It makes for a good headline: “Free-to-play has a half life,” especially when it comes from someone as renowned and respected in the online gaming world as Richard Bartle, co-creator of the first MUD.
(Side note: There are three words in “free-to-play,” so that headline means… Half-Life 3 confirmed!)
But it’s one line taken roundly out of context. If you read the entire article and the rest of Bartle’s quotes, you can see that he’s not exactly talking about “good” F2P PC and console games like League of Legends, Planetside 2 or World of Tanks, or even oft-criticized ones like Star Wars: The Old Republic, so don’t go resubbing to World of Warcraft just yet.
While being “nickled and dimed” is something that PC/console F2P-ers recognize and on occasion have to deal with, it’s a much bigger and broader issue in the realm of mobile and social gaming. And as much as readers of this site might think their games are huge, social gaming is just as big, if not bigger, and something that nearly every “hardcore” game dev is thinking about, if not actively producing games for.
Unfortunately, quick-and-dirty F2P apps trying to make a fast buck and then fade away until the next big hit are rampant these days. Those are the types of games Bartle is talking about. He talks about people outgrowing simple games in favor of “more sophisticated” games and how a game “may task you with collecting 18 items, for example, and only on the collection of item 17 will you learn that the final one requires either a long wait or a cash payment.”
Many of the F2P games we cover here and that you’re familiar with are plenty “sophisticated,” and that’s not just my sense of gamer elitism talking. You have a very limited set of controls on a mobile device, and while tablets, with their additional space, can offer more, they still can’t match what you can do with a keyboard and mouse or even an Xbox or PlayStation controller. As for the “collect 18 and then wait or pay” bit, I haven’t played a game like that in a long time and don’t intend to again.
That said, I do think Bartle’s right, to a point. His comment that people currently being satisfied with Farmville or Candy Crush Saga or Flappy Bird will want more sophisticated games is, I think, a result of the recent entry of so many new people into gaming. Smartphones and tablets have introduced gaming to a vast number of people who had never so much as played Pac-Man in their lives, much less anything as complex as an MMO or hardcore FPS.
A lot of those folks are still playing those “novice” games but a fair number have gotten their fill of them and looked for meatier play experiences. In the future, people will graduate to those types of games or realize that what they’re currently playing is mediocre, either from a gameplay or financial standpoint, or both. Either way, it means fewer players for “bad” F2P games.
For as many smartphones that have been sold – roughly one billion in 2013 alone, or approximately two per minute worldwide – and for as many F2P gaming apps as there are out there, there’s still a big market for gaming on mobile devices. And the lion’s share of those games will be free-to-play, and a large number of those will be the types of games Bartle describes as exploitative.
But, as much as we might complain about F2P MMOs and the like, when’s the last time you played a game that was unashamedly pay-to-win or that didn’t even make the slightest attempt to hide the fact that it had hard paywalls or was trying to exploit you? Sure, there are exceptions, but having interviewed plenty of F2P devs and read interviews with many others, the first thing out of their mouths is always “We’re not pay to win!” The truth of that statement can vary by degrees but they at least realize that, in going after that more “sophisticated” audience, they can’t be too blatant about their monetization. And even a game that does have a hard cap on levels or number of times you can raid per week or whatever offers you a lot of gameplay hours for free. Compare that with a F2P app or lowbrow that is bugging you for money every 15 minutes. Is that better? Comparatively yes.
That’s because, to some extent, those “sophisticated” developers have already taken the steps that the mobile market is still going through. Some of them made bad F2P games, learned that they wouldn’t work in the long term, and moved on. Bartle might be right in that mobile developers will eventually see their audience get smarter and demand more and better games with less overt grabs for the wallet.
Then again, they might not. After all, we still have spam e-mail and there are still ads on websites that promote that one ridiculously easy way to lose weight, so they must still work. Gaming’s a giant market and, to paraphrase the popular saying, a sucker buys a smartphone every minute. Or maybe two suckers.
By Jason Winter