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Free computer games? – Hardly.

The latest trend in gaming- and we are not talking pastels and bob hair cuts- has to be F2B – FreeToPlay. F2B are free games distributed free-of-charge via developer’s own platforms or websites; however, what is hidden behind the word “free-of-charge”?

League of Legends, Eve Online, Team Fortress 2, World of Tanks, Spelunky, Candy Crush Saga, Hay Day, Farmville, and lots of other games have made big hits during the past couple of years – AND helped developers scoop money despite the games being free to the public. Free games have become a billion dollar business. In this post we look into what you pay for when playing those ”free” games.

Free 2 Play

F2P encompasses games that provide immediate access to the entire game-play without having to pay out of your own pocket.

League of Legends
Abandon all faith ye who enters

League of Legends is one of the most popular games right now; 27 million unique individuals log in on a daily basis, and then they spend an hour or two (or 10 hours) in this gaming environment. However – and how I wish this wasn’t true – developers are not in the business in the act of pure unselfish deed. Money talks, and RIOT (the company behind League of Legends) talks in capital letters.

The game is free – completely free – you can download and play the game as quickly as your internet speed allows; and the entire game is available. No hidden fees, extension packages or other dodgy stuff. Unless one would want some bling-bling, or one is a tad impatient! Inside the game one can upgrade their characters using bonuses or looks via the game’s built-in shop.

League of Legends 3
In case you would want your dangerous man-eating crocodile look like a dangerous man-eating crocodile – with fire.

The currency of the game (influence points) is earned by doing battles – you earn a little extra if you win, else payments are pretty stable. However – and here RIOT have been quite clever – you can circumvent the slow pace in your battles for in-game “pay” by entering your credit card information and clicking “purchase”.

But hey – is it not then a paid game and no longer Free 2 Play?

Yes!! And No!!

You do not have to pay for anything in League of Legends; it just makes everything a bit more comfortable if you do. It it exactly from the little buy-ins and micro-transactions the secret lies behind the game’s financial basis – it is so easy to entice people to buy “just a little bit” since the rest of the game is free. All of the sudden, you may find that you have purchased “just a little bit” a fair number of times, and you end up paying almost full price for a free game.

 League of Legends 2

What is important to notice is the fact that a lot of the buy-in treats are purely cosmetic, and can be accessed with free (play-to-earn) currency rather quickly. The advantage of paying for content in League of Legends is by all means pretty small and mostly cosmetic. Thus, developers speculate in the fact that players possess an explosive cocktail of vanity and impatience.

Conversely, there are other games where developers do not concentrate on players’ goodwill or propensity to upgrades; other places you can pay with real money to become (significantly) better.

Pay to win

Imagine that you play lots of hours – hundreds of hours – in order to achieve the best piece of equipment in a given game – let us call the equipment the Judgement Day Hammer. You spring right into your adventure believing that right now you have reached the top of your digital world. – In a snap, a totally new player comes along and wins your mutual battle thanks to his Judgement Day Hammer-on-Steroids-and-Speed which he bluntly shows off. His steroid-version of the Hammer is bought by cold cash and so, gives the opponent an unreasonable great advantage; it is not fair nor fun – but it is effective.

By this business model – Pay to Win – gaming developers create sort of a distortion of the balance within the game in which everybody can pay their way to get better; or at least, better than the ones who do not pay. This creates an unspoken demand that although the game is free, if you want to keep it fun and you want a fair chance at winning, you need to make cold cash purchases.

When Battlefield 4 hit the market in 2013 players noticed that the game’s best weapon available-to-everyone to a large extent was inferior to the buy-for-money weapon. The weapon that cost real money could be acquired for only 10 DKK, so fans of the game bought the weapon without giving it too much thought. Shortly thereafter, small packages containing extra equipment were launched, and true enough; in most of the packages, there would be a piece of equipment – a helmet, a bullet proof vest, a gun – that was just a tad better than their free counterpart. A lot of players complained but bought the packages anyway since they had already invested in the game itself, and perhaps one or two packages of equipment. That investment would to some degree be lost if “everybody else” had better helmets, guns and so on.

 Battlefield 4 - 2
149 DKK for Battlefield 4? That’s not too bad. 199 DKK for the deluxe package with extra equipment? Well…

Battlefield 4 - 3
AND you just have to throw in another 319 DKK to get access to the ENTIRE content of the game. Total: 469 DKK (however, you’ll also get “Bonus Battlefield Battle Packs” containing new weapons…)

This way, EA – the company behind Battlefield 4 – very quickly had players pay for not only the game itself (up to 500 DKK) but also spending several hundreds extra; a razor sharp economic business model as long as people go along for the ride and do not complain too much. It is worth noticing by the way that basically all of EA’s releases (including FIFA and so on) provide opportunities for people to buy great advantages; often for a significant amount of money. Just sayin’…

The expression “Freemium” also applies to games in which you pay extra to have the entire game (premium) available.

Pay to play – NOW

The past couple of years have witnessed a new flourishing of crummy games; casual games. Farmville, Candy Crush Saga, Smurf Town and so on. Games that excel by not actually being fun, but still are better than doing nothing… What is problematic with free games is the fact that their platform (facebook or mobile interface) often already communicate with your credit card; either via Google Pay, the Google Play shop, App-store and the like; it becomes extremely easy to buy this and that – often just a few clicks away. Developers’ “trick” then consist of letting players receive lots of content and rewards early on in the game, and then later offering content, bonuses, and rewards only to the extent that you’re tempted to spend those couple of extra bucks.

  Farmville
You don’t want to wait on the next downpour? Pay your way out!

All the small amounts naturally add up – and the need to buy only increases as the game progresses.

In Candy Crush you start out with 5 lives – you lose a life every time you do not complete a given level. This is not a problem at the beginning of the game as people race through the first 30-40 levels. After that it gets tougher. If you lose your 5 lives you will have to wait 30 minutes to receive 5 new ones. Since the levels become more and more difficult as you progress in the game, and you also become more invested in the game the more you play, the easier it is to decide to pay your way out of waiting. Simultaneously, when difficult levels are deliberately inserted into the game along with information that you can buy “boosters” (that will help you with a level) after a few attempts for a small amount, it can be tempting to buy. Again, it is a razor sharp business model as long as people fall for it.

  Candy Crush Saga - 2
Make your game-play a little easier… for 13 DKK.

Candy Crush Saga - 3
Or receive 5 more lives for just 7 DKK.

Free at a great cost

Unfortunately, free games and digital products are rarely free. Sometimes you get a light-version, other times you get ¾ of the cake, else the product is just a loan. It is of course utopia to demand amazing gaming experiences for no money but especially regarding mobile phones and micro-transactions it may be a short route from a pop-up buy-now button to a reasonably sized bill. It is important to beware and know what you really pay for, and decide whether you are willing to do it again, and again, and again, and…

In some cases – League of Legends – you pay a one-time fee for some unique content (how the man-eating crocodile should look like). In the case of Candy Crush Saga you strictly pay for not having to wait for the next game. If you choose to pay for 5 lives in Candy Crush Saga one time, it is likely that you will do it again. As a starting point, I’m an opponent of Pay to play – including the win-models; however, how you spend your money as a buyer and consumer is of course for each person to decide. Still, I want to encourage that you reconsider if you want to engage with a game that is tailor made for speculating in basic human needs, and taking advantage of impatience, curiosity, and so on. The invisible and overlooked expenses in games such as Candy Crush Saga, Hay Day, Clash of Clans and so on have been made to drag the most possible amount of money from as many people as possible; consider one extra time if it really is worth your money to stack hay or play Four in a Row with yourself. In many cases you may end up paying full price for a free product.

(In a later post we will analyse and discuss which mechanisms are in play when you need just one more round in Candy Crush Saga. Stay tuned!)

By former employee Christian Mogensen

This article is originally posted in Danish.

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