The internet is awash with free to play (F2P) FPS games these days. Just off the top of my head, I can name 8: Blacklight: Retribution, Combat Arms, Alliance Of Valiant Arms, Battlefield Play4free, PlanetSide 2, Tribes: Ascend, Team Fortress 21 and Warface. A small number of F2P FPS games are okay – and, indeed, I’m treating it as axiomatic that these games aren’t the target of my ire – but for the most part they suck. I don’t like them and here’s why.
In a discussion of F2P games, it’s nearly impossible to avoid talking about pay to win (P2W). P2W is a rather loosely defined and subjective term that gets thrown around in an accusatory tone far too often. The P2W system is widely derided for good reason but very few games are actually P2W. My personal definition of a P2W game is one in which real money can be used to buy non-trivial, non-cosmetic gameplay advantages that are inaccessible to players who don’t pay. This would be considered a strict definition because it doesn’t factor in the difficulty of achieving the advantages without paying. Most F2P games allow non-paying players to obtain (nearly all of) the same advantages as paying players by grinding for some kind of in-game currency. These games should more accurately be called pay to not grind (P2NG); you pay for advantages that others have to wait in line for.
Freemium (a term that encompasses both P2W and P2NG) games often actively encourage – or, at the very least, do nothing to discourage – unbounded spending far in excess of what the game is actually worth. The model is frequently implemented in an outright exploitative fashion where companies take advantage of human weaknesses to sell vastly overpriced products. Additionally, the idea of your real world cash flow affecting your performance in a game is disconcerting; it reduces gaming to the same matters of finance that many will be playing games to forget.
I’d love to be able to say that people are ignoring blatantly P2W and exploitative P2NG games but that just isn’t the case; plenty are playing these games and as long as the
highway robbers hard-working developers have cows players to milk provide valuable services to, they will keep up their pathetic charade. I could talk at great length about how I believe the freemium model is a blight upon the gaming landscape that has the potential to ruin what we love so dearly – and maybe I’ll do so another day – but this post is about why I don’t like playing F2P FPS games.
Ultimately, whether an FPS is P2W or simply P2NG, the problem of fundamental imbalance is the same. Unless a game is particularly spectacular or has a huge fanbase, sales of cosmetic items just don’t put food on the table. No, to provide a reason to pay, significant gameplay advantages have to be offered. In order not to scare off those who don’t want to pay, the significant gameplay advantages (or, at least, most of them) have to also be obtainable simply by playing the game a lot (often a lot).
Whether they can be earned by grinding or not, the mere existence of advantages creates an inherent inequality amongst players that makes it hard to take the games seriously as shooters. I’m reminded of the streak rewards in some of the Call of Duty games, which artificially exacerbate the skill gap between beginners and experienced players. Beginners are already at a significant disadvantage because they lack knowledge and skill; emphasising this difference through contrived means (XP, skills, loadout selection etc.) is anti-competitive.
I think that often when people complain about F2P FPSs being P2W, they’re actually complaining about the fundamental unfairness of an FPS game that puts everyone in different places on the starting grid. For me, FPS games are about fair competition; everyone should have access to exactly the same weapons/classes at all times. Done right, an FPS can be as fair as it is possible for a game to be. The level of loadout inequity seen in F2P games is anathema to this meritocratic ideal and simply intolerable to those who like their FPSs fair and competitive.
Yes, it’s true that loadout inequity in multiplayer shooters didn’t exactly begin with F2P games – it was Call of Duty 4, I believe, that originated many of the ideas – but these games have taken the blueprint and stretched it to its limits. Indeed, unlike paid shooters, the F2P model actually necessitates unfairness in order to generate revenue. In both cases, I find it equally annoying but it’s the F2P sector that you can really point a finger at and say “these guys are doing it all wrong”.
If you like the idea of a multiplayer FPS that emphasises RPG aspects – subsequently marginalising the role of skill – then that’s entirely fair enough. Look, I love FPS games with RPG elements (Deus Ex and System Shock 2 are comfortably in my all time top 5) but I just don’t think those elements transfer particularly well to a multiplayer environment. Clearly, this is some people’s cup of tea but it isn’t mine. All I ask is that you don’t kill me with some OP rocket launcher you bought for $10 and then tell me I got “owned”.
My ideal loadout system is one where every player is given a choice between exactly the same weapons before or after spawning. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of the arena shooter system of pickups but it does, at least, provide equal opportunities for all, even if it doesn’t ensure equality of result. The multiplayer component of Deus Ex has the single best loadout system I’ve ever seen; you spawn and then pick up your 3 favourite weapons from the racks in the spawnroom — if you want to change them before you die, you just drop the ones you’re carrying and go back to the spawnroom.
1: Team Fortress 2 is a notable exception to almost everything I say in this post and escapes my vitriol on this occasion. Valve are, I think, somewhat apathetic about generating revenue from the game. My reading of the situation is that TF2 is a potential loss leader used to hook people into the Steam ecosystem.
Pitfalls of the F2P model
A long time ago, I wrote a critique of the F2P model, which appears in the following paragraphs. A lot of this section is somewhat hypothetical; I haven’t found a clear example of it all coming to fruition. I’m merely extrapolating from my experience with F2P games to predict what could happen to one in the long term. These are just words in a mutually intelligible order designed to provoke thought regarding the longevity of F2P games; a brainstorm, if you will. Even though I haven’t thought through what I’ve written here, I’m definitely not convinced that it’s possible to create a sustainable long-term F2P FPS.
In order for super overpowered weapon x to be worth buying, the player has to be able to perceive the difference after buying it. Obviously, if everyone else also has weapon x then this won’t happen. In other words, F2P games require a certain percentage of non-paying players. The non-paying players serve as lambs to the slaughter who make the paying players feel strong by juxtaposition. What perplexes me is why people carry on lining up to get dicked on.
Between paying players, F2P games all have the potential to become one long arms race. In order to ensure the existing userbase is being perpetually
milked monetised, new items have to be added pretty consistently. In the worst case scenario, updates will nullify the user’s prior spending simply by making his/her items underpowered by comparison. Unless you’re prepared for uncapped spending or hardcore grinding, you will always be at a disadvantage. For a lot of people, the cognitive dissonance would make it hard to back out and call it enough.
When you take these two points in tandem, you notice that one feeds the other. As the weapons get ever stronger and the discrepancy between high level players and newbies gets ever greater, where is the incentive for anyone to even attempt to play the game for free? Most people will agree that being battered and going 0 for 20 is not very fun. If the game isn’t fun for free players, they aren’t going to stick around. What happens afterwards? Well, I assume the remaining players continue in an arms race with even more pressure to buy all new upgrades so as not to be left behind in an ecosystem where the majority are toting the top guns.
Actually, one of the ways this is often addressed is by having level-restricted training grounds where newbies can fight other newbies. It works well for as long as the newbies are in training. After they emerge from the academy, however, they’re still going to destroyed by players with a much better loadout. Alternatively, developers have the option of allowing newbies to stay in low level servers for long enough to collect powerful weapons of their own. Of course, the experienced players will then be pissed off by the lack of cannon fodder in servers they can access. Training servers aren’t really effective at all.