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Free to Play: a socialist alternative?
by Stephen Richards on 03/23/13 02:57:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Free-to-Play is often regarded as one of the more cold and ruthless byproducts of capitalism. Unsuspecting consumers are tempted in with the promise of a free game before every psychological trick in the book is employed to make them as addicted as possible, and they're then rinsed dry of cash through the inevitable introduction of constant barriers that make regular in-game-payment a virtual necessity for continued progress or enjoyment.

Well, quite.

From a designer's perspective, I can see why F2P is a loathsome idea. Just as technology is reaching the point at which interactive experiences are able to experiment with unique forms of narrative and artistic expression, freeing them from their prior attempts to emulate Hollywood action films, the people with 'business' in their job title realised there was a much easier, less risky way to build a game.

And so the emphasis of design shifted focus. To keep as wide an audience as possible, minimum specs had to be very low, and so games had to be extremely simple. To keep people from playing a few hours, getting bored and moving on, artificial time constraints had to be introduced: now you had to wait a few hours or a day for something to 'build', rather than fifteen seconds. Worst of all, designers had to deliberately make games worse than they could be by syphoning off premium content for use in transactions. Under the F2P model, where the end goal of game design is always maximising profit, it seems inconceivable that mainstream games will ever make the transition from entertainment to art.

Setting aside the entertainment vs art debate, I want to consider whether F2P is inherently exploitative, capitalist, evil... insert further adjectives at your discretion. To begin, lets be sympathetic and suppose the recent flood of shoddy F2P games can be attributed to the genre's obvious attravctiveness to greedy publishers and/or developers, rather than its inherent nature.

From this perspective, F2P actually looks pretty good. The majority of players get a free game which they can put down at zero loss if it's full of bugs, throws microtransactions in their face too often, or is simply a bad game. This puts a heavy responsibility on developers: games that don't work properly on launch don't merely get a consumer backlash and a bunch of forum trolls, they won't generate any revenue. (Compare Simpsons: Tapped Out to Sim City.)

More significantly, because online multiplayer is generally engrained into F2P games, the paying players are effectively subsiding the server costs of non-payers. For a genre that supposedly exhibits the worst side of capitalism, it has a curiously Robin Hood mentality. This is especially salient given the most successful F2P developers are careful to make their games remain fun for long term non-payers, recognising their value. This is done by carefully controlling how much players are badgered and what can be purchased through IAPs: aesthetic customizations, small competitive advantages and reduced waiting times seem to be the most successful.

I think we can be optimistic that the games that remain profitable in the long term, and thus become models for future developments, will be closer to Robin Hood than capitalist leech. Certainly having glimpsed the inner workings of one of the most successful F2P game developers on Steam, I've noticed a supposition that paying players, particularly the mega-extravagant whales, are not driving themselves into debt through addiction, but simply funding a keen hobby. And ten or twenty pounds a month isn't a great deal to spend on a hobby you're investing a lot of time into. (Not to mention the rich have far more wasteful ways to throw away their cash - I'd rather have them pour money into the games industry than build up collections of sports cars.)

In fact, the only serious problem I have with F2P is its spiralling dominance over the industry as a whole. Many commentators are getting very carried away with the idea that in a few years, all games will be F2P and/or supported by micro-transactions. That I find frightening. Partly because there are uncountable games which would be utterly ruined by the introduction of microtransactions, and partly because I think the popularity of F2P is often blown out of proportion. For example, you might think, looking at the top-grossing list on any app store, that F2P is clearly what the public has chosen. But remember only about 5-15% of players are influencing that chart at all, and the majority of the influence is coming from an even smaller proportion of them. Subsidised games don't come for free: the cost we pay is a reduced influence over how they're made.

F2P may currently be the most profitable business model, particularly for apps, but that doesn't mean it's going to take over the world. A lot of consumers haven't yet grasped the idea that apps (or any games for that matter) are worth paying for. Others may detest the idea of making in-app-purchases, but still choose to play F2P games as non-payers rather than making one-off purchases for games. This just my own hunch, but I think that enough of the market is opposed to paying micro-transactions to limit the expansion of F2P, especially as single-payment games will inevitably become more valuable the rarer they get.


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Comments


Lance McKee
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I almost skipped this article. I really dislike the F2P model and it's something that really bothers me, so any time I see somebody presenting their case for why it's not so bad I try to read and see if I can get some insight into how they can feel that way instead of being frustrated all the time. Usually that just leads to me being more frustrated with how stupid (I feel) the author is and wishing I hadn't wasted the time reading the article.

I'm glad I couldn't find anything else to read while I ate my lunch just now though, because I really loved this article. It provided just what I was looking for and was one of the most well written articles I've read. I feel like it really makes some excellent points and addresses my exact concerns with the model and the industry as a whole recently. Sorry for the long comment - I'm pretty much just trying to say: Thanks for writing this article!

Robert Green
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One thing potentially backing up your concerns regarding pricing is that while everyone in modern society is aware of the idea that "you get what you pay for", this has almost never been the case when it comes to media. When the time comes to spend your entertainment dollar, most people are used to the idea that a good movie costs the same as a bad one, a great book isn't necessarily priced higher than a bad one, the best reviewed album of the year costs the same as the latest from one direction, etc.
So while a lot of people may be put off by many f2p games, that doesn't mean their expectations haven't been altered by the mere existence of large quantities of free offerings. Psychologically, it'd be far more surprising if they hadn't.

Michael Joseph
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@Stephen that is some topsy turvy reasoning.

"Socialism is an economic system characterised by social ownership of the means of production and co-operative management of the economy."

There's nothing socialist about the F2P business model. That just needs to be said flat out.

The non paying players in a F2P games are I think more appropriately viewed as flies drawn to a honey pot (except it's not even filled with honey but sugar water). Just because some flies can get in and get out with some free glucose doesn't change the fact that the pot is ultimately a trap set by sneaky toads.

Matt Robb
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It's possible he was referring to the side-effect of "pure" socialism where the "tangible" benefits of the system are shared equally amongst all, regardless of whether you work (in this case, pay). The best you get for working hard (actually paying) is a gold star (or cosmetic perk).

A bit of a stretch, but the concept is sound, though the article doesn't spell out the connection.

Lance McKee
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I may be wrong, but it seemed to me more like the article was suggesting that the model could work well if developers treated it more like a socialist sort of concept.

If games were designed simply to be played and enjoyed (rather than to trap flies, like most F2P games seem to be now), with those who are able to contribute being rewarded with additional little bonuses, then everyone can benefit. Again, that's just what I got from it.

Ramin Shokrizade
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I have been asked to answer this question before, I think here on Gamasutra. The current trend in F2P business models are about as far from socialism as possible. There is no fair or even functional distribution of resources in these games. This concept of "fairness" rises to a much higher level in games than in real life, because this is part of the nature of games. Thus product utility to consumers is strongly linked to fairness.

Once you have "fair" F2P models, the utility of the product goes way up and with it the potential for spending skyrockets. Obviously, making such models fair is not all that easy, and may even seem impossible at first glance. It is not impossible, and once achieved it reinforces the concept of a "virtual meritocracy" which consumers crave.

Stephen Richards
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I was using socialist in a fairly loose sense; as Alexander says below it's not a concept that literally applies to business models. Also I wouldn't use the phrase "a form of socialism" as the news summary claims. I would say F2P has elements of socialism, for the reasons I gave.

@Michael I think you misrepresent the state of the industry with your flies example. The "some flies" that you mention can get out are in fact the vast majority of F2P players. A very successful F2P game will have a conversion rate of 15%, most are lower. That means, at a low estimate, 85% of players never pay a penny for a typical F2P game. They're useful to developers due to word of mouth, app rankings etc, and this creates an incentive to make a loss on non-payers. This loss is covered by the minority who do pay, meaning the end result is a game everyone can enjoy but is entirely funded by a particularly committed few. This is analogous to a left wing economy where the rich are heavily taxed in order to benefit the poor.

Michael Joseph
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"This is analogous to a left wing economy where the rich are heavily taxed in order to benefit the poor."

In the so called left wing economy, the rich that are supposedly heavilty taxed _benefit_ by not having a collapse of society where all their wealth becomes useless. Indeed, it is precisely because it is NOT socialist that the poor are given economic pacifiers to prevent mass insurrection. The left wing economy (which is the same thing as the right wing economy btw) is a requirement of capitalism (particularly loosely regulated capitalism) because of the inequity that results.

So in this light, the free lunch given to some players is done so out of necessity. They are not free to play because of any philisophical ideals.

Bottom line is you cannot seperate the label from it's intent.

And when you say things like "incentive to make a loss on non-payers" and I just want to cancel my reply and not waste my breath. The non-payers existance is what adds value to the game. You remove the non-payers and the payers don't want to be there. The concept of loss per non-payer doesn't even come into play.

Alexander Symington
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The comparison to socialism to me suggests a situation in which the quality of the game provided is consistent for all players, yet participants are somehow charged to access it based on their ability to pay. This bears little resemblance to the plutocratic structure of almost every F2P game, in which players can spend real world money to obtain unfair personal advantages.

Because of this, when I read the title of the article, I interpreted it to mean 'what would a socialist alternative to free to play be?' I think there are some possible answers to this, such as crowd-funding for a completely free game, which would allow richer players to spend large amounts of money on improving the game as a whole, rather than buying competitive advantages. This is perhaps closer to charity, though.

Ultimately it's very difficult to make meaningful analogies between business models for games and economic systems, because doing so necessarily involves conflating real world and virtual economies that might function differently. For example, upfront fee games clearly aren't socialist in the real world economy, as they are products sold in a free market. However, the game experience itself may well be socialist in the sense that it isn't affected by your personal wealth.

Brian Colella
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He mentioned the servers, and I read that as not necessarily the quality of the game being equal, but just the game itself being available to all. Some people pay, some people don't, but everyone can play and use server space.

*And* in certain F2P games where the things you can buy have no impact on gameplay, the quality is equal, such as Team Fortress 2.

Albert Khusainov
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Mostly the F2play model using paying users as sponsors of the game at the same time uses non-paying users as a work force. And also oftenly it gives more advantages to those who pay more. Non-free2play model forces user to pay some price but gives everyone the same opportunities.

It is truth that it's hard to compare virtual worlds, cause of real life factor. The main value is work time.

Some can have no enough money for paying for valuable items, but have enough time to play much and gather needed resources for paying users in exchange for that valuable items. But this is still oftenly primitive and boring farmin work.

Some can have no enough time to play, cause he works a lot of time, but wants to be cool in game - his money and non-paying-game-workers can provide him such possibility.

And some people (kings of life) get money almost without any efforts, from rich parents, heritage or just is so talented in claimed work so it takes a small amount time from them to get some good money. =)

So both models have in fact advantages and disadvantages. Both are equally just and unjust and have right to exist.

But that's in theory. In fact free2play has a very serious hole - it gives a lot of possibilities to drain much and much of money without giving proper product. You can create a really bad game, but using much of advertising, some cheap tricks and methods you can drain a good amount of money from people. Yes, this can not continue forever, but good games don't live forever too.

And developers begin to understand that it is easier to create a midlle-quality games and use tricks and advertising to gain really good money than to create a really good game with more efforts and to gain the same money, or even less.

And amount of such games nowadays is becoming more and more larger. And players become more and more inhabited to such middle-quality games. This tendency leads to fall of game quality in total.

John Trauger
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I'm not really getting where socialism plugs in here, aside from being a way to get me to read the article. I don't really think FtP fits the socialist model at all. I'm going to try to keep the politics to a minimum.

Upstream in the comments, a definition of socialism was provided, which was a bit confused with communism, but works. Essentially, the people own or control the parts of the economy that are important to the quality of their lives. In implementation, socialism has devolved to government as a proxy for the people, so it's government that owns or controls.

First, games aren't necessary to anybody's life, save perhaps the devs.

Second, the only game I can name where players have any kind of "ownership" is Eve Online, which is a subscription game, not Free to Play.

There's a weak correlation in that a "wealthy" few are supporting a non-paying many. Socialism-as-implemented creates a wide variety of expensive government services, which are paid for in part by heavily taxing those individuals or companies with large earnings (the top individual tax bracket in socialist France, for example, is currently 75%. Back in the 1960s, the Beatles wrote their song "tax man" lambasting the socialist British government for its 95% top tax bracket it had in place at that time).

The difference is that a free player could easily have a greater real-world income than a player paying at "whale" levels. There's no correlation between a player's real-world *ability* to pay and what money the game actually extracts from them. FTP is like removing the legal compulsion to pay taxes, providing some services completely free and asking taxpayers to pay for premium services they want.

Socialism, especially socialism-as-implemented, doesn't put important services behind a paywall.


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