The rise and fall of free to play

I love the idea of pay-what-you-want. It warms my socialist heart to see a work of art thrive in spite of being available free. Welcome to Night Vale is a good example. Any web comic or you tube show with a Patreon button qualifies. There are a lot of those, and many of them are successful. Those who have money to spare subsidize those who do not.

That's why I'm a big fan of free-to-play games. It's an easy thing to do badly, of course. But done well, it can allow a pay-what-you-want experience to make enough money to support the massive development expense of a AAA game.

My experiences in Team Fortress 2 make a good case study. I started playing when the game went free, and eventually spent five bucks so I could trade. I think most players took the same route. TF2, like other F2P games, is mostly funded by "whales," the big spenders that keep the game cheap for us minnows.

The existence of player to player trading meant the whales were subsidizing us five dollar peasants on another level. Players with extra cash were opening crate after crate (at $2.50 a pop) looking for those rare unusual cosmetics. Only 1% of crates have an unusual, and players have a limited inventory, so if you're opening tons of crates, your inventory will fill up with things that are not unusual hats. Might as well trade it away, right?

The law of supply and demand works the same way in TF2 as everywhere else. The market value of anything would plummet as soon as the new wave of crates came out. Items that were five or ten dollars on Mann Co store were going for about 50 cents worth of metal. (Metal is the de facto currency of TF2 trading. Since you can earn it by playing, it's a very inflationary currency.) Barring the 1% chance of an unusual, whatever you got from a crate would be worth less than the key you used up to open it.

This was great news for me. At the height of the game's popularity, I was dead broke, but had time to spare. The rampant gambling of the whales meant I could snatch up the more common stuff with just the metal I earned playing the game. I traded my way to a hat for every class I played. Then it was non-hat cosmetics. Eventually I had multiple loadouts for my favorite classes, and had to pick out my outfit like I was getting ready for a party. (Luchador heavy or biker heavy?) I even charted the prices of strange weapons to find the best time to buy. (Around two months after the item's first appearance.)

Alas, the future of free to play is not so cheerful. It turns out game publishers really like money. Given the choice between charging for a game upfront and selling virtual goods later, publishers choose both. It's not unusual for game to be $60 up front and also include money-grubbing microtransactions. Naturally, there's no player to player trading.

Jim Sterling calls this "Fee-to-Pay" and he hates the idea. Personally, I think it could be done right. Most F2P games were blood-sucking Farmville clones, but there are also great ones like TF2 and Warframe. There could be a legitimate, non-scummy way to do microtransactions in a retail game. A multiplayer game needs regular content updates to stay relevant, and selling DLC will only fragment the game's market. Selling in-game stuff is a easy way to get the funding. If you think of this business model as pay what you want, but with  a minimum buy-in, it's not scummy at all.

Keep an eye on Overwatch. It's a retail game with microtransactions, and it's obviously positioning itself as the new TF2. It also has loot crates for sale, but you can also earn these through play, and the contents are exactly the same. If the game has legs, (and so far it's a roaring success) expect the base cost of the game to come down. It might do what TF2 did, and come all the way down to zero. There are bound to be people that aren't willing to pay $40 for it, but might buy in for $5. Blizzard knows better than to leave that money on the table.


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