Free to play. Those three words make a lot of gamers cringe. Free to play(F2P) games have an incredibly negative reaction tied to it when, in fact, it is an extremely viable business model for both the company and the consumer. A lot of the negative aspects stem from the initial inception of F2P but there are games that still utilize F2P to take advantage of the consumer.
F2P games started out by eschewing the subscription based model of MMOs. Instead opting to allow players to pay only for what they are going to play. While this model sounds extremely enticing it was used to take advantage of gamers who genuinely like the game. One way this happened was putting high grade equipment in the real money store. This allowed players to buy their way to the best gear in the game. Gamers stand on either end of the spectrum with this topic, but the real issue was the artificial inflation of grinding required to get the equipment naturally through the game. The idea was gamers could either pay $10 for this sword or kill the same kind of monster for 10+ hours hoping for a drop. The developers were hoping that after devoting enough time to the game that high end equipment would matter a gamer would opt to continue playing and pay $10 rather than grind and get bored, resulting in quitting. This was extrapolated to the “Korean Pay to Win” MMOs sub genre. While not all made in Korea a large number of MMOs started popping up with this mindset. Make the best equipment exclusively obtainable through the real money store. Casual games are horrible with this. Have you even played a Facebook or iOS/Android game that had an energy meter that refilled after and hour or after a $.99 purchase? This is the same idea of exploiting a game mechanic to force users to make purchases. This is perhaps the worst offender I have ever seen.
With the large volume of games that abused this business model it is understandable that the actual gems were buried, but several games showed great strides in the evolution of F2P. Two of the largest F2P games available right now are League of Legends and Team Fortress 2. Since neither are MMOs I will include Dungeons and Dragons Online: Stormreach to the list as well for talking points. While it may not be the most popular, most likely due to its crushing difficulty and lack of an over world, it is an MMO that did F2P pretty much perfectly balancing the “hardcore” experience with the casual “in game purchase” crowd. The aspect that makes these titles great is that the core experience is unlocked to everyone from the start. LoL allows everyone to play all of the game modes, TF2 has all maps unlocked and all of the basic weapons for all of the classes, which are also unlocked. DDO has the entire main quest line unlocked as well as 80% of the classes and races. The purchased items in these titles are all optional and exist only to add to the users experience. Side quests, skins, and cosmetic items are what these games mostly sell. LoL also sells characters but at the rate in game currency is accrued only completionists or casual players would need to pay money. I have unlocked $50 worth of characters without spending a dime. And due to my desire to win I typically pick one character I’m good with and primarily play as her so having a lot of characters doesn’t appeal to me.
One of the most asinine complaints I hear is about how someone has spent money on and F2P game. I’m not talking about those who spend $10 infrequently. I’ve heard several people say that they can’t believe someone they know has dropped $100-200 into LoL. This statement is ridiculous, mainly because it lacks a time frame, but also because a lot of gamers spend that anyways, it is just spread out over different games. But if someone enjoys a game enough, and the game has infinite replayability as well as continuously updated gameplay, what is wrong with supporting the developers while simultaneously unlocking characters or skins. As a side note, most of the people I know who bring up the money debate have played World of Warcraft for several months on end. An annual WoW subscription is $180 per year. In the aforementioned example, if the LoL player had spent the $200 over the course of the year(or all at once but it was the only purchase for the year) then both business models balance out. In a way, F2P is basically a subscription service where you are allowed to pick and choose the features you want to experience with your wallet.
Lets take this a step further. imagine if WoW allowed you to play and level your character without level restrictions for free. The catch is that you had to buy a race and a class at $5 per. To make this a more viable business for Blizzard lets even add that all major quests were free but that side quests came in $5 packs that opened up all side quests for a given area,where each area is 5% of the world. Just to start the game is $10, a very small entry fee, and you can play the entire story and level your character up to 80(or whatever the levek cap is now) for just $10. Even if you bought every quest pack right at the start you will have only invested $210 in the game for the entire pve content. I know a lot of you sound skeptic. Com’n Critical, $200 just to play WoW? As I previously mentioned, at $15 per month that is a total of $180 per year just to rent server space and content. If you cancel your subscription you become completely locked out the game. But with my F2P model, $30 more nets you the game whenever you want to play. There is no longer the nagging pressure to get a full $15 worth of play time for the month. You own the content, and until the servers shut down you can play. Most people will not play all the PvE right at the start. Even if you only purchased 2 packs per month(10% of the game) it will only be $10/mo that you pay because you want to, not because you have to.
All of this is not conducive to Blizzard though as it puts less money in their wallets and with the popularity and the amount of people willing to shell out $15/mo to rent server space why would they change their business model at all. Even if Blizzard doubled the costs of all of the purchases(making the game cost $440 for the complete PvE package) they would still most likely see less revenue than they currently do. The subscription model also promotes addiction as players will want to get the most out of their month of playtime. The more the game is played the easier it is for its talons to sink in and keep you playing. Smaller companies, on the other hand, can see a greater revenue from this. Many games feature a $0 entry cost and allow you to make purchases for optional stuff. Its a lot easier to justify paying $15 for a quest pack or a new weapon set in TF2 once you realize you have already played for 30+ hours for free. In fact, I know a lot of LoL players who buy skins just to support and show thanks to Riot for an amazing game.