The inaugural episode of ZAM's latest column asks the question: "Can gaming really be free?"
It seems that these days everyone wants to jump on the Free-to-Play band wagon, which for all of us gamers should be a good thing. After all, who doesn't like free stuff, right?
So as we head toward this paradise like future where all games are Free-to-Play one can't help but wonder, how is anyone making any money? Could game developers be taking the first steps toward the utopian future predicted by Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek franchise, where people and corporations (greedy Ferengi aside) have shed the need for personal or monetary gain and, instead, simply work for the betterment of society as a whole?
The simple truth behind the Free-to-Play model is that, by marketing a game as free to play, you attract a much larger player base, which is then cleverly and inexorably drawn toward some in-game store, system of enhanced premium features or shiny 'Founders' program that costs real dollars. In the end this leads to overall higher profits. You may think I'm just being cynical, but ask yourself this; why would so many game developers be shifting to Free-to-Play models if not for profit? (For answers to that question and more, check out my previous article on Victor Kislyi's self-proclaimed 'Second Free-to-Play Revolution'.
As more and more developers move in this direction it becomes abundantly clear that, if you want to compete (which in a free market economy basically means 'make more money than the next guy'), you need to embrace the marketing model that provides the highest earning potential.
Sadly, Free-to-Play games usually end up being anything but free for us gamers. My first true experience with the Free-to-Play model (cheesy browser games aside), was League of Legends. I picked it up when it was still in beta, initially snagged by some random advertisement on the internet that boasted that it was "FREE TO PLAY!!!!" After having thrown $15 a month at World of Warcraft for far too many years I thought to myself, "I like free". And so it began.
I don't recall now how long I lasted, but it couldn't have been more than a couple of weeks. I decided that I really enjoyed League of Legends and wanted to have access to a consistent roster of champions. So I made the logical decision, led by the invisible marketing hand of Riot Games, to go out and buy the (then offered) boxed version of the game from my local game dealership. This granted me access to a respectably large portion of the then available champions, some of whom I continue to play regularly today. I still stand by the decision, it was good value for my money, but just like that the Free-to-Play title became anything but free.
Like Penny Arcade's Gabe and Tycho before me, I have since spent more money on League of Legends than I would care to recollect. Not only purchasing champions to strengthen and round out my roster, but worse yet, like a moth to the flame I have purchased a plethora of custom skins for all my favorite champions. For those unfamiliar with League of Legends, champion skins can only be purchased with real money and provide no real in game benefit, aside from looking awesome. Silly I know, but hey, custom skins win 3% more games, right?
But somewhere in there exists a silver lining. Theoretically, as developers and producers see greater competition and higher profits, the free-market system says that the overall quality of the games being produced should increase. But my intention is not to argue the merits or fatal flaws of free-market economies. So I will side-step that one for now. But perhaps the true silver lining is that for those brave enough (aka cheap enough) it is 'technically' possible to play most of these Free-to-Play titles "free forever."
With that in mind I prepare myself for my next mission, to investigate one simple question "can gaming really be free?" In the weeks and months ahead it is my intention to play a variety of popular Free-to-Play titles, but with one clear objective in mind;
SPEND NO REAL MONEY
I hypothesize that each time I foray into a new Free-to-Play game I will reach one of three conclusions:
- The most likely of the three is that I will grow tired of the lack of free content and cast the game aside like a moldy burrito.
- The second most likely conclusion is that I will decide that there is either great value or great reward in spending real money on said game, at which point I will instruct my wife to hide my credit card while I uninstall and set fire to my computer.
- Lastly, and most unlikely, is that I will discover the holy grail of Free-to-Play games. A game which is endlessly entertaining and does not in any way make me feel as though I MUST spend real money to further enjoy, advance, or otherwise excel in it. If this should happen you will of course be the first to know, that is if I can ever peel myself away from it.
I hope you will join me in this endeavor, dubbed The Free Agent, for as with anything in life it is much better to have friends along for the ride. As I post impressions on a variety of Free-to-Play games, it will on one hand be a game review column but on the other hand a broader commentary on the Free-to-Play gaming industry as a whole.
As teaser of what is to come, Episode One of The Free Agent will take me to The Exiled Realm of Arborea, now Free-to-Play with TERA Rising. Stay tuned to ZAM.com in the weeks ahead to learn just how Free-to-Play TERA Rising might be.
Also, if you have any suggestions of Free-to-Play titles that you would like me to investigate in future episodes, please feel free to post a comment below.
See you next time, on The Free Agent.
Robert "Caergan" Gray