Titles such as World of Warcraft reaped the benefits of a steady subscription fee for years. But in the past few years, we have seen a change to “a la carte” subscriptions, trial periods, and microtransactions. Of course this has been spun into a positive by publishers, but at what point do we cross the line into being suckered out of every penny in our wallets? How many customizable hat packs are too much?
Many subscribers bemoan Free to Play (FTP) because it brings an influx of novice players into the fold. Others (like myself) dread microtransactions, as they predict what ridiculous customizations and items that devs will come up with to fish every dollar out of players pockets. A game that feature battle hardened warriors, intimidating weaponry, and solemn narratives can give way to hordes of purchasable pets, useless emotes, and other silly items. Why settle for a sub-par experience when you could have constantly updated content for a flat fee and never think about it?
One such title, and that which I have most experience with, is Star Wars: The Old Republic. This Bioware title began with a monthly subscription fee of $15, this of course after the $60 pricetag. This was a price most Bioware and Star Wars fans were comfortable with paying, yet as their subscription count waned, free to play was adopted in an attempt to bolster numbers. This strategy has worked in their favor, creating a reliable, lasting source of income for Bioware. But it has had a huge impact on the game itself and has undoubtedly changed the games direction.
After allowing my subscription to end just once, I experienced the pain of playing under the new FTP conditions. Little things that subs never really notice and take for granted were stripped away from me. I could only have one row of hotkeys, I could only have 350,000 Galactic Credits, I could no longer color match my armor, and a myriad of other obstacles were placed in my way. Now these are in no way anything substantial, just minor details, but oh were they missed (especially the ability to sprint). This instilled the sense that I was being bullied into paying money. In an age where many gamers feel entitled to more content for free, I have no problem with paying for quality. The issue lies in the illusion that most games create, that you can have an enjoyable time for free, when you really can’t. Imagine being invited over a dear friends house for dinner, yet once you get there, your silverware is taken away and every time you take a sip from your glass you must wait for a cooldown timer to run out every 15 minutes unless you pay up, all while you watch others enjoy themselves limitlessly. Don’t put out one image when you’re delivering a different experience.
Another free to play title I frequent is Path of Exile, which I find to be a prime example of what a free to play title can be. This Diablo esque isometric dungeon crawling RPG delivers a quality experience at the low cost of $0. Players are not incredibly limited, handicapped, or subject to restrictions, although those who wish to put down some greenbacks are rewarded with aesthetically superior armor, more inventory space, and other perks. The difference here is that the armor available with real world money is not game-breakingly superior to free armor, and FTP players already have sufficient inventory space. At no point do you feel strong armed into paying to enjoy yourself further, or feel inferior because you haven’t given into the microtransaction beast.
You may be reading this asking “What is your alternative then?”, and that is a valid question. There are too many criticisms without alternatives floating around the internet when it comes to gaming, so here is mine. Stop stripping players of small features that ultimately annoy and bully players into paying money. Create meaningful content that people want to buy because it genuinely adds value to their gameplay experience, not a new emote or hat. If players were allowed to immerse themselves in your game world, the one that brought tens or hundreds of team members together to make the game in the first place, why wouldn’t they want to pay to stay? Have faith in your title and don’t dress it up with more flashy lights and in game pets.