How to do free-to-play right

Funny how things change. Much as we’ve always treated any new developments in gaming with a degree of suspicion and mistrust, there’ve always been new content types that have evoked a huge range of possibilities. Episodic games will be like a TV show, where we keep talking about them for months, and we don’t have to wait so long for more games! DLC will be like mini-expansion packs, adding in extra content in smaller lots for less money! And free-to-play games… well, what’s not to like about that? I mean, they’re giving us a game for free. How are they even going to make money?

Now, of course, things are a bit different. Barring adventures from studios like Telltale and Phoenix Online, episodic games have pretty much vanished after flops like SiN Episode 1 and the interminable wait for Half-Life 2: Episode 3. DLC is now treated with even more suspicion and mistrust, in terms of “they just cut this out of the game so that they can sell it later on” (which isn’t true nearly as often as most think, but that’s an article for another time). And free-to-play games… well, that very phrase now conjures up images of boring, tedious, repetitious chores, which hook you in with quick progression and then force you to pay exorbitant amounts if you don’t want to grind for a billion hours.

card hunter 4

I haven’t written much about Card Hunter yet, but seriously: it’s excellent. Totally not what you’d expect, completely irreverent, heavily tactical, and very clever. And, from what I’ve played, not too obsessive about making you spend real money, which is always a pretty good way to make me inclined to spend real money.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are a fair few examples of solid free-to-play games out there – Dota 2, Hawken, Planetside 2, Team Fortress 2, Blacklight: Retribution, Tribes: Ascend, Warframe, Mechwarrior Online, and the utterly exquisite Card Hunter, to list a few that I’ve played, and that’s not even going near the MMOs that went F2P. Yet even most of these have issues.

(I’ll point out now that I’m not including actually free games in this. To me, free-to-play conjures up a mental image of games that do ask you to spend money; the likes of Super Crate Box and Barkley Shut Up & Jam Gaiden, great as they are, don’t really fall into this category.)

Before we get stuck into talking about free-to-play models that work and free-to-play models that feel intrusive and irritating, let’s take a quick trip back in time to the two subsets of games that were paving the way for this sort of thing years before internet access was commonplace: freeware and shareware titles. Freeware games were exactly what they sound like – free games, with the odd screen asking for you to send the creator a bit of cash if you had fun.

Doom 3: BFG Edition

It’s somewhat hard to believe that this series started with a game that gave you the first nine levels completely free.

Shareware was more interesting. These were games which offered a sizeable chunk of the game for free – a sort of extended demo – and then required you to pay a cost, which was usually less than a standard retail game, in order to get the full version. And by “sizeable chunk of the game”, we’re usually talking from a quarter to a third of the full thing. To put that in perspective, that’s the rough equivalent of Activision giving away the first four or five levels of their newest Call of Duty game, or Valve handing out the entirety of Half-Life 2 to try to entice you into buying Episode One and Episode Two.

So how does this tie into free-to-play? Easy. The one thing that most free-to-play games currently lack is exactly what the shareware giants had in abundance 20 years ago: trust.

Back then, companies like Epic and id Software trusted that they had an excellent product and that you’d be more than happy to pay for the rest, even though this was long before the days when you just had to tap your credit card details into a website and wait for a download. You’d usually have to mail off, or make a phone call – both of which are significantly more hassle (and, as a fair few parents thought back then, incredibly insecure) than tapping a few numbers into a web form.

Marvel Heroes

Just off to the side, Thor is smashing a snakeman while Thor beats up a thug while Thor hurls his hammer at a Doombot while Thor respawns after being killed by Morlocks. And then: SEVENTEEN SPIDER-MEN.

Most free-to-play games these days, on the other hand… well, you sort of get the experience. Marvel Heroes offers you the full game, but gives you an incredibly limited selection of heroes and demands you pony up cash for the rest – but with a few dozen heroes on offer at an exorbitant price and no way of trialling them first, there’s little way to know if you’re going to waste your money. Considering that one of the big problems with the game is having 50 Scarlet Witches running around together, the lack of variety in hero selection actually impinges on the fun.


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  • clampdown

    Wow, really great article Tim. You’ve sort of encapsulated what I’ve felt every time I see another F2P title telling me how great life will be once I sink a few dollars in.

    Although, I’m sort of surprised you didn’t mention Path of Exile. It is free, and from what I can tell, the game is starting to get really popular (no idea what their sales are like from this model) and their microtransactions are purely cosmetic like Dota 2. It’s especially nice when you put that up against the pay-to-pwn model of D3 (not F2P obv, but IMO are guilty of what you mentioned with their RMAH).

    Anyway, great stuff! That really puts this new ‘trend’ in perspective. Cheers!

    • Tim McDonald

      Thank you very much! Always nice to read positive comments.

      In truth, I didn’t mention Path of Exile because I haven’t played that much of it – I participated in one or two open beta bits and bobs, but I wasn’t particularly analysing the store at that point. I know Paul’s mentioned that it has cosmetic stuff for sale, but I honestly had more than enough to write about without going into too many more titles 🙂 It’s far from the only one I either missed off or cut out, believe me.

      • clampdown

        Ah true, I’m sure there’s a lot to cover. And the Dota example was perfect for a functional, tangible f2p model.

  • skroob

    I think you need to take another look at Warframe. Have been playing this for the last couple of months after getting bored with WoW. I have spent £8 on in game currency, purely for cosmetic changes (an additional set of colours for my characters suits). I have 2 accounts, both of which started with the one free character (a choice of three given), but now both have 4 different characters (giving 8 different play styles, abilities, etc). All the extra suits are obtainable through playing the game, except one, the newest (Vauban) which you can get parts for from a daily logging in reward.

    I have tried many different F2P games eg – runescape, marvel heroes, SWTOR, Lotr online, even rift now it has gone f2p, but warframe is the one game i have stuck with. Its till in open beta.. things may change when it is actually released.. but definatley worth you taking another look methinks 😉

    • Tim McDonald

      Ah, you may have a point. I can’t remember how many hours I played it – 8 to 10, maybe, which is still a pretty good indication of quality for *any* game when it comes to my free time – but in that period I didn’t really get a great deal of drops, and the prices of things on the store kinda scared me.

      Might’ve been they’ve adjusted the drop rates, or it might’ve been I was just unlucky. It’s a rather entertaining game either way, though – certainly one of the better straight F2P games I’ve tried.

      I still think that labeling something that costs £30 as a “Starter Pack” is off-putting, but I’ll give the game another look when I get a bit of free time 🙂

  • fsj

    Have to make a comment on Marvel, otherwise I agree with pretty much everything. You get 3 heroes on 1 run through of the game but it’s possible to get everything from the store to drop in game, including all of the heroes and costumes, particularly at higher levels when laoded with special item find gear. To counterbalance, their store prices are pretty damn high though if you don’t have the patience to do a crapload of bossruns.

    I love DotA 2’s model, as I’ve mentioned before. To have nothing other than cosmetics on a F2P shop makes me happy.
    Cosmetic onl

    • fsj

      No idea what happened to the end of that. Should read Cosmetic only makes me happy. D’Oh!

  • HoseHead

    I like how you talk constantly about DOTA and never bring up league of legends, which has one of the biggest player bases in the world. It also offers you the entire game free of cost.

    • Kiroptus

      In League of Legends its not quite like that… You can still farm points for the champions but it takes a long time to do so, so much as to force you to finally buy your favorite heroes with cash.

      In MOBAs, heroes are something way too important to be locked-up in a cash-shop or a long grind designed to push you to the cash-shop, LoL can be as popular as ever but I dont agree with their F2P system at all, its more popular because it was the first moba to break free of the WC3 engine and used big marketing words as “From the creator of WC3 Dota!” which is false, since Guinsoo made a disgustinly imbalanced map and abadoned the game to play World of Warcraft, once Icefrog rebalanced the game and made it extremely popular it was when they came with the idea of creating LoL and bandwagon the momentum of WC3 Icefrog’s Dota.

      Again, LoL is a huge success but I wouldnt classify it as “clean and fair”, both on in-game policy and marketing.

  • sorudo

    F2P is done’ right when ppl can play the game without being limited by annoying systems, it’s also true F2P when there is no sub limiting the free part.
    LOTRO, SWToR, CO, STO, etc.. are freemium games, they offer a free part and limit that part unless you pay a monthly fee.
    true F2P games are games like tera, rift and such, they go F2P but don’t limit the free players just because there is a sub option, the sub option is more a way to pay in order to get allot more then the original game would offer.

    IMO any game the is more a freemium game then a F2P game are prety much P2W games, the only way you can stand a chance against subs is by becomming a sub and that’s just a horrible way to offer a free part.
    sure i understand they have to make money, but does that have to come at the cost of player enjoyment?