Just When You Thought Free-To-Play Gaming Couldn't Look Any Bleaker

The free-to-play model has been taking hold in the west. More and more games are being designed around letting people play to their heart's content, then monetizing the game in other ways once players are invested in the game.

Writer/roustabout/troublemaker Michael Thomsen has written a scathing critique of free-to-play gaming titled "Will Work for Fun." In it, he argues that the trend towards free-to-play is redefining gaming and turning the act of play into a perverse sort of labour, one which players agree to pay to undertake.

Dispiriting as they may be, it is very difficult to argue with Thomsen's assertions about the nature of free-to-play. He breaks it down thusly:

The original Super Mario Bros. defined the console blockbuster with more than 40 million copies sold worldwide. After going free-to-play, Angry Birds has been downloaded over 700 million times (though some versions are still sold for 99 cents). The scope and stakes of video game commerce have irrevocably changed, and, in a way, the value of the medium has degraded as a result. Designers are no longer selling games to people who want to buy them, they are selling their audiences to advertisers. Worse yet, they are using them as an interactive form of muzak, creating a lively backdrop against which the small percentage of people willing to spend money on new quests or in-game trinkets will feel more likely to spend.

I told you it was bleak!

After that, Thomsen gets into murkier territory, describing games as "the experience of being ruled," insofar as the "best" video game players are the ones who have mastered the rules they were given.

That is certainly one way to look at it, but I don't agree with his assertion that rule-sets necessarily negate "true play," which he defines as, in its purest form, "a creative act negotiated between two people without intermediary."

After all, rule structures do allow for play, and sometimes even encourage it — for example, not all jazz can be free jazz. There's a huge amount of freedom to be found inside the framework of a composition, just as avant-garde composers like John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen discovered in the mid-20th century.

For a more accessible counter-example, take sports — there are rules to sports, accepted frameworks, and still play is possible. I'm not certain I'd say that unconstrained imagination is necessarily a fundamental aspect of play. Then again, that's not exactly what Thomsen is saying — he's sure to be clear that he's talking about play in its purest form. And in that sense, pure improvisation and play are untethered by rules. Which raises the question of whether play is enhanced by structure, and... well, that's a can of worms that can remain closed for now.

But Thompson's opening barrage against free-to-play hits sharply and resonates. The implications of the free-to-play revolution are far-reaching and, when viewed for what they are, can be troubling indeed.

Will Work For Fun [Kill Screen]

(Top photo | Adam Michal Ziaja/Shutterstock)

Comments

    "Restrictions breed creativity", that's basically the first rule of design in any form of art.

    I think if you are examining the benefits and drawbacks of free to play you are better off looking at a game like League of Legends, truly free to play without being flooded with advertising or having "freemium" content, as opposed to games on iOS systems which are generally ad-driven to compensate for the tiny pricetag (when they do charge).

    Free to play in mobile gaming has a completely different impact to the larger and deeper games offered on more traditional consoles.

    Granted I haven't read his article so maybe he goes into that.

    Mechwarrior online is free to play and it seems like it is going to be awesome.

    Bah. Nobody is forced to play free to play games and as long as there's a market for proper games I won't care

    Very good article pointing out many numerous valid points.
    Apple has ruined the real gaming industry, by setting the value of so many peoples work so low it is a joke. Many people now are so reluctant to even pay $0.99 and wait until it is free.

    I sent numerous emails to all my friends about our game and some replied is it free? I replied no
    they in turn replied I will wait until it's free.
    I could not believe it, you scumbag won't support your friends well i don't need you I guess.

    I asked people who where telling me it should be free, ok what is your occupation?
    Plumber was the reply, Ok how about you come and install a shower, sink and tile my place?
    Oh and at the end of the week you get no money, will you be ok with that?

    People do not understand that making games is just like any other job and just like any other job you expect to get paid, and when the trend is $0.99 or Free how is anyone suppose to live on that?

    A years worth of work, for what? Barely $1000, the average earnings of apps is around $700.

    Games should come down to about the same price levels as movies this would open it up to more people but when you give it such a low price it simply devalues everything including the belief that AAA tile games should be $0.99 or Free.

    But I guess when you sell a Billion you don't care when you're opening an amusement park and store.

    I agree with mobile gaming being sh!t and that is all

    To make your sport analogy correct and in line with FTP models like that in Tribes: Ascend; sure it's free to play soccer, but you need to pay extra for boots. So you can play as well as the other guy.

    The F2P model is not the same as mobile gaming.. it's a different concept, a different marketplace, and so on. The fact that developers, like Zynga for example, have moved their F2P efforts into the mobile market place.. or another example would be "The Sims: FreePlay", is not indicative of the F2P market being directly associated with mobile gaming.

    The F2P model done right can be a very good thing. It's like a "Play Now, Pay Later" thing really.. Take "Tribes: Ascend" as a new success.. or "World of Tanks" as another that has been going for a while quite successfully. They deliver a good game for "free" and you can actually play the game for free without ever paying a cent.. and I don't mean like Zynga games or the newly created "TheSettlersOnline" from Ubisoft, which essentially grind you to a halt unless you buy coins/gems/whatevers to speed up things or buy premium objects.

    There is a lot of "bad games/developers" and only a few good ones.. but that is also true of any industry.

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