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Evil or not evil – that’s not the question for free-to-play

By on November 4, 2011

This post was originally published as part of a regular series on gamasutra

The last two weeks have been characterized by increasingly strident escalations of the debate on the merits of free-to-play.

After months of feeling that free-to-play had become an accepted tool in the game designer’s arsenal, suddenly the vitriol was re-unleashed, not least by Adam Saltsman of Canabalt fame in this Gamasutra Expert Blog.

Then Notch jumped on the bandwagon, arguing that he hated the phrase “free-to-play”, leading to the marvelous headline “Notch: Scrolls will be free-to-play after initial payment.”

Isn’t It Time We Moved On

The genie is out of the bottle. Free-to-play is here to stay. For many games, it is better for players (the majority of whom will get the game for free) and better for designers.

For some, free-to-play might breach the magical fourth wall. For others, it might lead them to spend more money than they wanted (although who hasn’t bought games they resented paying for in the old, physical model).

And yes, some will be designed by unethical people focusing on using operant conditioning to encourage desired behaviors. Done cynically, this is to be deplored, and fought against.

But the fact that some companies and designers are doing things that we don’t all like is no reason to take against a business model that has broadened our industry and has the potential to be its greatest hope for a successful future.

Free-To-Play Is Here To Stay

Free is a good price point for consumers. Free is a good way to enable maximum discovery. Free-to-play encourages developers to focus on creating content and experiences that some people will choose to pay for (although this can be more or less ethical).

Most fascinatingly, free-to-play seems to be more popular with consumers. Gabe Newell, at a recent conference at Seattle, said that making Team Fortress 2 free made no appreciable difference to his audience size; making Team Fortress 2 free-to-play increased the audience five-fold.

I appreciate that some people don’t like the way free-to-play changes the rules of the game. I understand that some companies have put profits ahead of experiences. I know that free-to-play is less suited to certain genres.

It has also expanded the market, brought new players in, paved the way for independent studios to generate enough money to fund interesting games that wouldn’t have been made otherwise and will, given time, create new experiences which would never have made it through the ossified greenlight processes of publishers and platform owners.

So Where Next?

The next challenge is to make free-to-play better. Feel free to vent your spleen against the market. It won’t work. Consumers have spoken, the money has spoken, free-to-play is here.

So how do we make it better? How do we enable to allow users to play a game, for free, forever, and still generate enough revenue and profit to keep developers in business, to keep investors spending money on the space and to enable the creation of enjoyable, compelling intriguing games that will enthrall this year, next and beyond? These are the questions we need to be trying to answer.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: