The Free-To-Play Evolution: You Don’t Have to Pay to Win

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The free-to-play (F2P) market has seen a number of significant changes over the last few years, including the introduction of the “pay for convenience” model. With the recent success of League of Legends (the poster child of this new F2P model), we’re seeing more developers look towards F2P as a viable market. With lower development costs and larger potential markets, is F2P the new pioneer for gaming?

Getting into the Game

I’ve always been a skeptic when it comes to F2P games. I find myself siding with Adam Smith who famously stated “there is no such thing as a free lunch”; which remains endlessly true, even in the world of video games.  While these games appear to be free initially, down the line, whether it is through unlocking additional content or obtaining powerful items, there are always costs. However, as the F2P market continues to mature, developers have become considerably smarter with how they implement these costs into their games. With the advancement of titles like League of Legends, Quake Live, and Super Monday Night Combat we are seeing developers provide costs that remain appealing to the consumer, but don’t disrupt the integrity of the game. This new development has propelled the F2P market into the mainstream, and is turning skeptics (like me) everywhere.

You Don't Have to Pay to Win

This new model called “pay for convenience” works exactly as it sounds; it attempts to add payment options that expedite the experience for users. The trick of this model is that, while developers try to add options that enhance the experience for “premium” users, they simultaneously make sure that the experience for free users is not diminished as a result. This is a large break away from the old model of F2P known as “pay to win,” where developers attempted to implement powerful and noticeable payment options that would incentivize players to make purchases. Basically the difference between the two models is subtlety. With the “pay to win” option developers want players to know who is paying and who is playing for free. The difference will be noticeable and free users frankly will find themselves unable to compete. The “pay for convenience” model, on the other hand, is far more discrete. In fact if developed correctly, players should be unable to tell who has paid.

LoL SkarnerLeague of Legends, now the world’s most popular PC game, is a perfect example of how payment options can be balanced. With the exception of character skins (additional costumes for characters) players will not know who has put money into the game and who has not. That’s because RIOT (the developer of League of Legends) has implemented a policy where premium options do not directly affect gameplay. This strategy has not only resulted in great personal success, but has allowed League of Legends to emerge as one of the world’s premier e-Sports (competitive) titles. The fact that League of Legends is one of the most popular competitive titles in the world is a great reflection of its quality, balanced design.

Is this new F2P model perfect? Certainly not; it has its flaws and the model is not 100 percent balanced. Then again, neither is any grind intensive game, such as MMO RPGs. With any MMO RPG, players who have more time on their hands stand a major advantage over players who do not, as time spent in game is just as indicative as player skill. Thus, in reality time played and money spent becomes the same thing in the “pay for convenience” model. Both are currencies that a player can use to achieve similar ends. The only difference is that we are not yet comfortable with the idea of these two currencies melding.

Star Wars: The Old RepublicFor some of you, the idea that time played and money spent both equate to the same end is not acceptable, and that’s valid. In some perspectives this is the major flaw of this model. However the standard one-time purchase model (the current AAA $60 title) is not without its flaws as either. With the development of one-time purchase games being so time intensive and expensive, developers often have to reallocate their resources to the next project upon completion. With the exception of DLC (additional costs to the consumer) and sparse patching, there is little change implemented into the game. Additionally, due to the high risks accompanied by development costs, producers are forced to mitigate risks as much as possible. This leads to the current landscape of games that we see today, which is littered with sequels and iterations of previous titles. While these sequels are sometimes arguably great games, we are left with an industry that is unable to originate and create new IPs, because the risks associated with such endeavors are far too great.

The F2P model, on the other hand, incentivizes developers to stay involved. Super Monday Night Combat in its first few months of release has already seen as many patches as most games will in their entire life cycle, while League of Legends has literally had the entire meta game (overarching strategy) shift multiple times do the constant tweaks and remakes made by the development team. The continuous development process also helps developers to lower costs and, ultimately, risks, allowing themto take on ambitious projects such as Iocaine Studios’ Steam Bandits: Outpost. Steam Bandits is a F2P title that is currently being developed as part of a three game ecosystem, where all three titles will reside within the same universe. The game is being developed by money funded from a KickStarter (in which they only asked for $30,000), a feat that is all but impossible for most one-time purchase games.

New IPs are not the only games attracted to the benefits of the F2P market. In fact, many pre-existing subscription based MMOs are looking to the F2P market as a means of increasing their potential player bases. Everquest II, Lord of the Rings Online, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and even World of WarCraft (offers first 20 levels free) have all implemented some element of F2P.

Star Wars: The Old Republic 2While it’s true that more developers are looking to enter the F2P market, that does not mean that every F2P game will exhibit the same quality that many of these pioneering titles have. In fact, many of the MMOs looking to make the transition from premium subscription to F2P have formed models that are far more representative of “pay to win” models with character classes being locked to free users (such as the Necromancer in Everquest II) and necessary functions being withheld (such as party chat in World of Warcraft). This inconsistency is no different than what we see from the standard full purchase game market, and as developers continue to learn more about premium pricing we’ll see even more natural implementations of F2P games in the future (especially with regarding the transition from premium subscription to F2P).

Regardless of what side of the fence you’re on, it’s hard to deny that F2P market is changing the face of gaming. Developers and consumers alike are looking to this market for its low entry costs and diverse array of titles. As the industry continues to develop we’re seeing new genres and titles enter the F2P space, as well as new ideas on how to monetize F2P games.

While I have no idea where the F2P market will take gaming, one thing is for certain: F2P games are evolving.


Getting into the GameFor more coverage, check out the rest of our Gaming Special Report.



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