Free-To-Play or Pay-To-Win?

Unless you have been living in a dark room being forced to watch banal TV for the last 18 months, you will have probably noticed that the gaming industry is currently at the crossroads of a massive transition.

The mobile and tablet gaming scene is thriving, there are new consoles on the horizon and digital distribution gathers pace. A gaping hole in the middle divides the world of triple-A titles and the cheap and cheerful games available for a few pounds.

This has led to a few experiments of business models and phrases such as ‘episodic’ or ‘free-to-play’ gaming have become common place as they bid for the middle ground, but what does all this mean to the average gamer?Microsoft have finally dipped their toes into the waters known as ‘free-to-play’ with the recent release of “Happy Wars”. Although it doesn’t sound too familiar or exciting, it will go down in the history books as the first free-to-play game to hit the Xbox Live Arcade and will probably be filed next to the day that Skynet became self-aware, if some theories are to be believed.

The concept of free-to-play is often a subject that both gamers and developers will speak passionately about, albeit for very different reasons.

For example, this is a real game-changer from a developer’s point of view, who now have a massive change of focus on their hands. Compulsion psychology is now required to ensure the gamer is completely engaged in the game and immersed into another world enough to incite players to part with their hard-earned cash.

Traditionally, gamers are quite a savvy and cynical bunch that see through this and believe that free-to-play should actually be called ‘pay-to-win’, especially if you keep getting your ass kicked online by a kid using his Dad’s credit card.

He who pays...wins

However, this is not always the case. When done right, many successful F2P games are the ones that only sell cosmetic items or items you could buy with in-game money.

Frustrated and purist gamers are often under the impression that developers are moving to F2P for all the wrong reasons, because they are concentrating on making money rather than creating better games.

In truth, the Western world has been very slow to mimic the infamous and traditionally Asian business model where games built around micro-transactions rule. This has been confined to massively multiplayer online games (MMO) on the whole, but this is also slowly starting to change and may even begin to encroach on the beloved single-player experience.

The incompleteness of most F2P games does not compute with my psyche that demands a beginning, middle and end. If I do arrive in a world where the best features are hidden behind a pay wall, the stubborn gamer insider of me reaches for the delete button after muttering something like “I play the game, the game will never play me…”

Headlines such as ‘F2P is the future’ are of little help to anyone, and only tell a small part of the story, as there is always room for both options. The battle we are witnessing is for the middle ground that sits outside your multi-million-selling big releases and sequels.

In the ideal world there is room for everyone, but the worrying aspect of recent trends leaves the fear that we will begin to see fewer single-player games, with their strong storylines and characterisation that has always felt like the heart and soul of gaming which we have all grown up with.

Electronic Arts first introduced the free-to-play concept in one of its games when it released FIFA Online in Korea. As a small example of how much money we are talking about here, EA Sports chief Andrew Wilson told Venture Beat back in June that “I think when we had a packaged-goods FIFA based in Korea, I think we were at about a 25 million dollar business down there,” he said. “I think what we’ve talked about publicly is that these days, that’s nearly a 100 million dollar business. That’s a free-to-play experience.“  This is just for the FIFA franchise alone, so how long until EA bring a similar strategy to the West?

Sure, change is the only thing in life that is constant and everything must evolve. However, the old phrases of ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch’ and ‘if it is too good to be true then it probably is’, feel more appropriate than ever.

I don’t want to become like a lab rat jumping through hoops in search of some kind of virtual cheese award. My love of gaming originates from an appreciation of the art of storytelling and story arcs, which gaming has proved can be just as powerful as any book or movie. To sacrifice all of this for an empty soulless experience is a price that I won’t be paying

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