As much as I can despise when a “Free to Play” title goes overboard, I genuinely love this trend, and I truly believe that when this business model is done right some of the most compelling and entertaining video games, ever made, can be produced. “Free to Play” games have been a significant part of this hobby of mine for a very long time, allowing me to really appreciate when they are done right.
I was first exposed to “Free to Play” games when I was in high school. Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGS) had really started to come into their own; Ultima Online had been out for three to four years and EverQuest was becoming popular among my classmates. The only issue was subscription fees. I was at the mercy of my parents, and their credit cards, who did not want me playing a video game that required a monthly subscription. In their opinion, and now mine, if you paid $50 or $60 for a video game then you should have unlimited access to it. Another issue that I faced was I lived in a very rural area of Southern Ontario, Canada, which meant that I did not have access to broadband Internet services. The maximum Internet speed that I had access to, came to me from my 28.8kbps or 56kbps dial-up modems. So in order to get the MMO experience my friends had, I needed a game that had no monthly subscriptions and was small enough to download and play on 56k.
My closest friend had the answer for me; he introduced me to the MMORPG Tibia. Tibia is one of the oldest MMORPGS in existence. It was started in 1997 and it has been running ever since. The game has a 2d isometric aesthetic, and the whole client was less than 30 megabytes. This allowed me to download the entire game in mere hours. The best part was that I could download this game, install it, and play it for free. To this day, I have not paid a single cent towards Tibia.
Tibia managed to be a “Free to Play” game without relying on the advertisement or micro-transaction crutch that current “Free to Play” games seem to require. Players had the option of paying a monthly subscription fee which would provide additional perks. For example, when the servers were at capacity, free players would be put into a queue before being able to log into the game while “premium players” were allowed immediate access. The game also features exclusive premium content; select areas of the game’s world were exclusive to the premium players.
While this game was far from perfect, it did completely solve my problems. I was able to get the MMORPG experience that my friends and classmates were talking about, all without having to pay a monthly subscription. I had a close group of friends that played this game all throughout high school.
Since that time, the term “Free to Play” has gone through a multitude of definitions and evolutions. When the business model was first starting to become popular “Free to Play” implied that a game was a World of Warcraft clone, typically, from a South Korean developer. Currently, the “Free to Play” genre has moved beyond buggy MMORPGS; it has become one of the most profitable business models for video games and allows developers to release a game in any genre, even on consoles, to the maximum player base.
The tipping point for the genre becoming main stream, if I had to guess, would be when Electronic Arts (EA) started to make “Free to Play” titles. EA was already used to the idea of charging money for additional content in retail games, known as “Downloadable Content.” This concept, popularized in the 7th console generation is what provided EA and Harmonix with the business model for Rock Band.
EA and Bioware were already knee-deep in the development of their very own subscription based MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic. EA could not bite the hand that would, potentially, feed them. They needed a game that was not a MMORPG. The answer was to create a compelling “Free to Play” shooter, and thus 2009 saw the release of Battlefield Heroes.
Battlefield Heroes kept the core game play of the Battlefield franchise completely intact, making it instantly accessible to anybody who had played any of the previous games in the franchise. People who were interested in trying the game could now do so without any financial obligation. Battlefield Heroes earned revenue through the sale of items to customize your character.
With the flood gates now open, a multitude of other games from all sorts of genres were now being released. The rise of “Free to Play” games has also birthed the new genre of the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena with the release of League of Legends, Heroes of Newerth and DOTA2.
These games have pushed the boundary of what a “Free to Play” game can accomplish. League of Legends and DOTA2 have surpassed StarCraft 2 in the world of competitive gaming. A major factor to this is simply that League of Legends and DOTA2 are free to download, and play, while StarCraft 2 has a price tag attached to it. These “free” competitive multiplayer games have tournaments and other events with grand prizes that are in the millions of dollars.
League of Legends has also become one of the most profitable games that is currently available to play. I do not mean one of the most profitable “Free to Play” games; it is one of the most profitable games, period. Just how profitable is profitable? In 2013 League of Legends made over $600 million. With numbers like that, it is no coincidence that not only have a large number of quality “Free to Play” games been released but previously released subscription games, or even paid games have become “Free to Play” games.
As a young adult, struggling financially, trying to gain independence, and living in an economic recession, I became stricter about my video game purchasing habits. I can no longer afford to purchase a game for full price when it is released. If I do have the money to purchase video games, I usually have to wait 6 months to a year when they are significantly marked down, or put on sale during one of the many Steam sales that are always lingering in the future.
This is what had made me really come to appreciate “Free to Play” games. Currently there is an incredibly large collection of games available for free, across multiple genres. This variety assures me that I will have something to play alone or with my friends. In addition, I am now also able to play other games that I normally would not thanks to these titles converting themselves over to a “Free to Play” business model, allowing anyone to play them.
Now we are getting to the point where it also does not matter what platform I want to play on either. Sony took time at their E3 press conference to explain that they are making a commitment to “Free to Play”. Sony is making the Playstation 4 an attractive platform to bring your game to, and they also confirmed that “Free to Play” games would be able to be enjoyed without paying any money. A subscription to Playstation+ is not required to enjoy these games, while the XBox one will still require a subscription to XBox live Gold to play these games (However I predict that this will eventually change).
Abuses will still happen and poor, or lacklustre, titles will still be released more frequently than the quality titles. For every League of Legends we will see multiple copycats like Rise of Immortals. But we will still get great titles to play like Warframe, Loadout, Path of Exile, and Planetside 2. Never before have we had such a collection of quality titles available to us at no cost, and it is only going to be getting better.