Reviewing free-to-play games is turning me into a nervous wreck
Let’s begin with two assumptions: Making a purchasing decision is stressful, and games are supposed to be fun. There are exceptions to both rules, including people who have larger discretionary budgets than others, and games like The Last of Us which are emotionally interesting but not always enjoyable in the “fun” sense of the word, but these two assumptions give us a good jumping off point for this discussion.
I’m finding it increasingly difficult to enjoy free-to-play games, even those that are designed well. This is most likely my own neurosis acting up, but the game becomes more stressful than fun to me, and I begin to second-guess every aspect of the game’s design. It’s like going into a haunted house and trying to scan the environment for the hidden doors where zombies and ghosts will pop up to scare me.
You don’t need to pay now, you’ll be paying forever
Game designer Jesse Schell has discussed the difference between paying once, and often paying more, for the honor of never having to pay again. I’m in his camp. When I go to an amusement park and realize I get to ride every single ride I want, as many times as I want, that’s a pretty good argument for paying the inflated ticket prices.
The reality is that I would probably pay less if I gave a few dollars for every ride, but then I’m stuck having to make that purchasing decision over and over. Do I really need to ride Space Mountain again? Should I wait until my friends tell me if the new Harry Potter ride is fun before paying? You’re stuck in the loop of second-guessing each ride, instead of just jumping on. You still have to pay for snacks and drinks, but your rides? That’s the variable, and paying per ride can stand in the way of having a good time.
When you begin a new free-to-play game, you often don’t know the location of these rides. I’m in the process of reviewing a popular franchise that recently went free-to-play, and I find it hard to relax and just play the damn thing without having this map to the monetization. The game gives me in-game currency, and then tells me what to spend it on. This is like taking a baby through a pantomime in order for them to repeat the action later. “See how good that felt?” the game asked. “If you buy some more currency, you can keep doing that, and get more stuff!” But do I need to? Will I need to? Where are the RIDES?!
Hitting a difficulty spike can make you unsure of whether the game has simply gotten more difficult and you must try harder to succeed, or if this is where you’re supposed to be putting coins into the slot in order to move forward. It’s hard to focus on the story of the puppet show when you’re straining to see the strings, and that’s how many of us feel when we play these titles.
Unsatisfied by design
The economy of free-to-play games are always designed to be unsatisfying in some way, that’s how the business works. For-pay games feature a kind of brute honesty: If you don’t pay the asking price, you don’t get to play. Free-to-play games hide their hooks in the game play itself, like sharp bones inside a nice piece of meat. It’s hard to feel like you can dig in when you know any bite may bring pain, so we’re stuck ripping the meal apart with our knife and fork to try to figure out where the bones may be hiding.
There are games that avoid this trap, such as MMOs that are free-to-play and ask you to pay for a chunk of quests. You know exactly what you’re getting, and you can
decide if the price is fair.
Games like Hawken or MechWarrior Online give you the entirety of the game experience, and then charge for aesthetic items, or buffs allowing you to earn XP quickly, or to outright buy new Mechs. These games remain fun; you know where the rides are, and it’s fun to pay to ride them. You feel like you got into the park for free.
But with this current game? I don’t know the rules yet, and I keep waiting to see when the zombies are going to pop up. I don’t want to take big bites because I’m afraid of those bones. I’m not waiting for plot twists or clever mechanics, I’m waiting for the economy to become unsatisfying to the point where I pull out my wallet.
Many readers wrote about how they avoided the free-to-play traps of Real Racing 3 in the comments of my review of that game; they had devised strategies and tricks to make the monetization of that game tolerable, and they were having fun. Beating those mechanics became part of the game to them, and that’s a strange, unexpected benefit of these sorts of economies.
But that's not a game I'm interested in playing; I wanted to race cars. Playing free-to-play games is often a matter of waiting for the other shoe to drop. Until it does, it's hard to relax. I don't want to have to figure out where the stress of the purchasing decision will be, and having to be faced with that stress on an ongoing basis is a major turn off if the monetization isn't designed well, and different strategies will bother different people in different ways.
Can't you just give me the whole thing? I promise I'll pay more. I look at the sales and revenue charts of places like the app store, however, and know that I may be in the minority.
This story contains a header image taken from this great write-up of restoring an arcade machine. Considering this a hidden Cut inside of this Feature.