On the most recent episode of the podcast Ellydrial and I had a fun talk with Syl about free-to-play, with me being the grump as usual and Syl being much more open to the idea. Our conversation inspired an interesting post by Belghast about his own slowly warming feelings towards F2P.
There was one point in all this that both mentioned: free-to-play is saving games. It seemed an interesting topic for a post about because I think it gets to the heart of why my first reaction is to dislike the model. I don’t know if I believe that free-to-play saves games. In fact, I’m not sure the games needed saving at all.
I’m sure some did, of course! It’s unfortunate that MMO companies in particular are so cagey about subscriber numbers and hard data is tough to find, but I’m certain that some games were in a do-or-die financial situation. I’m just not sure that it had to be the case. Plenty of companies are making the switch to F2P not so they can go from no money to profitable, but so they can go from profitable to very profitable. That is what companies are designed to do.
And where does this extra profit come from? Not from me! I’ve bought a minuscule amount of stuff from in-game cash shops. And perhaps not from most of my friends, who at least profess to spend very little money on virtual frills. But still SWTOR’s monthly revenue has doubled since going F2P even though the number of subscriptions has held firm. Clearly someone is buying all that cash store stuff.
Perhaps this person is a well-adjusted individual with a great job who refuses to spend a moment leveling without XP buffs. Or, historically more likely, they’re someone understandably tempted by the millions of dollars and hundreds of brilliant minds put to work to lure us into microtransactions.
They like the gambling element of in-game raffle tickets or they’re swayed by all the “buy credits and be awesome” advertising or they see “so-and-so found treasure in a lockbox” announcements every 5 minutes. Or they get frustrated by the super-slow leveling speed or being behind in power-ups. The game publisher NEEDS to keep the pressure on because the whole model depends on Player Over There paying for the rest of us.
It is entirely possible to run a non-exploitative F2P model, or at least minimally exploitative. I’m sure some games are doing it right now. But it’s certainly not in the company’s best interest to do so and it’s my fundamental nature to expect the worst when profit is on the line. I may not be funding my F2P game experience through the cash shop, but I know that someone else most certainly is.
I don’t trust EA or Activision or even NCSoft, and I don’t like giving them any additional power to muck up my game experience with micro-transactions. I much prefer the straight-forward, non-tricksy contract of “I give you $15, you give me 1 month of game”.
However, this seems like a pretty personal small-p-political stance. Although I might worry about Syl and Belghast’s relative good faith in the intentions of MMO publishers, it’s just a small difference in philosophy and at the end of the day all three are united in the same goal of happy games with happy communities.