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Article: The Cost of Free to Play Games

Article: The Cost of Free to Play Games
 by: Joe Sinicki
Published: February 8, 2017

In June of last year, the average number of people playing Evolve, 2K and Turtle Rock Studios' monsters vs hunters shooter online was just over two hundred. Less than a month later that number jumped up more than two thousand percent to over a million players on average. What drove such a significant amount of people to suddenly start playing a game that's over a year old? The answer is much more simple than you may think; it became free to play. The developers noticed the downturn in players and quickly abandoned the $60 pricing structure for something much more inviting to players though. The free to play structure isn't without it's detractors though and while it's clear that it's not going anywhere anytime soon, there are quite a few who feel like free to play games are costing the industry...and the players much more than the advertised price.

EvolveFrom the outside, free to play seems like a win, win situation for everyone involved. Gamers get to try out more games while also avoiding skipping the $60 price tag for most games and developers get their games in the hands of more people. The basic idea of free to play games should be if players like the game, they'll pay for it but it's not that easy and often times it's not meant to be. The most common complaint with the pricing structure is that it's free to play but pay to win. Most free to play games aren't demos and there's a huge difference between the two. With a demo you're getting a chunk of the core experience for free, similar to going to a grocery store and getting free samples before buying a product. With a free to play game though, you'll often get that entire core experience completely free but if you want to experience some of the best content available, that's when you're going to have to shell out the cash. This gives those who are willing to open up their wallets a distinct advantage over those who don't as they can often times access some of the games most powerful content right from the start.

On the surface, this seems like a small problem, shelling out money for a few weapons and items has to be less money than a full $60 game right? In theory yes, but  there's no real regulation or structure for how much a company should or even can charge for anything in a free to play game, and it can often be staggering. A rare blue hat in Runescape goes for over $16,00, a pet in DOTA 2 is nearly $40,000 (it's got flame paws though). While some of these items are sold from player to player it sets a dangerous precedent for what players are willing to pay to get ahead or get that special item that will set them apart. It effects games on nearly all platforms too, with mobile games being some of the worst offenders.  Capcom's mobile title Smurf Village let's you buy smurf-berries and you can pay up to $100 a basket of them. Think of that next time you hand your phone to your crying toddler.

Star Wars: The Old RepublicThe real problem though is the smoke and mirrors some players seem to use to deceive players into paying to play. Star Wars: The Old Republic for instance does give players the entire story content regardless of if they're paying but they do keep a good number of things behind a paywall including pretty basic things like customer service. There are actually three different types of accounts in The Old Republic, two of them; subscribers and preferred accounts (anyone who has spent over $5 in the game) get bonuses and extra content, while the free to play accounts get very little. I get capitalism, and I get that if you want to play a game you're likely going to have to pay something but a game putting something like customer support behind a paywall when they claim to be free to play is something else entirely.

So is it working? Are developers making more money with these free to play games? That's just about as unclear as how much you're expected to pay in some of these games. A recent study  from research firm Swrve shows that nearly half of the revenue from free to play games comes from less than one percent of all of it's player base. Swrve tracked ten million new players across thirty games and found that only 2.2 percent of those players ever spent a single penny and that two-thirds of those players stopped playing after only one day. Keep that in mind when a game commercial boasts how many people have played.

Smurf VillageOne of the most dangerous trends in Free to Play games though is, much like Evolve, games that were once full paid experiences going free to play. While it may attract new players, those who bought in at the beginning can feel betrayed and regret their experience or even worse. While the developers have added new content and tweaked certain aspects, Evolve's earliest players, otherwise known as Founders are finding their progress wiped, which sometimes erases months of work. One steam user even said that all of the content he'd unlocked, even the ones he paid for were all gone and he was expected to unlock them all again with the rest of the free to play crowd.

While this article may read as a complaint letter about free to play games and their culture, it couldn't be further from the truth. Free to play games can help move the gaming industry to new heights but it has to be done the right away. There are plenty of great games that allow you to experience it's content for free but do your research before jumping in and opening up your wallet.

Do you play any free to play games? Let us know!

Joe Sinicki
Joe started off writing about video games for small fan sites when he realized he should probably do something with his communications degree and didn't want to get into the grind of daily reporting. Joining the team in late 2008, Joe is the featured game reviewer for Cheat Happens, producing up to 10 CHEATfactor Game Reviews per month.
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