Can you really get something for nothing?
Free to play is a phrase that is becoming more common place in the world of gaming but what does it actually entail? It sounds too good to be true surely, you mean we actually get games for free? to play for as long as we like? can this be true?
When you say free to play to the majority of gamers, much like myself, they will automatically picture iOS and Android phone games or Massive Multiplayer Online games. It is however becoming much more common throughout gaming with developers such as Naughty Dog bringing big name games to the party and with this happening, I am about to take a closer look at whether or not Free To Play actually means you can play a game for free.
Free to play was a phrase I really first heard of associated with MMOs. This came long after I had stopped playing this type of game, such as Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies. During my time playing these games there was no free to play. We payed our monthly subscription and for this we played in a huge online sandbox of a game. The closest I got to an MMO free to play game was my time spent in Second Life. What made Second Life more unique however was that the majority of the money spent by players in the game world didn’t go to The Lindens (those who ran the game) rather it went to other players selling goods that they had built within the game, with The Lindens taking a cut off course. But what if you didn’t have in-game funds to buy those goods and had nothing to offer the community in return for their money? Well of course The Lindens were then happy to sell you in-game currency for real life pounds and dollars. So essentially this was a free to play game, you could download it for free, create your character and frequent the huge world on offer. However, wherever you went in the game there was the constant enticement to earn yourself some in-game currency, and the easiest way to do so was to spend your own cash.
In the world of MMOs, from the long lived likes of World Of Warcraft to the relatively newer titles such as Star Trek Online and Star Wars The Old Republic, free to play is a much more common practice. Each of these games started its life as regular retail games, like all MMOs on release you would pay a monthly subscription which would go towards keeping the servers up and maintained. But these three games, along with many other games within the genre including DC Universe Online on PS3, would eventually go free to play. So where do the developers of these games make their money if not from retail sales?
Some games such as World Of Warcraft, which has a huge worldwide following, take the route of going totally free to play up to a point. The player can download the game from the site and then play the game as any other person would up until their character reaches level 20, at which point the player can continue playing as they see fit but they no longer gain experience. Essentially it’s a full game demo with a level cap of 20. It’s a way to hook players in and show them what is on offer.
Other routes these games can take are, like DC Universe Online, various price plans from free to premium with differences like level caps, inventory capacity and the number of characters the player is allowed to create. Another route to be taken are cash shops – in this case the game is completely free to play with no limits. However there is a store or marketplace from which players can purchase weapons, armour, creatures and other items for real world currency. These items could be exclusive to these stores or just extremely rare within the game. The game developers can make their money by selling these items to their players instead of them earning them within the game. In most if not all cases when it comes to MMOs, it’s a way for the makers of the game to allow gamers to try the game out and see if they will enjoy it before spending any money on the title.
Another area where free to play is booming for gamers is on mobile phone platforms in the shape of micro transactions. More and more bigger named games on both iOS and Android devices are being released in the free download sections of the corresponding app stores. Titles such as Real Racing 3, Injustice Gods Among Us and even the hit puzzler Candy crush are free to download and play on mobile devices. Again though you ask yourself are the games actually free? if so where are the developers making their money, is there a catch?
These games follow the same route as some MMOs with the inclusion of a cash shop. Using the three games I mentioned as examples, both Injustice and Real Racing are completely free to play. However both games have an in-game currency used in Injustice to purchase cards which represent new characters and upgrades to your fighting skills, whereas in Real Racing this currency is used for buying certain high end cars along with speeding up delivery and work time on parts and servicing of your cars.
This in-game currency can be earned through completing fights or races in both of these games, meaning you don’t need to spend a penny to play or even finish the game. These games will though be a whole lot easier for players who are willing to spend a little real cash on boosting their in-game money, allowing them to gain items earlier than those saving credits and progressing through the game. Although I have used only two games as an example here, games like these seem to be becoming more and more prevalent in App stores. Other games such as the huge hit Candy Crush is also free to download and play, and like the other games does not require the gamer to spend any money. But again similar to the other titles doing so can make life and progress through the game a lot easier with the ability to buy more moves and/or boosters. Unlike MMO’s which mostly give the player a taste of the game, just enough to wet their appetites and then hope the player enjoys the experience enough to spend some money to extend their enjoyment, mobile phone games tend to give the whole game to us free, only expecting us to pay if we want to reach the end goal in a shorter time.
So with MMOs generally being the domain of the PC and the other games I have covered being on mobile phones, what of console gaming? What are the chances of this format coming to the Xbox or PlayStation? In a move which may have surprised some earlier in the year, Sony and developers Naughty Dog decided to give this a go. Not with a small made for the purpose game mind you, but with Naughty Dog’s triple-A title Uncharted 3.
As a fan of the Uncharted games and the multiplayer of Uncharted 3 being one of my favourite multiplayer gaming experiences, I was interested to see what Naughty Dog had planned when they announced this. Details soon followed of their plan to release the multiplayer segment of Uncharted 3 as a stand alone experience which would be free to download from the PSN store. This release would borrow from how MMOs handle free to play in that once downloaded the player could experience Uncharted 3’s multiplayer experience to the full up to a point. When your character hits level 15 you hit a experience cap. At this point you can continue playing as long as you like but will no longer gain experience, level up or unlock any weapons and perks. Of course, like other free to play titles, once you hit this level cap you can pay money to raise that cap to 25 or even remove it altogether. You can even pay a little more to unlock the co-op game modes from the game.
Is there enough interest in gaming like this? Well from what I have witnessed playing Uncharted online, the answer is yes. People who purchased a retail copy of the game have a small Naughty Dog icon next to their rank when playing online, whereas free to play gamers do not. When playing the game I have noticed pretty close to a 60/40 mix between retail and free to play gamers. This shows that there is plenty of interest in playing like this. I know for a fact that if I didn’t have a retail copy of the game, I would have been tempted to download this version of the multiplayer for some fun, a fact that other developers may do well to take on board.
So the question remains – is free to play really free to play? The simple answer is yes, but with that catch that there is usually a limit as to what you can do for free. Yes, you can download a free to play game and have a lot of fun with it. When it comes to mobile phone games there are no problems as you can more or less do everything in the game you could in a paid for App, the only difference putting money into the game will make is that it will speed up your progress. When it comes to other platforms free to play is more of a dangling hook – it’s there in a hope to get you interested enough in the game before enticing you to spend a little money on getting more from it. Naughty Dog are a company showing that this concept can work outside of MMOs and mobile games, and that there is a market for it. Do I think that it is the future of gaming? No, far from it. But I do think it has a part to play in the future of gaming. Using the same route as Naughty Dog, it can give your game a whole new market. Releasing your game as you normally would so your initial customer base can pick it up and play it, then a few months down the line announce a free to play version of the games’ multiplayer enticing those that may not have been so interested at the games release to try it and then pay for more if they enjoy what they see.
Although I am not a huge Call Of Duty fan, imagine if you will that with each annual release of a brand new COD game, it was also announced that the previous games’ multiplayer would be made free to play with a level cap you could pay to remove. It wouldn’t damage the sales of the new game as the Call Of Duty series has it’s established fan base who no matter what are going pick up the game. This would mean that not only do the developers get their sales from the new title, but also a renewed interest in the previous game and potentially new customers just coming into the game series. In the long run, I would like to see more games give this a go – I know that if I didn’t own any game, offering a free to play version I would more than likely give it a try. What do you have to lose?