There was a time when I thought that free to play could be okay. I mean, I thought that it would exist mostly as another option alongside traditional paid games. I also thought that free to play games would also still be designed to be games first. Well, we’ve been dealing with this model in the mainstream for at least seven years now, and I find my outlook on them becoming increasingly dismal. Not only are these games NOT made to be good games that happen to have the store, but they are in fact the opposite. Even worse, they’re so profitable that the model is now being incorporated into everything. The result, utter disappointment each and every time a game is made to be “free to play”.
Feb 7, 22 – I need to correct my statement regarding Yu-Gi-Oh! Master Duel. I said only low utility cards can be crafted. Upon further research, I’ve learned that this is not true. Any and all cards can be crafted, it’s just that it takes a lot of resources to do so.
Elsewhere on the Internet, I’ve often wound up talking about how loot boxes compromise game design for the sake of getting players to buy them. I’ve also expressed concerns about just how much emphasis is now placed on cosmetics and the ability to earn them. I’ve even gotten sidetracked into complaining about not being able to earn skins and such. That’s a problem to be sure, but it’s merely a symptom of the real problem that we should be discussing.
That is: free to play games are typically not made to be fun games, rather they’re made to be platforms for digital purchases. The entire point of the game is to get players to feel like they’re missing out and thus pressure them into spending money. The makers want us to feel annoyed or agitated, because that means their “game” is doing its job: it’s making us think about the product (cosmetics, currency, loot boxes, etc.), and the more we think about it, the more likely we are to give in and buy more of it.
Whether you’re complaining about it or singing its praises, you are thinking about it, and you’re getting other people to think about it too. That’s how insidious this is. If you engage with such systems at all, then you’re most likely going to either buy or inspire someone else to buy, and getting people to spend money is the entire point of these games. Fortnite, Apex Legends, Halo: Infinite, Yu-Gi-Oh Master Duel, Raid: Shadow Legends, the list goes on and on and now spans across every divide: genre, platform, scale and production value. It’s all the same kind of game too: the kind that pressures you to buy.
I’ve been stewing on this for awhile now, but the release of Yu-Gi-Oh Master Duel really brought it to a head in my mind. Gameplay and presentation-wise, the game looks fantastic. Truly, Yu-Gi-Oh has never looked more exciting! Here’s the catch though: it’s free to play, and it has all the free to play hallmarks. There are multiple currencies, with the main one being “gems.” Gems are used to buy random card packs, while the rest are used to “craft” specific cards (but mainly only low-utility cards used to round out decks). The game even gives you the “drug dealer taste:” a very large amount of gems for free when you first start, enough to make two, maybe three decks. After that though, you’re going to have to buy if you want to keep playing and be competitive. It’s that same insidious system seen in the likes of Raid: Shadow Legends implemented in a way meant to more easily hook players and keep them hooked through FOMO and sunk-cost fallacy.
“You don’t want to miss out on the best cards and fall behind, right?” “You don’t want what you’ve already spent to go to waste, right?” These are the questions that these systems are built to pose to their players, and you can see it in every single “Free to play” game out there. This system is absolutely not made for the benefit of the players. Rather it’s made to bring about as much loss as possible. These sorts of games are a scourge on the industry, and we must not engage with them if we want any hope of keeping them at bay. Maybe it’ll mean missing out on a hot game or two, but that’s a small price to pay to avoid being psychologically assaulted by your chosen hobby on a regular basis. Free to play games are manipulative trash, and any developer who engages in them is absolutely not your friend.
How do you feel about free-to-play games? Is it possible that they could be fixed? Do you see everything going free to play eventually?
Image © Electronic Arts, Inc., Respawn Entertainment (2018)