In a time before the Internet, you could play a digital game only if:
1. You hauled your pocket of quarters to the arcade so you could make progress on that one impossibly difficult game.
2. Your parents took you to the video game store and dropped $50 on a console version of that impossibly difficult arcade game so you could play it at home.
3. You saved your allowance, bussed yourself to the video game store, and dropped seven weeks’ worth of cleaning the bathrooms to buy that game yourself.
4. Your friend already dropped money on that game, so you hang out at their home until your parents arrive to peel you off of the TV screen.
(… right?! You know what I’m talking about, fellow children of the ‘80s.)
What these examples have in common: money was required up front. “Pay to play,” as it were.
What a “free-to-play” game is… and is not.
Free-to-play games turn that whole INSERT COINS TO CONTINUE scheme on its head: no money is required. Just download the game without a credit card and you’re set.
Here’s where it gets confusing: free-to-play (“F2P”) isn’t exactly a “free game.” There are limits to the game itself until you pay in for additional levels, new objects, hints, superpowers, and more.
The best free-to-play games are high quality no matter if you decide to spend money or not. They’re built to be fun and to grow their community of gamers – so extra love is invested by the developers.
Why play (or create) free-to-play games?
There’s something in the gamer soda. Free-to-play games have been picking up steam since the proliferation of online gaming in the early 2000s. What is it about this gaming model that gets both players and developers excited?
Gamers have nothing to lose
Hours of blissful entertainment… for free? Why not? And with most free-to-play games being so easy to access, this is a no-brainer. Download games in minutes on your mobile device or simply go to a website and play a flash game without software. No credit card required.
They’re more likely to be more fun
Okay, before you send me angry mail on this one, hear me out.
In pay-to-play games, the developer gets paid up front for their work—they make more money if they get additional players to buy the game.
In free-to-play games, developers aren’t promised a penny as gamers enjoy their work. Here they’re incentivized to make the game more fun – they’re not going to get paid unless they motivate you to invest in premium content. Therefore, developers are more likely to include fun and addictive experiences as early in the game as possible.
(Do you agree or disagree? Let me know what you think in the comments below.)
Low technological barriers
You don’t necessarily need to own an expensive gaming setup for free-to-play – just a mobile device or an Internet connected computer will do.
Big-budget “triple A” titles rely on the most sophisticated technology and cutting-edge graphics to sell you on the game—often on expensive consoles. With free-to-play games the bling is in the game mechanics, not the technology it’s played on. And with mobile devices outnumbering consoles, there’s a far larger market of gamers for free-to-play developers to tap into.
Photo Credit: Johan Larsson via Compfight cc
Developers love free-to-play games, too
It’s not just the gamers having all the fun – game developers love making free-to-play.
An increase in free-to-play demand has opened opportunities for independent mobile developers. The low technology requirements encourage more developers to get on board and see how their game is received. (A little marketing and community development can go a long way here, too.)
The free-to-play model lets developers take more risk with fewer repercussions. Since the game is free to begin with, piracy is far less likely than with pay-to-play titles and their intellectual property is protected. The opportunity for ongoing revenue is pretty dang tempting, too.
What makes a great free-to-play game
Gamers: here’s how you can separate the wheat from the chaff. The good “free-to-play” from he mediocre.
Developers: take notes.
1. It’s… well, free. Otherwise it’s a pay-to-play game, and that’s a whole ‘nother conversation.
2. You can play through the game without pitching in money. Levers such as difficulty, time, bonus content, and capabilities incentivize you to buy, but there’s nothing more frustrating than hitting a pay wall after you’ve invested your most precious resource: time.
3. Opportunities for payments are passive when you’re playing but obvious when you’re buying. Sneaky transactions and annoying disruptions like pop-ups make for a grating gaming experience. Integrated upgrade opportunities that minimize distraction and maximize gameplay earn trust and great ratings.
Speaking of ratings…
4. Well-designed gameplay still applies. Like pay-to-play games, free-to-play games rely on word-of-mouth recommendations and online ratings. It’s tough to get positive ratings if the game has as much thought behind it as a dairy case filled with juice.
No one should feel like they’re getting an inferior gaming experience because they didn’t shell out the cash. For example, gamers who can’t advance because they’re pitted against better players with purchased credentials can be frustrating. Free-to-play games should get you excited to try new dimensions of the game, not solely player-to-player domination.
(Developers, consider a tiered ranking system that pairs players at similar levels. In-game currency can be used to purchase items that advance their ranking. This gives gamers something to work toward without the frustration, whether they decide to advance with money or with time.)
The key to success is simple: make the game fun, payment or not.
Enjoy the game? Give back.
Free-to-play games are so alluring because they’re free. No moolah necessary. Instant entertainment at a low, low price!
But someone with skills (maybe even a whole team with skills) is behind that masterpiece.
As the gamer, my first reaction to the free-to-play model was suspicion. “Get me to download a free game only to pry money out of my wallet later? Yeah, just try to pull a bait-and-switch on me. I don’t think so.”
Combat strategy game Clash of Clans was recommended, and before I knew it, I was addicted. The immensely well-designed environment incentivizes me to pick up my iPhone and check in on my clan throughout the week – no money required.
After a few weeks, I realized it was one of the better-designed free games I’ve played. The developers took a chance that their free-to-play model would work. Buying an in-game upgrade was the best way to reward them and the best way to say “thanks”.
My two cents: If you like what you see, vote for free-to-play games with your dollar by pitching in for premium content. (And if you’re not hell-bent on that upgrade, just think of your purchase as investing in the next release.)
Free-to-play game ideas
Looking for a place to start your free-to-play game obsession? Here are a few ideas from Big Fish Games. (And if you’re a Game Club member, you can save 30% on in-game items!)
Genre: Hidden object game
Part survival story, part adventure, and part puzzle game, unlock the secret of a tropical island while looking for a way out.
Genre: Casino games
One of Big Fish’s original free-to-play games, Big Fish Casino has the classics all in one place.
Genre: Action game
Swipe your finger across the screen to chop up fish and become a sushi master! (And being a Japan fan, I love the inspired graphic design.)
There you have it! What free-to-play games do you enjoy? Let us know in the comments!