The Final Episode is here and the Free Agent bids a fond farewell.
Hello readers, welcome to the grand finale of ZAM's bi-weekly column, The Free Agent. Over the last ten months we've covered 18 different free-to-play games from a variety of genres with one mission in mind: to answer the question "Can gaming REALLY be free?"
While each episode of the Free Agent probed and explored this question in depth, our conclusions were always specific to the game being covered by that episode. But after all this time, surely we've learned a thing or two, and just maybe we're prepared to answer the question once and for all.
Drum roll please... Can gaming REALLY be free? The answer is...
Yes, it absolutely can be. If you so desire, you can play video games for months on end without ever paying a dime. I know because I did it. Let me share with you a few secrets I've learned that will enable you to truly play for free.
High Volume Libraries
Let's be honest, many free-to-play games on the market are incredibly shallow, plagued by under developed systems, thin or non-existent plot lines and repetitive content. In some cases this is to the point of ruining an entire game, rendering it not even worth the time it takes to finish the free download. However, that's not always the case.
The nature of this column forced me to play a new free-to-play game every two weeks. With around half the games I played, I was left feeling like two weeks was 13 days too many, and with the other half I would have loved to continue playing for a few more weeks if my schedule had allowed. Here's what I took away from this experience.
With free-to-play games, high volume is your friend. Even with the rigorous that the Free Agent consumed games, there was never a shortage of supply. There are so many free-to-play titles out there that you can and should try a multitude of them. Many of them you will quickly realize aren't worth playing, but in the process you will find some that you like.
My advice to you, reader, is that if you don't want to pay money to play video games, then keep a very robust library of free-to-play games on your computer. That way, when you grow bored with a particular title, you have the easy choice of deleting it and moving on to the next one, or simply setting it aside and revisiting it days, or even weeks, later. This leads into my next point…
The Casual Approach
Free-to-play games are not a charity. We all know that well implemented free-to-play games make developers and publishers money. Development requires resources, and if the model wasn't generating revenues then people wouldn't be using it. Often times, the most successful monetization schemes are the ones that seem the least obvious. Nobody likes to feel as though they are being ripped off.
Let's assume for a moment that using the High Volume method I was just mentioning, you happen upon a real gem. One of those games that seems to offer a whole lot of entertainment value for no cost. Like any rational gamer you decide, "hey this is great, I'm going to play the ever-living crap out of this game".
Several weeks in you find yourself, of your own free will of course, checking out the in-game store and seeing what you can do to further improve an already amazing gaming experience. Suddenly that small amount of real money they’re asking for doesn't seem so bad and before you know it you're typing in your credit card info.
That's where they get you. When you invest a significant amount of time, effort or thought into a particular game, and find yourself really enjoying it, you will be almost inexplicably drawn to spend money. Of course it's always a case of "I'll just buy this one little thing to speed up this other little thing", but once you do that, the flood gates are opened.
My advice for avoiding that scenario is simple, really: don't get too involved with any one game. Casual gaming habits will save you money. Find games that are easy to pick up and put down, where you can log in, play some matches, build some structures or harvest some resources, and then put it down and do something else. Heck, you might even find time to have a social life... if that's your thing.
Speaking of a social life, friends make gaming better. If you haven't discovered this yet, then I sincerely encourage you to find some like-minded friends and put together what I call a gamer circle. I am fortunate enough to have circle of friends with whom I regularly play video games, and while they may not have tried every single game that I played through as the Free Agent, many of the games I played were made much more enjoyable by having someone to play with.
It also has the added benefit of a sort of unofficial accountability. If you and your gaming circle have set your minds on never paying a dime to play video games, you can encourage and challenge each other to hold fast to the plan.
Not only that, but it also makes it easier to implement the previous two strategies. More friends equates to more suggestions and ideas for games to add to the high volume library. If you're smart about it and find some friends with differing tastes in video games, you'll also find it becomes easier to not get too involved with any one particular game.
I highly recommend this method as it is one of the surest ways (short of writing a bi-weekly free-to-play column called the Free Agent) to ensure that you don't spend money on video games. A well-structured gaming circle usually means jumping from game to game, on the whim of whoever is suggesting a game that night, keeping your gaming fresh, fun and decidedly low cost.
Or you could just play League of Legends
Okay there I said it. Many people have asked me over the last 10 months why I haven't covered League of Legends. It's a fair question because, in my experience, having played it almost continuously since beta, League of Legends is one of the best assembled free-to-play games out there. And it really is absolutely free.
Yes, there is a shop where you can spend real money, but there is no real reason that you need to. Just by learning to play the game you will accrue enough in-game currency to buy the champions you like and continue playing, which in turn will allow you to unlock more champions. It's not a new concept but somehow Riot Games managed to nail the rates at which you gain currency, setting them just high enough that you never feel held hostage by choosing not to spend money.
Of course, that being said, while I have never used real money to purchase a champion in League of Legends, even after all these years, I must come clean and admit that I ignored my own advice. You see I have not taken 'The Casual Approach' to League of Legends. I've spent a great deal of time playing it, in fact, and sadly fallen prey to custom skins on many occasions. At least this proves my point about the dangers of getting too involved in a game.
True, custom skins in no way improve game play or make me a better player, yet I can't help myself. I still buy them, and I am not alone in my depravity, since Riot is clearly doing very well for itself. As it turns out there might be a little piece of Mr. Spendypants in all of us.
Despite all that, I still believe League of Legends represents one of your best hopes for playing a masterpiece of a game without having to spend any real money. In fact, I dare you to prove me wrong. If League of Legends doesn't float your boat by all means try one (or all) of my other suggestions.
Snip, snap, snout, this tale's told out
Now for the sad part my friends. My assignment as the Free Agent has, at times, been painful (see Episode 5) but overall, extremely rewarding. I've had the opportunity to play some great games and meet some fantastic people. I have played a wider variety of video games in the last year than I have in the previous five years combined and I am better for it.
I want to thank everyone who joined me in this journey, whether it was playing some of the games alongside me or even just loyally tuning in to each new episode. Your feedback and support was always greatly appreciated. As the door closes on this particular assignment, I look forward to some of the new projects that I will be embarking on in the near future (stay tuned to my twitter account for more details).
Now that we've finally answered our long-standing question, I'd like to leave you with one parting thought. Yes, gaming really can be free, but why should it be? If you enjoy the immense amounts of creativity and talent that go into making your favorite game, free-to-play or not, I feel like it's only right to contribute. After all, if it's a game worth playing, don't you want to see it continue to develop so that you can be playing it for years to come?
So if you find a free-to-play game you love, maybe consider chipping in a few bucks as a way of saying, 'thanks for making such a great game'. Now that I've got some time on my hands, I know that's what I'll be doing with some of the games I covered over the last 10 months. If you're curious which ones I'll be going back to play more of (and maybe even throwing down some coin at), you'll just have to read though all the old episodes and figure it out for yourself.
See you online. Free Agent out.
Robert "Caergan" Gray
Follow me on Twitter @Caergan