While free-to-play is a viable business model in games, it isn’t free from criticisms stating that it’s bad for game design and a way for publishers to exploit spending habits. A Polygon editorial by DeNA European Game Studios Head and Scatter Entertainment General Manager Ben Cousins said that these attacks on the model will be laughed at and forgotten about in the future. “The attacks and criticism of free-to-play mechanics are often unfair and selective, and leave questionable but traditional business practices alone. This is snobbery, evidence that the old guard is scared of where the industry is headed.”
One argument Cousins debunked is that free-to-play games rely on the “bait and switch” tactic, where players are baited to download a game and then find out later that it’s hard to proceed without spending money. He brought up the point that the switch is ineffective. Candy Crush Saga creator King revealed that 70 per cent of gamers did not spend anything reaching the game’s final levels, while mobile analytics site Swrve said that 98.5 per cent of mobile gamers did not spend a cent in early 2014.
Real bait and switches take place in retail games and triple-A titles, where gamers pay US$60 and above up front and can’t get refunds. “Publishers often ask the press to hold reviews until the game has been released; the publisher is often trying to sell the game before poor reviews hit,” said Cousins, “Publishers routinely offer exclusive in-game content for digital pre-orders. Digital copies won’t sell out, but the push remains to lock in consumer money before independent reviews hit. Get the player invested and spending before the game is released with the promise of “rare” or “exclusive” items.”
Cousins also believes that crowdfunding Kickstarter games are worst, since developers can end up delivering a completely different game and experience, or even nothing at all. “When something is new, when it isn’t aimed at you, when it is created by strange people in strange places, when it breaks established norms and when it is becoming hugely popular… it’s scary for the establishment. The ethical critique is an easy way to fight these changes, a call to protect the children or protect the irrational people who obviously can’t like these games on their own merits. We begin to sound as reactionary as the ban on pinball or the fears over jazz music corrupting the minds of our youth.”
As we have experience playing both retail and freemium model games, there is a point to what Cousins is saying. Nowadays, publishers are doing their best to secure pre-orders, going so far as to sell a special edition that contains a lot of things except the game it’s promoting. We do hope that consumers keep an open mind to the ever-growing model, but at the same time be aware that some publishers too try their best to monetise it in the worst way possible.