The Morality of Free to Play

Whenever you get something for free, it means that somebody else is paying.

Michael Arrington has an essay on TechCrunch called Scamville: The Social Gaming Ecosystem Of Hell. And he’s asking who actually pays for the massively popular social games that are taking over Facebook. You might think that games like Farmville are free to play with options for players to spend real money on buying extra assets in game if they want. And then the micropayments fund the game. You’d be right, but that’s not the whole story.

There’s also a whole infrastructure of adverts attached to the games, where players are offered in game currency for filling out forms, subscribing to unrelated services, etc. And some of these adverts are actually scams (ie. tricking people into signing up for $10pcm mobile phone subscriptions). One thing’s for sure, there’s a vast amount of money on the line here, and the scammers are likely to pay the game producers at least as well as the legit advertisers if not better. If you read the comments on the article linked above, you’ll see several from people claiming to be involved with either social networking sites or games, who comment that the offers which monetize the best are the ones which scam or trick users.

As gamers, what we really want out of the whole system is fun games. So any payment scheme that motivates devs to produce anything that isn’t a fun game is against our best interests. Still, assuming that scammers will pay well for the opportunity to have their adverts embedded in a game with in-game incentives to sign up for the scam, what does that mean?

  • In subscription MMOs, it’s been said that casual players subsidise the hardcore so devs are motivated to produce content for the casuals.
  • In some types of F2P game, the hardcore players subsidise the casuals, so devs are motivated to produce content for the hardcore.
  • In a game funded by adverts, the advertisers subsidise all the other players so devs are motivated to produce content that drives people towards the adverts.
  • In a game funded by scams, the scammers subsidise the players, and the scammers are subsidised by the gullible/stupid people who fall for the scams. So devs are motivated to produce content for the gullible/ stupid or which helps trick people into the scams. Also, some of those gullible/ stupid people are actually children (who might be expected to be less sophisticated in parsing adverts, especially if they really want the in-game currency.)

Even if you don’t care about other people getting scammed, as a gamer you might not want games to go that route. Because our ideal is always that our games are paid for by people who want exactly the same things as we do. Which probably means us.

26 thoughts on “The Morality of Free to Play

  1. I’ve been playing a lot of Jade Dynasty, a F2P Localised-Into-English-From-Mandarin MMO by Perfect World Entertainment lately. (About 3 weeks).

    It’s been an eye-opening experience, to say the least.

    It’s not that I’m not having fun – despite it being so grindy that they *give* you your own in-game, legal bot (monetised later woot!), the game is pretty, the storyline is wonderfully melodramatic, the atmosphere is very ‘wuxia’, and you can play it while afk (lolbot).

    That being said, JD *does* try to make at least a token effort to make the game playable to a decent degree without spending real cash. It’s not just lip service – but it is obviously less attractive than what you get for spending money.

    In no particular order:

    The Ouch:
    Respecs cost US$30 for a full respec. And there’s pitifully little/no in-game information as to what makes a good spec.

    The Salve:
    Levels 1-30 out of 150 (yes, you can seriously mess up your character in even the first 30 levels), give you a skill that basically allows you to one-shot, or almost one-shot, every mob you meet. This means that you don’t HAVE to put the points in that will mess up your character…once you’ve learned what they are. Because of this skill, and the general set-up, levels 1-30 go incredibly fast. (About 1-6 hours.) So if you don’t want to spend cash, and you made a mistake, you can just remake.

    The Ouch:
    Flying mounts cost 1000g in-game, and can only be *bought* at level 60, though you can do a quest to get a temporary 3-day one at level 45. The catch is, it’s near impossible to *do* that quest at level 45, unless you spend cash on a cash shop teleporting item, and get the help of a friend to use it, or you buy said teleporting item from a player for gold. If you’re female though, a male character can give you a lift and help you do the quest.

    Needless to say, levels past 45, though doable without a flying mount, are much, much more inconvenient.

    The Salve:
    Well… at level 60, you can buy a flying mount with 1000g.


    The Ouch:
    Many desirable items can only be bought *directly* by using cash, from the cash shop.

    The Salve:
    There is an in-game trader NPC that allows players to buy and sell cash-money (called Jaden) for in-game gold.


    Other observations:
    – The lottery mechanic must make money hand-over-fist, because it’s built into almost *every* mechanic in JD. From crafting (specific items), to enchanting, to pets, to… well… everything. Even quest rewards.

    – The endgame PvP looks (intentionally imo) broken, in that it turns into a ‘Either you One-Shot or the one who spends more cash on potions wins’.

    – Your in-game legal bot starts using ‘energy’ after level 90 – and I suspect that that’s another gating point where people start spending lots of cash.

    – Some people (from reading JD forums), have spent upwards of US$1000 to… evolve their pets. Pets ‘evolve’ at grades 12 and 18 – and you can ONLY evolve pets up to grade 8 without spending cash.

    – Some odd folks equate ‘free-2-play’ model with ‘free game’, which is naive. Some *really* strange folks (forum browsing nets such interesting things!) have internalised ‘free-2-play’ as ‘not-for-profit’. O.o

    – I bought a flying mount at L45. Reactions usually go this way.

    ‘Wow, that’s a cool thing, where/how did you get it?’

    ‘Bought it from the cash shop, I figure a one-off US$20 expenditure for something that will entertain me for at least 4 weeks is fairynuff.’

    ‘WTF! I would never pay money for anything in game!’ *Then drools at my mount and glares at me*

    This reaction seems particularly rampant amongst those who don’t actually earn their own cash – but this may just be a case of biased perception.

    – Because the PvE mobs are about as smart as beastly fidos, and the endgame PvP is horribly broken, *and* JD devs don’t seem to care, I gather that the game is all about making money from casuals as they level up, then leave.

    I find JD very fascinating because I can see as I play it how monetization has been woven into the very fabric of the game design… everything’s designed to get you to spend money. But intelligently, they *have* put in (mostly) alternatives that let you ‘pay’ in time… lots of it. Which in turn, makes it more likely that you will pay in cash. Funny, that. And smart.

    ^_^ Wow that was spammy. I hope even some of it is interesting and relevant to the topic.

    *Rambly nuggets ramble away leaving a huge wall of tl;dr behind*

  2. Very enlightening, both Spinks’ original post and Nugget’s comment.

    I think the best approach will be to always regard parting with money on the internet with suspicion. I wonder if some of these games are unsafe with regard to the credit card details they collect.

    • Haha! Now that you mention it, JD has that feature!

      Well ok not exactly, but close.

      JD has death penalties – for PVE, you lose 6% xp per death.

      For PvP, you have a chance to drop / lose gear if you are an ‘aggressive’ PvPer – i.e. you attack non-aggressive players, and your name turns red.

      … and so in the cash shop, there’s an item called the ‘Puppet Protector’ for US$0.30 per item, one use. When you die, and it’s in your inventory, you don’t suffer from any death penalties, and the item itself vanishes.

      …I have a feeling that Asian F2P MMOs have monetisation in their virtual blood. XD

  3. I think it’s a bit unfair to tar all free to play games with the same brush. Anyone who thinks that free-to-play games are all scams need to go play Puzzle Pirates on a green (free to play) ocean. My only complaint is that they seem a bit happy to delete characters quickly, but the system worked well.

    As I’ve pointed out before, any business model can fall prey to greed. Name changes, server moves, even faction changes are all for sale in WoW. LotRO has you paying for a download-only expansion and is offering extra character slots and storage for sale. Hell, we can go all the way back to UO who made you pony up for additional content even after you paid for the original box and monthly subscription when their first expansion came out.

    As I said above, check out Puzzle Pirates for a game that does this business model right. People shouldn’t damn the business model because we’re not as used to it yet, or because a few people have found a way to make a quick buck through scams.

    • I think we need to understand that not all F2P games share the same business model.

      I don’t see anything wrong in a model like Puzzle Pirates or JD that gets the more hardcore players to pay so that the casuals can play for free. I see nothing wrong in game companies making money — I want them to do well. But I do think it’s fair to want to know the business model of what you’re playing. Who is going to foot the bills?

      For myself, I want to know if it’s sustainable (if I like the game, I prolly want it to keep going) and, yes, if it’s moral. And I prefer games that are supported entirely by players because I think it’s the best way to end up with games that are supportive of what players want rather than what advertisers want.

      But at the end of the day, someone always has to pay. Even though the majority of players probably don’t care who pays as long as they don’t have to, there is some kind of morality involved in whether you approve of (frex) overly complex and obfuscated charging systems designed so that casual players are likely to pay more due to ignorance of how to save money (hey, it works fine for the airlines and mobile phone companies). In whether you approve of 10 year olds being scammed so that slackers can play for free at work.

      I also think this is going to be a huge and growing issue as markets for virtual goods really take off. Since the internet bubble, there’s been an odd mantra that ‘advertising will pay’ to account for free stuff online, as if advertising was some kind of magic pixie dust. But it isn’t. And no one should be surprised.

      • I think the problem here is the overloading of the term “free to play”. The culprit here are the offers that are just veiled scams, as the TechCrunch article points out. Having a game that uses the free to play business model isn’t bad. Therefore, Spinks, I think your title is a bit misleading.

        Another developer I talk with who made the game Golemizer told me that he opted not to use these types of offers because they appeared spammy in the context of the game, and he didn’t like some of the offers he saw. So, as I said, I’m worried that people will lump all these games together as being horrible; that sucks when some people are making a conscientious effort to not allow scams like the ones pointed out in the article you linked.

      • Yes, there is a real problem with the overloading of the term free. And I’m also worried that all these games are going to end up tarred with the same brush.

        Is the title misleading? Maybe, although I do think the offer issue raises larger questions about who actually pays for F2P games if players don’t. And there is a kind of morality involved in whether or not it’s right to play for free and let someone else pick up the tab anyway — only individuals can answer that.

  4. Oh definitely – everyone gets greedy! XD

    ^_^ Even my beloved Guild Wars charges ridiculous prices for extra storage slots, after all. (Which they recently lowered ‘promotionally’ to be slightly less ridiculous. Snortle.)

    I don’t mean to come down very hard on JD. I thought it would be obvious that despite its flaws, I’m enjoying the game (even though I am playing it more as a CRPG than an MMO – they don’t seem to make Wizardry anymore).

    I spent US$30 on JD total – same as a boxed title here would cost, more or less, and I don’t intend to spend any more (but they may break my will, curses!). I think that’s a fair price for the entertainment value. However, I do NOT think that spending over US$1000 on a virtual pet via their lottery system of evolving pets is a fair price for what they’re selling.

    I don’t think that JD is a scam. But I do think it actively encourages people to spend. Possibly the line is very thin… Or at least, JD is no more a scam than all those virtual casinos are scams. It could be a matter of perspective.

    I think that in terms of F2P monetisation, if JD is any indication of it at all, then non-Asian models might have something to learn from Asian ones.

    One example of a game I really like, that really IS free to play…has absolutely no (imo) real incentive for people to donate, and keep it up, is Kingdom of Loathing. I know people DO, in fact, donate – but it has not been built into the game design at all, to *push* people to pay. And I respect that.

    KoL is obviously built from love. JD is obviously built for money – but they hired loving craftsmen in the process, to make a lovely, if perhaps inordinately expensive product. Neither of these things, imo, is a bad thing. Just different.

    …but keep the kids away from the credit card when it comes to JD types. XD

  5. See there’s the rub.

    If you want anything other than a niche product (which can be great) then someone needs to pay. personally I’d rather know how much I’m going to have to pay upfront. My issue with the F2P model is that their cost are normally not very obvious when you start.
    I dislike WoW’s moves in this direction. I have paid and will probably in future again for such services as server moves but it grates.
    But I’m happy to pay for a good product. Ever since I saw a favorite software house fold and realised I hadnt bought any of their latest product….

    So I want WoW, World of Darkness, Eve and all the other things to do well so I can play them if I choose. But I also want to know what its going to cost me and make a decision if its worth it in entertainment value (Eve sadly was not worth it as I didnt have the time to invest to get a return. WoW for all I gripe is pretty cheap and beats heck out of a TV license or Sky sub)

  6. I do think it’s ironic that Blizzard is realised that casuals fund their game and is making WoW very casual friendly, and I wonder if maybe the sub payment style actually does favour casuals. Perhaps you do pay a bit more, but if it means that games are more tailored to your playing style, maybe that’s worth it.

  7. Blizzard might tailor their game for the casuals, but they charge everyone as if they’re hardcore, which makes perfect business sense because they – theoretically – profit more from the guy who pays $15 and plays for 20 hours per month than they do from the guy who pays $15 and plays for 100 hours per month.

    If they were to adjust their subscription plan and allow you to subscribe via EITHER their current $15 all-you-can-eat OR a pay-as-you-go 50c/hour plan, then they would truly be catering to the casuals. But the pay-as-you-go plan wouldn’t work as well for them, even if they did have you buy your hours in advance, in blocks of 30, for $15 a pop.

      • That depends on the definition of “casuals”. There are at least two axes; playstyle and schedule. A casual playstyle is most definitely fostered by WoW’s evolving design. A casual schedule is not, whether we’re talking about game design or business plan.

  8. I pay happily for content. I will never pay for time access to content. I’ve given money to the Puzzle Pirates guys because I played for a while as a free player *gasp!*, and felt that they deserved my money for an excellent product. I’ve given them many happy recommendations precisely because they do it right.

    That’s where the design needs to come down; getting people to give you money because they love your product and want to reward your efforts (voluntarily), not because you’ve got them hooked and they need another hit (predatory pricing to a captive audience). That’s true regardless of the business model.

  9. My problem with F2P is that it creates a classist game environment. How “good” you are at the game doesn’t reflect how skilled you are or how much time you have invested, just how much real life money you have got. IMHO that’s not a fun game to play. If you have any competitive or achiever instincts at all you either have to pay the money or lose. This why I don’t mind what WoW has done with account services because none of it has any meaningful impact on game play.

    When all I have to do is pay $5 to overcome the next boss or not lose my EXP on death…that’s simply boring. Think about it. How fun would Warcraft be to play if all you needed to do to get the Starcaller title was to pony up $20 so you could get the special boss killer trinket. With F2P the measure on in-game success is directly proportional to out of game success. That’s what I don’t like about it.

  10. Elnia wrote:
    My problem with F2P is that it creates a classist game environment.

    Some games make it that way, just as some subscription games allow you to get benefits by buying additional services. You’re making the classic mistake here that the new business model will just apply to old games. Playing WoW with microtransactions would suck and be crappy design. A new high fantasy game with classes and levels that has game mechanics designed for use with microtransactions is the proper way to use the business model.

    A well-designed game does not have to suffer from this problem. As I mentioned above, go play Puzzle Pirates to see a free to play game where buying stuff has marginal effect on how “good” you are in the game. Thanks to their currency exchange, the better you are, the less real currency you have to buy because you can sell in-game currency to buy the microcurrency. You can go grind pieces of eight to buy Doubloons to your hearts content. People with jobs, families, or other responsibilities may find that paying a bit to save some grinding time isn’t that bad.

    • It’s a fair point and one I remember reading on your blog before, where you also used the example of Puzzle Pirates. I tried to play that game and I just couldn’t get a good vibe for it; but that’s just me. Are there any other games that you think which illustrate good MT design. I certainly am open to trying them.

  11. Who cares about someone else’s in-game success? Just play the game.

    As for how it affects game balance, that’s only relevant in PvP, and a smart dev will equalize PvP anyway.

    • I’d be curious what you think about nugget’s first post about the structure of Jade Dynasty? It sounds to me like he’s enjoying the game, but someone more competitive would feel bound to spend more to get some PvP balance, just from the design.


        Ahem. *madgiggles*

        I’m highly competitive when it comes to games – but only if I know the system is more or less based on an equal, (if different) starting point.

        PvP balance is nonexistent in JD, and hence I don’t even feel the slightest bit compelled to look at that aspect of it beyond simply dabbling to ‘experience’ it and maybe get a few ‘shiny points’.

        That, incidentally, was my reaction to WoW arenas as well. -_- I was a resto druid for it. If I wanted to win (TBC), I would have to spend oh, 25 minutes pole-dancing (running around the pillars) while my dps partners tried to burn the opposition’s healers (who were also pole-dancing) down. It got old pretty fast. -_-

        Even though Guild Wars has its own problems with Flavour of the Month builds, I still find Guild Wars PvP to be more my cup of tea, in that the metagame of PvP does shift in interesting ways, forcing you to think around builds, countering counters, etc.

        Perhaps it also depends on WHY you are competing. If you are competing for the pleasure of pitting yourself against someone else (that would be the why for me). Or you’re competing only for the win, and the process doesn’t hold much pleasure for you if you don’t get that shiny win.

        I suspect the total imbalance of JD PvP is strongly based on the second impulse (which is definitely a powerful, and imo more common, one).

      • But nugget is a boys name!!!

        (Sorry nugget 🙂 ) I know what you mean about arenas, I played a resto druid during TBC and decided not to bother with them for pretty much the same reason. I really enjoyed healing in battlegrounds but the pillar humping didn’t appeal.

      • There is something to be said for the ignoble thrill of outgearing your opposition though… >.>

        Towards the end of TBC my tree was SO geared that AV was well… I could stand at the flag near the last orc bigboy (sorry, it’s been almost a year away, I forget the names now), in ?Frostwolf Keep?, and keep trying to cap it, and most of the time, I simply COULD NOT BE KILLED. Lol. Tons of resilience, HOTs and treeform for the imba win. -_-

        One particular AV I remember with giggles.

        Lock Friend (in group): zomg! she’s tanking ALL of them at the flag! Lol!

        Pallyfriend: Yeah that bear form is so OP.

        Lock: Dude, she’s in tree.


        But however sweet imba-win is *occasionally*, it’s not something I personally care to pay money for. So alas *pats JD*, your endgame PvP system has no appeal for me. ^_^ I’m sure it DOES have appeal though.

        Fear the peen of the nugget, on the Internetz, even girls, and girlnuggets, can have peenz!

  12. Who cares about someone else’s in-game success? Just play the game.

    I think this underestimates social effects in MMOs. If you talk to anyone with experience designing microtransaction-based games, they’ll all tell you that peer pressure is a very strong motivation. I.e., players will see another player ride by on a really cool mount, say “wow, I need to get a mount like that,” and then head to the item store.

    I think this is part of the reason some people don’t like microtransactions: They introduce another form of competition, based on real-world spending, into the game.

    • I’m not saying the effect isn’t there and that it isn’t prominent. I’m saying it’s idiotic, and that game design that embraces it is bad design (whether MT or sub). Buying power is bad news. 😉

      Nugget’s got the right of it. Someone who is serious about PvP as a way of demonstrating player skill will look for a balanced arena where that skill means something. The gank-countergank cycle fostered by imbalanced PvP (or in a poorly designed MT game based on buying power) just isn’t scratching the same itch.

      I believe that games with balanced PvP are the ones that last (like GW). The ones where player skill are the key have an endless source of content (different players), while those based on wide level/gear bands only last as long as someone can game the system. Ganking victories are shallow, fleeting things.

      • Moo. I don’t agree that game design that embraces it is bad design.

        I think it’s *practical* design. It’s design when you’re making a game to make money, and realise that you have to at least package it decently in order to get people to buy.

        …but then I work in advertising and we all know we have nooooooo morals! lol.

        But do I think that it’s design that makes games with aesthetic beauty and clear vision that will win hearts and become classics? No.

        It’s good for making games that are cheap (and for some, not so cheap) flings. It’s not good for making games that someone can look at and just say, Oh, wow. This game… is just so freaking… beautiful on so many levels.

        JD is a good example of the first for me (the fling). GW is an example of the second.

        It’s like these two sentences – very similar, but not the same at all.

        I do good work because I want to get paid.

        I want to get paid for doing good work.

        Peelosopickal nuggetzor strikes!

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