Free-to-play, also referred to as F2P, is a trend in the video games industry which allows players to play online games without charge.

It used to be that if someone wanted to play an online game like a MMORPG, or one of the more esoteric time sinks, they had to pay a subscription fee, often in monthly installments. To the constant annoyance of the game publishers this proved a major stopping block to most of their intended audience who either couldn’t afford the subscription or couldn’t understand why they would have to keep paying for a game they already owned1. Eventually someone came up with the brilliant idea that not charging people to play expensive games could be profitable.

If a game costs about $50 to buy and $10 a month to play, but only one hundred people buy it, after a year the company has made $17000. However if that same game has no monthly fee and one thousand people buy it, after a year that company has made $500002. But that is only half of the idea.

In a sneaky move, F2P games often include product handicaps such as; level caps, area and item restrictions, time limits, the removal of certain features, and in game advertisements. Most of the game is still available to the F2P gamers, which makes casual gamers happy. However, everyone else now muddles through the YGWYPF experience. Your friends can go places you can’t? Pay. Need that one item to really streamline your character? Pay. Want to play for more than five hours a week? Pay. Wish your space paladin would stop being accosted by messages about his inadequate penis? Pay. Players can either be happy with moderately reduced playability, or they can pay a “nominal” subscription fee (often prorated for bulk subscriptions) to be able to get to everything they have been missing out on, and away from the things they want to avoid. Several MMOs have switched to this business model like Star Trek Online, Age of Conan, DC Universe Online, and Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Additionally, F2P games make use of microtransations. Premium content can be made available in small doses for small fees. Valve’s Team Fortress 2 eventually became free to purchase, so there was no cost to play the game at all, while pretty much any item in the game that usually is found as a random drop or crafted by the player can be purchased through the game’s store. Most of Facebook’s proprietary games like FarmVille and The Sims Social, as well as promotional games like Dragon Age: Legends, Marvel: Avengers Alliance, and Dexter: Slice of Life give players a limited amount of actions they can perform, but microtransactions allow them to buy more.

There are criticisms of this method though. Blizzard argues that the F2P model makes players more forgiving of a game’s quality, which is why WoW will stay on the subscription plan. Many gamers dislike how making higher level items purchasable, like in the aforementioned TF2 or Mass Effect 3, can allow those willing to spend the money to compete on the same level as those who devoted a large amount of time to cultivating skill and item sets. Also, allowing players to “buy up” their character forces the game developer to constantly create new content which unerringly leads to power creep.

1. Argumentum ad Ignorantiam. Often the people who make this argument don’t understand the high cost of server maintenance or the need to pay the salaries of the people who keep the games running.
2. Yes, I know those aren’t normal industry numbers, it is just a proof of premise.

--An August FactQuest--

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