduces risks for both consumer and developers.
  • Does not impact core gameplay mechanics.
  • Does not infringe on the gameplay of other consumers.

Good Examples:

  • In game appearance items.(Clothing/Housing Items)
  • Time reduction items in non-competitive games.(I.E. Farmville Fuel)
  • Convenience items that do not negatively affect core game play. (Farmville Tractors)
  • Account Upgrades.(Bank/Inventory/Character Slots/Access to special content)

This model made Zynga very rich, and soon they were copied by other less scrupulous designers, particularly a notable few from the Korean market, who decided to cash in on the FTP madness and go for the quick cash grab. We will look at some of the bad F2P models next. 

What Free To Play Isn’t (Or Shouldn’t Be)

What F2P is not, or at least should not be, is pay to win.  The pay to win model is easily exemplified by games like Mafia Wars and numerous others, where players were pitted in direct competition with each other, and paying players had a distinct and unfair advantage against the non-paying players.  

However, the Pay to Win model is not the only bad apple in the bunch.  Many games use a combination of psychology and micro-transactions to create a virtual skinner box by conditioning gamers to a certain reward schedule, and then leaving them hanging. Because of the conditioning, gamers spend money like drug addicts trying to get their next fix.  While I will not, for professional reasons, list any of the games currently employing such practices, they generally follow the same basic concepts. 

What Is In A Bad P2W Model

  • Over time, the ability to play the game without paying becomes diminished.
  • Consumers that pay have a markedly unfair advantage over those that don’t.(only applicable in competitive or PVP games).
  • Pricing schemes are abusive, charging upwards of 100x the amount of a monthly subscription for equivalent play time. ( I calculated $1600 for one Korean based game)
  • The shortcuts available through micro-transactions negatively impact core game mechanics. 
  • In game goods are priced at extortionate rates, or only available through non-refundable in game currency.(Mainly applicable to games that do not offer a small pack($1-$10) of their currency.)

One of the other dirty tricks used is to offer up a few options at a ridiculously high price, $100-$500, in order to get you to purchase a lower but still expensive pack at $30-$50 dollars.  This is a well known psychological ploy that has been repeatedly studied in labs around the world and is known as the Decoy Effect or Premium Decoy Pricing. 

I am not going to go on and on about the morality of these pricing schemes, why they are bad for the industry, or how abusive they are to the consumer.  I am fairly certain we can all piece that together on our own.  What I am going to say is this, it’s the consumers fault. 

It’s Your Fault

Hold the phones!  Whaaa…  How dare I insult you hard working honest good-hearted gamers?  Well, its not an insult, just a simple statement of fact, so put your hackles down and read on.

The massive push to free to play, the marketing strategy that has come to dominate the gaming world is a direct result of players complaining about not getting stuff for free.  That’s right!  You demanded free!  You voted with your wallet and told developers that if they didn’t give you something for nothing then you were not going to support them.  So, like any business in a free market system, they moved to meet the demands of the consumer, you, and started offering you something for nothing.  You got exactly what you were willing to pay for. 

Prior to the free to play movement there were several high quality MMO’s and other online games that required a reasonable subscription of $8-$30 dollars a month, give or take, depending on what services you wanted.  When people started giving up their subscriptions because “they cost to much” developers had to shift strategies.  See, players did not want to pay, but they wanted even MORE impressive games, with faster load times, better bandwidth, more features, etc etc.  How were developers supposed to afford to make that happen?  In many cases, games were forced to either go F2P or close.  Not little weekend warrior games, AAA MMORPGs like Tera, Everquest 2, WoW, SWTOR, LOTRO, Lego Universe, and more. Lego actually ended up shutting down entirely, as have others. 

In most of these cases, good micro-transaction systems and solid game design came together to save these games and keep them open for you, their adoring fans and loyal gamers.  The fact that they not only survived, but thrived is actually a testament to the upper crust of the gaming community.  And to those who dip in to their wallets and fork over some greenbacks, pounds, yen, rubles, rupies, or dinar to the developers, thank you.  Thank you fro keeping gaming alive.  Thank you for showing some maturity and respect to the men and women that work damned hard to make sure you can relax.

To those who can not afford to pay a subscription, or to buy a $5 point pack because times are tough and the wallets tight, please enjoy what others have made possible for you either through their efforts in development, or through their monetary support of that development. Return that generosity in kind by generously doing your best to make the gaming environment and experience enjoyable to others.  Give what you can to the community, and you will find much happiness and satisfaction. 

A rant for the rest…

To the Rest of You

The cheapskates, the whiners, the complainers, the degenerates, and the little pricks that run around trying to ruin the game for others, to those that scream about how unfair it is that they have to pay, no matter how little, to the trolls that like to mock the ‘n00bz’ and spoil the fun.

These games are not cheap, people.  They generally cost in excess of $20-$200 million(SWTOR) dollars to develop.  What in god’s name makes you think you have the right to demand them for free?  Do the developers owe you money or something?  What have YOU done, personally, that gives you the right to demand something, anything, from anyone, for nothing?  Do you feel that your non-supportive cheapskate ass has a right to ruin the game for others?  Grow up.  Quit your complaining and your bellyaching.  Quit giving gamers a bad name.  Quit being selfish, greedy little brats screaming about why no one gives you everything you want without expecting anything in return.  Stop ruining the experience to others simply because you are so miserable in your own pathetic little existence that you find it necessary to belittle others to boost your own shallow excuse for an ego.

No, I do not have any respect for you, because you have no respect for others.  No, I do not care what you say, because you have not earned the right to say it.  No, I do not care what your opinion is of a game that you went out of your way to ruin for others.  No, I do not care and I will not apologize.  Grow up. 

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About the author


I am a life long gamer with a BA in Game Design from UAT. Aside from a passion for games, I truly believe in game design as a mode for enhancing business, education, production, and other systems through the use of the systemic design and analytical tools in the game designer's toolbox.