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.