Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The rising cost of "Free"

As any nostalgic nerd may remember, back in the day, games were not free to play. They often cost somewhere between 30-50 dollars, came in cardboard boxes, contained a disc, a CD key, and if you were lucky, a little pamphlet in the CD tray with cool stuff in it that you could read while you were bored inside your parent's car during a family trip, wishing you were at home playing aforementioned video game. Maybe that last part was just me, though.

In any case, video games have changed. Digital downloads are the future, with distribution software like Steam, Origin and leading the way. With this new model, software has become much easier to come by, as players who once purchased the game can download it over and over as many times as they want, a notion that would have seemed ludicrous a few years ago. This whole idea that software, cardboard and CD pamphlets are no longer worth anything (let's face it, when you bought a game you payed for the CD key, for your account, and not much more), a new breed of games has taken the forefront: Free-to-play.

Free-to-play has been pioneered by League of Legends, a game which famously began as a free-to-play game, rather than shifting to it later, something Team Fortress 2 and Heroes of Newerth did. While the free-to-play craze was arguably inevitable, one can argue that League of Legends truly pioneered the idea. The way the game compared to Heroes of Newerth in particular was probably one of the most empirical studies somebody who studies Marketing could have hoped for. Both games had an Open Beta, both games went retail- both virtually at the same time. During the open beta, Heroes of Newerth had more players than League of Legends, hovering around the 200,000s if I recall correctly. League of Legends wasn't doing bad either, but as anybody knows, a healthy Open Beta does not necessarily mean a successful game a few months after launch day.

Then, something happened. Heroes of Newerth went retail for $30, League of Legends went free-to-play. The results were unlike anyone had expected. LoL soared into the forefront and continued to grow at a rapid rate, while HoN took a drastic dip. Of course, for HoN developers, the creators of such financial failures as Savage 1&2, this was still a comparatively huge success. Nevertheless, HoN was a shell of it's former glory that was open beta. What happened? League of Legends was suddenly booming with players- and with the free-to-play genre just starting up, the question on everyone's mind was "just how much money is League of Legends actually making with microtransactions?". Sure, any F2P game can boast a high player base, but LoL was reaching numbers that astounded anyone's expectations. As it turns out: They were making bank. And they still are.

Now that LoL has been out for a long time, F2P is the next big thing. HoN, TF2, Tribes and many more are following in their footsteps. F2P has existed in the past but what's interesting now is that game genres that wouldn't even really consider the model before are adapting to it. But as a player and not a developer, we have to ask ourselves- is this a good thing? It's kind of a scary question, because if the answer is "no", we can't really do anything about it. F2P is the future, and the empirical evidence of its ability to generate profit is there; companies will always have the incentive to generate the highest profit possible, so as long as it's still the best way of doing business, it's here to stay.

Of course, not all F2P systems are the same, and F2P systems are constantly shifting. The player has made it clear that they don't like pay-for-power, at least not in its purest form. Developers (for the most part), know this, and often walk a fine line when creating new systems. Take Tribes: Ascend for example. Players can unlock both classes and weapons. Like in TF2, the weapon unlocks are supposedly sidegrades. However, as we all know, balance designers aren't perfect and from time to time they will accidentally create an item that is imbalanced (eg. pre-nerf Plasma Gun for the Raider class). Arguably, this would be pay-for-power, but since the player can still unlock the weapon with XP and not Gold (you need real money to buy Gold, but not XP), this imbalance is "offset" by the possibility that the player unlocked the weapon with XP.

This method of "offsetting" possible imbalances is becoming more common in F2P games and is quickly becoming a dirty business. By giving the player the method of unlocking a weapon which is arguably imbalanced, no matter how high the price of the weapon, the company can argue that it isn't unfair. After all, you can still unlock the weapon (or the Hero, or whatever) with enough "XP" or "Silver Coins" or whatever the play-to-earn currency is in the game. But is this fair? Exactly how much does a player have to play before he can get "that gun" or "that Hero"? Bad news: no matter what game you're playing, odds are the price is going up.

Looking again at a game like Tribes: Ascend, the average new weapon unlock costs 100,000 XP, or 720 GC, which is about 7.20 Euros. Players who have never spent a dime on the game earn (and this is an optimistic assumption, factoring in first win of the day) 1000 XP per round. Assuming a round is about 20 minutes long, that's over 30 hours of uninterrupted gameplay to unlock one single weapon for one single class. Again: it is possible that the player would unlock this item without paying a dime, but is it likely? And if it isn't likely, just how unfair are we becoming?

Although I've been talking about Tribes a lot, it isn't limited to this game at all. Games like TF2 have "sidegrade" weapons which, although can be crafted, often require specific materials to craft, materials that may be very luck-based to come by for new players. If I were to start playing TF2 for the first time the day an arguably overpowered weapon came out, chances are I'd have to wait weeks before I'm able to craft it. In Heroes of Newerth, players who don't pay money for Gold Coins are not even allowed to play Early Access Heroes, which in turn can also end up being overpowered. Even if the balance does eventually hit, the stats are already set in stone and the victories recorded. Imbalance happens in games, it's a fact of life- but when the imbalanced weapons are statistically (much) more likely to be in the hands of players who have put money into the game, it creates a problem for the playerbase, a problem that more and more devs are seem to be apologizing for lately. A developer can apologize as much as he wants, but at the end of the day any smart player will know that these "slip ups" create profits for developers. High XP/Silver prices on weapons or items are just one of many ways the marketing team on any given game are swindling players out of their money. The fault does in fact not lie with the balance team- I don't believe developers intentionally create imbalanced weapons. I do, however, believe that the marketing team sets up extremely high barriers for F2P players to earn unlockables to intentionally take advantage of these situations when they do happen. My fear for the future is that these silver prices will continue to rise while gold prices go down, creating even more incentive for players to open their wallets. Obviously, F2P games have to make a profit somewhere, but this strategy of using "offsets" as an excuse to generate revenue through possible imbalances is becoming increasingly disgusting.