On Free to Play

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Full disclosure: I’m in the hole for thirty quid on Planetside. I’ve turned sixty three pounds of sterling into Riot Points. I made an in-app purchase once whilst drunk.

Please don’t tell my dad.

There will be a few of these. Hear me out.

The economics of giving things away free to make money are fascinating. It’s not a new idea, loss leaders and free samples and special offers have been around since man first threw in an extra flint arrowhead with every order of crude bone club. Google’s grift isn’t really any different from the local freesheet newspaper they insist on stuffing through your letterbox every week. They sell eyeballs to advertisers, and although nobody really likes advertisers, they largely pay for the internet.

There are other ways of repackaging and repurposing the same old tricks. In video-games Free to Play is fast becoming the business paradigm of our age. It works. Lord of the Rings Online was bleeding subscribers, another young hopeful battered around the ring by the golden gloves of World of Warcraft. (Possibly it was because Lord of the Rings Online is a browny-green slog through rural shropshire where your lore appropriate epic mount is a slightly browner horse, and Warcraft is an upside-down neon themepark that lets you turn into a goddamn dragon if you don’t feel like riding your rocket motorcycle.) They went Free to Play and their revenues heptupled. That may not even be a word, but is sure is a lot of money. Free to Play saved The Old Republic and the Secret World too, even if it may turn out to be only palliative care.

But Free to Play is not only the last ditch admission of subscriberless defeat by billion-dollar Warcraft clones slathered in reheated Lucaspoo. Free to Play is the go-to revenue structure for everyone, from teeny tiny indie studios paddling in the appstore shallows, to giant MMO leviathans with server backend bills that would make Skynet rummage down the back of the sofa cushions.

Huge investments are being made, games of colossal scope and shiny triple-A sheen. Hawken, Mechwarrior, Planetside 2, Firefall. Bungie recently began talking about Destiny, a game they want to run without a subscription for ten years.

But there is a problem, a hushed up secret. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. The heresy, spoken of in forbidden whispers is this:

An imaginary machine gun is not worth four pounds.

We have forgotten the ancient wisdoms of our forefathers, who would have given us an almighty clip around the earhole for even thinking about buying imaginary machine guns with unimaginary money. Once these strong and simple men would have taken the monies from their labours, clutched in their still sweating grips, to the glass fronted temples of their age. They selected their desires from shelves, sleeved in protective plastic cases, physically incarnate in the mirrored surface of silvered circles. Even earlier, in days yet longer passed, they received whole boxes that rattled with silver-shuttered rectangles in ever increasing number, packed in with manuals and trinkets and cloth goddamn maps. Not special editions, these were the only editions, all there was to be had contained within.

Now you pay your £80 for your special edition soundtrack CD and action figure glued to a plastic plinth. Another £20 to patch the DLC they cut out back in. Maybe some in-app micropayments, for some unobtainium to craft your own machine gun. You’re buying an imaginary machine gun, and it’s flat-pack, you have to provide the labour yourself. The ghosts of your forefathers weep into a cloth map of Brittania and curse you in your weakness.

The executives and investors underwriting this all know that an imaginary machine gun is not worth four pounds, which is why they are so incredibly excited about selling you one. You can imagine the meeting with the investors, marketing profiles of geeks pie charted on the wall with a powerpoint projection.
“You know those card with pictures of goblins on them we’ve been selling these chumps?”
“Magic the Gouging or something isn’t it?”
“Yeah, something like that, but whatever. Fuck that, there’s overheads like cardboard and ink and paying artists to draw girls in metal lingerie. Now we can sell them this!”
Next slide.
“What the fuck is that?”
“That is a T1S Cycler SB Assault Rifle.”
“What the hell is a T1S Cycler SB Assault Rifle?”
“Essentially it is a number in our database they pay us to change.”
“Pay us how much?
“About four pounds.”
“Nurse! Tissues!”

The problem is the business model is now part of the game design. Worse the business model and the game design are pulling in fundamentally opposite directions. Good game design, for the most part, prioritises player skill over player wealth. A matchup should be a meritocracy. Play better: win. But how many imaginary rifles is that going to sell? The business model needs you to buy that rifle. Maybe they could sell you a ‘sidegrade’, just another option, nothing unbalanced there. But how much more tempting would it be if the rifle was just a little bit better than the free sample? Maybe a couple of rounds a minute extra here, a smidge more damage there. After all, these are our paying customers. It’s only a little bit. Tug tug tug down the slippery slope we go.

Whee.

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