Free To Play: Fashion or future?

There is only one move left, hastily skimming the field, I discover that there is no path to victory on the board; painfully, then, with a singular swipe across the screen, I take the final step toward the inescapable loss of my last life. As the entrance completes, the newly lined-up trio of brightly colored candy bursts exuberantly against the backdrop of defeat when the stage doesn’t clear, immediately, a window opens on my phone screen. Cheerfully full of itself, the box informs me that for a small price I can buy a few more lives and have another chance; alternatively, I can spend 20 minutes moping around while I wait for them to recover. If you haven’t already guessed, I am, of course, referring to the Bejeweled-inspired free-to-play mobile phenomenon Candy Crush Saga.

Even just a few years ago, the idea of ​​downloading a game like Candy Crush completely free of charge was almost unheard of. Today, a plethora of titles, notably Massively Multiplayer Online games and those released on mobile platforms, are offered for free and choose to sell players optional extras later via micro-transactions, an extended demo of sorts, the so-called Freemium payment model. The growing use of Freemium is largely due to the rise in popularity of social networks like Facebook and the smartphone platforms where they thrive. Even monolithic publishers like EA have begun experimenting with free mechanics by applying them to home console releases; Recent titles like Dead Space 3 and Mass Effect 3 have included optional micro transactions. Despite its success, the move has become the victim of a harsh backlash from traditional players, the group least inclined to deviate from traditional single payment models.

To understand the success of free models and their current upward trajectory, you must first realize that gamers; therefore, the market is mainly divided into two very different audiences: the so-called basic and casual. The core is traditional gamers, who generally opt for dedicated gaming hardware like PCs and consoles as their platforms of choice; they rarely have more than a fleeting interest in MMOs or mobile. Regularly buying numerous games a year, from blockbusters to smaller indie titles, they are the market that publishers traditionally target. On the other hand, there are the casual ones, they are almost everyone else, those who do not spend dozens of hours exploring Skyrim. They mainly play on devices they own for other purposes, such as smartphones, tablets, or Facebook. This audience rarely buys dedicated gaming machines unless they can offer something unique, like the Wii’s motion control, the PS2’s DVD player, or the Xbox360’s Kinect. The two groups are polarized on almost all fronts: including the free game.

Free to play’s rise in prominence is easily attributed to the growing number of casual gamers – the relationship is different. Years ago there wasn’t a casual audience, gaming was something only the core enthusiast did – no one’s mother bought an NES (*ahem* other than mine). The advent of the Internet and mobile phones changed that, games were suddenly accessible; anyone could play them as a mere side effect of having another device. Even the old Nokia phones, by today’s standards, predicted this eventuality, after all, who didn’t play snake? Even later, Facebook began to offer games, in unprecedented volumes, people who had never bought a console in their lives began to play Bejeweled against their friends online. What did these games have in common? All were free as part of a device purchased for other reasons.

They were also free for an obvious reason, because they had to be. Think about it, imagine trying to sell the average person a £40/$60 retail game on top of a dedicated video game console, that’s a tough sell; however, for core players it’s fine. Now imagine that they already bought a smartphone for another purpose, following the traditional model and selling them Candy Crush for £10/$15 would still be very difficult. Perhaps you could get them to buy it if you use a Trojan horse, for example by offering it for free. Trojan horse tactics are powerful tools, just look at the Nintendo Wii. Initially, Nintendo focused on the core showing off the system to their casual friends and family, allowing them to demonstrate the Wii’s capabilities for free. Then if they wanted it they could buy it, which they did for millions. Effectively Trojan Nintendo made its way into the lives of casuals by selling them something they didn’t know they wanted until they played it. Sounds familiar? It should, free to play uses that same tactic, putting it in your hands for free; They will pay later.

Unfortunately the Wii was doomed to the life of a fad, despite its incredible hardware sales, software sales began to decline as disillusioned mainstream gamers left the system and casual players were unable to move a significant amount of software into their game. place. Another similar story, and more relevant to today’s free-to-play experiences, is that of the once-hugely popular Facebook game Farmville. Farmville, as you probably know, was a farming simulator. Players grew their crops and harvested them on a real-time clock. The game is 100% free to play, but players who didn’t pay would start to find themselves at a disadvantage as their friends who paid cash expanded much faster, exemplifying the worrying pay-to-win problem that those who pay are tactically better resulting in free players being treated as second class citizens. Over the course of a year, a large number paid for microtransactions that generated billions for publisher Zynga, like the Wii, though the fad faded as quickly as it caught on and Farmville was largely forgotten.

Farmville pioneered the now widely used freemium model, and like all fads, it raked in a phenomenal amount of money during its brief time in the spotlight. Now that everyone has a smartphone, iPad, tablet, Android or a Facebook account, getting the audience to choose a free game is easier than ever and therefore the chances of being lucrative increase. Saying that free mods only last a finite amount of time is kind of a null argument anyway. Traditional full retail games also have a shorter shelf life, so on average about 80% of game sales are made in the first week. Both free to play and traditional one-time payment methods can only be sustained for so long; each one works better in an audience.

Unfortunately we live in a world where people need to get paid; games are not made out of the goodness in the hearts of developers. It’s critical that they and their publishers get a return on their investment and make a profit so we can continue to produce the games we love. The decision to release a title using a freemium model or including micro transactions is a business decision and when targeting a casual audience it is a wise choice. If only one in ten players pays minimum amounts for optional content, they will still make a profit thanks to the astronomical size of the market; In theory, that’s very attractive. everyone wins right? Free games for players plus money for publishers. However, while it’s entirely possible to complete a game like Candy Crush without spending a penny, it’s incredibly difficult and time-consuming to pull off.

It’s not a traditionally hard mind, not rather free games tend to set up paywalls that players have to pay to get past. In the case of Candy Crush, it limits the number of lives players have, after a couple of misses, a relatively small period of time, they are presented with a choice: buy some boosters or more lives for a small price or wait twenty minutes. for them to recover. To that end, the game sells time and convinces, but, of course, to sell convenience, one must first accept that inconvenience is a central pillar of game design. How can you save the player time without wasting it first? The game seems to be actively getting in your way and forcing you to break and spend money. It’s also not uneven in free-to-play games, as it costs more to buy all the content than it does to buy a one-time comparative retail version.

For casual gamers who would never pay for a full game, it’s fine. To the core, while this is a bit of a concern, generally clever and notoriously hard to fool, they quickly click through and realize the game is simply trying to make more money on small installs than it could on a large amount up front. . At best, that’s a deal breaker, as many core players feel in Plants Vs Zombies 2, at worst, it’s an insult. For the most part, the core would just prefer to buy the game upfront without actually paying walls or paying as you go, base games are a form of escapism; Who wants to escape to a world where you have to think about money in real life?

However, Free to Play is a deceptively tricky beast; although it can be done terribly, it can also be done positively in a way that the core can handle. Planetside 2 is a great example of a massively multiplayer PC FPS that doesn’t put players at a disadvantage by playing for free and choosing to sell customization options. Of course there are other options available, but none of them feel like they are trying to rip your money off, instead selling permanent content at a fair price. Valve’s Team Fortress 2 is another example of a free-to-play game done right, once a full retail game, it’s now free to play and players pay for customization options, nothing more.

I started this article asking if it’s free to play a fad or the future. The truth is that it is a combination of both. During the time the publishers have played with the model, it has become abundantly clear that while it benefits the casual audience, it is less friendly to the intelligent core who are more than aware of its Trojan horse ways and actively oppose the model. Regardless of core sentiments, free-to-play is a lucrative paid model that is inevitably part of the future; in fact, i bet it will become the main mechanism for making money on smartphones, tablets and social media, home of casual. in the very near future. Even with some good examples of free systems in core games, it looks like it will be a while longer before they are a force within the mainstream market, as long as it takes for the core to routinely get good deals. Ultimately, the kernel’s uncanny ability to avoid getting ripped off means they shouldn’t feel threatened by the success of the free-to-play game in the casual market affecting them. So is free to play the future? Coincidentally, definitely. For the core? Expect to see the coexistence of free and traditional titles in the future, but not today.

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