As far back as 1971 people have been playing video games. Since then there has been an interesting shift in the way we interact with the games of today. No, I’m not talking about motion control, touchscreens or 3D gaming, I’m talking about Free-to-Play gaming.
Back in the 70’s and early 80’s, the only way to access and play a video game was via arcade machines. With an arcade machine you were required to pay money for each life you would use up in a game. This commercial system dictated the sorts of games that were being developed. Developers made games which often never had an ending and would become increasingly difficult very quickly, prompting the consumer to either purchase more lives or simply move along so somebody else could feed money into it.
When home gaming consoles became the norm you no longer paid the developer for each life. You would buy a game outright and, as the commercial system changed from the arcade model, so did the inherent mechanics of video games. Games began to have a clear start, middle and end giving a sense of closure to the game once it had been beaten. Often a game would be more about the experience than the challenge. This has been the general model since the birth of the home console and still is, for the most part, the way games are made.
The interesting shift of Free-to-Play gaming ironically was borne from the polar opposite of the concept – subscription gaming. Games such as World of Warcraft and EVE Online require a monthly fee to be paid AFTER purchasing the game from a store, which means that even though you may have bought a game outright, you must still pay money to the publisher in order to continue playing the game.
This is where it gets interesting. The games began to give rise to a black market which was formed outside of the confines of the developers’ intentions. People started “paying to win” – trading real-world money in exchange for in-game money or items. This allowed them to artificially get ahead in-game instead of earning it as the game intended. This market is basically the premise of the Free-to-Play model.
Now, almost every month a new game is released that is marketed as “Free-to-Play”, the most notable at the moment being Global Agenda, Spiral Knights, and Age of Empires online. These games are actually Free-to-Play, you can download them, jump online to do battle, and play with others. A lot of them are very fun but when it comes down to it, the developers are out to make money.
So, how do they do it?
By taking control of the market they can sell “non-essential items” to players so they can customize their characters if they wish to do so, or even sell rare or impossible to obtain in-game items in order to turn a profit.
This might not sound so bad, but as with the commercial model shift from arcade machine to home console, this new model means drastic changes to the way the games are made.
Free-to-Play games are often made to be very addictive and entertaining – up to a point. You can spend hours on a game and really enjoy yourself, but you will inevitably hit a brick wall where all of a sudden you’re not leveling up as much as you once were, and all the items you find seem pale in comparison to the items offered in the beginning.
They are partial games, a fact which is only revealed once you have already invested a significant amount of your time in the game, and so you are left with two choices: abandon the game, leaving behind all of your hard work, or start paying fees and micro-transactions to try and rekindle your enjoyment.
These series of micro-transactions begin to accumulate and, coupled with the time spent on the game already, will often snowball into spending even more time and money on it. The micro-transactions are similar to the pay-per-life scheme of the arcade machines and, like the arcade machine model, the games don’t have an actual end to them. Potentially, developers have combined the pay-per-life scheme with the convenience of home gaming, sprinkled it with an addictive substance, and removed any possible feeling of closure a player might have playing it.
It’s an almost diabolical system, but it’s still early days in Free-to-Play history, so who knows how it will develop in the future.