The Future of Games: F2P Is Not Evil Nor The Only Solution

A them-and-us mentality over free-to-play is making fools of us all, argues Will Luton

Free-to-play has fractured the industry, creating smug preaching zealots in the column inches (hello, mum) and neo-luddite reactionaries decrying the advance from the conference podiums. Anti-F2P rhetoric from the bleeding hearts is just as much the mind-numbing wibble as "the only way" lectures from the moneymen.

"Public discussions and formalisation of concepts such as Skinner Box experiments and core loops seemed shallow, cold and greedy"

This nonsense of drawing us-and-them divides and speaking in unwavering certainty is making fools of us all. F2P is divisive when it needn't be. This is a call for the inevitable restoration of common sense.

F2P Is Not Evil

The "evil" trope has been persistent since early 2011 when Braid creator Jonathan Blow was quoted as saying on social games: "there's no other word for it except evil". Just last month Ridiculous Fishing dev Vlambeer said "non-evil freemium is almost impossible". Today Googling for the phrase "F2P is evil" returns 14,200 results.

Firstly this incredibly flippant use of the word damages its meaning for when it is truly applicable (see recent world events) and secondly, it's bollocks. I believe this pomposity stems from a seemingly misaligned focus of free-to-play from those most evangelical in past years. Free-to-play blindsided many businesses as the industry scrambled to explain "how it works", with a big emphasis on the hows and whys of player spending.

This financial emphasis was mixed with the scientific method afforded by new always-connected platforms and lean start-up culture, ostensibly turning much of a designer's craft in to what appeared to be soulless machine-like science.

Public discussions and formalisation of concepts such as reward schedules (often linked to the Skinner Box experiments) and compulsion loops (thankfully now more commonly called core loops), whilst allowing us to more accurately understand the components of the games we see and their relationship with players, seemed shallow, cold and greedy.

Money from, rather than the pleasure of, our players seemed to many to be the singular goal of free-to-play. Meanwhile the wide appeal and non-skilled based gameplay of early F2P darlings, such as FarmVille, irked the snobbish gamer. To this end F2P can be seen to be uncaring and, to those partial to such magniloquence, the evil label should be suitable.

However, F2P is not about tricking players in to spending money or eroding gaming, but a currently clumsy, yet ever more refined, renegotiation of the deal we as game makers offer to our players owing to the changes digital delivery brings. Today we don't have to put a disc in a box to let a player play, so why should we attempt to charge them like we do?

F2P Is Not The Only Way

I am such a big believer in F2P that I wrote a book about making games for the model. However, F2P is patently not the only way of making money in our industry today.

Subscription, ad supported, paid and paymium games are all profitable for the right game, on the right platform and for the right audience. Part of the renegotiation we've entered is about which bits of these models are acceptable and in which context.

"What we have now isn't the endgame in making money from games; it's just the best next step of a long march"

In fact free-to-play is a fast evolving hybrid of lots of the above models (and them of F2P). What we have now isn't the endgame in making money from games; it's just the best next step of a long march. F2P's biggest advantage is in dropping the barrier for players, allowing anyone to play and decide if and how much they wish to spend. Fans can sink hundreds for dollars, whilst those that hate your game leave with a full wallet.

Whilst I fail to understand why any developer wouldn't want that democratising of their content (unless of course they make shitty games), the facilitation of it brings creative limitations and restrictions that cannot be ignored. F2P simply makes making games more difficult.

The current wisdom dictates that a free-to-play title must have a checklist of mechanics, including recursive infinite gameplay, a scarce limited resource that can be indefinitely bought and social interactions that drive demand for the resource. How then do you reconcile those criteria with, for example, a classic third-person action adventure? You simply can't.

Whilst I believe that these challenges make F2P the most exciting place to be as a game designer right now, it is also a hindrance. Not only does the model limit genre decision, but also it increases production time by complicating design and necessitating features.

Spunking out a game and sticking a price tag on it, not out of indignation but because it's easier and creatively freeing, is off trend but a fine course of action.

Two-man indie Frogmind announced they sold 100,000 copies of Badland at $3.99 on the App Store in its first week. A reasonable payoff for a year's work. However, this success should be given some context: the title only just managed to scrape in to the top 50 grossing in some of the most meaningful regions, peaking at 52 in the US. Whilst providing Frogmind with a living, it is certainly a way off being much more than a blip or an outlier amongst the corpses of other indie releases.

Today in the UK only two apps in the 25 top grossing apps are paid (FIFA 13 and Minecraft), the remaining 23 are free with in-app purchases. However, iOS is not the only platform. Steam, Facebook and consoles all have different permissible models and different types of games and players, making them each unique propositions.

The Balance

I believe it is inevitable that the F2P model will continue to evolve as our creatives gain a fuller understanding of how to use it and move to apply it inventively to new and ever better games. In a year's time the model will have shifted, with new platforms embedding in player's lives and games we never envisioned.

The history of video games is littered with hard to predict outlier successes that lead to retrospective rationalisation, imitation and eventual trends that iterate, evolve and merge. Business models have remained relatively unchallenged in the industry since inception, so F2P and all its associated changes bring with it the shock of the new.

A fanatical reaction to free-to-play in the positive or negative, which I have been guilty of myself in the past, clouds the picture. We must avoid partisanship and the accompanying generalisations that simplify complex situations and stop us from making decisions that are positive and well considered.

Will Luton is a free-to-play designer and consultant. This is the first in a regular series of features for GamesIndustry International looking at the future of the video game business. You can follow him on Twitter and visit his personal site here.

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Latest comments (36)

Adam Campbell Product Manager, Azoomee7 years ago
Sorry, shouldn't that be neither/nor?

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Dan Howdle Head of Content, Existent7 years ago
F2P stops being evil the moment you remove the word 'free' from whatever storefront users choose to buy it. P2P (pay-to-play) would be more apt in the majority of cases. The only reason it is perceived as evil is this usage of this word, which I believe will soon be legislated against. It's underhanded and misleading no matter which way you slice it; I'm with Blow on that one.

Just call it what it is and everyone's happy.
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Anthony Gowland Director, Ant Workshop7 years ago
P2P (pay-to-play) would be more apt in the majority of cases
Not at all, the majority of people don't pay to play.
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Show all comments (36)
Paul Jace Merchandiser 7 years ago
F2P is not inherently evil. Saying your customers are just as bad as pirates for buying and selling used games or forcing something on your customers without giving them a choice and then telling them to "deal with it" --those two things are evil. Very evil.
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Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 7 years ago
Game console were just an answer to piracy. They serve as an anti piracy dongle. So the NES beat the Amiga and ST because it had a working business model.
Steam is an answer to piracy and has totally replaced the boxed PC games that suffered 95%+ piracy.
FTP is an anti piracy mechanic that evolved out of MMORPGs

When your customers have a high propensity to theft to the point that your business becomes unsustainable then you have to change your business model.

Last year Angry Birds passed the one billion download milepost. Very many digitally distributed games get past 5 million downloads these days. It is almost routine. Games are achieving a bigger reach than books, films television etc. The whole commercial world of products and services is waking up to this. So now there are huge opportunities for innovative business models. Dream Weddings is just one example of how this could be done:
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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd7 years ago
This reiterates a lot of points made in this article last year:

But it's welcome as the message apparently still isn't getting through.
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Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters7 years ago
@Paul Jace - Actually I don't think those things are "evil" either. The customer always has a choice. Just don't buy what they're selling, vote with your wallet. No one ever puts a gun to your head and forces you to buy anything. If someone puts a product out that doesn't make sense for the consumer, someone else will.

F2P isn't inherently wrong, it just doesn't work for me as a player. Besides having that constant uncertainty about how much money I'm going to pay distracting me, it also leads me to distrust the game mechanics. It doesn't matter whether it's true or not, how do I know whether your game is subtly tweaking the mechanics to sabotage my game and make me fail in a way that directs me to wanting to spend? If I play a paid for game with no in-app purchases, there's not really a motive to do that so I wouldn't consider it. Once the customer is playing the game, the only motive the designer has beyond that is making sure you have fun so you want to buy whatever they make in the future.
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Adam Campbell Product Manager, Azoomee7 years ago
P2P (pay-to-play) would be more apt in the majority of cases
Not at all, the majority of people don't pay to play.
How about Freemium?
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Jeremie Sinic7 years ago
Congratulations on avoiding the extremes and acknowledging that F2P is one of several monetization models.

To me the issue of F2P is that it is hardly compatible with originality and creativity. You cannot allow crazy things to happen in your game when those crazy things could threaten your game balance, thus your revenues. When people pay upfront, this is a non-issue and designers can focus 100% on fun and creativity.
I believe this will change when F2P monetization models evolve towards less impact on gameplay. LoL is a good example, but it's a rare example.

In my opinion it's not mainly a problem of being evil or not (although that is sometimes the issue), but rather creative and fun or not.
More on this here:
Would love to get your reactions.
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Anthony Gowland Director, Ant Workshop7 years ago
How about Freemium?
We were talking about free 2 play, not freemium.
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Adam Campbell Product Manager, Azoomee7 years ago
How about Freemium?
We were talking about free 2 play, not freemium.
Sorry and correct me if I'm wrong but it seemed like that part of the discussion was about terminology.

Many of these games are free to play but offer premium features for a price, which seems to describe a freemium model. The word freemium appears to be less deceptive than simply 'free' to play. Pay to Play as a way to describe it, does suggest most people are playing when they're not.

That's what I got from the quotes anyway and hence suggested freemium in place. But yeah, its written conversation and all...

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Nick Parker Consultant 7 years ago
The game must be free to play and be seen to be free to play. If you can play the game in a way which entertains you for free, without hindrance or interruption and if you wish to accelerate or personalise your gameplay in the same game for a fee, you should be able to without any coercion from the developer, that is how F2P games should be designed. F2P should be a viable and trusted business model, without challenge, but if there are games where there is blatant in-game progress prevention in order to secure payment, these games may tarnish the integrity of F2P. How do we police these or is it up to the consumer?
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Jeremie Sinic7 years ago
To Eric
Well Freemium is an hybrid variant of the F2P model and the subscription Model.
Now I don't really see the point of arguing about terminology regarding those neologisms (Freemium, F2P, Pay2win, etc.), except that this is distracting from the core issue.
To the risk of sounding like nitpicking, well, maybe that is your definition, but be aware that it is not a fixed and universal notion. What I don't get is your focus on the subscription part. There is no official definition of freemium that I know of, so basically I understand freemium as a game free to access, play and containing paid elements (subscription, in-game cash, items, etc.), and that's it.
Your definition seems pretty much detailed, so would you mind sharing your source?

Personally, I just prefer freemium because it sounds more honest to me, since the "mium" part conveys that notion that there is something for sale in there, unlike the more common term free-to-play.
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Jeremie Sinic7 years ago
To Andreas

I think you make totally valid points, especially regarding the lack of originality in games like Modern Warfare and other lookalike FPS games. I do have a lot of fun playing Clash of Clans too.
However, my point is not that creativity and originality is not a guarantee of paid games, but that the paid model at least gets less in the way of creativity and design freedom than a model where the designer has to think to adapt game design to monetization models.
Which Will also alludes to.

Those out there who don't like F2P (or freemium or whatever you prefer to call it), you have an option: don't work on them and don't play them. Nobody is forcing these things on you.
Don't play them: well, you can't blame people for at least trying and telling what they don't like about it and why.
The point is that there are many fans of video games who see their favorite developers suddenly chasing the F2P model like it's the new holy grail and as such, I can understand the negativity.
Don't work on them: that can be tricky. Not everyone can decide to quit their company because said company decided to suddenly make or market only freemium titles.
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Graham Simpson Tea boy, Collins Stewart7 years ago
Call it whatever you want but it's still Pay to Win.
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I agree with Dan, dont call em FREE and the argument ends.

As for Eric's question of, are time-saving options pay to win? I say, of course they are. Time is money after all, and you are paying to avoid a mechanic and feature that others that do not pay have to endure, it is an advantage. A distinct advantage.

Now if a game was entirely free, and the only options are some sprite skin changes to a character, then I would have no problem with any of this, but this just isnt the case.
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Al Nelson Producer, Tripwire Interactive7 years ago
Zealots, Luddites and money-men? Fools, rhetoric, bleeding hearts?
Um, ok. I am just going to back away beyond the arm-waving strike zone and the "spit when I talk excitedly" range.

Soon you will realize that you cannot convince everyone to adopt your moral code. Some people believe that owning a casino is just another job while others consider it amoral. Some consider interest on loans bad, some dislike charging children to revive dead, virtual goldfish. You can't change that.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Al Nelson on 18th April 2013 5:34pm

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Brian Lewis Operations Manager, PlayNext7 years ago
I am afraid that this may show my age a bit.. and I apologize if I sound like the old man taling about 'when I was young'.

Free to Play or F2P only has one simple definition. It means that the game has no initial cost. Everything else is just an add on. There are multiple types of monitization that are added onto a F2P game. These include monthly subs, microtransactions, direct sales and/or others. None of these have any effect on the F2P status of a game.

Why do I say this? Well, back when F2P was new... and being defined by the companies promoting it, the most common combination in the West was F2P + Monthly Sub. At the same time, when this was being done in the East, the most common combination was F2P + TimeCard. There have since been many combinations introduced, but the definition was set (for MMO's) in the early years.

'Free' is not a new concept. In fact if you look around, you are likely to see it advertised, and made clearly visible on your local grocers, and retail outlets. It is a very common advertising approach... and very rarely comes without any attachments. I find it humours that people have an issue with the 'Free' in F2P, but dont even notice it when it comes to the items that they buy daily.

Bottom line is this. Free is not evil. Free is not new. Free is not defined by the monization tacked onto it after the fact. It is just a marketing approach to get customers to try your product. It does not change anything in of itself. It is just one tool (of many) to advertise your product.
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Jeremie Sinic7 years ago
Thank you for your detailed answer. I get your point regarding freemium.

As for the rest of your answer (and also as a general statement), I am just conflicted regarding F2P.
Let me back this up.
I have worked on F2P mobile titles (including successful ones) and even pushed for the adoption of F2P in certain titles where it made sense while recommending against it in other titles.

That does not mean that I find it a great model as a player.

Let's not forget that one of the main reasons people develop free-to-play games is because it makes sense from a business perspective. To many publishers, it doesn't matter to irk the long term fans of a franchise if the swap to F2P is projected to generate a little bit more sales (e.g. Real Racing 3).

We would all love to give the best to our customers, but unfortunately and with all the talks about F2P done right, customer satisfaction rarely comes before sales targets in the mind of the business guys (i.e. the decision makers most of the time).
I took part in business meetings with prominent F2P publishers who had the approach "hey, we aren't a charity", implying clearly that customer satisfaction and ethics were not their main concerns, so I feel like F2P done right is still an exception.
While I agree that developers need to make ends meet, the mindset that F2P allows to milk players in a way never seen before is something that exists and is, I would dare say, widespread.

And that pollutes the whole industry while providing ground for Vlambeer and Blow's claims.
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Tameem Antoniades Creative Director & Co-founder, Ninja Theory Ltd7 years ago
Dear internet, please can we call it "Free to Pay" from now on to avoid further knicker-twisting!
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Brian, I will show my age happily, been around as long as this industry has, and in the old days, the first f2p were called.... demos.

all this new nonsense is very recent.

... now someone go fetch me my slippers..

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 18th April 2013 6:26pm

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Brian Lewis Operations Manager, PlayNext7 years ago

Actually Demos were not marketed as F2P... they were marketed as Free. There is a difference. Let me rephrase.

All Coca Cola is soda, however, not all soda is Coca Cola. Coca Cola is a marketting term used to diferenatiate themselves from other sodas. The same applies to 'Free to Play' and 'F2P'. The use of this as a marketing term was new to the MMO market in the late 90's early 2000's. It was used to differentiate these games from others that charged up front (i.e. 'P2P').

In the recent years, the usage of this term has expanded quite a bit. There is currently a 'fad' to make all new/old games 'F2P' to cash in on the percieved trend. This is really a marketing change, not a change in the game industry. The reality is that most of the games still make money the same way that they did when they were called 'P2P'.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Brian Lewis on 18th April 2013 7:50pm

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Sorry Brian and Eric dance around the subject all you want, it still comes back to what the most popular comment in this thread states, The use of the word FREE with these type games is a misnomer and a deceptive marketing practice. We should as an industry be better than this. We shouldnt have to use gimmicks, tricks and misnomers in order to get paid.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 18th April 2013 8:07pm

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You miss the point with demos, the point was for the most part they were honest about what they were.
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if you have to hide behind the small print and lawyer speak, you arent being upfront and honest.
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Brian Lewis Operations Manager, PlayNext7 years ago

Please explain how the use of 'Free' in this context is more deceptive than the use of 'Free' for other advertising. I will heartily agree that advertising in general is deceptive. The purpose of advertising is to present an image that is appealing to the customer, but may not fully represent the drawbacks.

I am not sure when the use of the word 'Free' began, but I can say with some certainty that it has been used in advertising longer than there have been computers.. let alone computer games. Does this make it right? Most certainly not, but it does mean that this is not an industry issue... but a much broader issue.
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Brian, I dont have to explain anything because I never said it was more deceptive than other slimey industries. the point as you well make , is how sad it is to have this industry climb into the slime with other industries with relying and use of deceptive tactics. ( To be fair, there has been and always will be some that push out shovelware regardless of pricing models)

But my final point will be this..
Real game designers and developers just want to make honest to goodness fun games, and hopefully make a living doing it. All this fine print price modeling crap is just useless MBA suits nonsense.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 18th April 2013 9:33pm

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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development7 years ago
Well that's how it all works. You posted a free article and I just bought your book...
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Adrian Herber7 years ago
Although opposition is usually expressed to F2P in general, I believe it is usually intended to be directed at those games that are primarily comprised of 'reward schedules (often linked to the Skinner Box experiments) and compulsion loops', which are seen as preying on weaknesses of the mind. For me personally, my opinion of a game is low when these techniques appear to be the core of its game play. Other arrangements of F2P, like how LoL offers paid content, don't seem to have so many detractors and perhaps show one good direction for F2P to take.
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Adam Campbell Product Manager, Azoomee7 years ago
I can see terminology has stirred a little trouble but it always finds itself confusing and changing views in the games industry.

Anyway, I totally agree, "Free to Play" most definitely isn't evil, its just one of many different business models available. People get very emotional about the use of certain ones but we all have a choice whether or not to buy into them.

On this particular topic, the advantages are clear. Companies are able to extend the life of their product, evolving it, providing more features and increasing their profits over time. Consumers can access a large portion of a game, enjoy and even 'complete' it to an extent, where paying will give you even more features, content etc. There are obviously the disadvantages to counter all that but what doesn't have disadvantages?

My short time working in MMO did open my eyes to just how amazing a free to play model could be from both a business and customer perspective. A paid element needn't punish a player or rip them off, but offers a great way to get even more out of the game with an increased scale, more storage, more items, skills and so on. For the rest, you still get an awesome game for free and benefit from the fact it will continue to sustain itself and evolve.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Adam Campbell on 19th April 2013 11:07am

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Will Luton7 years ago
That was a great decision, Paul. Thank you very much,
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Great article, Will. I very much agree with your view on this.

For me the question is about forming a relationship of trust with the consumer and that that in turn is best achieved by being transparent with them, especially in terms of making clear what they can or have to pay for and what they get for their money so that they can judge for themselves if there is value for money - this has always been one of the features of any good retail practice. If you do that you can use any combination of game design and business model that makes sense for your game. You can certainly play with the components of the accepted F2P model to get something new.
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development7 years ago
You're welcome, Will. I hope the writing style in the book is the same breath of fresh air as in the article. A spade is not after all a manual labour tool for transferring soil from one place to another.

We're doing a game at the moment that will have a free download, unlimited play time with a limited selection of free stuff, and the option to buy lots more options to expand the core experience. I really need that book to explain to me what I'm allowed to call that business model so as not to offend all these pedants and bleeding hearts liberals cropping up everywhere. Might just call it a game...

EDIT: I've learned one thing from this thread. My game will cost zero dollars to download and install and play, even the multiplayer, forever. But because a relatively small number of players will buy stuff inside to get more choices, this does not qualify as a free game. FFS people, get a sense of proportion.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Paul Johnson on 19th April 2013 10:34pm

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How bout a alternative defintion: Free to Prey or Fleece to Play :)
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Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters7 years ago
@Andreas - How is that any different from regular non-coop multiplayer? If you buy a gun in a FPS, you're buying something to hinder someone else's progress by killing them with it.
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Yiannis Koumoutzelis Founder & Creative Director, Neriad Games7 years ago
If some traditional Studios had embraced F2P earlier and they were not slow and stubborn like dinosaurs, they would still be around us. An amount of F2P titles has the ability to provide a significant cash source while working on your next masterpiece. I never saw F2P against traditional and i feel this is a fundamentalist way of seeing things. F2P if you run a traditional studio can work in a complimentary, supporting manner. My professional background, and experience as a gamer is on traditional games, but also, and significantly so on CoinOps. F2P is similar in many ways to the arcade games of the past. INSERT COIN TO JOIN! :)

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Yiannis Koumoutzelis on 22nd April 2013 1:33pm

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