They’re Just Not Very Good

The rise of mobile technology has flipped the gaming industry on its head. What used to be the accepted method of producing and selling games was called into question by a generation of people who toil over purchasing a $0.99 app, but have no problem spending $4 on a cup of designer coffee. Quite quickly , the model of “Free to Play” (also seen abbreviated as “F2P” or “FTP”, which is, in and of itself confusing, since FTP also has its own meanings) became the accepted model for games, and has become (in my opinion) a sinister foreshadowing of a bland gaming future in which the experiences that people are actually looking for in their games are left out in favor of clever monetization schemes and endless, repetitive gameplay.

To be fair, I don’t think that paying for items in games through “microtransactions” is a bad idea, as long as it’s done right. Prior to the advent of F2P gaming, the entirety of a game’s reach could be contained within its “walls”, so to speak. That is, a game existed in its own space, with its own rules – its own little universe. Players would inhabit that space, entering into, learning its rules, conventions, and so on. The entirety of the game existed inside itself. Even World of Warcraft, with its subscription model, could fit in this definition, since players paid their subscription fees for an expansive, constantly evolving game world. Once the dues were paid, the door was open, and the only limit to what a player could achieve was, effectively, time. Given enough time, a player could ostensibly find whatever items he or she desired within the game world.

Then Nexon, an online gaming company, came along with a title called “Maple Story”, which was an adorable little side-scrolling RPG that could be digested in bite-sized chunks or marathon gaming sessions. Maple Story was different from other MMORPGs since it was free, and offered players the ability to pay for cosmetic changes to their characters. Players would “rent” costumes for their in-game characters, which would then get layered over their equipment, so that a player could make his or her in-game character look however he or she wanted. People did this all the time, and it was a way for players to feel more connected to their characters, since they could customize every aspect of their character’s look. Additionally, since the costumes were rentals, Nexon would introduce new looks all the time, often coinciding with events in popular culture.

As these Massively-Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) gained in popularity, particularly successful players would end up selling their items or entire accounts on eBay or other community-based sale sites. People were paying real money for virtual goods, and the game companies started paying attention. They wanted a cut of these sweet, sweet dollars that were getting sloshed around, and, thus, the F2P model was born.

See, someone realized that if players were willing to pay for virtual goods using real currency, they, like Apple, should simply make that process easier. Why go to eBay and engage in a potentially shady and illegal transaction, when you can just as easily drop $5 on a pack of gems and get some epic loot? Instant gratification, right? Except that it’s not that easy. I recently read a piece that neither condemned nor endorsed the idea of microtransactions in F2P games, and the author suggested that these “microtransactions” are a way for people to actually pay what the game is worth, that a person should pay what they feel the game is worth. There are several problems with that notion:

  1. First and foremost, the game is no longer the product. Players are the product. The game is not designed to be “good”, or to have a cohesive universe, or to tell a story. The game is designed to get players to spend money through carefully-crafted game mechanics that exploit psychological states.
  2. The price of a game is potentially infinite. Purchasing power-ups or items that perform a task or help a player’s character doesn’t add value to the game, it simply allows the player to play the game. The in-app purchases don’t make the game better, they simply make the game whole. Constantly having to pay to play a game makes the cost of the game theoretically infinite.
  3. Ultimately, these games are simply not very good. While one could make the argument that paying $20/month for a World of Warcraft subscription is far more than most players spend on most F2P games ever, the difference is that World of Warcraft was a well-crafted, intentional game with lots of care put into the design and game mechanics. Most F2P games have little to no recognizable story, little character development, and shallow mechanics 1. This renders the argument that “a person will spend what they feel the game is worth” moot, since, once again, many of these games have artificial difficulty multipliers or other mechanics that do not adhere to established gameplay mechanics and make the game artificially difficult or impossible to complete. Thus, it doesn’t matter how much the player feels the game is worth, since they cannot assess the value of the entire game; the entire game is not exposed to the player unless he or she pays an unknown amount of money.
  4. Time is not money. While some developers maintain the illusion that a player could ostensibly spend a large amount of time accruing whatever in-game currency allows the player to progress to the next phase of gameplay, 40 hours of gameplay in a highly-regarded, well-crafted game world is not the same as 40 hours of gameplay in a F2P title. The former is characterized by new experiences, success as well as failures, and (in applicable cases), and the revelation of more of a (hopefully) well-crafted story. The latter gameplay experience is typically characterized by repetitive gameplay and monotonous “grinding” in order to accrue the necessary capital to advance. A player should not be subjected to a below-average gameplay experience simply because he or she does not want to pay real currency to advance.

If we project out along this trajectory, we can see that the game worlds that developers are creating are becoming increasingly devoid of meaning. Why should a player care about any one specific game world? All they have to do is drop $100 on a pack of some form of in-game currency to acquire an item, which they can use to defeat a difficult enemy or progress past a difficult puzzle. The actual “game” becomes meaningless because the “win” state becomes increasingly defined by how much money a person has in his or her bank account. Furthermore, the game worlds that developers and designers create become less about art and vision, and more about simply driving players to microtransactions. Character archetypes become shallower, player statistics are tracked so that the game can adjust difficulty dynamically in order to create the aforementioned artificial difficulty spikes, and game challenges no longer represent tests of mental acuity, reasoning, or reflexes, but rather a combination of advertising and outright paying to win.

The future looks bleak for games.


1 : While comparisons have been drawn to video arcades of the 80s and 90s that were fueled by quarters, this idea ultimately falls flat because the machines could still be purchased and played in their entirety from start to finish if a person chose to do so. Additionally, if a person wanted to play a particular video game, the arcade was the only place a person would be able to play many of these games. The arcade owner was effectively “renting” his or her machine to the player. When a player purchases a game for any price (including $0), they should be able to play the entire game.

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