Are Free-To-Play Games a Trap?

Bruce Case
Staff Writer

PC: inspiredimages.jpg

Marketing companies and video game developers understand the potential gold mines that video games are in general. We went from Pong, a simple 2-dimensional tennis game, to hyper-realistic games like Forza Horizon 4, where you can barely tell that it is a video game because the graphics are so sophisticated. There are even open world games like Elder Scrolls: Skyrim where developers create an entire roamable map, with unique characters, flora and fauna.

These games are examples that were not created as free-to-play games. They fulfill a niche in the vast array of video game genres, and make the most of their profit from game sales. This is considered the traditional model of video game business. You pay for the full product, and what you get is what you get. Typically, a single new game on console and PC sells for $60, and mobile games range from $1-$10. There may be additional expansions added later that you can buy, but they add to the game, not complete it. The underlying assumption of the traditional model is that a good game will make a lot of profit. A good game is one that brings something new and exciting to the table or remakes a classic in a new way. The focus is on the quality of the product. If it is not, no one will buy it.

Counter to the traditional model is the free-to-play model. While both models are inevitably concerned with profits, the free-to-play model is much more overt about it. They generally focus on two things: “freemium” content, loot boxes and cosmetics. Freemium content is not unlike the trial period you get for a variety of other products, such as online streaming services like Netflix or Hulu. You get a taste of the game so you can try it before you buy it. You may be able to play up to a certain level in an RPG or only have access to specific content until you purchase more. In some cases, this translates into a pay-to-win situation.

Players who pay may get better loot, level up faster, accrue in-game currency faster or have other in-game advantages. This coerces people to either buy or stop playing. An example is the online card game Hearthstone. You can play for free, but you will not get the good cards that win more consistently. You can buy the cards with in-game materials, but at the rate that you earn it, it takes forever. Free items in free-to-play games, across the board, take forever to get.

The loot box and cosmetic focus has become more common in recent years. Without a pay-to-win scenario, the game is generally fair overall to play. Fortnite is the most notable example. It is entirely free-to-play, but there are a bunch of skins that you can buy to stand out from other players. You do not need them, they do not make you play better, but they sure make you want to buy them. And when you do, you most likely need to use more money than you actually want to spend. That is because they do not use the currency we see everyday like US dollars, they use an in-game version of money.

Fortnite uses V-Bucks. 1000 V-buck equals $10. The skin you want costs 1200 V-Bucks, but you cannot just pay $12. You have to pay $25, the next option. They do not let you buy dollar specific amounts. It is either $10 or $25 in most games. Two skins are probably going to run you $50. If you play consistently, you will have to exert a lot of self control.

Loot boxes use the same tactic. You typically get them from leveling up in-game. However, at a certain point in most games, you stop getting them for free. After that, you need to buy them, typically at the in-game equivalent of $5 each.  What makes these loot boxes insidious is that there is no guarantee that you will get anything “rare.” They add items that are particularly special, and create an algorithm for a low drop-rate, typically between 4 to 7 percent for something ultra-rare. An ultra-rare skin in most games is worth $25. To put it simply, they add a gambling component.

Marketing teams know that people have a hard time not spending money when chance is involved. In a survey done by lendEDU of 1000 Fortnite players, 69 percent of them became paying customers, averaging about $85. Fortnite has been cited as making $300 million a month. People do not have to spend any money to play, but they do.

Free-to-play games are accessible. They do not require much processing power or fancy hardware. Mechanically, they are intended for anyone to be able to pick up and play. I have played quite a few of them, most recently Apex Legends, a new battle royale shooter game. I put $10 in for the battle pass to get free items over time. I did this because I like the game and want to support the company that made it. However, I have self control; I will not be falling prey to the unpredictable loot boxes that they have available. I can support the game without being an impulsive buyer.

If you are a gamer, you need to be aware of the pitfalls that come with it. If you like a game, by all means, support it. Quite frankly, I will not judge you for how much you spend. But do not get mad at the company because you played right into their gambling system. Do not rely on chance, because you might be throwing your money away.

Categories: Opinions

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1 reply

  1. Intersting personal blog. You describe predatory mechanics but avoid calling them out as predatory. Gamers is not a mirror of any one person. Gamers span all ages and lifestyles. Many people with gambling problems have turned to games to avoid gambling urges. Many are children with no understanding of how gambling works, or how to limit. Have you ever talked to a terminal cancer patient who had no idea how they spent their life savings over a pain killer filled week? Gamers are everybody with access to and play them. They have the right to be angry when being decieved by a game that has the only goal of throwing gambling, financial schemes, and get paid by any means necassary marketing at their clients. Developers need to answer to the same level of law and ethics as any other industry. Its great you have self control, you in the majority of adults, but that does not give immunuty to scammers.


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