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?

The trouble is free to play and microtransactions are too often trying to court two very different audiences: time-limited, even casual players who want a way to shortcut to the fun stuff, and dedicated, time-rich players who want to experience every last aspect of the game. There’s some crossover, but when the most passionate, experienced player sees someone who’s clearly a rank amateur run by while somehow wearing the same armour that they spent hours, days, weeks working for, they’re only going to feel exploited.

Team Fortress 2 has found a smart middle-ground, in that the most exclusive in-game hats (TF2’s character-adornment of choice) are only available to veteran and highly-skilled players, but how it’s going to play out over time is mystery. Will it charge for content as well as aesthetics?

Charging for content is a fast way to make players angry - if it’s implemented badly. The trick is to charge for what quite clearly seems like extra content, maps or characters or quests or modes that extend the experience rather than carve the game up in a way that suggests the initial package has been cruelly restricted so key chunks can be seperately monetised. The newly-rethought World of Warcraft trial is a fascinating example of this: you can play as much as you like for free until level 20, and even then keep exploring if you want to.

World of Warcraft

But if you want to go higher than that (WoW’s character level cap is 85) you’ll need to subscribe. It’s not exactly free to play, though it is a foray into that field, but crucially it’s dangling the carrot of more in front of the player, rather than making them feel like everywhere they turn they’re met with a locked door with price written on it.

In many ways, it’s a more logical way of approaching online worlds than subscriptions are. It’s all too easy to tot up just how much (hundreds of pounds) the latter costs you in a year, or feverishly worry that you’re not playing enough to get your money’s worth. Done right, done gently and done with a conviction that you’re offering players more and better content rather than just using compulsion techniques to get a direct line to their wallet, a player will be happy to lob a few pounds to keep playing for a bit longer, to see a bit more, to experience something above and beyond what they already have.

Too many free to play games seem to build the business model first then squeeze a game into the cracks - the key will be to build the best games possible first, and only then work out what players will feel is genuinely worth stumping up extra for.