Why Free-to-Play is a Toxic Strategy

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Almost every Free-to-Play game I’ve ever picked up has managed to disappoint me.  Whether it’s League of Legends, No Room Left In Hell, Firefall, or Blacklight: Retribution, I’ve always come out of my experience with F2P games feeling like so much more could have been done if they instead launched with a tried and true price tag.

The underlying thing that all F2P games have in common is the need to profit without a price tag , and that leads to a whole new world of problems for game designers.

Probably my worst experience with a F2P game was with No Room Left In Hell.  While I’m sure some people manage to enjoy this game, it’s obvious that a lack of funding has severely limited its potential and made it a buggy, half-baked game that I couldn’t have uninstalled fast enough after playing a few matches.  Conversely, Path of Exile is a fantastic game that, despite being F2P, managed to greatly impress me for the few hours that I sunk into it.  But it always felt like if the developers of PoE had some more money to utilize, it could have been much better.   Likewise, a game that obviously has a lot of potential, but will also likely fall victim to a lack of funding, is Firefall.  Everything about my time with Firefall was enjoyable until, 10 hours in, I ran out of new quests to do and the game effectively “ended” for me.  A game as good looking, well made, and fun to play as Firefall is easily worth $45 to me and it’s a shame that the developers are stuck with the F2P model they started developing the game with, as it’s likely they might never finish it because they haven’t found a way to make back the cost of development with it yet.

With Blacklight: Retribtuion, it’s clear that spending money is really the only way to get the weapons you need to win gunfights.  While $20 bucks, some googling, and a bit of playtime is all it probably takes to get a solid class together in BL:R, not doing so is akin to playing Call of Duty or Battlefield 4 with the worst weapons in the game and with a character that has less health than everyone else.  This is what’s referred to as “Pay-to-Win.”  BL:R represents the worst kind of F2P game, and it’s truly a shame because it’s a fantastic game that’s ruined by rental weapons and paid unlocks that are vastly superior to anything someone who hasn’t dumped hours and hours or cash into the game has access to.

League of Legends sits on the other side of the spectrum.  While there’s nothing inherently P2W about it, it’s designed to get players hooked on the game’s ecosystem and content specifically to get them to invest hundreds of hours and money into it.  What makes LoL so popular is that its skill ceiling is incredibly high and changes with every major patch.  To be a valuable player in LoL requires several if not hundreds of hours to rank up and unlock runes and mastery points that augment your base attributes to the extent of tipping the beginning of each round slightly in your favor.  Ask any player who’s hit level 30 in LoL and they’ll tell you that the game is brutally frustrating until you hit level 20, have unlocked a handful of runes, and built up your mastery trees.  By then, you’ll have most likely bought new skins for the champions you like as well as new champions to play with simply because staring at the same content for hundreds of hours gets boring quick.

This is why there aren’t many game modes or levels in LoL: to keep you craving different aesthetics.  The end result is a game that’s incredibly difficult to get into and learn which results in the general player base constantly getting recycled and inundated with unskilled players.  This is, partly anyway, why most gamers and even LoL players think it’s community is so unnervingly toxic to itself.  New players are a constant source of frustration because each player’s performance matters greatly in every match, which encourages more skilled players to ostracize any unskilled players they might come across.

While it’s undeniable that LoL is a massively popular game, it has a toxic community and a severe lack of diversity in gamemodes and aesthetic options outside of paid content or content that takes a massive amount of playtime. Similarly, games like BL:R essentially make getting that mountain of playtime more frustrating than fun unless you augment it with paid content.   For as good and challenging a game as LoL is, it could be so much better and offer so much more to learn if it wasn’t so held back by the developers trying to bore you into buying new things to look at.  Questioning whether or not P2W is good for gaming isn’t even possible, it’s painfully obvious that it’s bad in the long run.

Overall it’s clear that the F2P business model has yet to be married perfectly with player-first game design.  Whether it’s a lack of features, content being withheld, or an experience purposely designed to put new players chances at doing well behind a paywall, the F2P model has yet to be implemented in a way that allows for enjoyable casual play without opening your wallet first.

So, to F2P game designers, I ask you: what’s the point in a F2P game if it’s designed to make you feel obligated to pay for it not because it’s fun or well made, but because you have to if you want to have any chance of appreciating or enjoying it?

Alex DiFiori
Writer - Editorials
I've been a gamer since before most gamers were born. Now a full-fledged member of the PC Master Race, I'm enjoying all the best games from both AAA and Indie developers in glorious 1440p. Praise Gaben and may the Steam deals be ever syphoning funds from your life savings.