The term Free-to-Play can instantly conjure up a myriad of negative connotations to the more traditional gamer: parents being fleeced of thousands of pounds because they left their child alone for 10 minutes on Simpsons: Tapped Out, the more sinister business model Pay-to-Win, and generally the content of games being a lower standard with revenues not been explicitly known beforehand. This may have been the case during the F2P formative years, but like a reformed criminal, they have come out of the darkness and really got their act together, across all forms of gaming devices.
For the uninformed, Free-to-Play, or F2P, is a game that you can start off on and not pay a single penny for, and a lot of times grind through it to completion. The paid side of it may be used to access bonus levels, outfits/weapons, boosts, or purely donating to a fledgling indie developer keen to make a name for themselves. It’s a business model that has worked on mobile platforms, and more recently and frequently, one that has jumped over to console games.
The first time F2P was noticed on Xbox was back in 2012 when Happy Wars was released. When it worked, it was a decent multiplayer that has a lot in common with the MOBAs of today. The issue with Happy Wars wasn’t so much the F2P aspect, though this was criticised for being Pay-to-Win, but the connectivity in general. It is still going now after being released on Xbox One just over a year ago, but now the competition for F2P is a lot fiercer.
Simply put, the F2P model on the Xbox One works, and I think this is because the games available are all so different. Games like Killer Instinct, Warframe and Magic Duels: Origins were designed specifically for the console and couldn’t be further apart in terms of genres. Warframe being a co-op 3rd person shooter and Magic being based on the little-known TCG Magic the Gathering. But in between these two you have lots of other F2P games ranging from your standard match-3 in Frozen Free Fall: Snowball Fight to World of Tanks. These were games available elsewhere, but having seen the F2P is no longer limited to casual gamers, have now released on console. Albeit it with varying degrees of success and acclaim.
Further games that originated on other platforms are Battle Ages and Battle Islands, both released by 505 Games within six months of each other. Upon first glance they are re-skins of each other and even play very similarly, but the F2P model can get away with churning out similar games, because no one is paying the money upfront to be ripped off. If a player doesn’t like it, they haven’t lost out on any money. It can be considered a negative approach to game design, but the reasons for it are intended to be positive to us, the gamer.
The biggest shift in F2P though has come with MMO’s latching on to it and using it to their advantage. Typically seen as games you must be able to dedicate hundreds of hours to, right from launch day, just in order to stay within touch of the elite players; opening these up to the F2P business model has allowed more casual players to join in at any time, keeping a steady stream of new gamers coming into their worlds throughout the game’s lifecycle. Neverwinter is by far the biggest of the F2P MMO offerings on the Xbox, but with the recently released DC Universe Online and the upcoming Star Trek title, is it opening the door for more MMOs on consoles? Interestingly, all these have been ported over from PC or mobile, none were specifically built for consoles, and other than the aforementioned, this is the recurring theme with F2P on consoles.
F2P use microtransactions to generate revenue. As mentioned before these can be for many different things within the game. Microtransactions have more recently infiltrated bigger releases, including those where an upfront payment is required, or the traditional way to buy into a game. This process has been adopted from the F2P model and has seen varied success. Overwatch is one example where you can buy loot boxes with real-life currency, but the contents do not give the buyer any advantage over those that choose not to buy. Halo 5’s microtransactions were all to increase the prize pool of the World Championship to $2,500,000, so the benefit is there for AAA titles to utilise the idea as much as standard F2P games.
F2P isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it seems to be going from strength to strength, and why shouldn’t it when games like World of Tanks or Neverwinter are a result? Of course, for every hidden gem there are going to be a few which are rough around the edges. This is the same with every single type of media out there though, so F2P shouldn’t be held accountable for games being less than average. But it has changed from the early days of F2P, and maybe sometimes traditional gamers still see it stuck in the doldrums of old. I think the F2P set-up needs to be different across platforms – mobile games tend to use Action Points or AP that limit a user to only a certain couple of levels or matches unless they pay extra, or pay to remove this block altogether. Gamers on consoles will not just be playing for the duration of a quick bus journey, they’ll be playing for a fair while longer, and the successful F2P games realise this, evolving their microtransactions for the platform. Console gamers also wouldn’t like to be stopped for 30 seconds to watch an advert either (though this is unfortunately creeping in, but that is a debate for another time).
Some gamers will never agree to the F2P model. Just like some gamers disagree that a FPS or sports simulator should be the biggest selling game of the year, but it’s impossible to agree with everything. However, for a developer, F2P can offer a huge opportunity to get a product out there without very little fanfare, or worrying if people are willing to part money upfront for it. If a gamer likes a F2P game enough, I genuinely believe they will spend a bit of money, even if it’s just £1.59 to have a walking teddy bear follow them through Neverwinter (disclaimer: I don’t know if this is possible). We’re not going to see it become the norm for every game to be released with a F2P model, it simply wouldn’t work. But it is going to become more prevalent until ‘the next big thing’ in terms of a payment model is discovered, exploited and re-aligned to be more fair, such is the great circle of business models.