A while back, a buddy and I got into a heated debate about the value of free-to-play games. As — what I like to call — an “MMO Nomad,” I’ve been known to roam from game to game checking out what each has to offer and exploring the worlds the developers have built.
Because of my tendency to get bored with almost anything very quickly, I may move from one game to another more often than most. But there have been those that I stuck with almost stubbornly, or just keep coming back to play. My friend’s issue with free-to-play games is that he believes there’s no value in them and that their system of monetization is more of a barrier than a subscription is.
And with some games, he’s right. We’re all familiar with those games, though. The barrier isn’t that they charge for things, but rather that they charge for the things necessary to play the game properly. Yet, oddly… There are still a lot of people playing those games.
But let’s set his issue aside. Let’s also put issues like broken games, bad balancing and a myriad of other complaints that can be leveled at games aside as well. Because, let’s be honest. None of those are issues specific to free-to-play games any more, and in some cases aren’t issues at all.
When these are set aside, my buddy’s side of the conversation equated to two things, “Why are you playing those games?” and, “Why do you stay with any of them?”.
The first answer is simple enough. Because they’re there and I’m a gamer. I like to poke my nose in, look around for a while and see what the developers came up with. Sure, in a month I’ll probably be off to somewhere else. But, hey! They’re free. So unless I dropped cash on something while playing, the experience didn’t cost me a thing.
The second question is a bit more complicated, and so is the answer. What does keep us playing a single game when we can easily float from one to the other without losing anything in the process? What makes us so devoted to that game that we decide we’re going to spend hard earned money on it?
These are questions that the developers probably think about all the time. Let’s face it. It’s not hard getting online gamers to try out your game. We’ll try anything once. Getting us to stay… That’s a different matter altogether.
When considering myself and friends who I play with, I’ve come up with a few things that help keep us in game (and tossing the occasional $15, $25, whatever at a mount or a pet or other goodies).
Gameplay is the obvious biggie — although there are things that will make you overlook it. For instance; loyalty to an IP. (Sometimes you just love Star Wars so much, you’re going to stay no matter what.) That said, for most people, if a game isn’t enjoyable to play, it’s unplayable. And no IP, no matter how cool, is going to keep you there.
Take away the things that dress the game up: story, graphics, music, etc. and ask is this game still fun to play? As important as these things are, they don’t necessarily make or break the game.
Unless you’re talking about MMORPGs, story is often a peripheral thing — often relayed via text somewhere in one of the game’s menus. Even if we are playing MMORPGs, how many of us can say we haven’t just clicked past the dialog or story pieces in order to get to the task of killing things. We all know we killed 10 rats, but we can’t remember why.
When it comes to music, we all appreciate how good it is…. for a while. Then, after hearing the same battle intro for the hundredth time, we turn it off and turn on our digital music provider of choice or watch a TV show while playing (depending on what we’re doing in game).
Graphics… Well, that’s a convoluted argument based on how much leeway we’re willing to give a developer based on a number of factors.
Do not get me wrong, all of these things work together to make a game unique and special. But people are prone to tuning things like that out after a while. So, again, that leaves us with whether or not the gameplay is fun enough on its own to make us want to stick around. Playing the game can’t feel like a chore — although depending on what kind of player you are, certainly some aspects can feel that way. But as long the fun-to-chore ratio is right, we’re pretty likely to give it a pass.
Next would be what I call “uniqueness”. What does this game offer you that others do not? Aion offers us wings and mid-air PvP, SWTOR offers Lightsabers, Rift offers lots and lots of corgis. (Seriously, they’re obsessed.) Some games will offer a new take on something like crafting — an aspect that many MMO players consider to be tedious in most games. Others will offer a new combat or class system. Whatever it is, there’s something that just really stands out and makes us go “This feels right.”
But even that feeling can fade after a while… when we realize that what a particular developer gave us was more of a gimmick than an actual feature. It’s when these things are truly fleshed out parts of the gameplay that we’re going to keep wanting more.
Another very important aspect is community. Within game and without. Almost every game I have ever left has been a direct result of a decline in the community — or more specifically, my community within the game. I may still be having fun in the game, but something somewhere is lacking and people start leaving, abandoning me to the choice of staying and being lonely, or following them to the next thing. It’s always a little sad saying goodbye to a game because of this.
MOBAs and other games that are competitive and have an eSports presence have a leg-up on the community issue, as all the events, the ability for teams to develop fan loyalty and smaller communities of their own, and the idea of becoming an eSports player and winning money of your own builds out a really solid community for the game.
However, most MMOs and other free to play games don’t have this built in eSports community. Instead, they need to come up with things in game to bring players together; raiding, PvP, and seasonal events. With a lot of games, these kinds of things are hit-or-miss, and aren’t features that are attractive to every player.
They also need to give players the proper tools with which to build their own communities within the game. A lot of games suffer because they don’t have proper chats, friends lists, guild tools or PUG and matching systems. A good, solid set of fourms and active community team doesn’t hurt either.
Finally, some games may have enough to keep us playing, not all of them may have what it takes to get us to throw our hard-earned cash at it. Of course, plenty of developers have ways to frustrate us into paying for something… but often that can backfire and make us leave instead. I — and those I’ve discussed this with — have found that we’re happiest spending money on games we feel good about. When a game is great, I’ll often drop money here and there — I’ve even found my spending in these games equals about what I’d pay for a subscription game when averaged. When I don’t “feel good” about a game, I might still play it. (Perhaps there’s nothing else to do at the time.) But I won’t spend money on it.
So, knowing my thoughts on what keeps us playing certain free-to-play games, is there any other reason you can think of? Perhaps you have a factor that outweighs any of the ones presented here. Let us know.