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The Hidden Cost Of Free-To-Play Games

Free to play game fortnite sells vbucks to buy cosmetics

Free to play isn’t free 

Ever heard the saying, “nothing good in life is free“?

This is true for the most part and especially so when it comes to the gaming industry, now you might be saying to yourself “but there are lots of great Free-to-Play games on the market”, and you would be absolutely right.

The problem is that free* in this context almost always comes with an * attached. 

Today we are seeing an explosion of Free-to-Play titles from big AAA publishers with multiple F2P titles released or in development, this new resurgence in the Free-to-Play model was most probably heavily influenced by Fortnite, a F2P title that has made over $10 billion since its release a few years ago. 

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Now hold up a minute, how can something free* make more than the entire GDP of some countries? The secret behind this success is a very open secret, it’s not free at all.

The costs are just hidden or presented to you later once you are invested in the game, after all….

….The First Taste Is Always Free

At first glance, Free-to-Play games seem to be a harmless and even convenient alternative to the usual $60 to $30 game. however, players drawn in by its nonexistent upfront price tag are perhaps forgetting one thing, that these cost the same amount to develop and took up valuable company resources like Pay-to-Play games, this is why the “free” on the price tag should be taken with a grain of salt.

Before delving into why publishers choose F2P, let’s look at how these games nickel and dime you into spending money on microtransactions. 

There are three main ways that developers monetize their product, the first and least harmful way is… 

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Free-to-play game Warframe's cosmetic microtransections

1. Cosmetic Microtransactions 

These are perhaps the only truly acceptable form of microtransactions and gamers tolerate these systems because it’s a way to get the base gameplay and progression for free, whilst also leaving an avenue for the developers to make money.

However, the problem is that games usually come with other microtransactions bundled on top. An example of microtransactions done ethically would be Warframe, which has a mostly cosmetic-based microtransaction system and is often pointed to as microtransactions “done right”.

Free-to-play game Harry Potter selling energy to keep playing the game

2. Pay to Progress faster 

Moving on to more insidious forms of microtransactions, time gates and difficulty spikes are used to frustrate the player into paying money. These systems are most common in mobile games, with systems like “energy” which is used up each time you play and must be refilled using microtransactions.

Another way that progress is gated is by making the game unreasonably grindy with days of work needed for something that can be bought for microtransactions instantly, these systems are actively harmful to the gameplay experience and the players themselves but are nevertheless commonplace in the industry.

A standard Gacha pull in free-to-play game Genshin Impact

3. Gatcha systems (and Lootboxes)

This is gambling….

No seriously, this is just straight-up gambling, and as always with such things, the house always wins.

Gacha games are a mainstay of Asian gamer culture and are now making their way over to the West. These games at their core are built around getting players to spend money, it’s literally in the name “Gacha” which means “got ya”, and by “got ya” they mean they “got ya money”. 

The obvious example of a Gacha system would be Genshin Impact, which is just basically a Gacha system with a game built around it, to get an idea of how insane things can get , players have reported spending over 15000 dollars on pulls (as in pulling the lever on a slot machine).

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The scary part is that Genshin Impact is actually one of the better Gacha games out there and it gives players a full free experience on the side that can be played without spending money, most Gacha games are not like this and require you to get high level pulls to progress in harder content.

Monetizing Addiction 

Whether we like it or not, the fact remains that free-to-play games (and most paid games these days) are psychologically designed to get you to spend. Some of the ways they do this are truly terrifying and dystopian. 

Ever wondered why you have to buy what seems like a dozen fake in-game currencies to actually buy items or pull the Gacha wheel? This is to separate the association of real money with spending, it’s easier to rationalize spending 6000 gems on a game instead of $60, even though these are both valued the same. 

This sort of monetization takes advantage of the same addictive tendencies used by casinos and actively encourages the formation of gambling habits, this might be tolerable if it were only adults who play these games but unfortunately, a large portion of players are children, children who are more vulnerable to developing these same addictions at a young age.

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The New Normal

“it’s not gambling, its surprise mechanics” was the flimsy excuse given by a corporate lawyer during the hearings over Electronic Arts use of loot boxes, this was one of the very few times that a company has been held responsible for their predatory monetization, this is a whole other crazy story and you can read more about it here, but the sad thing is that this is the exception and not the norm, EA only got caught because they got too greedy and made its systems too obviously similar to gambling, most publishers get away with it buy keeping their gambling aspects more low key.

Now that microtransactions have gotten to this point, we got to ask ourselves if we should have stopped this trend before it took off, it might well be too late as game publishers have come to depend on them for most of their income and most games are microtransaction heavy “live services”.

But just because it might be a lost cause does not mean we should stop fighting back and let this happen to our games, speak out with your words (and more importantly your wallet) so that these practices don’t become the new normal.

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