Why Free-to-Play Games Could Change this Industry for the Better

(This is another edition of </RANT>, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)

Free-to-play games have been around for quite a few years now, but most of them have been absolute garbage. When we talk about free-to-play, most people will automatically conjure images of terrible browser-based MMOs with infantile art and mind-numbing, alienating gameplay. Many will think of mobile devices or Facebook, and brainless games like FarmVille that seem to exist only to perpetuate the need to purchase vast quantities of nothing at all, providing no compelling interaction beyond the acquisition of virtual items in a virtual world with virtually no reason to care outside of one’s basic hoarding instincts. The whole “freemium” model has been given a bad rap thanks to years of these exploitative and abusive non-games, but it seems we’re on the cusp of a change, and I couldn’t be happier about that.

A number of developers have seized upon the free-to-play model of late, and they’re not just asshole Facebook developers desperate to suck the residue around Zynga’s teats in a vain quest for sustenance. Actual videogames are appearing. Honest, bonafide videogames that are striving to provide the kind of top shelf entertainment we’ve come to expect from home consoles. Games like Tribes: Ascend and Blacklight: Retribution have appeared to give us online multiplayer shooters that feel like real online multiplayer shooters. There’s aren’t just half-hearted and shallow mimics of the genre, these are original, polished, good looking and immensely enjoyable experiences that focus on creating a compelling game at the base free level before enticing the player with paid enhancements.

Tribes: Ascend has set the Internet ablaze with its unique spin on first person-combat shooting, huge open battlefields, and a desire to balance absolute chaos against addictive amusement. Its success has been undeniable, and while it’s not my exact “style” of shooter, I love that it exists, absolutely applaud its success, and am just damn excited to have it as a part of this industry. My personal favorite free-to-play game, Blacklight: Retribution, is a bit more grounded and takes many things from Call of Duty, Killzone, and Crysis, but has a great intensity to its combat and some really interesting gimmicks. Both of these games provide all of that entertainment at the basic level, too. Each title is plenty of fun and provides hours of solid gaming for free. To be of such high quality and provide lasting fun while charging nothing is utterly worthy of respect. It’s the kind of thing that makes me want to go on to buy more stuff, to support the game monetarily and enhance an already great experience with extra stuff. It’s the kind of free-to-play model that’s going to really change our perception of the entire market, and I hope it’ll go even beyond that and influence the industry as a whole.

What I love most about games like Blacklight and Tribes is that they are beginning to show the traditional games market up for the sham that it’s becoming. For years, major publishers have attempted their own perverse takes on the free-to-play model, with one majorly insidious addition — they’re models attached to games we’ve already paid a premium for. Whether it’s Capcom selling cheats for Dead Rising and characters for Street Fighter x Tekken, or Namco Bandai scamming us on everything it can think of, many publishers are trying to copy the freemium model without actually making their games free in the first place. For years, they’ve managed to get away with it, thanks to the stigma attached to the freemium market and the idea that if your game starts out free, it’s not worth playing in the first place, let alone buying content for.

The new generation of freemium games, however, is starting to change all that. The idea that a free game cannot provide quality is simply not true anymore, and we have the evidence to back that up. With games like Heroes & Generals and Firefall on the horizon, it seems the case file will only grow. Fact of the matter is, if a publisher is charging you $60 for the basic experience and then offers freemium-style enhancements on top of that, they have actively conned you. That is a scam. Because this generation trained us to accept it, it’s not a scam that we may readily recognize. It is, however, going to become a lot more evident when quality free-to-play games start to truly take off and become more mainstream.

It is my hope that, in time, people will look at a retail first-person shooter and ask the question, “But I can get all this content for free in another game, before I buy all this downloadable content. Why am I expected to pay sixty bucks for this when I can determine my own pricing model with a title that’s just as good?” We may be quite a way away from that, especially since the freemium market still needs to grow a lot more in order to seriously compete with the likes of EA and Activision, but I hope that we are heading toward that world. The $60 fixed pricing model has been broken for a long time, and I think we need a far more flexible market led by more open-minded people. The growing success and quality of free-to-play is one way in which we can get there.

It’s easy to still write off freemium games. It’s hard to care about them after years of seeing the rubbish churned out of that sector. Don’t discredit such games yet, though. Things are getting really interesting, and they could change the industry for the better.


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12 Comments on Why Free-to-Play Games Could Change this Industry for the Better


On May 2, 2012 at 1:15 pm

those “free to paly games” is a total lie, if u don t pay u gonna be awefull vs players who pay, take age of empires online, if u want to have the good stuff, and skirmish mod, ur gonna end up paying WAY more then a normal game…. they call it free to play, it should be “*uck if u don t pay”

John Smith

On May 2, 2012 at 1:16 pm

Tribes Ascend is a mediocre joke, Considering how far they’ve screwed up the core mechanics of Tribes to fit the “freemium” model is a joke…

Tribes was about skill, its now about grinding out weapon unlocks so you can preform your position as you should have been…

even the fundamental of Chasing a Flag Capper is wrong and they throw more and more “bandaid” fixes that break the game more than fixing it…

Free2Play is the worst system for gamers as it essentially turns us into open wallets developers then look at us and say how can we squeeze out more dollars from OH lets make the game only functional when you’re spending money or Lets have the “fun” be a premium option…

it turns the games into Haves and Have Nots

Bobby Hunter

On May 2, 2012 at 3:39 pm

Great piece, Jim. My brothers used to play Runescape for free and that really turned me off from ever considering free games. Your coverage and review of Blacklight: Retribution really opened my eyes though. I can’t stand the current industry trend of hammering gamers with online passes, endless DLC, and more even after we’ve already paid $60 for the game.


On May 3, 2012 at 7:47 am

This is a decent article, but it fails to cover one of the pitfalls many of these games have, the “Pay 2 Win” aspect that is strong in many of the titles mentioned. I was a beta tester in Tribes: Ascend, and I have to say not only did it feel wrong compared to the original game, but without unlocks you will feel useless. Blacklight I have yet to try despite it sitting on my hard drive for several weeks now, so I can’t comment on that. I’m currently in the alpha of Heroes & Generals, and the game has serious potential, but yet again it demonstrates a strong P2W aspect. Often teams are at a serious disadvantage because nobody has something as simply as an anti-armor capability. I’ve been on both sides of these exchanges, and I have to say it needs a serious overhaul if the game is to ever reach more than a very small niche of players, which is sad because the game clearly would benefit from a larger audience due to the way the combat theater works. I applied to become a beta tester for Firefall, and I’m hoping it will not follow a similar model, but if it does, hopefully the PVE content will be good enough to be able to enjoy despite it.

I think better examples of solid game design using a F2P model are games like Team Fortress 2 and Planetside 2. TF2 didn’t start off free, but like a lot of MMO’s that have made the switch to F2P, it’s paid off. The best part is that TF2 still functions as a competitive shooter, and the paid part is merely cosmetic. Pay nothing, and you can still compete at the same level as everyone else. Planetside 2 is said to be following the same path, so it’s another F2P I’m looking forward to.


On May 3, 2012 at 2:01 pm

@SXO – I’m one of the developers of Heroes & Generals. We have the greatest respect for our community and we run an open door development policy, where we share the development process with our community and try to develop the game in close collaboration with the players.

So we’re very interested en hearing what you think we, in your opinion, could do better or different, so we won’t end up as a niche game. Feel free to send me a mail at kea [at] reto [dot] dk, and I would gladly continue the discussion.

Kenneth Ellegaard Andersen


On May 3, 2012 at 3:27 pm

@Reto Will do, definitely, as this is very much a game I want to see succeed. It’s great to see devs that communicate directly with the community.

Ron Whitaker

On May 4, 2012 at 5:31 am

@SXO TF2 is indeed a good example of F2P done well, but I have to disagree with you on Tribes: Ascend. I’ve played it a ton, and even without unlocks, it’s not hard to perform extremely well. The base weapons are effective, and no matter how much money you spend, it doesn’t make you shoot any straighter.


On May 4, 2012 at 7:14 am

@Ron What you say is true, the game is still heavily skill-based as far as personal performance. Just cause someone has a spinfusor doesn’t mean they’re going to actually hit anyone with it, and let’s not forget the skiing dynamic which everyone has to master in order to be worth salt in combat.

However, what I am mostly referring to is the ability for a person to really serve their team without investing in unlocks. My experience is limited to the beta since I did not continue playing after launch. I in fact stopped a few weeks prior, but there were times when one team was relegated to sitting in their base protecting their flag because they were simply unable to pose a threat to the opposing team’s vehicles and defenses. Unfortunately none of my friends got into the beta, so I never got to scrutinize the game as well as I would have liked to, but that was my limited experience with the game.

I just want to add that I’m by no means one of those people that refuse to spend money on F2P games, I’m definitely part of that small percentage that is willing to lay down serious quid if I think it will improve my enjoyment of the game. However, I judge such games on their ability to maintain a level enough playing field for people who don’t spend a dime, which happens to be the vast majority of players. This is why I show preference towards games that monetize things that don’t affect combat, though I do realize that’s not always possible.


On May 5, 2012 at 9:37 pm

I’d like to point out a few “free to play” games that could have been, but turned tits up.
One of the biggest ones that I just happend to come across a year ago and had visted again a couple of days ago was “Black Prophecy”. A Beautiful space sim game with lots of potential. When I tried the beta last year it was massive, thousands online, active community and it was even lagging even though the game had multiple servers. Fast forward a year later, and I played 3 hours, and did not see more than 2 other people on the only server currently running. I looked at their “Item shop” and I laughed as it was right away apparent as to why The game died a horrible death. 20 dollars got you a character name change, something like $25 got you a starter pack which had items that only lasted 15 days. Of course you could also buy better ships with real money, buy better craft recipes, etc etc. The game was 6 feet under because it was purely pay to win garbage. Another amusing part is that they still had the original cash shop which was supposed to sell what the devs originally claimed were only going to sell; “Ship paint/dye”.
Game went from cosmetics only to buy your way into the best ship. Game Over. Devs went under, their 4+ years of hard work down the dunk shoot.

Another game which was supposed to rival that of WoW was Allods Online. Again cash shop dwindled its playerbase, which to me felt like there was no reason to play anymore because there isn’t that much going on in the game. and patches happen maybe once a month.

An ok f2p game was APB reloaded. But that game (to me at least) doesn’t have anything other than PVP, so you couldn’t play for too long.

A good example of f2p is a game I tried recently that was Path of Exiles. What they asked players to pay for if they wanted it was very fair, and fair in price as well.

There are a lot of other f2p games that are doing ok but it’s because they don’t make the player seem like you’re running with 1 leg missing.

However, I played a lot of f2p games; APB Reloaded, ARMA 2 Free, Black Prophecy, Bloodline Champions, Hellgate, Heros of Newerth, League of Legends , Rise of Immortals, and World of tanks are just some of the F2P games I have on my Hard drive right now. How many have I played Religiously? Heros Of Newerth is one I play but that’s because I bought the game before It went f2p. The rest I slowly lost interest, because they all either seemed to lack content or just bog you down.

To me, I’d rather pay $180 to play a quality game where everyone’s on the same playing field rather than pay a $100 to play a “Meh” game that still requires me to put out more money to try to out edge the guy pay $200 bucks (I’m looking at you World of Tanks!)


On May 5, 2012 at 9:45 pm

well I had a big thing written up to add to this discussion, but gamefront doesn’t show it


On May 5, 2012 at 9:49 pm


Justin Harland

On November 22, 2012 at 10:44 am

No love for League of Legends? It’s an example of a free-to-play game in which you cannot get ahead with money — money only buys cosmetic changes. Anything that affects the way you play or how well you play can be purchased through currency earned only by playing the game itself.

And still, my friends and I have have spent upwards of $80 on the game over the past year, simply because of how much we love it, how eager the developers are, and how much quality is present in the whole experience. Totally worth trying it out for a bit (and it’s way better than the other MOBAs out there, especially for those new to the genre).