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Free for All: F2P and microtransactions at GDCO


Last week I wondered about how free-to-play would be discussed at GDC Online. After attending the event -- it was all a blur -- and listening back to my audio notes, it seems that free-to-play has reached some sort of level as a standard pricing option for a modern world. It could have been the fact that many of the developers at the event are making browser-based, iPhone or Facebook social games, but the word "subscription" came up rarely.

Blended models seemed to be the runner-up. It appears that all the older companies -- the Turbines, SOEs and other western companies -- just cannot let go of that sweet, sweet subscription cash-flow. Can you blame them? It's a good deal for many, and it could be argued that without that subscription, many players would be turned off.

Does all this talk of free-to-play and microtransactions signify some sort of change in quality or style of game? No, not really. It's my argument that things are different in only one way: quality has gone way, way up.

Let's pause a minute and take stock of how much quality has gone up. I am not referencing only one type of payment model here -- I mean to say that all sorts of games are set to blow us away (if they haven't already). Look at SWTOR, with its voice-acting and massive lore. We all know that the IP alone will pull in a good number of people and that the developers could potentially create a game that will last for many, many years.

Or take a glance at Pocket Legends. We have been fans of the game since it came out. Now you can travel from one map to another, buy killer-looking appearance items and gear from the cash shop, and purchase content packs as you see fit. While it is not a graphical powerhouse, it can be carried in the palm of your hand. It's as much a full-fledged MMO as any other -- with no obvious sign of shrinking.

If you walked the floor of the expo, you would see many smaller games that are in production or early release. I actually found out about three new titles for reviewing! I stopped by a booth that was filled with eight or so independent student works, each of them fighting for an award. I was slightly stunned at the graphical and systems-design quality of the work, but I shouldn't have been surprised.

"Of course, this could all stem from the fact that they are making money, or could make money, or want to make money."

All it takes is a look back over the last decade or two to see how quality has risen. This is a natural occurrence. It happens with most of the products in our lives: tires, televisions, kitchen utensils -- everything improves as long as humans have anything to do with it. Video games should be no different. While MMOs can sometimes aggravate us due to their lack of innovation, there are many examples of amazing games that are doing things we never dreamed of.

So, what does this all have to do with free-to-play and microtransactions?

I think that, like anything, options breed quality. It's akin to a robust population of creatures spreading out over the land. Over time, the weak ones die off and the strong ones survive to reproduce -- and so does variety. As more and more Western gamers realize that free-to-play is not a bad thing and that microtransactions can actually be very, very convenient without crushing some kind of "old school" set of values, more games are made using the model. More free-to-play games means more information about what works and what doesn't. Allods' cash-shop "issues" are a wonderful opportunity to gather information, good and bad, about selling virtual items.

The only prerequisite for the gathering of this information is pure honesty. We have to be able to talk openly about microtransactions and free-to-play models without using language that sounds like it's referencing some kind of torture. We must establish facts like "no one is forced to buy anything" or "if you don't like that game, you can leave it for another." All of our discussions and actions, if used properly, can create a stronger world of MMO development.

The developers at GDC Online seemed perfectly fine with free-to-play games and microtransactions, and the presence of those payment models didn't appear to be up for any type of discussion. There were no debates (at least, none that I saw) about the devaluing of player achievements, or about old-school payment ethics. I saw no one give a speech about how spending two days waiting for a spawn was good design, or about the demand for less choice. Everyone seemed to mostly be in favor of as many choices as possible. Of course, this could all stem from the fact that these developers are making money, or could make money, or want to make money. For all I know, free-to-play is one giant scam -- and I am a sucker. It didn't seem that way, though.

The convention is great for the fact that it's generally just developers talking to developers. I took some time to visit Brasse's community talk, and inside I found probably 10 or so community managers from different powerhouse games, as well as many people I didn't recognize. It was thrilling to hear them ask each other questions and to give each other advice.

The same was true in the free-to-play discussions. I watched as a LotRO team member chatted with Spacetime Studio's Cinco Barnes about how brilliantly another game's cash shop worked, and how both of them could benefit from the example. While it might sound like I am describing an organized wool-pulling convention, it felt more like an open conversation about how to make customers feel comfortable, how to make items worth buying, and yes, how to make money from those items. After all, making games is a business. To sum up, I think GDC and free-to-play are pals now. My memory hardly allows me to compare it to last year, but I think the theme is still obvious -- everyone's doing it, so why not try it in your game?

There is one issue, though: free-to-play is the great equalizer. Remember when bands would have to go to a studio to press out CD demos of their work to hand out to potential radio stations and record labels? Now they record it on their handheld device and email the MP3s. The absence of a box price and digital distribution have allowed smaller games to get into the hands of players much more easily than before -- players now have myriad choices. So those multi-million-dollar IPs have plenty of competition. No amount of fancy graphics or promising CGI trailers can compete with engaging gameplay. Look at the phenomenal success of Minecraft to see an example of a game that has done very well -- virtually from nowhere.

This is good for us as consumers, for sure, but developers of subscription games need to tread carefully. The choices are out there, and most can be enjoyed for absolutely nothing. While most of us will gladly pay for a quality experience, we're even happier to get that quality experience for free.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!

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