The Free-to-Play Stigma

Are Warframe and Fortnite the exception or the rule?

The discussion about the future of monetization in gaming, and the free-to-play model’s place in it, is not new. In fact, it’s been a point of discussion for as long as free-to-play games have been around. Ten years ago, the free-to-play model had a bad reputation among gamers — it was a phrase seen often as interchangeable with pay-to-win, and a warning sign for anybody hoping to play anything other than an elaborate grift. Today… people still see it that way, but with far more caveats and asterisks on that opinion than before. There’s no end to the number of articles or YouTube videos declaring that a game like Warframe or Fortnite is “free-to-play done right.” It’s now so common to hear that it begs the question: are fair, ethical, high-quality free-to-play games the still the exception to the rule, or is it the other way around?

When Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery came out on Android and iOS earlier this year, it was kind of a big deal. No, not because it was the groundbreaking and immersive Hogwarts game the world had been clamoring for, but because it was an egregious, manipulative free-to-play nightmare. The Guardian called the game, “dull, dismaying and deeply cynical,” and that “it is like trying to read a book that asks for money every 10 pages and slams shut on your fingers if you refuse.” It came at a time when the Battlefront II fiasco was still making legal shock-waves around the world, and players were keenly aware of how badly publishers were eager to take advantage of people. These were affirmations that the free-to-play business model was bad news.

What’s left out of that discussion is that in that same month, the free-to-play battle royale game Fortnite surpassed its retail-priced competitor PUBG to become the second-biggest game in the world. It’s just shy of the current king of the hill, League of Legends — another free-to-play game. Other games among the most-played worldwide include the free-to-play titles Dota 2 and Warframe (#2 and #4 most popular on Steam, respectively). Perhaps most importantly, each of these games is loved by its players and praised by the industry for their fair practices. It is ironic, then, that the free-to-play stereotypes persist in a market dominated by positive examples of its format, while the retail-priced competitors are the games actually inciting legitimate legal action for their shady and potentially illegal business practices — the exact types of consumer abuse people feared of the free-to-play format.

Regardless of the stigma surrounding free-to-play, it’s clear that it’s not going anywhere, and for good reason. At Bethesda’s E3 Press Conference this year, Todd Howard admitted that the free-to-play mobile game Fallout Shelter had been played by 120 million people worldwide — more than anything else the studio has ever made combined, which inspired them to invest in creating another free-to-play title, Elder Scrolls: Blades. Even EA has begun to express interest in new free-to-play console and PC games (though nobody should be hopeful there), which could disrupt their current retail games-as-service strategy used on all their major titles.

Path of Exile, the free-to-play spiritual successor to Diablo II.

Free-to-play games have become such an unbeatable value for players that they’re finally disrupting longstanding maxims about the cost of a free lunch. Where the “pay once and play” mantra was once a badge of honor for developers, and a show of good faith to consumers, it has now become a somewhat suspicious business decision to make, especially for smaller developers. Why would the developers of The Culling 2, for instance, charge $20 for their new battle royale game before anybody has had a chance to play it, when games like Fortnite or Realm Royale offer their full game experience for free? Oh, this is why. This sort of up-front buy-in has also been the death of otherwise good games, like Boss Key’s LawBreakers, because it asks for too much faith from increasingly scorned gamers. Free-to-play is something of a guarantee of quality, or at least a risk-free trial for the player. There’s nothing to lose in trying one, and the developers have nothing to gain in tricking you. It’s a business model that, in many ways, relies on maintaining a positive relationship with its players. And that’s ultimately a good thing.

The ever-increasing quality of free-to-play games, combined with their potential to reach several times over the number of players, makes the prospect of developing them no longer the gamble it used to be. If games like Warframe can add massive open worlds and story quests without charging a penny, it makes the $60 initial buy-in for a game like Destiny (plus the additional $80 in DLC) a much harder pill to swallow. Games like Call of Duty: Black Ops IIII (yes, that is the numeral they’re going with) are going as far as dropping their campaigns altogether, opting instead for exclusively “live service” elements akin to free-to-play games… albeit with the full price tag. Even cultural phenomenons like PUBG have lost over half their player-base in just six months in their effort to copy Fortnite’s business model without losing the initial buy-in cost. You can’t eat your cake and have it too, and players just aren’t biting anymore.

The free-to-play model has outgrown its bad reputation, and players have come along with it — even if they refuse to admit it. It’s time we stop holding all games in this market accountable for its worst offenders, and instead treat them as they are: outliers. If we can accept that some of the biggest and best games in the world can be given away for free with ethical, fair monetization, then we should accept that the stigma around them is out of date, and out of touch. There may have been a time when a good free-to-play game was the exception, but now it’s the rule.