Free-to-play games are common now. On mobile, they’re everywhere but they can also be found on PCs and consoles. Some of the high-profile games which comes to mind at this point are League of Legend and Star Wars: the Old Republic.

So, the game is free?

Noooooo… No no no no...

The expression free-to-play is misleading: those games are very much designed with the intent of making their users to pay for something; it’s even common for those games to end up costing more than a game you would buy up-front.

A good free-to-play game lets players get a full taste of the game for free but offers something nice for you to buy if you enjoy the free experience. Common examples would be something flashy to wear or something convenient to make your life a little easier. A bad free-to-play negates enjoyment of the free game by making its mechanics unreasonably tedious or gives paying customers more power.

There’s a narrow margin between the two extremes and it’s easy for a title to go from one to another.

What’s the point?

When done right, free-to-play games have a lot of promise and let their users pick their level of involvement in the game.These games provide two products simultaneously:

  • A free game players can play and have fun with (and, with enough dedication, fare well for themselves)
  • A paid game where paying customers get a VIP treatment with rapid, if not instant progression and other privileges.

In a way, it incorporates the black market we used to observe in games. Anyone remember gold farmers, character trainers, and trading virtual items for real money?

Think of it like this: you can pay for the game in one of two ways:

  • You can invest your time in the game and work your way to the top for free.
  • If you are short on time, you have the option to buy your way there.

Ok then, what’s to be expected?

There are many variations possible within the free-to-play category but here’s a few staples:

“Happy fun bucks”

It’s common to see in-game currency which you can buy with real money. This in-game currency can be used for about anything in the game; it can lift or lighten certain restrictions you face as a non-paying citizen, buy stuff without having to grind for it or simply show-off in game.

This alternate currency system has one legit utility: it helps reduce transaction fees. The problem with purchasable currency is: leftovers. Stuff is usually priced in such a way that whatever you purchase in-game with virtual currency will leave some “fun bucks” in your pocket. Just enough in fact to make you regret wasting it.

So it’s wasteful by design to encourages users to keep spending.

Gated content

Some items, character classes, vehicles, pets, conveniences and cosmetic options might be reserved to paying customers. You can arguably play the game without those things but they will make you want at least some of them.

Play without getting played

The Free-To-Play model can be abused. My best advice would be set yourself a budget beforehand (yes, 0$ is an acceptable amount for a free-to-play) and if you get compelled to do something you’re uncomfortable with; don’t hesitate to log off and walk away.

I would recommend starting any of those games as a free player for at least the first two weeks before investing at all in the game. If you can’t enjoy the free game for that long; it’s a bad sign and your privileged status as a premium member might suffer from the lack of free players to play with.

While you’re trying the game, keep an eye out for dodgy practices. I would consider the following as red flags:

Paying customers always win

This is what is referred to as pay-to-win, those game gate the more powerful options to paying customers. In such a scenario, the free player doesn’t have a fair chance to win.

Going nowhere in free play

The option to buy your way to the upper echelons faster is typically accompanied by sloooow progression path for free players.

In some cases, unpaid progression is so slow that it becomes pointless. If some game mechanics annoys you so much that you want to switch to the fast lane, it’s a sign you’re not welcome as a free player.

Interrupted play

Imagine if construction of an essential building in a RTS took an hour to build unless you fed a quarter in your PC; well some free-to play games are exactly like that. This is another example of free-to-play mechanic intended to make you buy stuff out of frustration. I especially recommend walking away from this kind of proposition because of how expensive it can get.

… Those are only examples of course, there are others out there.

Your rights as a free-playing citizen

Keep the following in mind: as a free player, you are valuable. Without you, the game world would be nearly barren of life and paying customers would likely have a hard time finding each other.

So expect respect and a fair chance in achieving your objectives in-game. Expect to be able to get the job done; just don’t expect you’ll be flashy while doing it and expect to spend time unlocking new abilities and equipment.

Paying players should have a quicker and easier time progressing and managing whatever tedium the game has in store: they pay for style, quick rewards and convenience.

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