I really want to enjoy games that are “free.” I mean, wouldn’t a life where my primary hobby is playing games be better if I was playing games that were free? Unfortunately, free games have other costs, so much so that as soon as I see “free to play” mechanics I delete whatever I just downloaded. Why do these mechanics fall so short? You can bet I’m going to go on and on about it.
A standard console game runs off of a simple principle: you pay some money, put the game in your console (or download it to the console hdd for fancy new systems) and you play it. Seems like a simple and fair system to me. For a lot of games that include micro-transactions, this is an acceptable way to do things: the micro-purchases entitle the buyer to cosmetic items or conveniences that make life better. These are totally reasonable things to sell: not having them doesn’t reduce the quality of the game. Cosmetic equipment, additional bank storage space, or infinite use gathering items in Guild Wars 2 are all excellent examples – the game isn’t impaired by not having them, but they can enhance the experience.
Both of the above examples are just fine (buying a game or buying non-vital items), but the vast majority of free to play games aren’t interested in either of those purchase mechanics. The typical F2P experience relies on pay/time gates. They don’t want to sell you a game or a modification to an experience; they want to seek you the option to continue playing. This sounds just fine, particularly to those of us that grew up dumping dozens of quarters into the arcade at our local pizza place or bowling alley (actually, I would have spent more quarters at the minigolf’s D&D cabinet if it was closer, or the X-Men brawler if there was one nearby, but that’s neither here nor there). There’s a trap here though, and a large distinction should be made between a coin-op arcade cabinet and a free to play “game.”
An arcade title is designed with a simple concept in mind: it will go into a public place and attract the attention of people who will come over and spend money on it. The game has to be a fun experience, or you’re incentivized to go spend money on a different game (or just stop playing). The problems games face in an over saturated market (the App Store, in particular) are a bit different. Unlike an arcade game, where your potential customers have limited time, games on mobile can easily be given large amounts of time (assuming it comes in small bits). These games don’t need to be fun, though. They just have to be fun enough. Fun enough to keep you spending just a bit of time on them. Generally, they do this by removing any skill based mechanics. It becomes either about luck, or waiting, and that’s where the difference lies and the trouble starts.
In an arcade game, the difficulty can increase as the game plays out because there is the expectation that the player’s skill will increase. This means that the experience will be relatively fair: things get harder, but not to the point where the difficulty is artificial and exclusively designed to cause players to spend more. (Side note: for the record there are some arcade games that function more like F2P titles than you would expect, and they tend to die out very quickly. I’m not ignoring that they exist, but the unwillingness of arcade gamers to spend money on them means that they are functionally irrelevant for what I’m talking about here- unlike F2P titles, which get away with it).
F2P games don’t rely on real difficulty – they rely on unfair mechanics that cause you to spend additional time/resources in an effort to continue forward. It’s actually pretty devious, to be honest. The game starts out with a mechanic that takes time to perform, or a challenge that must be overcome within a certain number of lives (which regenerate slowly in real time). At the start, the game doles out content at a reasonable pace, but eventually a wall is hit. The game gets the player invested in its mechanics, and as the player increases in level/rank/ depth into the game, the difficulty of performing a task (or the level of unfairness, or the amount of time involved in waiting) quickly goes well beyond what the player’s resources at that point can handle. Relative to the game, the player actually becomes weaker as they progress, rather than stronger. At this point, the originally uninteresting in game currency starts to look good. Well, at least that’s the idea.
When a game starts selling me the ability to keep playing it because it has hit the point of being unreasonably hard (disclaimer: I’m pretty aggressively mediocre at games as a general rule, but I’m decent enough to assess what should reasonably be expected of me), that’s where I draw the line. Honestly, at this point it’s not even really a game any more: skill is no longer a factor, just my ability to pay (unlike the arcade, where it’s both, unless you’re sufficiently skilled). The first couple times I fell into this trap, this was the point where I realized I didn’t actually have any fun playing the game – it had just kept me busy. I’m not saying there can’t be fun to play F2P games, just that they haven’t come my way yet. These weren’t games where playing them felt good, nor did they have some worthwhile story to tell. They just were.
Now, I watch out for free to play titles in general. Any sort of apparent stamina mechanic results in me not even downloading the game. If there’s any sort of in game currency, I give it a go, and delete it when it stops being fun or stops being fair, whichever comes first (a lot of the time, that’s as soon as I start). I also watch out for anything that requires eternal connection to the game’s server in order to play: this warns of unfair multiplayer more often than not. That, and phone batteries are pathetic enough while playing as it is, server connection aside.
If you enjoy the slog of F2P titles and don’t mind grinding against that eventual unfair wall without spending, more power to you – your gaming experience is now free. For the rest of us, there’s a simple solution – put your money where your mouth is. Buy a game that’s fun, bite-sized, and doesn’t expect anything out of you beyond an initial purchase. It’s only by funding good design (and not trying to bleed out the wallets of your customers is good design) that we can ensure it will stick around in easy to get places. You know what, go buy Downwell. It’s worth far more than three dollars and rewards you for improving your skill, not for paying. That’s the kind of game we need on the app store, and the only way to vote Is with your wallet.