The problems with free-to-play


Ask many of the people we’ve spoken to this week about whether free-to-play gaming is here to stay, and they’ll probably splutter coffee all over you. Of course it’s here to stay. In fact, they’ll likely say, it’s going to become the principal form of gaming.

And indeed, free-to-play games built for traditional, core gaming audiences are now huge, from the established immensity of League Of Legends and Team Fortress 2 on PC to the fast-growing likes of CSR Racing and Hero Academy on smartphones. And yet, faced with more opportunity to play high quality new games than ever before, these very players still harbour deep suspicion of the model.

Maybe it’s down to misgivings over paid-for items making one player definably better than another, regardless of skill. Or that a game is using powerful psychological tactics to ensnare players and make them pay for something they’d never willingly choose to. Perhaps they feel that free-to-play games eke out fun as thinly as they can to lower production costs and keep you hungry for more.

Ultimately, all these concerns come down to a central fear that the mechanics of making the free-to-play model work are affecting the very nature of games. That game design in the free-to-play model is tuned to serve the model rather than the experience. Gamers discuss these problems continually, but developers in the free-to-play field don’t tend to, whether worried about tipping the apple cart or preferring to focus on free-to-play’s many obvious charms.

Next Wednesday, however, we are hosting a panel session at the F2P Summit in London at which we will be discussing some of the harder questions that surround free-to-play gaming. On the panel we’ll have two developers: Jason Avent, MD of CSR Racing maker Boss Alien, and Paul Wedgwood, CEO of Splash Damage and its new free-to-play imprint Warchest. And two critics (two of the gang behind Hookshot Inc and regular Edge contributors): Simon Parkin and Christian Donlan.

We’ll cover many questions:

- Do developers form unrealistic expectations among players by using the word ‘free’ so liberally?
– Are gamers today clinging onto outdated notions of both free-to-play and what a ‘good’ game really is?
– How can games remain balanced and fair when players can buy items?
– Can games really powerfully affect player behaviour? If so, what are game designers’ moral responsibilities?
– How can free-to-play games be better?

And perhaps you have more. Leave a comment and we’ll consider adding yours to the discussion. Look out from our reports from the summit on the day – September 26 – and a greater writeup to follow.