Konami’s in the news again this week, only this time it’s not for their occasional (and, I believe, very intentional) there-might-be-a-new-Silent-Hill-in-the-works teases. This time, it’s because of eFootball 2022, its shiny-new spiritual successor to Pro Evolution Soccer (PES).
Initially, Konami was in the news for all the right reasons, too. For twenty years, PES – though thought by many to be mechanically superior to its rival, EA’s FIFA franchise – sat in FIFA‘s shadow, failing to meet its competitor’s sales, impact, or reach. But rather than continue to compete with EA or its aggressive monetisation mechanics, Konami – the same Konami that continually upsets fans by making not sequels of its most famous games but instead creates pachinko versions, a Japanese slot machine daubed with the trimmings of the company’s most successful titles, including Metal Gear and Castlevania – surprised us all by announcing it was going to take a different tack entirely and rebrand PES as eFootball.
Oh, and it was going to be free-to-play.
Imagine that. After 18 releases, 26 years, and 111 million sales, Konami had the balls to go F2P.
Konami’s often the butt of gaming in-jokes, but I’ve always thought it is (well, used to be) an interesting publisher, and one prepared to take risks and experiment with new tech and opportunities. Silent Hill Shattered Memories, for instance, was a Nintendo Wii exclusive for a brief while, capitalising on the system’s motion controls to create an immersive horror experience that hadn’t really been seen before. Yes, there were issues with that game, but the novel control scheme wasn’t one of them.
Dumping a 20-year-old franchise and replacing it with a game that – theoretically, anyway – players can access without spending a penny? That’s a ballsy move. But it just might be the only thing that will unperch FIFA from the footie top spot.
Fast-forward to September 2021, and Konami’s meme-worthy attempts at dethroning FIFA have come crashing down. Free-to-play or not free-to-play, eFootball 2022 currently holds the dubious title of being the worst-reviewed Steam game of all time, which is quite an achievement given the obnoxious number of shovelware, asset-flip bollocks we see pop up on Steam with depressing regularity. Its dodgy graphics, peculiar AI, unresponsive controls, and stunning lack of features have earned not new players, but scorn, with one player succinctly summing up their thoughts in the Steam review section with: “I don’t care that this game is free, I still feel ripped off. I demand a full refund”. And I couldn’t agree more.
It’s tempting to look at free games and apps through a different lens than premium games, isn’t it? After all, those games are released for “free” – well, ostensibly, anyway – even though it’s taken developers money, time, and effort to put that game into your hands at all, let alone provide further updates – be they for bug fixes or extra content – later down the line.
But you’ve heard the saying, right? If the product is free, you are the product, and never is that more apparent than when it comes to online gaming. By that same mentality, then, by giving a free game your time and perhaps even a little money via the occasional microtransaction or two… well, the game really isn’t free, is it? And if we take that as read, then free games should be held up to the same scrutiny as premium ones, shouldn’t they?
Just because a game is free doesn’t mean it’s okay for it to be a buggy mess. Just because a game doesn’t cost anything upfront doesn’t mean it’s okay to stuff it full of locked-off content and microtransactions, endlessly prompting you to relinquish a pound or two for a pretty cosmetic skin. I suspect we’re more tolerant of this shit in free games, but it’s the acceptance of this in F2P titles that is starting to bleed into the premium market – and that is not okay. Mobile games, in particular, are rife with “time-saving” extras that can be unlocked for a couple of quid, and now huge studios like Ubisoft have cottoned onto those lucrative “player recurring investment” tactics in a bid to keep you forking out money long after you’ve paid £60 or £70 just to open a game, let alone finish it.
That’s not to say there isn’t a place for free games, of course. If nothing else, they enable a player to try a game before they invest real money into it, which is particularly important given not everyone can afford to fork out for the eleventy gazillion “AAA” games released each year and the video game demo is an endangered species these days. I routinely buy the battle pass for F2P Apex Legends, for instance, not because I particularly care about the cosmetic skins it unlocks, but because it’s given me hundreds of hours of entertainment. It’s my way of supporting Respawn and demonstrating that I value the game.
But that doesn’t mean it gets a free pass. Nor does it mean I hold it to a lower standard than premium games. And neither should you, quite honestly.
Vikki Blake is a columnist for NME.