There's Nothing To Steal: Why Everyone Hates The Free-to-Play Switch

I'm not proud of it, of course, but I've profiled others according to skin colour. You see, glowing, primary colour skin on a character in D.C. Universe Online is a sure sign of a free-to-play player, especially if they're low level. It indicates they really didn't give a crap what they looked like when they rolled, they just wanted to jump in and start stuffing their piehole in the free buffet.

Freebies, freeloaders, whatever you want to call them, I refused to talk to or help one when DCUO went F2P back in November, adding one million new players in its first week alone.

They all had incomprehensible names and Naruto hair and didn't lock their styles so every piece of crap they acquired was slapped on top of their thrown-together costumes. Egyptian headdress with a biker jacket and a short cape? That's a freebie player for sure. They asked stupid questions in chat and griefed in the hideouts, standing in doorways (in PvE phase) to block everyone from moving between the main rooms and the teleporter.

"God damn freebies!" I growled, electrocuting one (or what I believed to be one) in PvP. I probably sounded like Eric Cartman.

That's just in D.C. Universe Online, a rather mellow community otherwise. I imagine the same thing will be taking place soon in Star Wars: The Old Republic, which this week announced it would go free-to-play, to a chorus of moaning and groaning. The same kind of rank snobbery, suspicion and cynicism could be found even when Team Fortress 2 went free-to-play a little over a year ago -- and that's one of the most widely admired games by one of gaming's most widely admired publishers.

Why does everyone hate free-to-play?

"Hate" may be rather strong, but the cynicism and japery in comments underneath a free-to-play announcement means the game's publisher might as well have added, "Oh, and we give up." Especially in the game's own official forums, a free-to-play switch is taken as a sign of desperation or of a failing product, even though there are many good, successful games out there on a free-to-play model. Plus, a high installation base, whatever the reason for it, should mean that if the developer isn't churning out new content, then the publisher is at least unlikely to turn off the servers anytime soon.

It does suck to see a game you bought -- and a lot of people bought The Old Republic's collector's edition, too -- given away for free to any schmoe with a mouse and a modem. I'm not sure there's ever been an item or a perk given to paying customers at the conversion to free-to-play that properly rewarded their investment in getting the game off the ground. Maybe you get subscriber perks, but that depends on continuing to pay. Badges or banners or emblems or whatever, if I got one, I think I stuck it in the bank and forgot about it. Fuck that, I worked hard on my goddamn costume, I'm not going to put a stupid sticker on it.

There's also some merit in the idea that a person who's participating in something for free isn't as invested in the experience as those who have paid for it. In massively multiplayer online games, this is a valid concern and expectation. Other players are teammates in raids, adversaries in PvP, and drivers of the in-world economy. And it's a role-playing game. While there are dozens of quest-givers and NPCs there to move the game's basic story along, a human community that's committed to playing along enriches the larger context of your superhero/science-fiction/dungeon-crawling fantasy. Someone showing up to a free buffet may socialize with others at the club; he might also be there just to stuff cocktail shrimp in his pants pockets.

But I don't think, deep down, that these two things are what really bother hardcore gamers about free-to-play conversions.

The following is not an original thought; it was said to me by the head of EA Sports, who said he heard it at a talk given by Russell Simmons, the founder of the Def Jam hip-hop label. And Simmons probably heard it from somewhere else. But in answering how to keep customers happy, he said human beings have an inherent need to steal. Deep down, customer satisfaction is rooted in the sense you are either getting something for nothing, something extra, or at least you're getting the better end of a bargain. It depends on a zero-sum system: I'm gaining or taking something, someone else is losing or giving it up.

When a game goes free-to-play, even if there's a premium tier with extra features, the owner is declaring there is now nothing that can be stolen. And even if something is being offered for free, everyone can have it, making it less desirable. This truth of human nature is why people joke about leaving junked furniture on the curb with a sign on it saying "$US20" to con someone into taking it away.

What free-to-play systems do, I think -- and this is why they're scorned or mistrusted -- is invert the original value proposition. In a paid MMO, everyone puts down their money and their subscription for the entire experience, which developers are reasonably obligated to refresh with extras that are "free" or at least feel that way. New raids, new classes, new powers and abilities, raised level caps, whatever. Free-to-play, in which there's a tightly defined basic, free experience, and everything after that costs money, communicates more where the gravy train stops than the idea it's even rolling.

There are other reasons a free-to-play shift invites scepticism, even outright scorn, especially when a monolithic force like Electronic Arts chooses to do it. It suggests that the game will make money by selling parts of its experience instead of the entire thing, and if a publisher is willing to gimp its product in that way, what might it hold back from the paying installation base? It also implies paying customers, and their investments of money and time (both of which materially improve an online game) matter less to the game's makers than someone dragged in off the street to create a growth figure the beancounters prize so much.

Video gamers, for all of their futurecasting and forward thinking, still show some previous-generation attitudes when judging a title's legitimacy and success, starting with the idea that anything worth playing has a price tag attached to it. (Otherwise, come on, who the hell is going to pirate a free game?)

If you play any game principally built on a multiplayer population, you should just accept the idea that at some point, the initial experience you're paying money for on launch day is going to be given away later -- and factor that into your purchase decision. If Team Fortress 2 or Super Monday Night Combat can go free-to-play, it means anything with a very large multiplayer component could end up that way some day, from Call of Duty to Madden.

A clubhouse culture of exclusion in hardcore video gaming isn't going to stop it. Free-to-play will soon be a dominant format in PC video gaming, like it or not.

Hey folks, Something Negative is a rant. Love it or hate it, we all need to blow off steam on Fridays. Let yours out in the comments.


    I hate free to play because I enjoy single player campaigns and with companies such as Crytek switching over to exclusively develop F2P titles it's fucking with some of my favourite developers.

    Oh, and that free-to-play basically means 'you'll spend over $100 on this game to actually be good at it'

      *Scratches head* Pretty sure that's not what it means at all. I've played a number of F2P games, none of which had any increased performance ingame bonus for paying, short of obtaining things like ingame currencies, or increased item drops.

    This comment has been deemed inappropriate and has been deleted.

    I played DCUO when it went free to play. While I started at free, I invested a little money once I decided this was my kind of game. Maybe it wasn't perfect, but it was fun. Still, I started as a "freebie" and paid later, which is kind of the point of the marketing scheme. While I never subscribed monthly, I did pay for the Green Lantern and Flash content. I put careful consideration into the look of all my toons, and first chance I got (usually about when you get to the overhead duct to avoid the Brainiac security guards in the tutorial) I would lock down my character's look to avoid new items messing up my costume. I only used the glowing skin once on my villainess cuz it made her look awesome. My character names were comprehensible and the hairstyles fit my intent.

    I asked questions in chat cuz I was new and didn't know anything. Sometimes people were helpful and sometimes they were jerks. I took it in stride, cuz in other games sometimes I'd be nice to people and sometimes I'd be a jerk. We're all human. I noticed other people griefing in hideouts (mostly blocking doorways by standing in them which was childish and stupid), but I didn't assume they were newbies, cuz newbies wouldn't know how to grief. I assumed it was players who had been at the game awhile and were bored. Only once were the griefers smart enough to block both doorways at the same time. Usually I could just go around.

    Sometimes I played in teams and sometimes I played alone. I enjoyed DCUO a lot. Sometimes because of the others online. Sometimes in spite of the others online. I play Champions Online mostly. I've noticed less griefing overall in there. It's got a more laid back community.

    I try not to judge a toon by its skin. That works for me, but to each his own.

    I understand why you feel that "Free-to-play lowers my enjoyment because I paid for this already when that person didn't.", but if your game went F2P then it means it was about to die off. DC Universe is an amazing example of that. No one wanted to play it and it was going to be closed down. Your outfit and all the money you put in, gone.

    It would annoy me as well that something I put time and money in to trying to get it off the ground basically said "Thanks, now please welcome the new kids who didn't have to.". When I buy a game at full price of 60 dollars I'm basically saying "I want to play this right now and I do not want to wait", but what if I see the game go down to 30 dollars by tomorrow? I would be very irritated. Why? Because I just wasted 30 dollars.

    The only quibble I have with this article is the "stealing" part. That's like me saying something stupid like "All Gaming Journalist want to do is ruining Video Game Creators carriers with bad headlines." It's simply not true. Maybe 20-30% of journalist want to do that, but the majority don't. The reason that people like free to plays is not because of stealing, it's because it's safer that way. Take demos for example; they are the soul reason that Kingdoms of Amalur didn't do better sales wise. The demo was made by someone outside of the core development team so it was a very unpolished unlike the official release. The fact is that money is hard to come by and games are not getting any cheaper. People are losing their jobs and trying to find ways of enjoying themselves without going hungry at night. So, if they try a Free-to-play game and then see they will be able to enjoy it, then they are more likely going to buy content for it because they are SURE it's a good buy. Then guess what? The creators will see it's working and keep your game updated and basically alive.

      about the Kingdoms of Amalur demo - really?

      funny, I actually played the demo for a bit and decided I didn't like the game so yeah - no sale. Didn't know it was like that.

    Well there were plenty of Pay2Play MMOs that never really interested me. WoW, Conan the barbarian, Lord of the rings, Dungeons & Dragons, Final Fantasy, Star Wars - there's so many failed mmos out there and I never tried any of those.

    A lot of people don't like Monthly subscription fees because no one can play 24/7. The average age of a gamer is like 30 yeah? they've got family, jobs and general life things to do.

    Then there's other games to contend with. I play an mmo, but put that off to play things like ME3's multiplayer or the bunch of games I bought during the Steam sale. And what about upcoming games? I pre-ordered Transformers FoC, Darksiders 2 and Borderlands 2 all games I will be trying to dedicate as much time as I can to... before a new game comes along.

    So I don't have the time to play mmo's as much so why would I want to pay a monthly fee which is just going to waste? I'm not going to pay for a gym membership and then stay home... and that's why mmo's are going the F2P route, because its hard to compete with an mmo like WoW which probably has the highest number of players/subscribers. Because what mmo gamer is going to buy a subscription (constantly) to more than one mmo?

    When it goes F2P anyone can play whenever they want and if they enjoy it enough can put down some money to enjoy more benefits.

    This is where they need to have rewards systems or added members content or worlds so they can still feel special. But then again that just promotes superiority complexes with members which defiantly isn't needed in a game which already supports racism by the sounds of it. :o

    SWTOR F2P features... omg there is zero worth in playing on that model, limited instances limited pvp, limited space battles, "extremely" (their word) limited Auction house.... And they still haven't fixed the damn ui adding 150ms of delay. I paid for 6 months on top of the collectors and there is no current announcement on any bonus for that.

    They managed to take a good IP and ruin it more thoroughly than Lucas did with JJB et all. This is what happend when the bear paws guy who broke WAR is allowed to be involved

      Bioware have said they will give free "Cartel Coins", 150 per subscribed month, 1000 for collectors edition and a "Heroes Banner", no idea what any of those things are but you are obviously getting something for subscribing.

      They're giving all the story stuff away for free, however, and that'll be enough to get people to play. As a paying customer, I don't give a damn about PvP, instances and the auction house.

    I really wanted to get the Old Republic but haven't been able to since i'm focusing on HSC this year and didn't want to pay for something every month after already paying for xbox live. When i finish HSC i'm definately getting it now that its free which i probably wouldn't have if i still had to pay for it every month. If i get really into it i'll probably end up buying some extra crap and you won't be able to tell that i started out as a F2P-er. Just saying is all, bioware will probably make money off me that they wouldn't have without being F2P

    Why does everyone hate F2P? Sure some of the f2p players may be assholes or whatever except majority of the time it brings back people who quit. I personally love f2p, when it's done right which majority of the time it is these days, no pay to win, only thing you will pay for is cosmetic or convenience options.

    I mean when one of my favourite MMORPGs when f2p, Aion, it brought back my old guild along with tonnes of people, everyone who had already played was max level and geared to the teeth, meaning f2p players were way way behind, they all pretty much banded together and stayed away (almost forcefully because they had no one else to play with on some servers) from the Veterans especially since a new server was made for any new players. Maybe they could be it? letting veterans play with veterans or the newbies but only letting the newbies play with other newbies.
    Also i don't get this desire to have something if it has a price tag, i personally look forward to free things more often than anything I've payed for.

    I don't mind P2P MMOs going F2P, my problom is what they do for people who HAVE subed to it. Take what LOTRO did. It now has no sub at all, but it gave people that did pay for it acsess to everything they already had. SWTOR on the other hand is still making you pay to do some stuff, and I think that is a horried system. you eather go fully F2P like LTORO, or you don't do it at all.

    I don't understand why everyone doesn't handle this like EVE. Have a complex economy and if you earn enough money you can pay for your membership that way. Keeps the long term players involved as they aren't paying anymore and motivates the new players to want to get to that point.

      EVE is not a staned MMO tho. It is a very differnt expirence to, say, WOW. The whole games economy is slowly moveing to a totaly player run system. The only things you can now buy from NPCs in the game are bluprints and skill books. Everything else is complelty player made. WOW on the other hand, still has NPCs, and you get the top gear buy doing raids rather makeing money and buying it.

      Also, it can take YEARS to get the skills in EVE to do stuff. I am traning one of my pilots in it to be able to run an Orcoa, witch is a buff ship for mining, and it takes about 2-3 months to be able to get in to it. The other factor is that EVEs skill system is VERY differnt to every other MMO. It takes a long time for your pilots to 'read' the books.

      As much as I would like to see it happen, I don't actully think it would work as well... Tho there is a korrien MMO that is doing something simmiler (can't rember the name) so mite want to look it up, and see how its going...

      Just got to point out that being able to use in-game cash in place of real world cash in DCUO would have sank (resank?) the game. There was a mailbox glitch where you could duplicate money (not sure on the specifics) so people are walking around with astronomical amounts of in-game cash. It's like CCP's nightmare.

    I was really annoyed when DCUO went free-to-play. I'd been having technical issues and paying from the start, They'd been stalling on basic bug fixes and content/feature updates the entire time so when they announced paid DLC it was pretty much the last straw.
    Now I've returned and I've got to say free-to-play has really solved a lot of the games problems (along with a massive server merge). Their model works well. Give people a trial that actually puts you in the end-game, let serious players buy what they want/subscribe and if someone doesn't pay their monthly subscription fee limit what they can do (still more than the free players) rather than kicking them out.
    It's a lot easier to bring a friend in, it's a lot easier to come back to the game without committing to anything and it's really boosted the playerbase.

    It isn't the same as when the game was pay-to-play and popular (for a while six minutes) but the game works under this model and as someone who loves playing it that's really all that matters. That said I don't think it could have planned on using this model and been anywhere near as ambitious.

    The last paragraph is the most telling - this is exactly where Call of Duty, Battlefield et al are headed; indeed Battlefield already has 2 F2P shooters, TF2 is now F2P, Monday Night Combat went F2P (and lost a lot of it's elegance in the process not to mention the console audience), Crytek is going F2P and there's even some sort of F2P CoD project in the works IIRC - it makes sense - shooters are constantly online they are ripe for ongoing monetisation

    I started playing Blacklight Retribution (FTP FPS) a little over a week ago.
    I've already dropped $50 on in game currency that I would not have spent otherwise. Seems to be sound business model.

    I've been playing both subscription MMO's since Everquest, and f2p/PAYG since LotRO went that way, and I can say with 100% truthfulness that whether a person is f2p or subbed makes no difference to the asshattery they will display. I've come across so many people who pay for a sub just to sit in general chat channel as a low level character and troll.

    LotRO has so far the best model for the PAYG system. Nothing is restricted, and I can purchase it as I need it. Same for DDO.

    Other games like AoC, EQ and SWTOR are getting it wrong and requiring a subscription to access features, instead of also offering them as upgrades for purchase in their store.

    One upside to PAYG is that you can play more than one game per month without feeling like you are wasting your sub. I can put LotRO on hold for a year, play SWTOR for a bit, then get back into DDO for a while and when I come back to LotRO... everything I paid for is still there, I can pick up where I left off and continue.

    Another benefit is that I can continue the social side of MMO's. Friends say "hey, we're gonna jump into X and play this weekend, interested?" I don't have to say "Hmm, that'll cost $15 for 30 days, and I'm only gonna use 2 of them.. if that"..

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