Free stuff is always good, right? Not in Gamer Land, apparently. Free-to-play is so derided that it has repeatedly been called a “cancer” on the industry, despite the fact that it’s minting it for many developers who might otherwise just not exist. Free-to-play is so hated that when team Fortress 2 was made free, one of the chief complaints was that now the riff-raff could play.
Free-to-play games kicked off in the 1990’s, when internet culture was just starting to blossom. Casual browser games were among the first to adopt a “maybe you’d like to pay for some extras because you are time poor or money rich?” model. Some memorable examples include Runescape, MapleStory and Neopets (which seems to be in trouble now, by the by).
Thereafter F2P really took off in South Korea, Russia and a couple of other territories dramatically under-served by the west, and continues to mint it hand over fist in those regions. The amount of money these titles started bringing in naturally attracted the attention of the rest of the industry. Experiments abounded, and continue to this day; Riot Games seems to have nailed it with League of Legends, but EA cancelled Dawngate and Command & Conquer before full launch.
There are so many success stories though, both in the west and internationally, that free-to-play isn’t going anywhere. Many hugely successful mobile, social and casual games are free-to-play, and most MMOs, unable to compete with the few remaining subscription titans, have found great success by converting.
One of they key factors in free-to-play’s abiding unpopularity among a vocal subset of gamers is how the business model is implemented. It’s a hellishly delicate dance. Be too generous and you’ll make no money, because most of us will go to the wall rather than pay for anything we can get any other way, and there are only so many whales to go around. Be too stingy and you’ll be seen as ripping players off with pay-to-win schemes. Even Riot and Valve have been accused of shenanigans, and the new wave of MOBAs will surely come under fire if they use the same business model.