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Free-to-play hate threatens health of the industry at large

Increasing negativity around F2P tars both good and bad games with the same brush

Free to play has an image problem. It's the most influential and arguably important development in the business of games in decades, a stratospherically successful innovation which has enabled the opening up of games to a wider audience than ever before. Implemented well, with clear understanding of its principles and proper respect afforded to players and creativity alike, it's more fair and even, in a sense, democratic than old-fashioned models of up-front payment; in theory, players pay in proportion to their enjoyment, handing over money in small transactions for a continued or deepened relationship with a game they already love, rather than giving a large amount of cash up-front for a game they've only ever seen in (possibly doctored) screenshots and videos.

While that is a fair description, I think, of the potential of free-to-play, it's quite clearly not the image that the business model bears right now. You probably scoffed about half a dozen times reading the above paragraph - it may be a fair description of free-to-play at its hypothetical best, but it's almost certainly at odds with your perceptions.

How, then, might we describe the perception of F2P? Greedy, exploitative, unfair, cheating... Once these adjectives start rolling, it's hard to get them to stop. The negative view of F2P is that it's a series of cheap psychological tricks designed to get people to spend money compulsively without ever realising quite how much cash they're wasting on what is ultimately a very shallow and cynical game experience.

"Unfortunately, the negative image that has been built up by free-to-play threatens not just the nasty, exploitative games, but all the perfectly decent ones as well - from billion-grossing phenomena like Puzzle & Dragons to indie wunderkind like Crossy Road"

I don't think it's entirely unsurprising or unexpected that this perception should be held by "core" gamers or those enamoured of existing styles of game. Although F2P has proven very successful for games like MMOs and MOBAs, it's by no means universally applicable, either across game types or across audience types; some blundering attempts by publishers to add micro-transactions to premium console and PC titles, combined with deep misgivings over the complete domination of F2P in the mobile game market, have left plenty of more traditional gamers with a very negative and extremely defensive attitude regarding the new business model. That's fine, though; F2P isn't for that audience (though it's a little more complex than that in reality; many players will happily tap away at an F2P mobile game while waiting for matchmaking in a premium console game).

What's increasingly clear, however, is that there's an image problem for F2P right in the midst of the audience at whom it's actually aimed. The negative perception of F2P is becoming increasingly mainstream. It gets mass-media coverage on occasion; recently, it spurred Apple to create a promotion specifically pointing App Store customers to games with no in-app purchases. I happen to think that's a great idea personally, but what does it say about the feedback from Apple's customers regarding F2P games, that promotion of non-F2P titles was even a consideration?

Even some of the most successful F2P developers now seem to want to distance themselves from the business model; this week's interview with Crossy Road developers Hipster Whale saw the team performing linguistic somersaults to avoid labelling their free-to-play game as being free-to-play. Crossy Road is a brilliant, fun, interesting F2P game that hits pretty much all of the positive notes I laid out up in the first paragraph; that even its own developers seem to view "free-to-play" as an overtly negative phrase is deeply concerning.

The problem is that the negativity has a fair basis; there's a lot of absolute guff out there, with the App Store utterly teeming with F2P games that genuinely are exploitative and unfair; worst of all, the bad games tend to be stupid, mean-spirited and grasping, attempting to suck money out of easily tricked customers (and let's be blunt here: we're talking, in no small measure, about kids) rather than undertaking the harder but vastly more rewarding task of actually entertaining and enthralling people until they feel perfectly happy with parting with a little cash to see more, do more or just to deepen their connection to the game.

Such awfulness, though, is not universal by any measure. There are tons of good F2P games out there; games that are creative and interesting (albeit often within a template of sorts; F2P was quick to split off into slowly evolving genre-types, though nobody who's played PC or console games for very long can reasonably criticise that particular development), games that give you weeks or months of enjoyment without ever forcing a penny from your pocket unless you're actually deeply engaged enough to want to pay up to get something more. Most of F2P's bone fide hits fit into this category, in fact; games like Supercell's Clash of Clans or Hay Day, GungHo's Puzzle & Dragons and, yes, even King's Candy Crush Saga, which is held aloft unfairly as an example of F2P scurrilousness, yet has never extracted a penny from 70 percent of the people who have finished (finished!) the game. That's an absolutely enormous amount of shiny candy-matching enjoyment (while I don't like the game personally, I don't question that it's enjoyment for those who play it so devotedly) for free.

Unfortunately, the negative image that has been built up by free-to-play threatens not just the nasty, exploitative games, but all the perfectly decent ones as well - from billion-grossing phenomena like Puzzle & Dragons to indie wunderkind like Crossy Road. If free-to-play as a "brand" becomes irreparably damaged, the consequences may be far-reaching.

"Wishing harm on F2P is wishing harm on many thousands of industry jobs; so don't wish F2P harm. Wish that it would be better; that way, everyone wins"

A year ago, I'd have envisaged that the most dangerous consequence on the horizon was heavy-handed legislation - with the EU, or perhaps the USA, clamping down on F2P mechanisms in a half-understood way that ended up damaging perfectly honest developers along with two-bit scam merchants. I still think that's possible; companies have ducked and dived around small bits of legislation (or the threat of small bits of legislation) in territories including Japan and the EU, but the hammer could still fall in this regard. However, I no longer consider that the largest threat. No, the largest threat is Apple; the company which did more than any other to establish F2P as a viable market remains the company that could pull the carpet out from underneath it entirely, and while I doubt that's on the cards right now, the wind is certainly turning in that direction.

Apple's decision to promote non-F2P titles on its store may simply be an editor's preference; but given the growing negativity around F2P, it may also be a sign that customer anger over F2P titles on iOS is reaching receptive ears at Apple. Apple originally permitted free apps (with IAP or otherwise) for the simple reason that having a huge library of free software available to customers was a brilliant selling point for the iPhone and iPad. At present, that remains the case; but if the negativity around the perception of F2P games were ever to start to outweigh the positive benefits of all that free software, do not doubt that Apple would reverse course fast enough to make your head spin. Reckon that its 30 percent share of all those Puzzle & Dragons and Candy Crush Saga revenues would be enough to make it think twice? Reckon again; App Store revenue is a drop in the ocean for Apple, and if abusive F2P ever starts to significantly damage the public perception of Apple's devices, it will ban the model (in part, at least) without a second thought to revenue.

Some of you, those who fully buy into the negative image of F2P, might think that would be a thing to celebrate; ding, dong, the witch is dead! That's a remarkably short-sighted view, however. In truth, F2P has been the saviour of a huge number of game development jobs and studios that would otherwise have been lost entirely in the implosion of smaller publishers and developers over the past five years; it's provided a path into the industry for a great many talented creative people, grown the audience for games unimaginably and has provided a boost not only to mobile and casual titles, but to core games as well - especially in territories like East Asia. Wishing harm on F2P is wishing harm on many thousands of industry jobs; so don't wish F2P harm. Wish that it would be better; that way, everyone wins.

Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.