Sports, especially individual sports, tend to be fair. At the end of the day, it comes down to raw skill when preforming solo. There’s no way to directly enhance your skill with money. Sure, you can spend money on trainers or buy the newest gear, but anyone can practice, and cosmetics rarely enhance your athletic ability. But what if you could buy things that would drastically increase your performance, with no work on your part? Imagine shoes that made the runner twice as fast, or special sticky gloves that made balls easier to catch? These games would no longer be fair. Those who shelled out the most money on these enhancements would preform the best; no matter how much the average joe trained and perfected his skill, he would still fall short.
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While this thankfully isn’t the case with sports, it has plagued video games, specifically the free-to-play model. Developers, eager to make a quick buck, essentially sell players power which, as defined in, "The Success of Free to Play Games and Possibilities of Audio Monetization," makes it pay-to-win (Hahl, 2). These games typically make a decent amount of money in the short-term but plummet once players come to realize the greediness of this design. Although this way of designing games requires less work and creativity, free-to-play games that are designed to serve the player and not exploit them will generate more revenue over a much longer period of time. As Kalle Hahl states, “The most played and successful non-mobile F2P games are not pay to win games” (Hahl, 2). This is because players who feel they’ve been given a fair shake are more likely to pay, more players who didn’t pay originally will become paying players, and the game’s community will grow all by itself without constantly buying expensive ads.
What do I mean by games that serve the player? The major flaw with a lot of free-to-play titles is they don’t design considering concepts like fun, engagement, and wonder, and instead simply build their games around how to get people to pay the most amount of money possible for a lack-luster experience. For those who don’t know, free-to-play video games aren’t entirely free, the developers must make money after all. The difference is these games don’t require the player to pay at any time. There are optional purchases, often cosmetics, harder-to-obtain items, etc. But if a player wants to enjoy the entirety of the game, they don’t have to spend a cent, at least, in theory. As Oscar Clark expresses in his book, “Games as a Service,” games should be fair and enjoyable to all players, regardless of how much they pay, and any purchasable content should enrich their experience, not be required for it (Clark, 6).
Making fair games seems like an obvious understanding, so how big is this problem really? According to "Free-to-play games: Professionals’ perspectives," video game developers see the format as ethical and full of potential but have concerns towards the companies that choose to use it more deviously. Granted, this was from a very small sample of 14 designers all with backgrounds in video game design ranging from mobile to AAA. They were also asked how players viewed the model. They unanimously agreed that most players complain about free-to-play games (Alha, 3-6). However, they found these complaints to mostly be targeted to games that implement this system poorly. These designers acknowledge that players who support the model are out there; their voices are simply quieter. Games like League of Legends and Team Fortress 2 (these often seen as the best example of free-to-play games) wouldn’t be as successful as they are without these players. The main concern from the designers is not the poor implementation of free-to-play itself in games, but instead the impact that these unfair, poorly made games leave. If these games continue to be made, the reputation of the model will grow worse and worse. Rules may have to be put in place to prevent developers from doing these malicious practices, potentially hindering companies trying to do free-to-play right.
There are other potential hurdles when designing free-to-play games. One of the most challenging of these is finding the delicate balance between a game that is fun on its own while still giving players incentives to buy additional content/features. Often times, designers simply add pay-walls or restrictions to essentially try and force players to pay in order. While this is the easier design route to take, it often results in player backlash as it doesn’t sit well to feel forced to pay for something advertised as free. The opposite route often taken is to avoid this pitfall. Instead of relying on paywalls, some developers design free-to-play games that are enjoyable to play and treat the player fair. However, sometimes the purchasable content of these games seems like a shortcut, making the most enjoyable and interested playthrough one where you don’t pay. This means far less players will pay money on in-game purchases because not paying actually creates a more engaging experience. Because these games generate far less revenue, the previous model is much more common.
Many pay-to-win games cater to a very small group of people, often referred to as “whales.” These are the people who are willing to drop hundreds, if not thousands of dollars into a game. Because of this, the games become built almost exclusively with these players in mind, making an enjoyable experience for the average player impossible. This results with new players leaving quicker as they come to realize they can’t really enjoy or “play” the game without paying absurd amounts of money. Designers recognize this and work to correct it, as games, especially multiplayer games, rely heavily on players as content. Without them, no one wants to play, because no one wants to play a game intended for large groups all by themselves. However, developers often just increase the amount of advertising for their game instead of addressing the underlying problem; players who don’t drop hundreds of dollars can’t have an enjoyable experience and play the game as the designers intended it to be played. This process repeats with no end as developers reach farther and farther for new players to balance out the majority of players that leave. Its unsustainable.
The second big problem with this mindset is the separation it creates between paying players and non-paying players. I can somewhat understand the intention behind this; I imagine developers separate their community to create a feeling of importance or sometimes empowerment for the paying players. This is great if you are already paying money for your game, but for those who play free, see this velvet rope VIP section-esque kind of divide is often off putting. In the study, “Cash trade in free-to-play online games," Holin Lin and Chuen-Tsai Sun concluded that, “…when free game avatars wear the necessary equipment to beat monsters or solve quests, they are easily identified as having made the requisite purchases—that is, game inequalities are made clearly visible” (Lin, 15). This inequality is often unavoidable in these games, but that doesn’t mean designers need to highlight those inequalities. The best way to encourage free players to pay money in your game is to have them play alongside the paying players. After all, it’s much easier to see the benefits of shelling out a few dollars when you’re digitally right next to someone who already has.
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The final point I’d like to make is that games that treat players fair excel, often far above games that try to cut corners and maximize earnings in often devious ways. To illustrate this, I’d like to talk about League of Legends. For those who don’t know, League is a strategy team-based game that is free-to-play. There is a roster of champions you can play as once you’ve unlocked them. These can be unlocked by paying money for Riot Points, the game’s premium currency, or you can earn it via crystals, the games freemium currency. Every champion is available to unlock for absolutely free. In fact, the only things that are exclusive to Riot Points are cosmetic skins for champions and items. Some may ask, “Why would people even spend money on the game if they can effectively unlock everything for free?” The answer is the idea of fairness. When players feel they’ve been given a choice between paying for something or earning it, they are far more likely to pay than if they hadn’t had the option of earning it in the first place. Players also tend to realize that their time is more valuable than the few dollars it may take to buy something they could’ve earned in-game. With all this in mind, it’s no surprise that League of Legends made $1.6 billion dollars last year, placing it as the world’s highest grossing digital game, according to Dots Esports (Mueller).
Video games are fun. That’s why I play them. That’s probably the reason most people play them. That’s what makes them enjoyable. Free-to-play has the potential to bring this fun to a lot more people; people who have a few dollars they want to spend on video games instead of the standard $60. People who don’t have any expendable cash. People who want to drop hundreds on a game they enjoy. This can all be possible, but only if the industry recognizes that this is what games are about, not a bottom line, not maximizing profits or cutting corners. And I know what you’re thinking and it’s true; games need to make money in order to be successful long-term. But when you make a game that’s enjoyable, fair, and inviting of all players, the money will come. Free-to-play needs to stop turning to pay-to-win models and aspire to what gamers and developers alike see as it’s potential. That potential being an enjoyable interactive experience, no matter if you don’t pay a cent or if you pay $500. When you can satisfy both of these kind of players, and everyone in-between, you won’t only find financial success, but you’ll be pushing the industry forward.
- Mueller, Saira. “Report: League of Legends Made $1.6 Billion in Revenue Last Year.” Dot Esports, Dot Esports, 13 Aug. 2018, dotesports.com/league-of-legends/news/league-of-legends-2015-revenue-2839.
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