Your Daily McMaster: the high price of free-to-play

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One of the biggest trends to hit gaming in years is the concept of free-to-play (or F2P if you’re hip and like acronyms). You download the game for free and then have the option of paying for some bonus or another or using an often pared-down version of the game. I’ve spent a good bit of time with a handful of these titles over the last few months and have taken away mixed feelings about the whole concept. Let’s take a look at a few of these titles.

After the jump, I choose you, Pikachu… or I would if you weren’t five bucks

Candy Crush Saga took the world by storm. It’s sickeningly cute and fiendishly addictive. The gameplay is nothing new. In fact, if you’ve played Bejeweled you’ll get the idea. Instead of gems, it’s candy. You line up similar candies to clear them from the board. If they’re in a special shape, they make powerful pieces. At first, the F2P component isn’t that apparent. You have five lives and when you lose one, you immediately start earning another. The lives replenish over time or with money. You earn special candy that you can have dropped in at the beginning of the match with the standard pieces. The earlier levels are relatively straightforward and rarely cause an issue. Most levels have a “move cap” that limits how many times you can move pieces to beat the level. Here’s where the F2P comes in.

You can pay for a few different perks to make some of the levels easier. As you advance, the levels become less dependent on skill and more dependent on luck. You can buy extra moves. You can buy super special pieces that destroy tons of candy. Some stuff your friends can send you for free but that mostly serves as a free marketing tool for the game.

I’ve reached the end of my rope with Candy Crush after playing through 60 some odd levels and being stuck on one particularly unforgiving puzzle. I’m fine with a game that chooses to use F2P as an option but not one that skews the entirety of the experience towards pay. Frustration is not the way to endear gamers to your product.

I’m not sure how I got sucked into Clash of Clans. You create a castle and defenses to protect your realm and attack your enemies. There are quite a few options and ways to approach things, but it all comes down to time or money. To build anything you need a builder who isn’t currently engaged. You start with one builder and immediately buy another by way of tutorial. You create builders and speed up projects using green gems as currency. You gain gems by completing achievements, conquest, clearing land and spending money. I bet you can’t guess which of these is the easier to come by. Money can also buy your little fort a shield which doesn’t allow enemies to attack you for a certain amount of time. Each time an enemy attacks you can use some of your precious resources that build up over time. Being attacked can mean losing days or even weeks worth of saving and planning, so the incentive is pretty clear. However, I still enjoy the game and have yet to spend a dime. The choice is clearer in this instance than in Candy Crush Saga as the odds aren’t increasingly stacked against you. Make no mistake, however, you are constantly reminded that you should be spending money.

Then there’s League of Legends. League of Legends has a hell of a good free-to-play model. The game is free. Each week there’s a selection of champions that are free to use. If you want to use a champion whenever you’d like, you have to buy it with in-game currency or Riot points bought with money. In-game currency can be used to buy almost everything in League of Legends with the exception of character skins, extra rune pages, and boosts. The boosts last for a set amount of time and double the amount of in-game currency or experience you gain from matches. Riot Points can not be used to purchase runes or anything that will make a difference for your character in game. That is a very important point to note. The big difference between League of Legends and the games mentioned earlier is that it doesn’t have an effect on the game. At that point, the quality of your product relies more on the gameplay than the ability to purchase cheats to forego your frustration.

Free-to-play is here to stay. There’s no denying the appeal: “I can download the game, try it out and if I don’t like it I haven’t spent a dime.” It’s hard to argue with that. In the end, it might be the fairest way to judge games even if it does smack of Objectivism. Fortunately, gaming doesn’t have an Ayn Rand. I’m biased, but the League of Legends system seems the fairest, followed closely by games like Dungeons and Dragons Online. Games that make money without the oily feel of the cheat or the constant harassment to “buy, buy buy!” We live in a world of choices, and more competition and advancement can be a good thing. I look forward to what our free-to-play future holds.