Rant: There's No Such Thing As A Free-to-Play Game

I've tried to be fair to the concept of free-to-play games, which you see a lot of in mobile gaming. Yes, it all seems a bit cynical — it trades a single price for a potentially unlimited revenue stream, but there's nothing necessarily illegal or unethical about that. It does depend on making some substantive portion of the experience, you know, free to play, as kind of a good faith gesture.

This week I agreed to look at a free-to-play game that just set my teeth on edge, and it has put me off freemium games, the flavour of the year in an oversaturated mobile gaming space, indefinitely.

Maybe you've heard of this one: Chip Chain, a numbers-matching puzzle game, whose gameplay is quite good, a perfect timewaster on a bus, a plane, or on the toilet. I fooled around with the game's "short" mode, in which you try for as high a score possible within a limited amount of moves. Then I put the game down and came back to it the next day.

"Short" was no longer available. It was locked. I could play "long" or "timed" if I wanted. Short would probably be available tomorrow, with either Long or Timed locked out. Obviously, if I wanted to play my preferred mode, I could pay for that.

There are more egregious freemium games out there — NFL Pro 2013 is one — but even in it, and in others I have played, there's a standard mode of play that's always available. I've not yet encountered a game that basically puts its playlist up for sale in this fashion. It's sort of like a free-to-play multiplayer shooter — they do exist — dangling team deathmatch on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and requiring you to pay to unlock it on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

I'm done with this shit.

When I review them, I spend most of my time probing freemium games for their ulterior motives, and there are plenty in Chip Chain. You're never evaluating the free experience solely for what it offers, you're always evaluating it in light of what it has held back and whether that is fair. All freemium games have some sort of bullshit secondary economy that gives them a fig-leaf defence that the whole game is in fact free if you play it enough. Chip Chain is no different, and when I pried it apart, I really got mad.

In about half a dozen games, I reached level 2, amassing 428 "gems," the virtual currency you use to unlock all of the features of the real game. Unlocking all game modes for play whenever you want them requires 20,000 gems. The game sells gems in lots of 100,000 (for $US1.99) or 500,000 (for $US4.99).

I saw that and I came to one conclusion: Chip Chain judges itself to be a $US1.99 game, a perfectly reasonable price, but still a dollar more than the 99 cent price expectation established by the onslaught of self-published products — some good, most garbage — on this market. Instead of saying goddammit, we're worth it at that price — and I would have agreed, and said so in a Gaming App of the Day writeup — Chip Chain invented a back door to get you to buy it for $US1.99 while still pretending to be a dollar or less.

This kind of abuse is why I'm officially done fucking around with freemium games. I will not play them. You see that big fat "free" next to a game's title in the iTunes or Android store, be suspicious. This is different from premium downloadable content — which does have its share of cynical practices, but at least the main game experience is still there, still whole. This also is not the same as pay-to-upgrade models, as I've played some fantastic mobile games that do offer a great base experience with the option to buy extra features. ARC Squadron is one.

For completely free games, though, I'm done trying to Perry-Mason my way through virtual economies and determine what these games really consider their price to be, whether it's reasonable, and how much of an effort is required to get all of the content for its advertised price, which is, ostensibly, free. I'm not going to praise gameplay models and ignore the means in which that gameplay entices someone to spend more money.

I get no fewer than three pleadings each business day for me to review someone's new goddamn mobile game, and by now all of the pitches sound the same. They all use the same language. All the PR poured onto this publishing sector is just breathtaking. I get fewer emails and follow-ups about $US60 console titles than I do about mobile games. You want me to play a game? Fine. I'll play a game. I won't play a get-rich-quick scheme. Neither should you.


    Of course there's such a thing as free to play. You played it for free. It cost you nothing.

    Now, free to PROGRESS is a different matter entirely.

      Planetside 2. Free to play, free to progress. Not locked out of anything. Just have to grind for them like in Battlefield 3 etc. You do have an option to buy station cash to unlock them but you can unlock them all without it.

      When they remove game modes from being playable unless you pay to unlock, I'd say that's not free to play unless you add 'occassionally' at the end

        Respectfully, theres a difference. You can play for free to a point, that point is regardless of whatever. You still get to play. That's free to play. Free to progress is a different case though. These do exist like Andy said but are far and few between, or lock out specific items so you can only purchase them. But again, yes, free to play. Play all you want, you're just not gonna progress far...

    I think half the problem is the mobile platform aspect. It's about the closest platform we've got to three card monte. There's plenty of legit people using the platform but there's a hell of a lot more treating it like spam e-mail.
    The other half is that you're a gamer. Gamers don't play a MMO to level 20 and think 'well, that was fun' they think 'what? I've only been playing a few hours and they put up a wall? What jerks!'. Gamers aren't satisfied with the levels of play you're going to get in a for profit free-to-play game.

    In about half a dozen games, I reached level 2, amassing 428 “gems,” the virtual currency you use to unlock all of the features of the real game. Unlocking all game modes for play whenever you want them requires 20,000 gems. The game sells gems in lots of 100,000 (for $US1.99) or 500,000 (for $US4.99).

    So, you played 6 games for gems that amount to about ~2% of what you need to get all the game modes, implying that if you don't improve (which you probably will, considering that's how games work), you'll need to play around another 272 games to get the game free. When you consider how many times people play CoD or Halo to get purely visual accessories, this isn't really that hard. Otherwise, you'll get to play a demo mode of the game, which isn't you being ripped off.

    So, when it comes down to it, you can either buy the game for $1.99, which is still bloody cheap, or get the game free by playing the damn thing. These games aren't get rich quick schemes any more than offering a demo for your game is a get rich quick scheme, so get over yourself.

      I think his issue isn't that it costs $1.99 it's that they're sneaky about disguising their games as free to play. He'd rather they were just upfront that the game costs $1.99 rather than doing a big con to hide the fact that it costs $1.99. I can see where he's coming from even though I'm not that bothered by it.
      I'd rather games were black and white with demos and full versions. I'd rather not have to play a game and then look through a bunch of different options to figure out the most efficient way to get the 'full version'.
      My biggest issue with it is when a game disguises itself as free-to-play but charges for almost everything, then makes no real effort to remove the self-promotion after you've brought the 'full version'. Like you'll open your inventory, and you've already brought all the inventory upgrades, but there's still the 'buy more space' ad. It's entirely superficial but it's annoying.

        I don't think its just the lack of upfront-ness of the pricing, but you pay more than they think its worth. You get 100,000 points for 2 bucks but to unlock all the game modes, you only need 20,000, making the game worth 40c.

          [Edit: Sorry, completely misread your post... Too early in the morning to be posting.]

          But judging from what he's explained there you can buy a minimum of 100,000 ($1.99) gems. So if you have 19,999 gems you'll still need to buy a pack of 100,000 to get the game. The idea being that anyone who plays the game enough to save up the full 20,000 gems will most likely give up before they reach 20,000 and just spend the $2.
          Again, I'm not really bothered by it but Owen's argument is that they're advertising as free-to-play, then 20,000 gems once you start playing, but when you actually get to the checkout it costs twice as much as the average iPhone game in it's category. Even he agrees that $2 is a fair price for the game it's just the grifty nature of it all that he's taking issue with.
          I can understand why he'd get sick of it. When he reviews one of these games he has to accurately explain the not-so-free side of it to the readers and untangling some of these payment schemes must take more time than actually reviewing the smaller/simpler games. I guess when you review these things by the handful each day that sort of deceptiveness starts to get more and more annoying.

          Last edited 18/11/12 11:19 am

    Sure there's a such thing as free to play. Once upon a time it was known as freeware, and these games are genuinely 100% free with no payment options whatsoever (sometimes a donate option, but to no in game consequence). You can still find them if you look in the right places.

    It's like the industry has come full circle from shareware.

    Have we learnt nothing from the past!

      Er... what exactly were we meant to learn? Shareware was, and is, a great model.

      As for F2P... I don't like it. I don't like the effect it has on game design. I don't like the idea of having to make games so obnoxious, and yet so addictive, that people are compelled pay you money to skip parts of your game.

      However... it's as much the user's fault as the developers. If you don't like F2P, don't support it. But at the same time pay money for what you do like. Don't pirate games, that just tells developers that people want their content but aren't willing to pay for it. Hence F2P.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now