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On Free To Play

(Disclosure: I work at a company that makes free to play games. This opinion is my own.)

This weekend, the internet briefly went nuts again over the specter of in-app purchases destroying gaming as we know it. As a long-time gamer (I played the original Dungeon Keeper referenced in the article), I understand where the author is coming from, but the blanket vitriol directed towards IAPs and free-to-play is misguided.

The F2P version of Dungeon Keeper may nickel and dime players, but that’s a problem with the game’s design (I don’t know, I haven’t played it), not the entire business model. For every great game you pay up front for (XCOM, Dishonored, Minecraft, etc), there are plenty of games that charge $50 up front and end up being terrible (Duke Nukem Forever, anyone?). Is this somehow more ethical than letting someone play a game for free before deciding whether they’re happy putting money into the system?

Additionally, F2P enables games-as-a-service where it would have been impossible (due to financial constraints) before. I’ve personally logged hundreds of hours in Team Fortress 2 and appreciated the endless updates Valve has put into the game — if they only charged a fixed amount up front, what incentive do they have to continue supporting the community of players who are no longer paying?

It’s not all black and white. There are terribly designed F2P games, and there are games like League of Legends, or Puzzle and Dragons that are perfectly playable as a non-paying player, and provide hundreds of hours of enjoyment. There are paid games that cost $60 up front that are worth the investment, and there are others that cause deep regret (*cough* Diablo 3).

I agree that on mobile, F2P has dominated the industry which makes it hard for games like XCOM or Oceanhorn to bubble up to the top, but this is actually a discovery problem. Since the app charts are built around the most downloads and top grossing, they are naturally dominated by F2P games which can acquire more users, and make more money. On PC, Steam / Steam Greenlight / Humble Indie Bundle / GoG.com and others make it easy to discover high quality games that aren’t just ranked by top downloads or grossing statistics. If you’re on mobile, you don’t have these other outlets (for now).

As a life-long gamer, I’m excited by the future of mobile gaming. I routinely put money into F2P games (LoL, Puzzle and Dragons, and TF2 all top my list), and also buy full games (Super Hexagon, XCOM, GTA V, etc). In the long run, the most successful games and franchises will be the ones that focus on creating delight for their players, regardless of the business model.