Free is Never Free: The Economic Politics of Free-to-Play Games, and Why I Hate Them

by Kristin Bezio


So I was chatting with a colleague the other day, and we got on the subject of free-to-play games. He plays them and pays for them, and I play them and don’t pay – interestingly, we both hate the model with the burning passion of a thousand fiery suns (well, maybe only fifty to a hundred suns).

So for those of you still living in the dumb-phone dark ages, free-to-play games are games that are ostensibly free to download to your favorite device (computer, console, phone, or *pad), and which do not limit your gameplay capabilities in terms of time or quantity of levels available… mostly. The catch with free-to-play games is that they require you to make a decision about your time and your desire to progress in the game in terms of the age-old time-versus-money equation. If you want to progress faster, you have to cough up some small micro-payment between $0.99 and $2.99. Otherwise, the game very generously allows you to lose hours and hours accumulating what you could instantly have for the low low price of $0.99.

Let’s go with a concrete example or two. My colleague plays The Simpsons: Tapped Out. The game has two forms of currency: money and donuts. Money is earned through gameplay – characters, buildings, and minigames (like spinning the holiday wheel) earn the player virtual money to spend on things in the game. Donuts can also be earned through gameplay, at a rate commensurate with the progress of a very excited glacier. Cool things – characters, buildings, etc. – cost donuts. Donuts may also be purchased by the dozen for $1.99, or, for the big spenders, by the “boatload” (2,400) for $99.99. Yup, there is a price-point for one hundred dollars’ worth of virtual donuts, which means that at least one person has done it.

I don’t play Tapped Out. I do, however, play Plants vs. Zombies 2: It’s About Time, in which currency comes both as money (like in Tapped Out) and keys. Keys unlock new levels, new plants, and new “worlds.” The player starts in Ancient Egypt, but has the ability to unlock new worlds, including the Pirate Seas, the Wild West, and the promised Far Future. Players can earn keys by playing, but they can also skip the “grinding” (playing levels over and over) and purchase access to new levels (some of the bonus levels can be unlocked for $2.99). New plants and other abilities can also be bought instead of earned, which of course makes playing more fun because the player has more “powers” and cute zombie-related animations to watch.

On one level, it seems like free-to-play games – which are, after all, free – should be this amazing thing. People who can’t necessarily afford to drop $20 to $60 on a game can easily download and play something on the bus or subway on their way to work or get a game to entertain their kids that won’t be a hit to the wallet when the kids become bored with it two days later. And there’s certainly something attractive about that.

In some ways, free-to-play is also positive for the industry as a whole. People will try games for free that they wouldn’t try if they had to pay and up-front cost of $20 or $10 or even $5. They will download Tapped Out or PvZ2 and play, and maybe they’ll then decide to pay for something. And – as the $100-boatload-of-donuts suggests – people do spend a lot of money on these games. In a way, free-to-play games allow people to pay what they think a game is worth. Or so the argument goes.

Now I don’t have a problem paying for games. I do pay for games, regularly. I even pay far more than I should for collectors’ editions and DLC. I even go out of my way to buy games new rather than used because I know that the developers make nothing (that’s right NOTHING) from used game sales, and I want to support the people working in the industry because they’re overworked and underappreciated.

Ideologically, however, I object to the hidden nature of the free-to-play model. Because here’s the thing: free-to-play games are a nefarious way of conning players into spending far, far more money on a game than they would if they’d purchased the game outright. I paid $20 for Plants vs. Zombies, and it was a cost that was well worth the hours of entertainment I got out of the game. By this point I could easily have spent twice or three times that amount on PvZ2, if I had been spending money instead of grinding to get access to zombie pirates and zombie sheriffs. The problem is that these costs seem small, meaningless, microtransactions that disappear the moment they’re made. Except they don’t. Those $1.99 and $2.99 and even $0.99 purchases add up very quickly, especially for those players who have gotten into the flow of their game, and dismiss the nominal amounts as “nothing” just to push through to the next level.

Now if you’re a millionaire, you can afford it. No big deal, please, continue to drop hundreds of dollars on a “free” game. But the problem arises when the people making those purchases aren’t millionaires or even middle class. These days, everyone and their uncle has a smartphone (often an iPhone… which I won’t drop the cash for) and everyone wants to be able to take a little time out of their day to de-stress by playing some Angry Birds.

And here’s the other half of the problem. It isn’t just that the players are “stupid” for spending a lot of money in microtransactions. The problem is that free-to-play games are only satisfying for a limited amount of time. After a few hours or days (if you’re lucky), free-to-play games stop feeding the player’s craving because the rewards trickle to an all-but-standstill. In order to get the same satisfaction from the game, players have to invest real money in it – disturbingly enough, much like an addiction. After the initial levels, the game requires the player to drudge through the same maps, the same things, over and over for hours or days to acquire what they could gain in an instant by giving up a dollar.

People aren’t wired to want to spend hours just for a few moments of progress. Our psychology and instincts tell us that NOW is better, and free-to-play games are designed – specifically designed – to take advantage of that. And it seems to me that the people who often need the de-stressing “fix” of a quick game are often those who don’t have the time to invest in a longer or larger system ($250-$500) or a new AAA game ($60-$90). So the people who make minimum wage, who have an iPhone given to them by a family member or that they need to keep track of their kids (and got for free with a two-year contract), they’re the ones who psychologically benefit from that burst of fiero gained by spending a dollar here and two dollars there on a “free” game. And they’re also going to be likely to download a free-to-play game because, after all, it’s free.

I’m lucky enough to be able to own a console, a gaming pc, a *pad, and a smartphone. I can afford $60-$90 for a game once every month or two. I can consider buying a new system to play more games, and, in part, that’s the reason why I have the luxury to refuse to pay for free-to-play games. I don’t need to get my fiero fix from PvZ2 because I can go home and play Skyrim or Mass Effect, and so, for me, the decision not to become involved in microtransactions is easy because I can fulfill my gaming desire with something else.

Really, free-to-play games are like check-cashing places. They’ll give you your fiero fix for a nominal fee so that you don’t have to consider the large sums that come with most gaming systems and AAA games. But, really, they ultimately end up costing you so much more – they keep you spending money on microtransactions rather than macro-transactions, and in a low-income situation, they can in fact keep someone from ever being able to afford something bigger and better by slowly and invisibly sucking away their gaming capital.

If I’m going to be honest, I don’t think that many people have been bankrupted by free-to-play games, and our country certainly has much, much larger economic concerns than the introduction and spread of the free-to-play market. But I do think that free-to-play is one of many symptoms of the American tendency to choose short-term cheap over long-term value which hurts us all in the long economic run.


Comments (2)

[…] Although I know the title makes it sound like I’m about to start spouting platitudes about freedom and serving one’s country, this post over at TLF is actually about free-to-play games and why I find them so infuriating and pr…. […]

F2P games are basically like gambling machines: they exist to get you to pay for stuff, rather than to provide a good game playing experience. Sometimes those two things can overlap, but that sense of getting screwed over ruins it for me.

This is one of the problems of this new exciting age of “free.”: companies have to find new ways to monetize things we’d normally pay for, and the results are often not pretty.

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