In this article, I will delve deep into the business model of free-to-play video games. First off, "There's no such thing as a free lunch..." Now that we've got that out of the way, let's discuss some patterns and traits found in free-to-play video games.
If it's free-to-play, how can they afford to develop the game?
Well, as I said above, there's no such thing as free. Anyone selling you free has gotten the money to pay for it from someone else, or is planning on getting the money out of you later on. The latter is the driver for all the free-to-play video games that I know of. Free-to-play video games typically allow you to install and begin playing the video game without any purchase and sometimes, without any payment information on file. Once you install and start playing the game, they present you with options to use your real money to "enhance" your gaming experience.
Most free-to-play video games create a virtual currency that exists within the game. This currency is then used for all the game "enhancing" features, and can be "exchanged" for your real money (dollars). They do this to obstruct your ability to equate the value of something in-game to real-world dollars by adding a level of abstraction. So instead of thinking, "Is this fun game feature worth $7.84", you think, "Is this fun game feature worth 80 super-rubies? ... I don't know, because I can't remember the super-rubies to dollars conversion..." It's completely legal and very understandable for a company to try to ease every loose penny out of your pocket. But I think it's downright dishonest to blind the player to the real-value they are getting and exactly how much they are spending. It's a dirty diversionary tactic.
Once you decide that you can't continue to enjoy this game until you purchase some "super-rubies" (or other fake currency), you click the "get more" button next to the "super-rubies" price. What follows is complete disappointment. You land on a page where you can't buy the exact number of "super-rubies" that you need. You need 80 super-rubies, but there are only packages for 15 for $7.99, 75 for $27.99 or 150 for $49.99. See what they did there? You have to go through many hoops to buy the exact amount of things that you want. They do this on purpose to create the "# of hot dogs vs. # of hot dog buns in a package" conundrum. This is yet another tactic to get you to spend money, and hopefully (they think) to get you to buy more virtual currency to even things out. Not the most straight forward method to pay for "fun", is it?
Another interesting situation that arises from the free-to-play games is the separation of real-world economic classes. Where premium games usually have a flat-rate subscription or box cost that is set specifically to get the most purchases from all classes, free-to-play games set the absolute "fun" status of their game with a higher price tag, allowing the wealthy to have more fun than the poor. One could argue that people can spend as much as they are comfortable, or argue that the upgrades do not effect gameplay, but when certain packages can cost in the hundreds of dollars and be spent immediately to boost a players progression, looks, and overall "fun", people who are poor or unwilling to spend that much are left with the short end of the stick. In such cases, it's very easy to see the difference between players who have a higher disposable income than those who don't, within the game.
Thinking of Ways to Inconvenience You
The goal that most free-to-play game creators share is to find things that entice you to pay. This is just as fine as the next idea, however, it almost always resorts to: "We built this really fun game. Now, how do we make it not as fun or convenient, so we can sell them convenience/fun?" Or in other words, how do we make the game suck enough to compel the player to pay for it to not suck. I think that's a down-right rotten mentality for game development, and any time you play a free-to-play game, you can feel the premeditated level of inconvenience they are inflicting upon you, all for the word "free".
In this age of freemium sites, software and games, I'm beginning to want to return to the old-fashioned model of just paying a fixed fee to play a game, be it a subscription or a box cost. "Premium" at least offers the comfort of knowing that you're getting the best that someone can do, for a price you can understand. That is "more fun" to me.