The Game Jar Files: The problem with free-to-play

Originally published on The Game Jar.com – 05/11/2013
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Of all the things I discuss with fellow gamers, absolutely nothing make my head hurt more than trying to pin down what free-to-play is. I mean, I know what the individual words mean, and I understand the term when they’re combined, but when the industry tries to attach it to a genre? That’s when things go wrong. It’s little wonder when you consider that the developers can’t even agree amongst themselves what free-to-play, but what’s the actual problem? Why can’t I define what free-to-play is? In an effort to unravel the mysteries of free-to-play, I decided to break the whole thing down in to manageable chunks.
Problem One: The perception of poor quality. There is a feeling, particularly among the MMO community, that free-to-play = poor quality. For why that is, you have to go back a few years. Broadly speaking, it stems from a difference in design philosophies between east and west; Western developers, who were developing games more to our tastes, tended to charge a monthly subscription for their games, whereas games from the far east tended to be the opposite. As a result, free-to-play became synonymous with the kind of games that western audiences never really took to – Korean-made titles that usually involved a fair amount of grind to progress in, and so the idea that quality was relative to payment model took hold. Of course, it isn’t at all true that all free-to-play games are poor quality, but there are still gamers out there that will immediately write off a new game (particularly a non-western one), once they find out it’s free-to-play. It’s unfair, but it exists.
Problem Two: The perception that switching to the model means failure. When a game switches from subscription to free-to-play, fans of the game usually fall in to one of two categories – those that are happy with the switch, and those that are not. In the happy category are the realists. The gamers that know the alternative was very probably an outright shut-down, or the gamers that were coming close to unsubscribing because the model no longer fitted their lifestyles. Those in the unhappy category are the gamers I mentioned in problem one: the ones who equate quality with payment model. To them, the switch to free-to-play is the first step towards an inevitable decline for their favourite game, and any change – no matter how small, is an unwelcome one. Games do change after they switch to free-to-play, but not necessarily in a bad way. Sadly, there are plenty of gamers out there that wont accept that fact, and thus free-to-play continues to have a bad name.
Problem Three: Nobody can agree on what should be in the cash shop. Most gamers it seems are fine with purely cosmetic items, stuff like cool looking armour sets, or exclusive racing liveries, but that’s about as far as the consensus goes if the conversations I’ve witnessed are anything to go by. Everything else, from quality of life improvements, right up to directly buying gold seems to be a free for all when it comes to deciding whether you should be able to buy them with real money. A lot of the tension over what’s sold in the cash shop can be eased by providing players ways to earn cash shop currency in-game, but not all developers do this, so finding the right balance can be a very tricky proposition for even the most conservative of developers. Personally, I’ve never had a problem with the cash shops in any of the games I regularly play, but that’s because the developers responsible have never added anything that could be considered essential to playing the game normally. Not every developer gets this right though.
Problem Four: Nobody can agree upon what “pay to win” actually is. This perhaps, is the thorniest of all subjects when it comes to discussing free-to-play, as virtually everyone draws their line somewhere different. The main sticking point seems to be just how convenient your convenience item should be, and it’s such a grey area, that even the act of me trying to describe it now is making my teeth itch. Lets use a racing game as an example. Restricting the very best cars to a cash shop that only accepts real money payments is very clearly pay-to-win. But what if you could buy the best cars with coins, earned either in-game through gameplay, or bought with money from the cash shop? Essentially you’re still buying the best cars for real money, only now they’re also available to those willing to grind out the coins via regular gameplay. Is this still pay-to-win? For some gamers, the answer will still be yes, and that’s what makes the pay-to-win question so difficult, where do you draw your line?
Problem five: Nobody can agree what free-to-play actually is. If you take everything I’ve highlighted so far, and combine it all together, you’re left with the biggest problem of all with free-to-play, and the title of this piece – nobody can decide what is actually is. Is it an indication that a game is not of sufficient quality to justify charging some sort of fee for playing it, or a way to enable gamers to play great games for free? Is it the saviour of games with a shrinking subscription base, or the last death throes of a game that should just go quietly with dignity in tact? Is it merely a mechanism for greedy developers to nickel and dime it’s player base, or a brilliantly adaptive system that offers a la carte gaming to a group of players becoming ever more demanding? The truth is, free-to-play is all of these things at the same time, which leaves developers in an impossible situation. It’s no surprise that haven’t settled on one single formula.

If you conclude anything about free-to-play after reading this article, it should probably be that you should just walk away from anyone who’s determined to tell you what free-to-play is or isn‘t. It’s such a nebulous subject, that only you can decide what good and bad is. I’ve had many an hours worth of fun playing Real Racing 3 for example, and yet user reviews would seem to indicate that it’s business model makes it impossible to do so. When it comes to judging good value for money, I don’t rely on someone else to tell me what that is, so why do it with free-to-play? If you want my advice, ignore all the preconceived notions about free-to-play games, and play as many as you can get your hands on. There are some real gems out there, and finding them will cost you nothing.

The Game Jar Files: Ten games you can play for free

Originally published on The Game Jar.com – 03/01/2013

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It’s Christmas! The time of year when you spend nearly all of your money on buying cool stuff for other people. No doubt, most of your family and friends wont understand if you choose to buy yourself games instead of presents for them, and so you’re stuck with doing a load of Christmas shopping without any reward. But I say NO! You should have a reward. So what do you do if you want to play something new, but spend no money? The answer is Free to Play games, and in the interests of giving, I’ve rounded up ten free to play games for you to try.

Now before I start, I just want to talk about what to expect from a free-to-play game. Nearly all F2P games have a cash shop of some kind. It’s how they make money from a game that they’re letting you play for free. What’s on sale in the cash shop is often a thorny subject amongst fans of that particular game, but rarely is anything a compulsory purchase. Approach any F2P game with the knowledge that you’ll only have access to the basic form of the game, and that you don’t have to spend money in the cash shop, and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Trying these games costs nothing, so what have you got to lose.

Free-to-Play MMOs.

The first place to look when hunting for free to play games is the Massively Multi-player On-line genre. Your choice of games here is huge, everyone one of them offering a slightly different take on what F2P is. I’ve suggested two games here to get you started.

Lord of the Rings: Online. Given that Peter Jackson’s latest film based on Tolkien’s work has just been released, I feel that it’s only appropriate to start with this game. Like the books that it’s based upon, it might be a bit long in the tooth now, but it’s still full of charm, and well worth a look if you have a fondness for Hobbits and the like. As a free player, you won’t be able to quest everywhere, or have full access to all classes, but there’s still plenty to do and see. Iconic locations such as the Shire and Bree-Town are available to you, so why not create a character and go explore them.

Try this game because: You love the world of Middle Earth, you want to try a traditional MMO.

Wakfu is a tactical, turn based RPG with a delightful Manga art style, and is as about as different to LotR:O as it’s possible to get. Create a character from a choice of fourteen different classes, get together with other players, and help rebuild the world. I really like the isometric 3-D view, to my mind it has that cool retro thing going on, and it makes a nice change from the traditional MMO, where you’re constantly staring at your characters backside. If you like your games with a tactical flavour, try Wakfu for size.

Try this game because: You like games with a manga-like art style, a tradition MMO doesn’t appeal to you.

Browser-based MMOs.

Don’t have PC capable of running these games? Relax, I’ve got  you covered. Have a PC capable of running a web browser? I thought so, how about trying a browser-based MMO?

Doctor Who: Worlds in Time is a browser-based MMO from Three Rings Designs. The game has a 2-D cartoon are style that rather suits a game based on Matt Smith’s Doctor. Before you ask, the answer is no, you can’t be the him. Instead, your character exists in the world of Doctor Who, and from time to time he turns up and needs your help. Back in the day we would have called this a point-and-click game, and that old skool feel does have a certain charm. If you like Doctor Who and puzzle mini games, you should take a look at this one.

Try this game because: You like Doctor Who, you like puzzles and mini-games, you want to be close to Matt Smith.

Free Realms is a difficult game to describe. To begin with, I’m not really sure it should be called a game, strictly speaking it’s more of a 3D virtual world to play in, designed for younger gamers. It might not be a grown-up adult MMO, but it’s still a fun place to be. There’s plenty to do, including playing mini games, racing go-karts, collecting stuff, making stuff, or even just exploring. If you want a game that’s easy to play, and is about having fun more than anything else, then check this one out. Finally, it’s available to play on PS3 too, just sign up for a free account and redeem the provided code.

Try this game because: You have children and want something free to play with them.

Free to Play Shooters.

So what if you don’t want to play an MMO? I know, these crazy people do exist, right? As it’s the festive period, I have something for them too.

Battlefield Heroes is a browser-based 3rd person shooter from EA. If you’ve played Battlefield 1943 or the like, you’ll be familiar with the objective based game-play and the WW II style vehicles of this game. As a free player you’ll have enough slots to create four heroes, choosing from the two factions and three classes; the Royal Army or the National Army, and Commando, Soldier, or Gunner. Playing requires installing a plug-in, and membership to EA’s Origin service, but that’s about as complicated as it gets. The only other thing I’ll mention is the sale of better guns in the cash shop. Some gamers feel selling such things leads to an uneven playing field, whether you feel the same is something you’ll have to decide for yourself. Luckily, as the game is free, finding out won’t cost you anything.

Try this game because: You like Battlefield games, you like objective based shooters, you like shooters with vehicles.

Team Fortress 2 is a class based FPS from Valve. Released on consoles as part of the Orange Box, it’s also available for free to Steam users. The store contains things like extra maps, hats and outfits, but nothing really essential to playing the game. TF2 has always been one of my favourite shooters, and with it being free, there’s no excuse not to gather up a few friends and have a go. This game does require a little more grunt than Battlefield Heroes, but nothing to powerful, in fact the minimum specs even list Windows XP as one of the support operating systems.

Try this game because: You like class based shooters, you like your games to have some lunatic humour, you like wearing a gas-mask at the weekends anyway and so playing the Pyro appeals to you.

Free to Play Strategy Games.

Something for MMO gamers? Check! Something for the Shooter fans? Check! Now, what about something for those of you with a more strategic frame of mind…

Age of Empires: Online is a free to download and play RTS from Microsoft Studios. Half of the game is Age of Empires as you know it, you start with a town centre, send out your civilians to gather resources, and build from there. The other half, the capital city part is the persistent online world bit, and where the game makes its money. Having played this game in the beta, and without the cash shop restrictions, I can tell you that the traditional AoE part is as fun as ever, I just haven’t worked out whether I like the amount of stuff they charge for.

Play this game because: You’re an Age of Empire fan, you want to build your own empire.

League of Legends is a hugely successful MOBA (Multi-player Online Battle Arena) game, and I couldn’t possibly write a list of free to play games without mentioning it. There’s no questing to be had here, it’s a straight up battle for map dominance between two teams of players, and winning is all about the champion you pick, a solid strategy, and good team coordination. You don’t have to worry about learning the hard way by jumping in at the deep end though, a practice mode allows you to play against bots while you figure how to play and which champions you like using. Yes it’s a PvP (Player verses Player) game, which won’t be for everyone, but don’t let that stop you from at least trying it out.

Try this game because: You find the idea of questing boring, you prefer a team-based games.

Free to  Play Console Games.

Ah yes, free to play console games…tricky one this…errrm…can you come back to me next week? Actually there are some free to play games available to the PC phobic gamers out there.

DC Universe Online is for those gamers that require their entertainment to have more of a superhero flavour. Playable on the PS3 (and PC), DC:UO is an action MMO that allows you to create your own superhero within the DC universe, and beat bad guys faces in. Or if you find Superman a bit lame, to create your own supervillian, and beat the good guys faces in. Sadly, if your longing to play Superman or the Joker you’ll be disappointed, here they play the role of mentors, guiding your path to greatness. It’s not been the most successful game ever, but it is free, and it does have muscular men in tights. All in all a win-win situation.

Play this game because: You like superheroes, you dream of wearing Spandex on a day-to-day basis.

Happy Wars on Xbox Live Arcade is the one game in this run down I’d never heard of until I started writing. The best description I can come up with is cartoon-like medieval setting + Animal Crossing looking characters + class based, fifteen versus fifteen player combat. Hopefully that made some sort of sense to you. Technically I suppose you could say that as it’s only available to Gold subscribers it’s not truly free, but hey it’s my article, and as the 80’s song goes, it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to. Or something… Anyway, it’s a fun little game that’s worth a look. Grab some friends and go play it.

Play this game because: You have an Xbox and friends, Animal Crossing isn’t violent enough for you.

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