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The rise of free-to-play games

Why microtransaction-funded games aren't bad news - but why game-makers must be careful

Like it or loathe it, it seems fairly inevitable that more and more games are going to experiment with going free to play in the not-too-distant future. Valve’s multiplayer shooter titan Team Fortress 2 did it last week, Ubisoft are planning a whole new version of Ghost Recon that does it, there are two versions of Battlefield that do it, more and more big-name MMOs such as City of Heroes and Lord of the Rings Online are doing it… Perhaps it’s not the future, but it’s certainly a big part of the future.

It’s hugely important to note, though, that ‘free to play’ means a whole lot of things. To some minds, it evokes the unpleasantness (for traditional gamers) of Facebook games such as FarmVille - a cynical system that’s constantly trying to coax pennies out for you simply for the option to keep playing rather than waiting a few hours until some arbitrary energy bar recharges. For others, such as the currently protesting denizens of Eve Online, it means their beloved virtual home suddenly wanting them to cough up extra money.

The game remains subscription-based (with the two-tier pricing really not helping matters) but its creators have been vocal about how important they think microtransactions are to its future. So they’ve introduced stuff like a pretend shirt that, controversially, costs $25 - as much as a real-life shirt.

When one of Eve’s senior producers claimed this was because the game’s players should think of in-game fashion as being the equal of real-life fashion and the value (or lack) thereof, there was uproar. Almost 6000 players claim to have cancelled their subscriptions in response to Eve’s rather aggressive introduction of high-priced vanity items - if those guys stick to their guns, that’s enough to cost the game’s creator, CCP, as much as $1 million in annual revenue.

Eve Online

What such drama proves is that there’s a very delicate line to be trodden. The ‘free’ part of ‘free to play’ doesn’t fool many long-term gamers, and neither do optional microtransactions. When it’s a matter of buying features, and especially features that don’t amount to much more than a fancy graphic, what it creates in too many players is a fear that parts of their game are being carved off and pitched at the players with the most disposable income rather than the most passion - or the most skill.

Next page: charging for content?

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