Why I don’t play free to play games
I don’t play free to play games because I don’t think they’re fun. The goals of a successful free to play game run counter to the goals of a good game in my eyes, and plopping a shop inside a video game makes dramatic, catastrophic changes to the very structure and design of the game.
I wanted to put my thoughts on free to play out there, and dive in a little deeper than “haha have you seen how long it takes to dig some dirt in Dungeon Keeper for Android haha aren’t free to play games crap”.
I want to explore why free to play actually does not work. Except that it does because King and Zynga and Supercell are still making millions of dollars a day. So I’ll just have to say why it doesn’t work specifically for me.
So let’s start with pace. All games move at their own pace. It’s like the tempo of a song, or how a Jim Jarmusch movie feels different to a Jim Cameron movie.
In games, good pace means introducing new concepts and toys for the gamer to play with, and constantly moving you between different types of gameplay so you don’t get bored.
One good example is Mario Galaxy. Every level has something different to play with, and some ideas are never repeated. Uncharted 2 also has brilliant pacing, in the way it jumps from shootouts to set pieces to cutscenes to exploration bits so frequently. And in mobile games, there’s Ridiculous Fishing. It might look a bit like a F2P game with the shop and the repetitive gameplay, but it wouldn’t work as a free game because you move through stuff (like lures, guns, and environments) so quickly.
Free to play games have bad pacing. Everything is intentionally slowed down so that you don’t get through content too quickly, and so that some gamers will pay to speed up proceedings.
A lot of the time it’s just painfully obvious, as you get literal timers that spread out the gameplay, and ask you to pay to expedite them. But it can also mean having hundreds of near identical chores to do, or an economy where it’s slow to make money, or repetitive stuff that gets boring so you’ll want to skip through it.
We know that good pacing is poison to free to play. Punch Quest absolutely failed as a free game because it was just too generous, and let players unlock cool moves too quickly. In the end, Rocketcat upped the price of everything by about six times to make people pay.
The developer told me that you really want to intentionally hobble the pace of your game “so it preys on people’s impatience”. That sounds like fun.
Like pacing, balance (or difficulty), is another important aspect of making games. Make a game too easy and it’s a boring no-stakes cakewalk. Make it too hard and you risk players smashing their console with an axe. But you can have hard games, like Spelunky and Dark Souls, because you know that the developers have at least made the game fair and balanced, and that making a tough game was their intention.
We would never think of a free to play game as being hard like Dark Souls, but they do tip their balance in the favour of being too difficult, so that they can sell you - or, at least, the less skilled players - potions, revivals, ammo, nitros, better guns, faster cars, power ups, boosts, level skips, and puzzle hints.
King famously uses a crazy difficulty spike to weed out players who will pay to win, and players who won’t. Tales of Phantasia is a SNES game that was recently re-released as free for iOS, and the game is more difficult and has fewer save points on mobile, because Namco wants to sell revives and potions.
When you get stuck in a difficult paid game, you know that you’re not skilled enough and need more practice or need to try a different type of gameplay to get better items. If you get stuck in a free to play game, it’s hard not to immediately question the developer’s motive and wonder if it’s just hard simply so you’ll pay for more ammo or a faster car or a pair of pants that are impervious to fire.
Which brings us to another point, which is the way that free to play changes the relationship between player and developer.
When you buy a paid game, whether that’s a £2 iOS game or a £50 PS4 game, the developer basically has one goal: to make you like the game. Like it so much that you’ll recommend it to friends, keep it in your collection, and buy DLC and sequels. And to make games journalists write hyperbolic previews and bump up the Metacritic score.
Whether or not they achieve that goal is up for debate, but at least its a noble ambition. And at least they sod off and let you play after the transaction has been made.
When you download a free to play game, the developer must now sit on your shoulder and whisper “pay pay pay” into your ear. Every interaction, mechanic, and screen must be expressly designed to convert scroungers into payers.
Dodging these psychological tricks and identifying ways that the game has been hobbled and engineered to encourage spending is exhausting. I play hundreds of freemium and payium games for my job, and it’s such a relief to load a game that I paid for and to live in the knowledge that everything has been designed to be fun, or challenging, or rewarding, or anything other than monetising.
Free to play games are also restricted to certain types of experience, just by their very nature. The most notable is the length of a game: a free to play game must be extremely or even infinitely long or people won’t spend.
Most people don’t start paying until they’ve played a F 2P game for a week, so in our impending future where all games are free, short weekend-long experiences like Portal, Gone Home, Tomb Raider, Bioshock Infinite, Machinarium, Heavy Rain, and Half Life 2 will no longer exist.
Free to play games can’t have endings. An ending is the absolute worst idea for a free to play game. Why put a stop to people paying? We cannot possibly resolve a plot, wrap up a character arc, or let players leave a world on a satisfying end note. You must stay here until you run out of money or die.
Free to play games have to put you on a treadmill and keep content coming forever. Though, remember, the content must be spread out so you’ll pay to expedite it, so boring that you’ll pay to skip it, and so difficult that you’ll pay to win at it.
Plus, making original, unique content is expensive and risky, so it’s just the same stuff over and over again, but with different numbers and names and words, all dredged up from some creatively bankrupt algorithm or spreadsheet.
So I guess the answer to all this is to pay some money in free to play games, right? Of course these games are dull and repetitive and needlessly difficult and slovenly paced if you’re not spending any money. Developers need to make a profit from free games, so it’s obvious that they would be crippled to encourage you to spend money. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, after all.
But that doesn’t work. There’s no button in any free to play game that says pay £5 to make this game good. No button that says pay £5 to restore the balance, hasten the pace, and give the game a satisfying ending.
You’re left to self regulate. You have to buy the bullets and health packs that you think you need to make the game properly balanced. You have to pay your way through the boring quests to make the game move at a satisfying pace. But don’t go overboard, or you’ll make the game too easy and too fast, which not only bankrupts you and not only ruins the experience, but reveals the game to be nothing more than an endless checklist of pointless chores.
Difficulty balance and game pace are two of the hardest things for a developer to get right, and they are always heavily scrutinised in game reviews. I trust Nintendo and Naughty Dog and From Software and Derek Yu to put in the years of research and play testing to get this right. I don’t trust me to regulate my own gameplay. I can barely regulate my own diet. I am an idiot.
And it never ends, of course. As soon as your week long Clash of Clans shield comes down you spend your £69.99 cache of donuts in The Simpsons: Tapped Out, it just goes back to the same old game again. The same treadmill, the same broken pace, the same hobbled balance. To keep a game fair and finely paced is not only a practically impossible balancing act, it’s a m assive financial investment.
So what does the future hold for free to play? I’m clearly in the minority here, because no matter how many tweets and talks and articles you see decrying free to play games as greedy, broken, joyless money traps, developers are still making millions by releasing free to play games.
Which is a shame, for me at least. Because while the average joe seems to find enjoyment from Clash of Clans and Candy Crush Saga and Real Racing 3, I don’t. I want games that are designed for maximum enjoyment over maximum monetisation. Games that have endings, short games, hard games that are hard because hard games are fun, games I can trust and relax with, game that don’t cause me to make financial decisions every few minutes, games that aren’t filled with psychological tricks, games that fall outside of genres that are known to monetise well.
So for me, the future is worrying. I know there will be console and PC gamers reading who feel largely isolated from all this, and think this just relates to crappy iPhone and Facebook games I don’t play anyway, but mobile has a nasty habit of predicting where games as a whole end will end up going next. The microtransactions screen in Xbox One’s Forza 5, for example, is identical to the IAP screens in a thousand iOS games. That’s the tip of the iceberg.
There are respectful, sensible, non-destructive ways to do f2p. Like selling hats in Team Fortress 2 or DOTA (just an aesthetic thing that doesn’t touch the mechanics or structure of the game), having you buy actual content like chapters in Ghost Trick on iOS, or paying to change your play style in Firaxis’ Haunted Hollow. And maybe there’s an interesting way of having a game built around paying for stuff that doesn’t make me want to vomit.
But those are few and far between, simply because they don’t make as much money as making a game crap so people will pay to make it less crap. As someone who truly loves a good game, i just hope that this is a future, and not the future. The death of the paid-for game would be very sad indeed.
(8 months ago