Zen Of Design

The design and business of gaming from the perspective of an experienced developer

Free 2 Play is Not a Cancer (Unless It Is)

Sometime ago, someone sent me this article, in which a Free-to-Play designer described how he is not a ‘cancer’ on the games industry.  I read it, but I didn’t fully agree with it, but it took me a little while to figure out what’s wrong with it.

This is it:

You see, game development is a business and businesses in a capitalist society are ruled by market forces….But games like those published by Electronic Arts are paid for by the people who own stock in the company. At the end of the day, these investors do not care about artistic integrity, Metacritic score or DRM solutions, they only care about stock price and return on investment

Okay, a little preachy.  But preachy isn’t what bugs me.

When a developer loses her job—when she’s got rent to make and bills to pay—she needs to find new work. More and more, jobs are coming in the form of games that do not cater to the core Gamer who reads Kotaku. Gaming as an industry has been expanding outward for a long time and increasingly, the “Gamer” is becoming a less relevant part of the overall gaming pie as more dollars are spent on free-to-play games for mobile/tablet, PC and now consoles too.

See it yet?

Most of the article talks about desperate developers who have to get a job to survive.  Your average Kotaku reader does not care about the plights of poor developers.  They care about their games changing in a way they can’t control.

Most other articles about Free 2 Play make a similar, unforced error.  They are on game development sites like Gamasutra, and are eager to explain why Free 2 Play is wonderful – for DEVELOPERS AND PUBLISHERS.  They throw around discussions of increased concurrency, ARPU, savings on inventory, etcetera, etcetera, and etcetera.

There is shockingly little on the Internet, it turns out, that talks about how Free to Play is good for the PLAYERS.  How millions of players do get thousands of hours of gameplay for free, and the vast majority pay less than they would if they bought a $60 box.  How MMOs that go free end up filling up their worlds and becoming interesting and lively social spaces.  How game developers no longer can try to fool you into buying a $60 dollar box, or do unholy things to try to pressure you into never leaving and maximizing subscription revenue.

Free 2 Play can be very good for gamers, and we should be coaching it in these terms more.  Right now, the hardcore gamers who dislike Free 2 Play dominate the conversation, and get nothing but echoes in return – despite the fact that they are rapidly becoming the minority. Skeptics are just too eager to ascribe the worst motives to game companies, and to assume that the worst practices of the worst games are how all games must monetize.  More should be done to explain that Free is good, and not just because its free.

And if your Free 2 Play model isn’t good for gamers?

Well, then you’re not going to be around for very long anyway.


  1. I want to believe you on F2P. But on the other hand, you guys are the ones who decided to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Knights of the Republic by *selling* a special title.

    None any of the (mainstream) sub games have ever done anything as lame as that.

    Actions speak louder than words, Damion. And the SWTOR team does a dandy job of undercutting your arguments.

  2. Well clearly there is FTP in the play our game as you like and if you appreciate it buy some vanity items, then there is the FTP misnomer applied to a limited trial. Guess which one you are promoting Damion and which will get long term support?

  3. Great points, Damion. I think you’re exactly right about focusing on the player experience. This is the reason I try to focus on my experiences playing DDO as a non-subscribing player. I like being able to choose how much I spend rather than having access to my character held hostage if I don’t pay.

    It’s funny how people nitpick small stuff and forget the multitude of sins of subscription games. And forget that there’s no consensus on what makes a good business model. For example, I’m not a big fan of GW2’s model. Even though they don’t hold my characters hostage, I find the distinctly non-cosmetic options to be distasteful. Paying for extra bank slots makes me grimace. (You can buy storage in DDO, but you can also earn slots in-game.)

    My thoughts.

  4. I fully agree too.

    I downloaded AION a few months back, and haven’t spent a dime. In return, I get full access to the in game world, with various items available for purchase in the cash shop if I desire.

    But, and this is critical, AION does F2P right. So far, I haven’t needed to buy anything in the case shop the way I felt I did for LOTRO, Neverwinter, or Star Trek Online. Only in LOTRO did I spend actual money, and unfortunately I lost interest very soon after I did.

    With AION as the guide, I think F2P can be a huge boon to gamers. The Secret World, even though the game initially costs money to buy, is another F2P (after the initial purchase) game that provides gamers with an exceptional experience. If developed that way, Sub-based games are going to have a very hard time of it.

  5. Hey Damion, since I was complaining about this the other day at the card shop, I figured I’d give you some better context stuff.

    An article analyzing the situation.

  6. That’s not really fair to GW2; you can earn those bank slots in game. Gold can be converted to Gems, and they’ve added an achievement based reward system that gives you 400 gems at certain intervals.

    You never need to spend real money to buy anything on GW2’s cash shop, as long as you’re willing to farm or play the market.

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