I read with disgust a recent GI.biz piece about free-to-play and its supposed coming of age. The business model has of course run amok through the western MMO industry since Turbine’s Dungeons & Dragons Online started the dominoes rolling in 2010, and it has been the weapon of choice for separating browser/mobile game players from their money since browser/mobile games became a thing.
Whether or not free-to-play is actually good for the long-term health of the game industry is up for debate. But you wouldn’t know that if you inhale the PR smoke commonly blown by development firms that owe their existence to the business model’s built-in saturation potential rather than their ability to make quality products that consumers value.
“F2P PR needs someone who knows what they’re talking about to talk about it, there is so much bad feeling out there, that it’s evil and so on,” says one Fabio Lo Zito, a public relations manager at browser-turned-mobile developer InnoGames. “Games media is traditionally heavily opposed to F2P,” he continued, “so those people need to be able to talk to somebody from a F2P games company that gives them a bit of insight.”
This quote is all kinds of problematic, so let’s start with the obvious question. Lo Zito claims that journos need a bit of insight, but insight into what, exactly? Free-to-play’s evilness, or the lack thereof, is completely subjective. Not only that, but the majority of free-to-play models in the MMO and mobile space are patently exploitative. For every truly free Marvel Heroes or League of Legends there are two dozen truly awful ArcheAges and Star Wars: The Old Republics that either heavily incentivize pay-to-win or heavily incentivize the “optional” subscription via a series of brutal freemium gameplay restrictions. That is why the free-to-play model continues to enjoy its less-than-stellar reputation in MMO gamer circles even as it rakes in millions upon millions of dollars for casual-focused shovelware outfits around the globe.
I am a member of the games media that Lo Zito is ostensibly referring to, and I have spoken to many, many people from free-to-play game companies over the past five-plus years. Funnily enough, none of them has had any sort of insight into free-to-play other than “it works for our company.”
You know what else works for big business? Outsourcing. Walmart wages. Customer service reps who can’t speak the language of the customers. But you don’t see PR people extolling their virtues, right? So why the desperate need to legitimize free-to-play?
Can’t developers who rely on the model just be happy that there are millions of people hooked into it already and utterly convinced of its moral superiority despite the fact that nearly every MMO in existence now charges more for less than in years past?
Don’t get me wrong here; I am a fan of capitalism, and I realize that businesses exist to make money. But Lo Zito’s insinuation that game journos need to be educated about free-to-play is the worst sort of spin designed to capture more of the low-information crowd. It implies an ignorance, an incorrectness in games media where none actually exists, and it is carefully constructed to paint the speaker and those who share his subjective and self-serving notions on free-to-play as progressive truth-tellers while erroneously portraying opponents as uninformed and in need of insight.
Over here in the real and PR-free world, my F2P insight came not from the mouth of a free-to-play game developer with a vested interest in the model but from actual experience. Since 2011, I’ve watched said model actively destroy the sorts of MMORPGs that I enjoy. Free-to-play has enabled widespread game tourism, which undermines virtual world communities and facilitates the kind of short-attention-span MMO player who bunny hops from one launch to the next, never staying long enough to infuse a given game with the personality and the gameplay pulse it needs to be truly alive.
Free-to-play costs completists more per month because now in addition to paying the “optional” subscription fee, they get nickel-and-dimed for every little fluff pet, inventory slot, weapon skin, and cosmetic outfit in the game instead of, you know, earning said items through the gameplay that they’re already paying to access. This, as I mentioned last week, is a godsend for developers with dollar signs in their eyes and a deal-breaker for those of us who value immersion and virtual worlds.
So come on, PR ladies and gentlemen. Try a little harder than “game journos need some F2P insight.” It may come as a shock to you, but some of us simply don’t like free-to-play because it sucks, for the reasons I’ve listed above and for countless others.
Are we a minority? Undoubtedly, but acting like some sort of free-to-play evangelist who’s trying his best to convert the unwashed masses is exactly the sort of smarmy, duplicitous behavior that has earned free-to-play the bad reputation that it carries today and that it will carry into the future.