Massively Overthinking: Do you ever feel guilty about ‘freeloading’ in a free-to-play MMO?


A few weeks back, Massively OP’s Ben Griggs made an observation that I bet some readers can relate to. He mentioned that in his play of a certain free-to-play MMO, he could see how he was being encouraged to buy premium cash-shop items. “But I guess I never considered it P2W since you can literally play the game for months absolutely for free before hitting that point,” he wrote. “I’ve still dropped $0 on that game but have been considering a premium [item] just due to how much I’ve played. I almost feel guilty about it.”

Emphasis ours! Why should we feel guilty over getting some enjoyment from a wealthy company for free? But some folks do, and there’s room for nuance here. I thought it would be an interesting conversation for Massively Overthinking, especially coming on the tail end of a controversy partially about online gamers being called “freeloaders” by a certain devset. Do you ever feel guilty about “freeloading” in a free-to-play MMO? Here’s what our writers think.

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): This is really well-timed on my end too, as a coworker recently revealed he’s been playing Pokemon Go for a few years but never knew how to earn coins. He figured you just had to buy, so it may have seemed odd to him that I couldn’t remember when I last spent money on the game.

For me, free-to-play games are like street performers. The value may be difficult to pin down, so they take what the audience can give. I’m far from rich, so for the most part, I try to only spend money if I want something and it’s around the same time the company has done. Clearly some people can afford to buy what they want, and others can’t.

The thing to keep in mind, though, is that no matter how rich the company is, they’ll pull the plug on a game that isn’t making enough money. That’s why I try to vote with my wallet.

Andy McAdams: It really comes down to down wanting to support companies, or individuals, or IPs. There’s some fuzzy balancing equation that happens in my head about whether the value I’m getting out of a F2P is met or exceeded by the selling of my personal data to anyone who has a nickel to pay (but that’s a different topic) that influences whether I’ll drop any cashy-money on the game. If I feel like the enjoyment I’m getting out of a game is enough (which is admittedly a fuzzy qualifier), I’ll throw some money at the game. I never spend more than $15 in any given period on micro-transactions, and I refuse to use money on transitory items in shops (like XP boosts, speed boosts, temporary mounts, etc). If a shop has only those items, I’m not spending any money. If I’m dropping money on a game, you best believe it’s only on things that aren’t going to disappear after a few hours of played time.

But guilt? Not really. I treat it symbiotically — if I’m getting value, I’ll throw some money. If I’m not getting value, I won’t.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): This is something that I’ve become more aware of as I’ve aged. As a kid, I used to think nothing of the plethora of copied 5.25″ disks containing such classics as Choplifter and Oregon Trail. As a college student, installing someone else’s copy of Microsoft Word didn’t faze me much, as I couldn’t afford to obtain it any other way. But as I’ve begun to create my own content and even earn my own living, the responsibility to compensate somebody for services rendered is never far from mind. It’s the way it works. It’s the way it needs to work if we want to keep seeing new and innovative games and systems.

Plus, the old adage “no such thing as a free lunch” does ring true. If I’m not exchanging dollars for my time spent in game, they’re getting something else from me, even if it’s not readily apparent what that is. In most cases, I’d rather just give them the money.

So, I guess it’s a combination of both guilt and suspicion that gnaws at my mind.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I do sometimes feel guilty, if I’ve truly enjoyed my time playing and don’t feel as if the developers are being egregiously greedy or annoying about trying to rope me into the ecosystem. I’m thinking right now of the City of Heroes Homecoming donation rounds and how livid some folks got when they kept trying to donate money but the server operators would shut down the donation drive when it hit its goal. People really wanted to donate – they wanted to help ensure the future of the game they were playing, and I suspect they wanted to assuage any guilt they felt about it too.

On the other hand, I am pretty sick of going into games like “woohoo I’m ready to spend baby, where’s the good stuff!” and finding that the cash shop has nothing I want, or all the stuff I wanted isn’t in there right now and might not be back for months. Grrrr. Take my money! That kills my guilt real quick.

It’s not just about guilt, though. I’ve personally seen MMOs go under in large part because they were obviously undermonetized (hiya, Glitch!). I never want to see that happen again. So I always feel a little bit of responsibility to pony up. Tip your waitress. Sub to your favorite artists and websites. And pay, something, for your games, if you actually want ’em to stick around and be more than a momentary fling.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX): I don’t feel any guilt if I don’t drop any cash into a F2P game. If the company wants me to spend money on the game, it needs to be of a high quality, not because of guilt. When I played Kritika Online, I didn’t drop a penny into that game; the product was not if a high quality in my eyes. The engine stuttered, the character design was cliche, and more importantly, it was so obvious the developers wanted me to spend money on the game.

On the other hand, I’ve dropped about $500 on Black Desert Online over the past year and a half. To me, that game is one of high quality. It’s worth an investment on my part, but I don’t do it to support the company. I do it because they have a sweet costume in the shop.

Colin Henry (@ChaosConstant): The short answer is no. When I was a poor college student and major F2P MMOs were just coming onto the scene, I made a meta-game out of seeing how much I could get out of these games without paying anything. I did so much achievement grinding in The Lord of the Rings Online, for instance, to get the slow drip of free premium currency they rewarded so I could buy content packs. And I know many players did way more than I ever did. Now I’m by no means rich, but I have a bit of disposable income, and I’m perfectly willing to drop a few bucks on games I get a lot of enjoyment out of. If I get 20 hours out of a $15 single player game, and I get hundreds of hours of enjoyment from a free-to-play MMO, I view it as a good value to spend $10 or $20 dollars on cosmetic fluff, and if I can get convenience items like slightly faster mounts or shorter teleport cooldowns or the like, that’s even better. But if the cash shop isn’t offering me anything I’m interested in, I’m happy to ignore it until such a time as it does.

I’m creating value for developers simply by existing in their world. MMOs are designed to be populated by players, and when there are no players around, the world feels dead. When the world feels dead, it’s not as fun, and when it’s not fun, people start to leave, making the world feel even more dead, and so on. So in a sense, while you can’t put a price on it, so-called “freeloaders” who play a lot and are active in the community are more valuable than faithful subscribers who only log in once a week.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): Occasionally — occasionally — I do feel this way, especially when I realize just how little I spend on MMORPGs in contrast for the hours and hours of fun that they provide. That makes me much more willing to drop some money on titles that I do love from time to time, but what I often find is that there is nothing worth spending money on — content or useful unlocks or desirable outfits. In games like Star Trek Online, where I feel that Cryptic does throw a lot of free ships your way, I am much more likely to buy a top tier ship than I would have if the company was a lot more stingy (see: SWTOR).

Larry Everett (@Shaddoe, blog): There are two perspectives that hit me right upfront. One comes from knowing how much it takes to create and sustain a good game, and the second comes from the perspective of a gamer who has been duped far too many times by corporate developers attempting to nickel-and-dime their way into my pocketbook.

I know that developers work very hard to make a great game. When their heart is in it, the developers’ passion bleeds out to the players. And the players can feel it. If I really like what those developers have done, then I do feel guilty when I can’t throw money at them.

On the other hand, there are other games that appear to be run by evil corporate overlords attempting to suck the life from every developer and player. If I happen to enjoy one of those games, I really don’t mind taking as much free game time as I can from them.

But the honest truth is that most games created by overworked developers and played underappreciated gamers aren’t enjoyable and don’t last long enough for me to spend any money on them.

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): In the last couple of years, I think BDO is the only game that has successfully enticed me to spend money in the cash shop. It is also the game I have played the most by a wide margin.

I do feel guilty for not spending anything on small indie games that l want to support, but I don’t think twice about playing games from bigger companies without spending a dime. Somewhere, someone is spending far more than I can afford just to be fancy or strong, and I am OK with that. There are one or two companies I just can’t bring myself to give money to out of mistrust or feeling burned by their previous actions. I won’t name them, but they are among the usual suspects for inspiring rants.

Samon Kashani (@thesamkash): No guilt at all. I play exclusively free-to-play or buy-to-play games. I simply don’t have the time to commit to a single sub game at a time; it’s never going to happen.

I can appreciate that games take a lot of time and effort to make, though. And I need to look as awesome as I can. So I’m completely cool with cash shops charging for cosmetics. As long as it doesn’t offer up stats, it’s all groovy. Eventually, if your game is good enough to commit some of my life to, then I’ll start to purchase your cash shop cosmetics.

I also don’t feel guilty because a lot of these actually free-to-play games need players. You can’t have decent PvP without lots and lots of bodies. So I give you my body, you give me good content, and eventually there will be money changing hands.

Tyler Edwards: I don’t feel guilty generally, but if I play a game a lot and am enjoying it, I usually end up dropping some cash once in a while. I love cosmetics, so most cash shops have at least one or two things I want. I get a cool outfit, and the devs get rewarded for doing a good job. Everyone wins.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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