Free to play may have been the scourge of the PC world, but the video game industry is in an ever evolving state. According to Michael Wall, the introduction of new interesting IPs such as League of Legends and the much improved ?Pay for Convenience? model, the F2P market has evolved. It still may not be perfect, but many consumers and developers alike see this new subset as the future of gaming.
League of Legends. Firefall. DC Universe Online. Super Monday Night Combat. All great games, and all games that I have no intention whatsoever of playing, because the other similarity they share is that they?re all free-to-play. To the uninitiated, that may seem like a confusing statement, so allow me to clarify: the term ?free-to-play? is a total misnomer. In order to get even a partially complete experience out of these games, you must continuously shell out real-life cash for in-game content. Despite the far less appealing truth behind it, this business model is gradually picking up steam and it seems like every other game is free-to-play these days. This is a problem, because free-to-play is bad for gaming.
A Shortcut to Supremacy
The most obvious issue with the free-to-play format is that it threatens to create an unbalanced playing field in the context of competitive multiplayer games. Whether it?s simply paying for an early unlock or buying a much more powerful or strategically useful weapon than any of the free ones found in the game, paying customers are given an inherent edge. When games are designed to give paying customers a leg up on the competition, it becomes obvious that the free-to-play format is not designed to allow non-paying players to truly enjoy a gaming experience for free; it?s designed to frustrate and alienate them until they pony up the cash.
Admittedly, many cash shops in free-to-play games lean more towards the early unlock format; they don?t offer exclusive items, per se, but rather just a quicker way to get to items that would have otherwise taken hours to acquire. But still, when even just one person that you?re playing against has bought his or her way to the best items in the game, you?re put at a disadvantage until you either pay or put in the massive amount of time to get it for free (at which point you may be sick of the game anyway). The point is that these developers can claim all they want that the cash shops won?t put paying players an unfair advantage, but allowing people to obtain the same powerful items but in a shorter amount of time seems like a pretty big advantage to me. So if you want to keep up, you?re going to have to pay up.
Pointing out that this is nothing more than an underhanded business tactic may not be a groundbreaking revelation, but it is worth recognizing that this undermines the social, interactive nature of multiplayer gaming. It segregates players into two distinct groups (paying and non-paying) that are on completely different levels and therefore want nothing to do with one another.
Team Fortress 2 went free-to-play not too long ago, and the immediate reaction from players who actually bought the game was to establish servers that automatically banned free-to-play players. Granted, this is a slightly different scenario in that it was a regular title that went free-to-play?not unlike the transformation that Monday Night Combat will soon undergo when it becomes Super Monday Night Combat?but either way, it?s impossible to deny that free-to-play caused the TF2 players to become segregated. I expect we?ll see the same sort of reaction and split when MNC makes the shift.
The Non-Paying Player Stands Alone
Even non-competitive multiplayer is affected by free-to-play, and rather than fostering a community and a sense of unity (as multiplayer gaming often does), it separates those who pay and those who don?t. As a non-paying player, you?re usually shunned and put on a generally inferior level of play, and that makes for a pretty unenjoyable experience.
That?s not to say that it?s impossible to have fun with free-to-play games?you can, but it?s a vastly different, incomplete experience if you?re not paying. Once upon a time I had a pretty serious addiction to Atlus? Neo Steam, a free-to-play MMO. I had a great time with the game, but the fact of the matter was that, thanks to the free-to-play business model, I played it almost entirely as a single player experience. As mentioned, the model tends to change the dynamic between players?almost always for the worse?and therefore drastically changes how the game is played for some; for me, what was supposed to be a huge multiplayer experience (massive, if you will) became one that I could have played without so much as an internet connection.
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