Will the Free to Play Model Dominate Video Gaming?
During the past few months, when I have been writing about all the different Free to Play Video Games it suddenly struck me just how many of them there are. In the core genres I found different Racing, Strategy, Action and RPG games. I am certain that there are a few sports games, and I forgot to mention Simulation games. Today I can imagine a person not buying a physical copy of any game, because he could register and play a Free to Play game. In that sense you would have to eventually buy some Premium cash to “upgrade” your account, or to look cooler in the game, but overall it might be possible to not buy a single game and still have one hell of a time. So the question appeared in my head, “Will the Free to Play model dominate Video Gaming?”. The longer I thought about it the more I understood that it will not happen, at least not yet.
The Free to Play Model
Free to Play games are typically MMOs, to a greater or lesser extent. Even if they are not MMOs in the traditional sense there will be player interaction of some sort. Free to Play games tend to offer most or part of the game “free”, and you can pay money for “Premium” or Subscriber benefits, or to obtain certain items or “looks” sooner rather than later. Sometimes the option to spend money is indeed a method to obtain an item sooner, rather than waiting to earn it the “slow” way.
At this stage I cannot tell you what restrictions can there be in a Free to Play game. In games like World of Tanks/War Thunder you could obtain any plane/tank from any nation, as long as you grind your way to it. There were benefits for Premium, special items and some special tanks/planes that you could obtain for cash. Then you have games like Jagged Alliance: Online where a large portion of the game is not available to you, but what you get is still significant. Then there are games like Star Wars: The Old Republic, where you also get to do an awful lot of stuff, but not everything, and subscribing offers many useful benefits.
There is this, “You can play this game, but.” in Free to Play games. Usually these games do not block you entirely from enjoying them, but you may find it better to cough up a bit of cash, rather than not.
Another thing about Free to Play Games are their features. For example, in Skyrim the idea of crafting armor/weapons or brewing potions would be a limited feature in a Free to Play Model, since more advanced items would call for resources that might only be bought in the “Premium” Store (or more easily obtained there). Then there is the way characters advance, what manner of treasure they find, and indeed how loot is handled. In a game like Skyrim or Fallout: New Vegas you can strip every corpse you find off all its belongings. Meanwhile in the pretty much all Free to Play Games defeating somebody grants you a random “MMO Style” Loot drop of junk.
Another thing is the Narration. How can you feel “Special” when you are surrounded by almost a hundred similarly looking clones, mobbing around the same quest giver? Here I have to say that Star Wars: The Old Republic managed to make you always feel important. The idea of Cutscenes, and transitions, where only your character would be visible, helped the Role Playing element.
Then there are other people. You do not want to always play with other people. Sometimes you just want to be left alone and have fun. Once again, games like Skyrim and Fallout allow you to explore a vast world, without the thought that some random player might gank you. There were some MMOs that allowed a similar feeling, such as Fallen Earth. There you might had met people closer to settlements, but you also had the choice to jump on your horse and ride into the sunset, to explore or just relax. I recall that I always found traveling between towns to be very relaxing on horseback, even if my horse did end up almost starved from the experience.
Another aspect is time. While I enjoy War Thunder greatly I can understand that you do not want to play something for weeks just to reach the plane(s) you want. In that sense other Plane Simulators give you what you want, far sooner, and there you might still have the multiplayer component, so if you want you will be able to play with others.
I could say that the “Price” is also an important difference between Free to Play and Traditional games. By that I mean how much will you end up spending on a game. Free to Play games tend to end up costing you more than ordinary games, because you might want to invest in the cooler gear, or upgrades, buffs or subscriptions. Even taking a glance at a game like LoL, where you would pay close to 10 Euros for a skin for a Champion makes you wonder how much would “pimping out” an entire selection of your favorite champions cost you.
Then there is the “big thing”, modding. Some games were very smart about this, such as Team Fortress 2 and Neverwinter Online. Both of these games allow people to add their own creations to the game. In the case of Team Fortress 2 it’s a lot of hats, skins and even custom weapons, while in the case of Neverwinter Online it’s an impressive selection of custom made quests and adventures. However, traditional games have much more modding happening than most Free to Play games.
So, Can Free to Play Games Take Over?
I would say that the short answer is, “No.”, at least not yet. While there are a lot of different Free to Play games, offering all manner of interesting mechanics, covering many different genres, there will always be a need for traditional games. However, there is another side to this, namely Piracy. Now, you might point and shout that Piracy is a “non-issue” for major developers and I am fine with that, but Free to Play games have the advantage that they are never touched by piracy, because they cannot be copied or sold illegally. You download a client, register and play. If you choose to pay for something in the game you will pay for it.
This was one of the major reasons I thought Free to Play might take over. Developers and Publishers changing their strategy to adapt to how people behave and what they want. The thing is that the Free to Play model works, at least for me, like an MMO. There is the grind and sometimes not paying for premium features or boosts will come to bite you back all the time. We might end up spending more on an MMO, for subscriptions and store purchases, than we would for buying a much cheaper traditional game.
There might be other methods, yet unexplored, that could be used in traditional or Free to Play games that will shift the situation on the market and the gaming industry (such as product placement or in-game advertising), but they are not here yet, or at least not used that often.
Alex “WriterX” Bielski