Money Talks: Why free-to-play isn’t a dirty word anymore

Raining Money

By on August 16, 2013 at 12:32 pm

I’ve never been a fan of subscription payments, especially when you’re feeling like there isn’t a lot of value being offered for your dollar.

World of Warcraft at one point was stripping almost $20 a month out of my wallet, plus the extra cash splashed on expansions and server transfer. After a year I had forked out almost $300 to play a single title. That’s a ludicrous amount of money — especially when you consider that I wasn’t even playing on a local server nor being offered monthly content additions. Blizzard has made an absolute killing from WoW and still does, and the gold rush that spawned from Blizzard’s success diluted the market to the point where there are now hundreds of active MMOs, all fighting, begging and pleading for your support.

This ample monthly subscription model became the poster child for all future sources of funding; imagine finance meetings full of excited MBAs all lauding the idea of a “money well”, with millions of subscribers all direct debiting $15 into the kitty every 30 days. What actually happened was significantly more depressing for developers who spent the best part of two years developing (or localising) MMOs, when most of them ended up failing miserably. Subscriptions significantly tapered off after the “free month” period that (most) MMO titles provided with their purchases, and nobody bothered to resubscribe. From Warhammer Online to RIFT subscription payments fell, taking either the game with them, or clumsily flipping over to F2P systems that were poorly thought-out.

There are a plethora of various F2P monetisation schemes, but almost all of them fit into one of four specific classes.

The first is the “Cosmetic” — the only purchases that can be made are for items that offer customisation options, aesthetic choices that do not effect play at all. Many Korean and Chinese titles feature these systems thanks to a player base that highly prioritises individualisation of their avatars, and as a result do a roaring trade. Side-scrolling dungeon crawler Maple Story was one of the first titles to feature a F2P model from its inception, and until a few years ago made a living primarily on pets and costumes.

While it has now moved to the second class, which I will explain in a moment, it still largely trades in these items to fund the bulk of its revenue base. You could also squeeze inventory and bank slots into these systems, as they arguably provide convenience rather than any kind of benefit over another player. Team Fortress 2 is one of the very few Western titles that can genuinely be considered not only a Cosmetic title, but an extraordinarily successful one.

The second is the “Hybrid” class, arguably the most common form of cash store for titles that were F2P from the beginning. It features in games like Guild Wars 2*, Neverwinter, LoL and DOTA2. These titles combine customisation with limited use items, such as boosters for XP or random chests that offer a particular buff. As there is a considered case for arguing that boosters do provide a genuine advantage (especially if stacked together for hours, or days if you can afford it) then they become separated from the purely “Cosmetic” class and start to edge towards what many players would consider “the line”. Various titles will push this boundary more than others — DOTA 2, for example, probably has the weakest intentions in regards to pushing an in-game advantage. The majority of what is on offer is player-designed, and thus generally only offers different effects that do not advantage play.

League of Legends restricts its character roster, which puts it on a different level to DOTA 2, but goes to pains to still offer daily “free” characters on rotation that balance out the various skills needed for a fair game. Purchasing will allow access to arguably “better” heroes, particularly on demand, but still cleverly pegs the system to avoid pitfalls. The success of all four examples is heavily dependent on a number of factors — aside from the fact all four titles are incredibly polished, well designed, patronized and dev/pub supported, their monetisation schemes were thought out to the nth degree. Paying money is not necessary to field a full experience, but convenience is rewarded by financial means.  What’s more, these stores evolve over time in regards to player feedback, removing or adding items that breach the “rules”, as defined by the developer or the players.

Planetside 2 takes a slightly different tack, offering the ability to pay for items (alongside earning them) but not making any of those items more beneficial than their free counterparts. There have been many debates surrounding this approach, especially when the developers of Tribes: Ascend claimed the same thing yet released weapon packs with woefully unbalanced guns. I would still factor these two titles into the “Hybrid” system, especially since they both heavily promote booster packs but at the same time go to large lengths to ensure every benefit can be earned, rather than bought.

The third and fourth classes are quite similar in nature, and represent the more “evil” part of the controversy around F2P.

The third, “Cash Items”, is effectively as its name implies — players can purchase better equipment, weapons, and items directly that were designed to provide a beneficial advantage. This ties closely into the fourth and final class, “Cash Influence”. In this class players can pay to avoid arbitrary time-based restrictions that traditionally apply to all players, or access items that cannot be earned via free play.

Nearly every single game that features these systems is what spawns much of the hate that invades every comment thread and forum post that involves a freemium title. In some cases rightfully so; the “pay to win” mentality effectively breaks game balance and creates two worlds, forcing new players to adhere to a pricing structure that unfairly penalises them and poisons the entire ecosystem.

Ultimately, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with F2P as a concept or as an ideology. The billions of dollars that have been generated across the anglosphere alone have proven that it solves both the barrier to entry and foundation payment (paying back the initial investment) issues, and demonstrates that most players have accepted it as a valid model. DOTA 2 is a fascinating example of this system in action, since the game was effectively given away entirely via a very clever scheme of word of mouth and gifting, gradually chipping away at LoL and HoN swing players until there was an effective membership of millions. The game can be played in its entirety for free, but access to certain perks (such as a “fantasy football” style system or the chance to pick the players of a special championship match) are only a few bucks away. Then there’s the link into the existing Steam Marketplace for creating, selling and buying “used” items, building on the existing system created by TF2.

The great thing about games being forced to compete for players, rather than attempting to lock them in, is that we are now able to see their offerings at face value. If their system is dishonest, unfair, or a blatant cash grab, we can turn our backs on it.

The stigma of any F2P game being poor quality still initially stems from the missteps of the early days, coupled with the arguably terrible examples of debut efforts from tiny Korean studios. Where once we only had WoW clones, we now have AAA releases from enormous developers and publishers. We also have a wide range of genres to choose from – trading card games, MOBAs, FPSs, squad-based shooters, RTS games, dungeon crawlers and air combat simulators.

Sure, we have developers pushing the boundaries about what’s acceptable, but players are pushing back — as they did with Ubisoft’s backflip on “Cash Influence” in The Mighty Quest for Epic Loot. The great thing about games being forced to compete for players, rather than attempting to lock them in, is that we are now able to see their offerings at face value. If their system is dishonest, unfair, or a blatant cash grab, we can turn our backs on it. One of the largest benefits of a system that relies on open membership is that it can appeal to a niche — when subscription games need all of their 2 million users regularly paying, F2P games only need a fraction of their wide base to chip in occasionally.

Hell, if the most pay-to-win game of them all can recant their most strident offenses, then money has to be what talks. So don’t be so quick to dismiss what is probably the most player-centric development in the marketplace since the free trial, because ultimately, the winner in the end is you.

* I’m sure there will be an endless argument that Guild Wars 2 is not Free To Play because it requires an upfront retail cost. I would, and have, argued against this since the game is continuously updated and expanded on a regular basis for free yet does not charge any ongoing fees, and relies on its cash store to make up its month by month expenses. It’s no different to games that charge mandatory “Starter packs” for entry but then allow unlimited free play from then on.

11 comments (Leave your own)

I can’t do anything but agree with this. Nice article.


I think the stigma for free to play in open world MMOs is still there and not going away anytime soon.


I don’t see a problem with a paying for upgrades model. If people want to pay, then all the more power to them.


Well P2W is pretty dead in the water now, so it looks like caught on to how to do it.

Still say that having item prices low and non-gameplay affecting will result in the highest profits.


Dota 2 is probably the most cosmetic and non gameplay affecting f2p model there is, so I don’t think it should be put in with LoL and Neverwinter even with a disclaimer. The boosters etc do speed up your levelling etc but all your level actually does is… cosmetics.

Neverwinter and LoL are basically: to experience the gameplay either 1. play hundreds of hours or 2. pay money.

I haven’t played in years so I could certainly be wrong but I thought there were lots of items and wierd things in TF2 now that really change the gameplay.

Another f2p game you could look at is War Thunder. Very solid game which I think can only get bigger. It’s in beta and they’ve been mucking around a lot with the f2p economy and there’s been very mixed reactions from players.


Took me a while to figure out the Dota 2 extra features you were talking about, but you meant the compendium, yeah?

I didn’t know it let you play with more experienced players.

James Pinnell

Took me a while to figure out the Dota 2 extra features you were talking about, but you meant the compendium, yeah?

I didn’t know it let you play with more experienced players.

I was told originally by a good source that the plans for the mentor system will be that you pay a few bucks and get access to experienced players. But since this seems to be more of a speculation I’ll remove that reference.


Yeah…Nah, it’s still a dirty word in my book.

‘The Book of Filthy Pricing Models’ – Free-2-Read edition not available.


I’m not sure how you justify classifying DOTA2 as “hybrid” because everything in the game is 100% cosmetic… it definitely belongs in category one (pure cosmetic)

The limited use items and boosters in DOTA2 are purely used to obtain other cosmetics.


Excellent article. I have to give kudos to Valve, Dota2 and TF2 are the two best PC titles I have played to date (except for BF3 which I have played alot of metro map) but when you talk about F2P, Valve have set the benchmark and Dota2 and TF2 but especially DOTA2 are superb games and I’m a football manager fan and that’s saying something.


planetside 2 is a fantastic game for free.
i spend $10 on it mostly because ive spent over 200 hours in the game and felt i should contribute SOMETHING to them…

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