FreePlay: Don’t You Want My Money?

I am yet to find a free-to-play game that I like enough to want to give money to.

It’s true. But the reason isn’t always the same.

I didn’t give money to Nimblebit’s popular iOS games Pocket Planes and Tiny Tower because I realized pretty quickly that they were mindless busywork without any real depth to them. Paying money would give me very little benefit beyond the ability to participate in more mindless busywork per day. No thank you.

I have never given money to a game that uses an energy system to throttle play because, as we discussed a few weeks back, that’s an exploitative and manipulative means of getting players to open their wallets.

I have never given money to a free-to-play MMORPG on PC because I am yet to find one that I have played enough to warrant spending money on. Either they don’t hold my interest, are woefully unpolished or, at the other end of the scale, provide a satisfying enough experience for free to make me feel that there’s no need to pay.

I have never given money to a Facebook game because for the prices many of them charge for various items, you could buy a “proper” game for PC — perhaps several if it’s Steam Sale time.

I have never bought virtual currency in an iOS game because more often than not doing so breaks the game’s progression curve. This is doubly true in paid apps like ARC Squadron (which, I know, means they’re not technically “free to play,” but the principles are the same) where the game has been designed in such a way that the player makes good, regular progress by not paying and then completely borks that pacing by offering the ability to, effectively, pay to cheat. Alternatively, at the other end of the spectrum, these games that are ”properly” free-to-play often put such a huge difficulty spike in their structure that it becomes impossible to progress without paying. I don’t like that, either.

I know, I’m picky and should probably be less fussy because the times, they are a-changin’. But here’s the thing — I don’t like feeling obliged to pay money to enjoy something. I do, however, like handing over money to reward something that I find enjoyable. Unfortunately, the approach that many modern game designers in the free-to-play, social and mobile games spaces is that monetization should be an important aspect of the game. And perhaps it should, but Fredrik Wester, CEO of renowned strategy game publisher Paradox Interactive, perhaps said it best in a Twitter discussion with Mike Rose of Gamasutra this morning: “When you hear ‘Monetization’ more often than ‘Game Design’, it’s a bad omen for the industry.”

Not everyone agrees. An entire site known as GamesBrief is dedicated to “the business of games” and focuses almost exclusively on how free-to-play, social and mobile games can be designed to be profitable. That’s not necessarily an objectionable end in and of itself, but when the desire to make money outstrips the desire to make a good game, that’s when you should start to raise concerns. Unfortunately, it’s one of those topics where people tend to be in one camp or the other, and few are happy to find a “middle ground.” The proponents of free-to-play want the business side of things front-and-center, the skeptics want it to be implemented in an unobtrusive way that ensures it is always the player’s choice.

It’s a delicate balancing act, though. We talked a couple of weeks ago about the mobile title Punch Quest and its struggles to make any money. Punch Quest is an excellent mobile game. It’s simple to understand, easy to play for a few minutes at a time but doesn’t block people off from spending more time with it if they find themselves addicted. Primarily, it was simply a fun, well-designed game — but one that was much too generous with its “free-to-play” elements, meaning that, well, no-one paid for it, because there was no need to. Since that article was written, the developers have experimented with everything from raising the price of things in the store to making it a paid rather than free app, but are still struggling to make any money. It’s not that people don’t want to pay — many people talking with the devs on Twitter have noted that they’re more than happy to fling some money the way of the devs to show their support for an excellent game — it’s that generally speaking, if people don’t have to pay, then they won’t.

But then if you make it so that people have to pay, people like me start to resent that fact, and you end up in a vicious cycle.

For what it’s worth, I think the best implementations of free-to-play I’ve seen come in the standalone MMORPGs from companies like Perfect World and Sony. These games provide very satisfying (if often somewhat unpolished) experiences for free, and confer additional benefits on those who choose to pay money. In the case of DC Universe Online from Sony, for example, you gain access to packs of additional content and powers that work in a similar fashion to DLC for a retail game. In the case of titles like Rusty Hearts and Star Trek Online from Perfect World, you gain access to more visually-distinctive items such as new costumes and ships that allow you to stand out from the crowd. This, for me, anyway, is an approach that works — you’re rewarding those who pay rather than punishing those who don’t. You’re not making free players feel like they’re having an inferior experience, you’re making those who pay feel like they’re having a superior experience. And yes, there is a difference there.

Ultimately, though, I’m still of the old school — I like paying up front for a game and then not having to pay again for additional content unless it’s a significant expansion or a sequel. Unfortunately, in these days of piecemeal DLC, that model is mostly long gone, at least in mainstream interactive entertainment. Free-to-play still hasn’t quite found an appropriate way to pitch itself to everyone, meaning that there are some people who love it and others who hate it — but very few people in the middle who simply accept it as the way things are.

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FreePlay is Games Are Evil’s weekly column about games that cost you nothing to download and get started with, hosted by GrE’s managing editor Pete Davison. Follow Pete on Twitter here.

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