For the greater good
Not every free-to-play studio is gunning for the "whales." While I was conducting my research, World of Tanks developer Wargaming.net revealed to Gamasutra that it is changing up its free-to-play strategy, removing all "pay-to-win" options and making sure that players cannot pay money to gain an advantage in battle.
"We don't want to nickel and dime our players," Wargaming.net's VP of publishing Andrei Yarantsau told us. "We want to deliver gaming experiences and services that are based on the fair treatment of our players, whether they spend money in-game or not."
"Free-to-play games have the challenge of being sometimes viewed as low quality, and we want World of Tanks to serve as proof that a quality and balanced free-to-play game is possible," he added.
Wargaming.net isn't the only company that feels this way. Hi-Rez Studios has released a string of free-to-play titles, including Global Agenda and the more widely acclaimed Tribes: Ascend.
Both are notable in that players are very accepting of these versions of "free-to-play": You can download the game for free, and then play for as long as you want, with no advantages given to those people who choose to purchase vanity items and the like.
Todd Harris, COO at Hi-Rez, tells me that his company's free-to-play philosophy is simple: Players will remember which games and companies are exploitative, and gradually over time, we'll see a shift away from these money-grabbers, to the games that treat the players with respect.
"The players in the stories [you've related] are likely to not play a game from that publisher or developer again," he reasons. "Our perspective is a long-term thing, thinking about the studio brand."
"I think there's cases where it financially works in the short-term for that title," he continues. "In our case, our studio brand and positioning is different, and we are particularly looking for gamers that expect a fair battlefield, and we want them to know that in a future Hi-Rez game, from past experiences, that they should get a fair battlefield and not get an exploitive feeling."
While you might guess that Hi-Rez doesn't make as much money as some of these more exploitative studios, it's notable that around 10 percent of Tribes: Ascend players choose to pay money -- a figure that is much larger than the 1, 3, and 5 percents that I've heard from the majority of other free-to-play developers. Harris reasons that this is down to trust, and players feeling like they are getting their money's worth.
"I don't have a crystal ball, but our studio thinks that there are enough players that want more of a sports-like fair game," he says. "That's the type of titles that we are developing. Whether the audience of the other type -- 'pay for status' -- whether that is growing or shrinking... you know, studios have to place their bets."
"I personally think that it's going to go down over time," he adds, "because if you look at the games that are having the most success -- League of Legends, Dota 2, as well as our own titles -- they are not perceived that way, not perceived to be pay-to-win as much. So those games seem to be having more traction."
I asked Harris whether he would advise other free-to-play studios to consider taking the approach that both Hi-Rez and Wargaming.net are currently running with. His response was simply, "Better late than never."
Harris is also of the view that government regulation would not be a good idea -- in fact, he describes it as "the last thing gaming needs."
"But game journalists and reviewers could play a valuable role -- in reporting how 'exploitive' specific titles are or are not," he says. "I don't think a game critic's rating of 'Graphics Quality' or 'Audio Quality' is all that important anymore -- now that so many games are free-to-play, people can try for themselves. And even with buy-to-play, potential buyers can see graphics and gameplay on YouTube or via live streaming."
"But 'exploitive mechanics' could be harder to detect in a single 'Let's Play' video, so game critics could help a lot in that area," he adds.