How to do free-to-play right

28 Jun 2013  by   Tim McDonald
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Funny how things change. Much as we’ve always treated any new developments in gaming with a degree of suspicion and mistrust, there’ve always been new content types that have evoked a huge range of possibilities. Episodic games will be like a TV show, where we keep talking about them for months, and we don’t have to wait so long for more games! DLC will be like mini-expansion packs, adding in extra content in smaller lots for less money! And free-to-play games… well, what’s not to like about that? I mean, they’re giving us a game for free. How are they even going to make money?

Now, of course, things are a bit different. Barring adventures from studios like Telltale and Phoenix Online, episodic games have pretty much vanished after flops like SiN Episode 1 and the interminable wait for Half-Life 2: Episode 3. DLC is now treated with even more suspicion and mistrust, in terms of “they just cut this out of the game so that they can sell it later on” (which isn’t true nearly as often as most think, but that’s an article for another time). And free-to-play games… well, that very phrase now conjures up images of boring, tedious, repetitious chores, which hook you in with quick progression and then force you to pay exorbitant amounts if you don’t want to grind for a billion hours.

card hunter 4

I haven’t written much about Card Hunter yet, but seriously: it’s excellent. Totally not what you’d expect, completely irreverent, heavily tactical, and very clever. And, from what I’ve played, not too obsessive about making you spend real money, which is always a pretty good way to make me inclined to spend real money.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are a fair few examples of solid free-to-play games out there – Dota 2, Hawken, Planetside 2, Team Fortress 2, Blacklight: Retribution, Tribes: Ascend, Warframe, Mechwarrior Online, and the utterly exquisite Card Hunter, to list a few that I’ve played, and that’s not even going near the MMOs that went F2P. Yet even most of these have issues.

(I’ll point out now that I’m not including actually free games in this. To me, free-to-play conjures up a mental image of games that do ask you to spend money; the likes of Super Crate Box and Barkley Shut Up & Jam Gaiden, great as they are, don’t really fall into this category.)

Before we get stuck into talking about free-to-play models that work and free-to-play models that feel intrusive and irritating, let’s take a quick trip back in time to the two subsets of games that were paving the way for this sort of thing years before internet access was commonplace: freeware and shareware titles. Freeware games were exactly what they sound like – free games, with the odd screen asking for you to send the creator a bit of cash if you had fun.

Doom 3: BFG Edition

It’s somewhat hard to believe that this series started with a game that gave you the first nine levels completely free.

Shareware was more interesting. These were games which offered a sizeable chunk of the game for free – a sort of extended demo – and then required you to pay a cost, which was usually less than a standard retail game, in order to get the full version. And by “sizeable chunk of the game”, we’re usually talking from a quarter to a third of the full thing. To put that in perspective, that’s the rough equivalent of Activision giving away the first four or five levels of their newest Call of Duty game, or Valve handing out the entirety of Half-Life 2 to try to entice you into buying Episode One and Episode Two.

So how does this tie into free-to-play? Easy. The one thing that most free-to-play games currently lack is exactly what the shareware giants had in abundance 20 years ago: trust.

Back then, companies like Epic and id Software trusted that they had an excellent product and that you’d be more than happy to pay for the rest, even though this was long before the days when you just had to tap your credit card details into a website and wait for a download. You’d usually have to mail off, or make a phone call – both of which are significantly more hassle (and, as a fair few parents thought back then, incredibly insecure) than tapping a few numbers into a web form.

Marvel Heroes

Just off to the side, Thor is smashing a snakeman while Thor beats up a thug while Thor hurls his hammer at a Doombot while Thor respawns after being killed by Morlocks. And then: SEVENTEEN SPIDER-MEN.

Most free-to-play games these days, on the other hand… well, you sort of get the experience. Marvel Heroes offers you the full game, but gives you an incredibly limited selection of heroes and demands you pony up cash for the rest – but with a few dozen heroes on offer at an exorbitant price and no way of trialling them first, there’s little way to know if you’re going to waste your money. Considering that one of the big problems with the game is having 50 Scarlet Witches running around together, the lack of variety in hero selection actually impinges on the fun.

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