Free-to-play games aren’t necessarily zero cost – here’s why

What's an acceptable level of monetisation?

This Week in Games is a weekly column where Vikki Blake pulls apart the biggest stories in gaming each week. This week, she wants to remind you that even though something is “free”, that doesn’t mean it won’t cost you anything…

You know the old saying, right? “If you don’t pay for a product, you are the product”. It started circulating back when we were stupid and naive and downloaded any old shit onto our devices without reading the small print. Were we wary of viruses back then? You bet we were: malware was nothing new. Were we wary about where our data was ending up? Were we fuck.

That’s why EA‘s recent decision to turn its fan-favourite skating franchise, Skate, into a free-to-play title should raise eyebrows as well as expectations. In a bid to appeal to “Gen Z and Gen Alpha players”, the company announced at its last earnings call that it was switching from a “premium plus live service” to a free-to-play (F2P) model to better match, ahem, “how they consume content”.

Beyond the grimly obvious – each generation of UK kids grow up to be UK adults with less money than the one before it, with increasingly less disposal income with which to indulge hobbies like games and music – it’s an indicator not just about EA’s shifting marketing priorities, but also perhaps how game makers as a whole think about monetisation. After all, F2P titles no longer sit at the edge of the industry, but at the very heart of it.

Skate
Pre-Pre-Alpha footage of ‘Skate’. CREDIT: YouTube / EA

Take a peek at Steam Charts‘ biggest games right now. Of the titles with the most people playing – CS:GO, Dota 2, Apex Legends, PUBG: Battlegrounds, and GTA 5 respectively – all but one (GTA, the last-last-gen blockbuster that refuses to die) are free-to-play. It’s not hard to see why the people in suits are clamouring to ensure games with their logos are listed amongst them, is it?

However, there’s nothing inherently wrong with F2P games. Whilst arguably more insidious on mobile (I briefly worked as a copywriter for a Very Well-Known Company and the amount of shovelware I had to write about almost broke me; no, I didn’t last long there), when done right, F2P titles have every right to sit shoulder to shoulder against premium ones. EA’s own Apex Legends is just one such example. Though not without its issues, it’s still one of my favourite shooters, and a fabulous example of how a F2P model can not just exceed but excel.

Its monetisation strategy is a little less fabulous, sure, but I’m not even against that – at least, not in theory, anyways. Apex has given me many, many hours of unbridled enjoyment, all for the princely outlay of zero pounds and zero pence. I bought the first battle pass not because I particularly wanted it, but because I wanted to support Respawn. I wanted to ensure these servers stay live for a long time to come. Buying a battle pass a couple of times a year seems more than fair recompense for a game that’s given me and my pals so many good times.

Apex Legends
Apex Legends. Credit: Respawn Entertainment / EA

MultiVersus – also free-to-play – seems to be making waves for all the right reasons, too. Sure, we’ve learned the hard way that some publishers sneakily hold back some games’ monetisation strategies until they’re out of beta and fully launched, but we’ve spent some time with it, and reckon “the marketplace and in-game transactions are fair, balanced, and nothing you buy with ‘real’ money will enhance your actual performance”. Our preview also revealed that “everyone get[s] a fair shot at unlocking the characters they’ve got their hearts set on without parting with their cash, if they don’t want to”. No quibbles here, then.

The issue with these cosmetic microtransactions is not a discussion of balance, rather a separate issue – players who find it very hard to ignore the flashing store banners and irresistible pull of completing collections, even if they are “just cosmetic”. That rings doubly true when studies have found links between gambling and gaming – at the end of the day, there is absolutely a subset of players that will struggle to play games for zero cost.

Multiversus Garnet and Jake the Dog
Multiversus. Credit: Player First Games.

In today’s world, a spiralling cost of living crisis means that an increasing amount of gamers will struggle to pay full price for the latest title – and if a game being free means more people can access it, it’s hard to argue with that. However, the issue with microtransactions – really – comes down to what they offer. Gamers quite rightly refuse to accept that those who can afford them should get a competitive advantage against those who cannot, which means for now, these additional costs are chiefly locked to “cosmetic” items. That doesn’t mean we’re not seeing our tolerance tested, though, with those premium mobile “timesaver” shortcuts slowly making their way onto console and PC gaming.

Maybe the idea of paying for “extras” when a game is F2P is more palatable? I know I often think that way, especially as we navigate a gaming world heaving with expansions and DLC and battle passes and premium editions, all of which are designed to get us to part with more of our hard-earned cash even after we’ve paid top whack for the latest game. A freebie can be brilliant for gaming on a budget, but be cautious: just because a game is free-to-play doesn’t mean it won’t cost you in the end.

What else?

  • A brand new Splatoon card game spin-off was announced during the recent Splatoon 3 Direct for the game, and it’s based on the multiplayer Turf War game mode.
  • Xbox has announced its plans for Gamescom 2022, and it includes five first-party titles available to play at its booth this year: Age Of Empires 4, Grounded, Microsoft Flight Sim, Pentiment, and Sea Of Thieves. There will also be nine third-party titles available at the booth, too.
  • Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan has revealed there have been “quite a few attempts” at making a video game set within the Breaking Bad universe and while he’s “not much” of a gamer, he’d asked a couple of people “who owns Grand Theft Auto?” with the intention of working together on a project.
Advertisement

More Gaming Stories:

Advertisement