Five things I hate about ‘free-to-play’ games

I want free-to-play games to succeed. The F2P model allows small, untried, risky game companies to produce small, untried, risky games, widening and introducing new ideas and challengers to a market otherwise dominated by slow, lumbering AAA titles that have little incentive to change the system. They also allow players to sample the game before plunking down $50 and finding out the game just isn’t for them. And some of them allow you to take breaks without guilt. F2P has so much potential.

And yet it goes unrealized. F2P companies seem intent on annoying me to death. Actual design innovation is lacking; the a la carte model drives customers away. Is it the lure of easy money? I don’t know… but I do know exactly what turns me off. And so I present the top five things I hate about “free-to-play” games.

#5: Website artwork that misrepresents the game.

It’s almost too easy to pick on games like Runes of Magic (whose website image I used above), but it’s true. gPotato (Iris and Allods Online) and Perfect World (BoI, HoTK) are serial offenders. Occasionally, a game website will feature artwork that’s more cartoony than the actual game (maybe to appeal more to younger players), but in most instances, the artwork will be heavily Westernized and tweaked to look far more realistic than anything found once you’ve loaded into the gameworld. And that’s not even to suggest the artwork in-game is poor — it’s just not what the marketing team sold you. Or didn’t sell you, in this case.

#4: Social media integration.

I’m not talking about the kind of optional built-in tweeting offered in RIFT nor even Blizzard’s creepy insistence on making your character’s every move public knowledge. No, what annoys me is the deluge of tricks companies use to drag you away from their websites, away from the games, and onto their social media sites. Exclusive reveals! Chat with the devs! “Like” us for a chance to win a sparkle pony! Post something inane for a welcome package! STOP IT RIGHT NOW. Look, tech-savvy gamers hate Facebook. They’re only there to pacify mom. They sure as hell don’t want the kids they haven’t talked to since high school seeing them “Like” your dorky video game page. And they don’t want to be associated with Facebook social gaming period, nor do they want to see their “real” video games sullied with cheap and tawdry social media marketing ploys. Honestly, most mainstream Western MMO gamers already feel they’re taking a chance on imported F2P games. Don’t make it harder.

#3: Cash shop spamming.

I get it. You’re a F2P game. You have a cash shop. You need people to spend money microtransaction-style. I play your game. I know what you have for sale. If I want it, I’ll buy it. I know how to find it, thank you very much. Do not put a dozen links to the cash shop all over my screen, LOTRO. Do not flash text overhead when a sale kicks off, Zentia. Do not randomly open the cash shop on login, EverQuest II. Do not make me sit through five cash shop advertisements before I can even get to the character screen (and for skies’ sake, don’t make me sit through ads for things I already own), DDO. These things are the equivalent of blinking pop-up ad banners. These things make me want to log out. Don’t treat me like some idiot sitting in front of a slot machine, please.

And while I’m on the topic: Don’t try to fool me with point systems that obscure how much money you’re really charging for that mount of swiftness and that cosmetic dress. Calculus is a prerequisite of several crafting-based MMOs. Gamers are pretty good at number-crunching. Your attempt to fool us is a turn-off at best and an insult at worst.

#2: Temporary cash shop items.

Nope, sorry, you have misunderstood the product you are selling. Your advantage over subscription games is that your game doesn’t require commitment. I can walk away from your game and return at any time (not just in one-month blocks) and keep all my stuff. I don’t have to “get my money’s worth” or play more than I would like in an arbitrary time period lest I feel my monthly sub is wasted. Your temporary cash shop items create an even worse feeling of urgency and micromanagement than the one generated by sub games — you know, the games I’m avoiding when playing yours. Don’t make me count my pennies and weigh every decision; that’s just bad marketing psychology. You want me to binge on that adorable two-seat umbrella vehicle, Zentia. You need to me impulse-buy ponytails with stats, Vindictus. When you tell me that the things I buy are impermanent, I resist the urge to spend and regret any past expenditures, especially if I need to take a break from your game. Let me keep what I buy. Make availability, not ownership, impermanent — sell bags one week and teleport scrolls the next (take advantage of the fact that we fear missing opportunities likes sales). Don’t sell me $15 worth of necessities that I have to renew every month. We already have a name for that. We call that a subscription. And I never actually lose my stuff when my sub lapses, only my access to it until I resub!

#1: The term free-to-play.

Can we just stop using it? Please? Our daily lives are filled with enough newspeak. You’re not free-to-play. You might be free-to-log-in, and you might not be charging a box fee, but almost all of you blockade play to some degree until we pony up. In the East, you create massive grinds and charge money to make those grinds palatable. In the West, you charge fees for zones and classes and travel. I don’t blame you for this. You have to make money. But the pretense that you are “free” needs to end. It makes you look sneaky and deceptive, even when you’re not. You’re freemium games. Be honest. You’re starting with a disadvantage because most AAA gamers think F2P games are junk, largely because so many of them are, so don’t make things worse. Treat your players with respect, and they will respect you instead of thinking you’re peddling the same Jedi mind tricks as Zynga.

Ultimately, F2P games should learn to embrace what sets them apart from subscription games without forgetting why subscription games are so popular in the first place. Millions of people shell out for boxes every year. Triple-A sub games are plying convenience and comfort. You know exactly what you’re getting, and it’s all included — it’s an all-you-can-eat buffet, one that requires no additional fussing over how that $15 is spent. But in their quest to rope in some of this market, many F2P companies insist on drowning players in choices and ads and spam and annoyances and tricks and gimmicks such that subscription games start to look clean and hassle-free. Tone it down or turn us off. If your game is truly worth playing, we’ll play it.

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6 Comments

  1. burr says:

    The only thing that has proven to annoy me to the point where I am considering never playing another F2P game ever again is the community it attracts. Having played LOTRO from the beginning, seeing what has become of the once cohesive community is a fucking tragedy. Don’t let anyone tell you “It’s bigger and better than ever”. Bigger community does not equal better community.

  2. ArcherAvatar says:

    Brilliant, concise, and dead on point. That was a delightful read.

    Now, exactly why isn’t this an article on Massively? I know… I’ve seen other articles covering essentially this topic but, none of them made me feel like my movements were being tracked by the Thought Police. If the tone of this article is so spot on to me, surely it would be to many others as well…?

  3. daerokos says:

    awesome points. after hours of googling “free-to-play” and “free online mmorpgs” i got exhausted. every single one was a fucking wolf in sheep’s fleece. it’s disgusting. i know they need to make money and all that stuff, but seriously isn’t there some completely free online game out there that’s not shoving ads and shops down the players’ throats??? there’s gotta be a really fun, hidden gem out there that i’ve yet to discover. i just want something fun to play online with other people. no super 3d graphics, no crazy auction houses or weird content, just simple, 2d graphics, gold, xp, monsters, and tons of awesome swords and magic stuff. i guess i gotta make my own game.

  4. Koden says:

    Great read. Maybe I’m just getting old (33) but I can’t believe what gamers are willing to put up with these days. Cash shops completely destroy the immersion of a game for me. MMORPGs are about building a character with a rewarding investment of your time. High level characters with top tier gear are impressive and respected by other players and we all enjoy that feeling. I’m a professional adult with plenty of money so I don’t want to see that my time investment in the game to earn XP or a piece of gear is the equivelant of an instant $5 purchase at the cash shop. Nobody is impressed or respectful of a $5 purchase nor do I feel any sense of pride or reward. Micro-transactions are absolutely ruining online gaming IMHO.

    • Bree says:

      That’s an interesting comment imo because if you ask “hardcore gamers” — the kind who are always saying that games like WoW are “dumbing down” the genre by being so accessible that anyone can achieve anything — they say sort of the reverse: that no one is impressed about or respectful of (for example) a level 85 in full raid gear because all it did was take some time, and everyone has time.

      Of course, not everyone has time; some people really just have money. I think that maybe our inclination is to devalue anything we have a lot of and overvalue whatever we don’t. Personally, I’d like to see both routes available to players because they are, at the end of the day, equivalent — time is money. Investment is investment.

      When I look at a dude in full raid gear, I am no longer impressed or covetous like I would have been a decade ago. I think the time/money issue has helped me see behind the curtain a bit and stop thinking of games as being about building characters and grind but rather as being about having a good time, and personally, I’m willing to pay money to have a good time in every other arena of my life. So why not games?

  5. Sunspots says:

    I think number 1 should be selling *chances* at items. Lockboxes are essentially a form of gambling used to force people to spend far more than they would normally to get a rare item. I’m glad that despite the fact you endorse the freemium model you at least see the very reason so many older gamers hate them. Most of these tactics aren’t just annoying, they are immersion breaking. I’m convinced that people are okay with free2play’s simply think of their gaming time as an extension of Facebook, rather than a form escapism.

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