F2P has loomed large in discussion lately, and it is clear there are some strong feelings on the subject. We've got people declaring it to be the embodiment of the capitalist dream, people suggesting it is an immoral harvesting of victims, and a whole lot of developers in the middle just trying to figure out how to see their next paycheck in an industry that seems to be changing underneath them. It is here. It is loud. And we're all going to be affected by it whether we like it or not.
Ok, so time for me to be honest here. I don't like it.
That's my gut-level emotional response to the change. But the truth is, generally when my emotions are complaining about something, they are doing so for a reason. So the question then becomes, "ok, why?"
Mike Rose's recent article on the ethics of F2P puts forth an idea that the F2P model is particularly suited for harvesting individuals with poor money mangement skills. Perhaps, but I don't think that's where my response comes from. It also runs counter to my own experience with a RL 'whale'.
This 'whale' is a fellow I originally met via on-line gaming, but who turned out to be local and we've met and hung out together on many occasions since then. He's not some starving barely employed individual, scrimping on his child support to buy purple ponies. Instead, he made a boatload of money in the software industry, loves online multiplayer gaming, and is perfectly willing to spend huge amounts of money (huge to me anyways, negligible to him) for advantage and prestige in that gaming.
In fact, he's not just willing to do it, he loves it. This is someone who wants every advantage money can buy to compete with the other folks. This is someone who buys every cosmetic item a game has to offer, precisely so that you, the other players, will see it and know that he's got what you don't have. He is the ultimate 'whale', buying all sorts of frivolous crap because frankly, he can, and I'm sure F2P shops love him for it.
But here's the truth of it - the fact that he can throw money at a game and have an advantage in it, or even just rub that money in my face while playing (with his ultra-shiny beam gun of super-sparkly zappiness that may functionally work the same as my dull grey pistol) makes those games suck for me.
I don't want my gaming to be about highlighting life's financial inequity. I damn well live that all day long in my normal life. I don't want my gaming success impaired by my reasonable income and a realistic life balance of spending on necessities vs recreation. I'm a competitive completion-centric gamer, and when I play something, I want to do it well and thoroughly. The ordinary nature of my normal life shouldn't be hampering my gameplay!
These days, it means I need to choose my games carefully. I need to recognize up front which games provide competitive or cosmetic advantage based on add-on purchases. I don't begrudge my 'whale's right to go play some game where he can feed it money to make him a God. I just don't want to ever soil my experience by playing that same game while he or someone else does so.
And thus we come to the core of the problem - the lack of honesty about how much impact IAPs have on games. The truth is that F2P monetization is frequently very much about concealing exactly this impact from its players so that we will either play until we are so invested that we will cough up and pay, or so that we'll provide an audience for the 'whales' to lord it over. Burying pay to win mechanics under an initial layer of skill to win, providing advantages that become required for competitive play, roadblocks or surprisingly reduced game functionality tucked underneath paid barriers that weren't obvious when you started.
If you haven't done so, glance over Ramin Shokrizade's recent article on F2P monetization tricks. Even though this only touches some of the techniques used, it should start you towards recognizing a theme. F2P monetization is rarely about telling the customer up front "this is what you get for how much, and this is how your experience will be affected by paid mechanics."
Call me old fashioned I guess, but I don't think business should be about dishonesty. I think you earn your money by providing a desirable good or service which your customer makes an informed decision to purchase because it benefits him or her to do so. Under this model everyone benefits. The customer gets something they want, the seller gets paid, and everyone goes home happy. You do this every time you buy a pizza, get a haircut, or take a trip to New York. Cases where the seller is dishonest about what is being sold lead to customer complaints, legal action, or a simple visit with a metal pipe to solve the problem.
I think this may be exactly what we are missing in the current game market. Clear product marking that let's the consumer know how much of the game is dependant on purchasing, and in what way. If games were required to clearly disclose this information, then I think all my F2P distaste would go away.
Let's apply this model for a second to some of the F2P titles out there and see what we get. Please recognize these are my rough estimates, so they may not be quite accurate. Feel free to get hopping mad and argue about specifics in the comments below :) They do however, give you an idea of how different games might fare.
League of Legends. You can play the whole game at full strength for free, but your champion pool is limited by time spent (requiring roughly an average of 8 hours of gameplay per champion unlocked). Cosmetic champion skining costing roughly 2-15$ per skin is only available via purchase. Faster champion unlock is roughly 5$ per champion unlocked early.
Hm, not too bad. Kind of expensive for unlocks, but possible to play the entire content without any. It does reveal another common issue with F2P games though. You either have to pay a LOT to unlock content, or you have to play a LOT to do so. There's no option that just says "ok, I want to get all the content for my nice easy 50$" like I would have had with a normal standalone game purchase. Nor is that game going to come down in price if I am patient and wait for that 50$ to drop a bit, like most all standalone games do. I either have to pay a lot or play a lot to get the full experience.
Let me try that same pass on another F2P game that I hit recently:
Marvel Heroes. You may play the full game content for up to 3 of the 5 starting heroes for free. It is possible to unlock random other heroes on a chance based system that averages to roughly 40 hours of gameplay per random hero unlocked (duplicates possible). You may purchase individual heroes for 6-20$ each, cosmetic costumes for about 5-12$ each, cosmetic pets for 10-15$, and in-game loot drop increases for a couple $/hr.
Ugh, no wonder that game pisses me off. The ability to actually collect all the heroes (a clear want for any Marval fan) is completely unfeasable by any other means than simply paying for it, and the price to do that is insane. There are paid boosts to give you better odds for stronger stuff or a slightly better chance to find random heroes (oh boy, gambling). For a game I really wanted to like, the pricing just makes me loathe it.
I could keep going, but I think you get the idea at this point. Try it yourself. Grab any F2P game you have played and write it up. What exactly are you paying for and when? How does it impact the game as you play it? What advantages (temporary or permanent) can you pay for? If games had to be completely honest about this up front I think it would be massively healthier for the industry as a whole. I don't actually know how to enforce such a practice, but I'm going to put this out here as a starting point for discussion. I contend clear and up-front pricing on F2P game purchase options would remove the problems of F2P gaming.
I'd love to see that happen.