Feature: Free-to-Play or Fee-to-Pay?

free-to-playThe free-to-play business and micro-transactions are slowly but surely finding their way into the mainstream. Once exiled to the outskirts, confined to Facebook games such as Farmville or MMO’s, they’re starting to seep into the living room via our home consoles.

Free-to-play basically means you get the base experience of the game for free, then you purchase extra items, whether it be guns, armour, skill points, bullets etcetera. On paper it sounds like a win-win scenario, the consumer gets a game for free with the option to purchase additional items whilst the publisher/developer gains a large audience due to the fact that the game if freely accessible to all. On paper, all good. In practice, it’s another story.

Sony had made it clear that they are embracing free-to-play games with the PlayStation 4, something that was mentioned, along with how great the console is for developers, about 300 times during the PlayStation 4 meeting. What does it mean for the ordinary gamer like you and I? Will we suddenly be able to play game for free without spending a penny, except for the purchase of the console itself? Of course not, your typical games will still exist, and will remain present for the time being. What’s not clear however, is how long they will be games as we know them. The face of gaming has changed for the worse in recent years with the arrival of new business models aimed at taking as much cash from the consumer as is possible. Make no mistake, the people behind the games and the consoles care very little about us as individuals, but en masse we are important as we hold the cash they want.

Take EA as a prime example. The introduction of DLC was seen as both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, we we’re given the chance to expand our gaming experience and enjoy our favourite titles for longer with extra missions, maps for multiplayer modes, new characters to play as, the on the other hand we have the extortionate prices of the DLC, the misleading marketing and the “lets hype everything up” mentality. EA paved the way for taking more than their fair share, and have come under criticism when they introduced day-one DLC for games. It’s a middle finger directly at our faces. Instead of including the content in the original package, you can buy it for an extra £10/$10 or whatever the price may be.

Then we had the introduction of the online pass system, with EA once more at the forefront of money spinning techniques. If you buy an EA game used, you have no option other than to purchase an online pass to experience the online functionality of the title. EA led the way for other publishers to follow suite quietly, leaving EA to take the flak from players for introducing the system whilst they reaped the rewards.

Now we are blessed with the plague of micro-transactions. In a sense, they’ve been here since the arrival of DLC. Made a purchase for an extra weapon or map? Micro-transaction. Paid for extra topping on a pizza at Pizza Hut? Micro-transaction. Gone large with that Big Mac meal? Micro-transaction. See what I mean? They’re an everyday occurrence we pay little attention to, but now that they have invaded the sacred living rooms and man-lairs, they are revolting and the thought of them brings us to the point of rage. Guess who brought them into the living room? No prizes for guessing, it was of course, EA.

It’s not just a one-off either, they’ve been going for a while, though it’s only now that they are being shoved into single player experiences that people are starting to speak up. Take Dead Space 3, the game was without a doubt a desperate act to take more profit for doing no extra work, not even presenting it as DLC, just pure and simple selling you a part of the game that is bang in front of you, which you have already paid for. It may seem like I’m whining, and to some degree I am, but so we all should. This is just the first step in making gaming a hobby for the rich, leaving the poor folk behind.

EA has recently stated that all their future games will incorporate micro-transactions, all of them. How will that work for FIFA 14? Will you have the choice to buy your next teams victory? Will you have to pay for a pair of digital football boots? What about Sims 4? Sim family got no cash? That’s fine, just pay £5 and your digital family will receive some cash. See what I mean? There are endless ways that it can be incorporated into games, across all genres, across all platforms. It won’t just be EA though, so don’t assume you’ll be fine if you avoid EA titles. You can pretty much guarantee that once the uproar from gamers hits its peak and starts to come down, the rest of the bunch will quietly fall in line and introduce these anti-consumer tactics, just as was done with day-one DLC and online-passes.

Then what next? Well, that would be free-to-play. It’s the ultimate goal, put out a multiplayer game, no need to program A.I, just let the consumers fight amongst themselves whilst emptying their wallets to fill their digital ammo clip. It may sound a bit far-fetched and dramatic now, but gaming is changing, we’ve all seen it. Back in the days of the PlayStation and the Nintendo 64, you got your game and that was that. No DLC. No money spinning ploy to take more than they deserved. No problem. Game can’t fit on one disc? No problem, the game would ship on as many as it took, (Final Fantasy, what did that have, 6? Metal Gear Solid? Command & Conquer?) whereas today it used as an excuse to sell you a part of the game that should have been included. Publishers will say that there wasn’t enough room, so we took Section X and Section Y and we’re happy to sell it to you, for money, lovely money.

The biggest problem isn’t the greedy corporate heads who just needs that massive Yacht, or just needs that new Mercedes, or just needs to own a small Scottish island, it’s us. If we keep putting the money in their pockets whilst the sit back and pump out the same crap whilst skimming more off the consumer with shady day-one DLC, online-passes and downright disgusting micro-transactions, we’ve only got ourselves to blame. They are businesses at the end of the day, and you have to look at it from their side. If you could get away with making millions whilst putting out rehashed versions of previous games but charging even more for items that were previously included, wouldn’t you? What if your customers suddenly let you know, and I mean millions of them let you know they weren’t happy with this? Wouldn’t you change your ways and go back to what works for all involved? I know I would.

So if you, like me, enjoy your games just fine as they are (or were…) then please, don’t get suckered in with marketing hype, promises of the best experience ever, promises that the developer/publisher gives a damn about you. Just take a minute and ask yourself if you want to get ripped off to pay for some corporate mug to buy his bratty little spawns an electric car for their 6th birthday. Yeah, me neither…

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What do you think about free-to-play? Is it really something you want to see happen, or are you completely against it? Maybe you’re in the middle? Let us know down in the comments section below.


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