Free-to-play games and asshat behavior seem to go together like peanut butter and jelly... like Jay and Silent Bob... like black and blue – I mean, gold and white...
Or do they?
In my random morning scan of the Internet, I came across a blog post that doesn't break too much new ground in terms of its criticisms of certain free-to-play games, talking about players' perceptions and comparing The Lord of the Rings Online's F2P system favorably to Star Wars: The Old Republic's. It's an entertaining enough read to seasoned gamers like you and me, but there's one “common sense” point in it that's always rubbed me the wrong way, and I think I just figured out why:
“Games with no subscription fees do attract bots and asshats, which also end up driving people away eventually (even though you’ll find the same asshats in a game with a sub).”
That's a pretty much automatic connection most people make: that F2P games are rife with “bots and asshats” (which I'll just merge together as “jerks”). Sub-based games have a few, too, as the author notes, but people tend to associate a much higher number of jerks with F2P games, usually due to the ease at which you can make an account in a F2P game, and then make another one if the first gets banned.
Except... I'm not sure that's quite true, at least not in that way.
Here's my take: Games with a lot of people tend to have a lot of jerks. And, especially at launch and after a sub-to-F2P switch, F2P games tend to be very well-populated. This leads to more “asshat jerks,” because there are simply more people around, and the more people there are, the better the chance that some will be asshats; and it also leads to more “bot jerks,” because gold-sellers and spambots, like any enterprising “businesspeople,” are going to go where the customers are. It just makes more sense to ply your trade in a game with 100,000 players than in one with 10,000.
So you have “Jerks are drawn to games with large populations” and “F2P games tend to have large populations,” which, by the transitive property, means that “Jerks are drawn to F2P games.” But that's not because the games are free-to-play, it's because they have large populations.
Think about the last time you played a non-F2P game around its launch, an expansion, or a big content drop. For me, I can remember playing Guild Wars 2 and The Elder Scrolls Online at launch, when both games were packed to the gills with players. The spambots were working overtime, and the overall chatter tended toward the obnoxious more often than I like to recall. These days, I still get the occasional GW2 spam, and map chat can be a bit toxic when big events fail, but it's nowhere near what it was like at launch (though it'll probably pick up once the expansion hits).
I can also recall seeing a lot of garbage in chat and getting frequent tells right after LOTRO went F2P, but I hardly get them at all now. Why is that? It's still F2P, so shouldn't that still be the case? Or maybe it's because LOTRO isn't nearly as populated as it was five years ago, so most of the undesirables have moved on.
And then there's World of Warcraft. If F2P = lots of jerks, then WoW, with a box price and sub fee, should have virtually none, right? (And I literally wrote this line an hour before Blizzard announced their own cash/gold/sub time system for WoW. I'm not sure how those systems fit into the equation.)
The “jerks in F2P” theory is driven largely by the fact that it's free to create an account in a F2P game, so the jerks can keep coming back. This might be true for the asshat type, but the gold-sellers are thieves, plain and simple. Many of them work with stolen credit-card info or hacked accounts – both of which certainly require a little more work than just creating a new Gmail account, but once it's done, the account is essentially disposable, no different from a free account.
I'll agree that the greater ease of accessibility probably makes jerks in F2P games a little more frequent, but I wouldn't say most F2P games are overwhelmed by them. As with any game, they pop up more frequently when the game is new and bustling – which is also when you're most likely to log on, thus making it more likely that you'll be exposed to that kind of thing and leaving a bad taste in your mouth – but I don't think it's an issue that's endemic to F2P games any more than it is to sub-based ones. See how things are the next time you hop into a pay-to-play game when it's new or when an expansion comes out.
What do you think? Does free-to-play automatically attract more jerks? Or is it just a consequence of a population boom that affects all online games pretty much equally?
About the Author
Jason Winter is a veteran gaming journalist, he brings a wide range of experience to MMOBomb, including two years with Beckett Media where he served as the editor of the leading gaming magazine Massive Online Gamer. He has also written professionally for several gaming websites.
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