Design Implications of Free 2 Play
This is to me just one of many examples of the perverse and subtly horrible consequence that free to play and MMOs have on the game design & user experience. I put them together because both have certain fundamental genetically unavoidable properties which developers repeatedly pretend don’t exist or promise that their specific games won’t suffer from them, yet due to these innate characteristics both introduce mutations into gameplay which tend to corrupt the goal of making games fun and enjoyable for the player and into something else, a building resentment monster growing under the surface, as the games logically choose not to cater to the player’s needs and joys but rather to the constraints of their genetics.
In the case of free to play of hiding monetization and thus subtly perverting the gameplay design choices, and in the case of MMOs because even if they don’t run on a subscription model they must cater to the satisfaction of not one player but many players, and thus can’t bring the fantasies and joys of one, because they must always balance for the others not to find it unfair, which cripples them. Take for example The Elder Scrolls online, a game which i think in terms of production, content, audience and pedigree has many great things, yet even when it goes back to Morrowind, with so much potential and such a big fan-base, not just the presence of the other players trivializes the experience and contradicts the narrative told but logically also subtle design decisions made for this purpose thus make the game less fun than it could’ve been.
In the cases of multiplayer we have seen over the years some better than others solutions (Dead Island/Dying Light allowed me to play singleplayer until i accidentally shattered my own immersion by lifting the curtain and seeing others in my world destroying quests, exploration and immersion), yet in the free to play arena I see things even worse, which is why I still believe the best strategy for player enjoying their experience and developers still getting their money is simply stealing the modern “free to play” naming/PR and instead mixing it with the old demo-model, eg parts/regions which are free, and parts which are payed. This way the free parts can be designed without compromises in the experience & player satisfaction, without all those subtle perverting tweaks meant to incentivize the free to play model. Of course even doing this I can imagine differences between a bad and an excellent game as to how subtly this is done, how it takes the lessons learned in recent years from “free to play” to integrate the content in an organic way. Otherwise we end up with what I’ve seen all to many times: two radically different games hiding under the same hood, contradicting each other in design and goals.
The problem is ultimate in my opinion: you can’t serve two masters, and you can see that on many such games, having in different states two different and contradictory design structures. One which is fun, one which is frustrating. And ironically I’ve seen many tragedies where even the player who decides to pay hoping to return the game to a fun state no longer can because the design incentives are already so deeply baked into the cake that they can’t be eliminated. It saddened me but I actually played free to play games which were pretty good in parts, and I wanted to thank/pay the developers for that… but paying them broke the game in another way, and there were actually games in which it was logical not to pay the developers because you ruined your own experience. This I find tragic and perverse on both accounts, for the players as they are no longer sure what/when they’re buying, if they’re getting fun or frustration, and of course for the developers, as they put so much work/money/effort/development time and then don’t get adequately rewarded for their effort, and often due to logical consequences of their own designs.
PS: i’m playing among others Zelda: Breath of the Wild currently, and it’s a fun (if creepy) mental experiment to think of all the ways in which that game would’ve been destroyed, and all my minor complaints would’ve mutated into horrible throw the game into a junk bin, if it had been designed with free to play in mind. There too I see my theory/model being self consistent: even keeping the same amount of content, rather than pervert the whole world and experience with a free to play, adjusting the crafting/currency system and/or the monsters for grinding and micro-transactions, is to my mind a much bigger horrible evil that they could’ve done than to have the initial plateau or regions free to play but keeping the same consistent design.
So, spurred by that video, this has been a little essay of mine trying to put down my thoughts over the past years on the free to play model. I think it’s hard enough to make a game that pleases the critical players… but that task is made not just much harder but possibly impossible by in essence making what is two games, with two contradicting sets of values and design choices. I find it a huge betrayal when the final game you buy is radically different than what you tried out… and yet this is what keeps happening.
I’ve seen this many times and I’m afraid I’ll see it many times more, because to paraphrase the british tv series Hustle: people like to get something for nothing, so we’ll keep giving them nothing for something.