Editorial | 8/6/2014 at 12:15 PM

The Free to Play Revolution is Better Than You Thought

Looking past a name

There was a time when “Free to Play” meant Farmville and Candy Crush. Annoying timed based game limitations and constant annoying social media requests from “friends” defined the genre in its infancy. But the truth of it is, free to play gaming has blossomed on the PC for hardcore gamers. It’s broken free of the shackles of its casual birth into something that’s very close to a trend that help boom PC gaming in the early 90s - shareware.

In fact, one of the developers who was part of that shareware revolution in the early 90s, John Romero, worked for id software on DOOM. In an interview with Gameindustry.biz he noted how PC and free to play are “decimating consoles.”

"It's a different form of monetization than Doom or Wolfenstein or Quake where that's free-to-play [as shareware]. Our entire first episode was free [for those games] - give us no money, play the whole thing. If you like it and want to play more, then you finally pay us. I didn't cripple the game in any design way. That was a really fair way to market a game When we put these games out on shareware, that changed the whole industry. Before shareware there were no CD-ROMs, there were no demos at all. If you wanted to buy Ultima, Secret of Monkey Island, any of those games, you had to look really hard at that box and decide to spend 50 bucks to get it."

Free to Pay to Play

While free to play games initially felt like nickel and diming, some of managed to break the mold. We’ve seen some really poor attempts though. Games like Combat Arms charged for every gun, bullet and powerup. Star Wars: The Old Republic originally started as a retail game with a subscription, but switched to free to play. The game locked players behind a small level cap - not completely dissimilar to a shareware model. Other extremes come from the myriad of online titles like the famous “Come Play More Lord” game Evony (formerly Civony) which forced players to pump in dollars to speed up production of even the most basic elements of the game. Hiding your core gameplay concepts behind dozens of microtransactions only deters the core playerbase.

This is different from an arcade machine asking for a quarter to continue, you still have full access to the entire arsenal before that quarter, you are only purchasing a life. That said we’ve seen Namco-Bandai and Capcom, both famous for arcade games like Contra, Pac-Man, and others attempt to turn those classic titles into free to play games on tablets, asking for quarters to continue games. Tracking down the detailed financial numbers on these products is difficult, but Capcom attributed almost 62 Million dollars in revenue to their mobile division in 2012 with a 35% profit. That’s a pretty significant chunk of change.

But hardcore gamers don’t respect these methods of monetization. Their habits consume games at a much faster rate and the “nickel and diming” of free to play becomes dollars a lot more quickly. Thankfully, many publishers have caught on and figured out some pretty ingenious ways to build a fully-fledged AAA product that hardcore gamers WANT to give money to.


I asked the staff and community to name some of their favorite and more fair free to play titles, and compiled a list of quality games that also feature some great co-op gameplay too.

DOTA 2 (Valve) - While everyone is trying to cash in on the MOBA craze, Valve has proven they understand and respect their user base - not only that, they invite their community to share in the wealth. Almost the entire DOTA market is based on community created content, of which the creators get a cut. Gamers can play and take part in the entire game with absolutely nothing being locked behind a paywall. In terms of co-op play, you can practice against bots with friends and from time to time Valve launches a unique co-op mode like Wraith King.

Hearthstone (Blizzard) - Blizzard has nailed the competitive card game model down, combining their success with World of Warcraft with virtual packs of cards to keep you coming back. You can always earn packs by completing challenges, or if you're short on time buy virtual decks. While there’s no co-op yet, there’s a rumored co-op adventure similar to the expansion that just launched.

Warframe (Digital Extremes) - Warframe is a 3rd person action game with space ninjas. That should entice you enough to play. If not, the entirety of the 4-player co-op campaign can be played from beginning to end no problem. You can also drop some cash for improved weapons, or to speed up production of multiple playable characters.

Hawken (Meteor Entertainment) - Giant robots duking it out in a drop dead gorgeous game. The fast and furious combat feels like Quake meets Mech Warrior. Players can purchase new robots, skins, loadouts, emotes and more - but you’ll never have to “pay to win.” There’s a co-op survival mode available for up to five players that’s a lot of fun, and you can level up your pilot in it.

Planetside 2 (Sony Online Entertainment) - The game drops you in a massive war with combat of up to 2,000 players. There’s a built in leveling system for individual players, weapons and vehicles, and the game ties the speed at which you level to its microtransactions, along of course with, cosmetic items.

Path of Exile (Grinding Gears Games) - Path of Exile is straight up a Diablo-like experience. A pure action/RPG with tons of content, daily and weekly quests and challenges, and lots of co-op play. The game does a fantastic job of telling you what you’ll need to pay for. Almost all of these are cosmetic once again, and since everyone loves showing off their loot in an action/RPG, this fits perfectly.

Team Fortress 2 (Valve) - While Team Fortress 2 started out as a premium title, the game went free to play a few years into its life, breathing new life and fresh players into the game. Once again cosmetic items are premium - Valve is famous for making rare “hats” for characters that players bought, trade and sought after. For co-op gamers there’s the Mann vs. Machine mode, which is one of the more difficult co-op survival modes I’ve personally played. Players can purchase tickets for faster access to this along with unique unlocks.

League of Legends (Riot Games) - The monster MOBA that really helped legitimize free to play on the PC, the game locks its heroes behind a paywall, rotating what ones become available. Players can use in game currency, earned by playing to unlock them as well, or just pay the money outright. The game is consistently one of the most played games on PC (tracked via Raptr), and also the most watched on Twitch.tv. Players can co-op against bots and earn rewards.

An Industry Perspective

While some of the games we listed are from newcomers, many are from veteran studios. Why would they abandon a model that has worked for them for years to risk it on free to play? Especially since their core audience shuns the genre so. We talked with Nick Tannahill of Firefly Studios, creators of the Stronghold series (Stronghold 1Stronghold Crusader 2, etc) about that.

Firefly launched a free to play title, Stronghold Kingdoms, in 2009, at a time when the genre was only popular in countries like China and Korea. Firefly has a hardcore audience of strategy fans following the studio since the first game launched in 2001. This was a big risk. So what happened? “We essentially put the game out there and, with the help of our core fanbase, saw it grow month after month from thousands of players to tens of thousands and eventually millions,” said Tannahill.

Where did these people come from? Was it simply gamers willing to give the game a shot because it was free? Probably to some degree. But a lot of it had to do with a very real design decision. “ A large part of F2P game design, at least on the technical side, is making the graphics scale well for all kinds of machines,” Tannahill told us, “The added benefit of this is that people who don’t own a gaming rig can use their work desktop PC to play F2P games.”

With the increased players numbers and broader audience, success still wasn’t guaranteed. “The game’s core loop has to be fun, people have to like the art, there has to be depth and everything else that makes a game great has to be present,” said Tannahill.

I myself used to doubt this model of play. There was a time I went to PAX East in 2012 and saw nothing but wall to wall free to play titles. World of Tanks. League of Legends. Air Mech Arena. Neverwinter. Every booth seemed to showcase these titles and I just couldn’t find the appeal. The graphics seemed bland, the game play seemed to match. But like any market, these companies have adapted their games and new companies have found better ways to make a free to play game A GAME FIRST.

But You Said It’s FREE

Free doesn’t mean free forever. At the end of the day these games are businesses, they need money to survive, support the game, generate content, and create new games. Our own Marc Allie had this to say about a title that he spent some significant time with:

"I have enjoyed some free to play games, but often it gets to the point where you can't progress without dropping money. "

If the game was fun up to that point, and it let you experience a good chunk of it - isn’t that a demo? Shouldn’t you want to support the content you’ve enjoyed for weeks? That sounds even better than typical demos or “betas” we’ve seen recently. Granted in this instance the particular game might be abusing the model by blocking progression recurringly, but if done right, we’re seeing next-gen demos.

Perhaps the biggest problem is simply the name - “free to play.” By calling a game this, it implies something of the cost of the entire product. It’s a misconception for those unaware. There’s a chance this won’t be an issue soon.  A recent ruling by a European Trade Commission has made it illegal to advertise an app as “free to play” or “free” if it features in app purchases. Google and Apple are being required to change the labels on games in their store on all apps that aren’t truly “free” according to the terms laid out by the commission. It likely won’t be long in the rest of the world follows suit with similar requirements.

Pay $0.50 to Read the Conclusion

It’s obvious free to play isn’t the be-all and end-all solution for gamers. It can’t fit every situation. While we've seen RPGs, MOBAs, RTSs, Racing and FPS games, certain genres or types of games haven’t worked as well with free to play. When I asked the staff what some of their favorite F2P games were, many said they avoided them because there’s no definite “end.” Which is true. If you enjoy strong story based experiences with a definitive narrative arc - those type of free games are few and far between.

If anything, I want folks to give some of these free to play games a chance. If you just dropped $1000 on a new PC, you can enjoy it to its fullest without spending another dime on a game immediately. Even Sony and Microsoft are embracing free to play titles on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Free to play means more gamers get a chance to enjoy a hobby we all love.

There was a time not so long ago that PC gaming was declared dead, but it seems to be fighting that claim with, surprisingly, free to play titles. Nick Tannahill of Firefly keenly observes a correlation on Steam:

“Look at Steam’s top games by current player count and you will see that the number of F2P games in the top 100 grows every month. This shift has undoubtedly contributed to the growth of Steam’s user base over the past few years.”

If this is true, then longtime PC gamers have a bitter pill to swallow. Believe it or not, the savior of PC gaming might be free to play, a genre that the hardcore have scoffed at for so long.