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Free To Antagonize

Developers, for the most part, have a healthy relationship with gamers. Aside from the Mass Effect or Tomb Raider controversy here and there, it’s mostly they make the games that we want to play, we buy them, they get feedback, and so on and so on. It’s functional and, at its core, the very essence of capitalism, not to mention occasionally playful (appropriate, given the medium).

There’s been a turn of late, however, that betrays this casual dalliance of give and take. It’s a rising fad that apparently has no intention of leaving us be and likewise has no impetus to even change course, and that is free-to-play—or F2P—games.

The structure itself is harmless enough. The bulk of the game is free and, often depending on the studio and the genre, certain elements will cost money. Sometimes you’ll pay to unlock additional characters or locations for a dollar each and other times you’ll pay money over and over again to reduce some arbitrary energy bar or timer so you can continue playing for the day. One of those is fine and the other, well, not so much.

Paying for additional content has long been an accepted practice in video games. Ever since expansion packs, it’s been a welcome notion from gamers that shelling out additional money for things that operate on top of something you already own is perfectly fine. In modern times, the scope of these extra bits has reduced slightly, but the idea is the same: you like this thing, so we’ll give you more of it.

The problem, of course, arises when the content isn’t “additional” and instead becomes “ancillary.” It’s fun when the developers lock away new hats or character skins behind pay walls, but when the best class or weapon is similarly relegated to those with the money to play, it’s dirty. We feel cheated and it, for lack of a better word, sucks. Straight up, it just shouldn’t be done, and for the most part, it hasn’t, but every once in a while a Battlefield Play4Free will crop up and boy is it gross.

It’s a fine line, though, between necessary and perfunctory. Spaceteam, for example, is a recent iOS game that has people shouting nonsense at each other in the same room as they try to escape an exploding star in their spaceship. It also has things you can buy in its store like new characters and console skins. But there’s also the ability to buy a thing that starts you off at stage 10 for 99 cents. Once you get familiar with the game and those that you play with, the levels prior to 10 become somewhat of a chore. However, skipping them is not vital to the game. It’s just a nice little thing that the developers recognized would facilitate the play of more advanced players. Not vital to the game, but nice to have.

The bigger issue arises under the energy model. Simon Parkin wrote up a very nice thing about it over at Hookshot Inc. a while ago that explains its problems and differentiates it from the arcade model, but it breaks down into this: you have an allotment of a certain resource in an F2P game. It could be energy or fuel or whatever, but mostly everything you do consumes a portion of your reserves, and when you run out of this stockpile of petrol, you can’t play the game anymore. That is, unless you wait it out for a few minutes or hours or days, or if you pay money to refill immediately and get right back into the fray.

This in and of itself is frankly a gross design practice because it’s quite simply poor design. It is essentially a punishment for playing the game that both you and the developer would wholeheartedly like you to be playing and enjoying. Game design, for the most part, centers around player and game feedback. If you do something good like shoot a bad guy, you should be rewarded. This usually comes in the form of collecting some loot or progressing some story, but it should make you feel good regardless. If you do something bad like shoot a friend, you should be punished. You can be reprimanded or docked some health, but the game should tell you that what you did was a no-no.

So then when an F2P game punishes you for no reason other than playing the game, it sets up the logical flow of I played the game and I was punished, therefore I shouldn’t play this game.

But when you get punished, your obvious instinct is to avoid repeated retribution. That’s just being sensible, so when the game offers you an out to not be penalized such as paying money to get back to playing, it only follows that it couldn’t hurt to do so. What’s the harm of spending a dollar or two if it stops you from being harassed?

The harm, unfortunately, is it changes the dynamic between the developer and the player. The items-based model of buying guns and customization options at least feels like shopping, but the energy model creates a meta-game of the developer trying to outsmart and trick the player. In Final Fantasy: All The Bravest, this manifests itself in an early boss battle that, from what I can tell, is impossible to beat the first time; you simply don’t have enough dudes. Each of your guys dies in a single hit and you gain one back every three minutes. It’s a wall that is only surmountable by waiting a really, really, really long time, or by paying money.

This is an elevation of the energy problem because it’s no longer about simply restricting you to a countdown of action or time but instead becomes a toll bridge. Normally, this scenario is a toll bridge versus a slightly longer route around the ravine, but now they’ve purposely lined the detour with barbed wire, mines, and bloodthirsty, mine-proof tigers. The cooperative relationship between us and them has turned into an antagonistic us versus them. Trick, cheat, manipulate; anything to coerce you to walk down the path most desirable to them and not to you.

It’s a situation made worse by the fact that F2P games are no longer free-to-play but still have the in-app purchases that make up most F2P games. FF:ATB actually has the audacity to cost $3.99. That’s four dollars for a game amounts to little more than seeing how fast you can swipe your finger along your iPad. And then it still wants to charge you money to play once you’re in the game. Fieldrunners 2, an otherwise decent game, now has a similar problem. It costs $0.99 and houses a rather insidious difficulty spike that becomes impossible to overcome without spending more money.

Then again, it’s not like player psychology is easy to work with. There’s no easy way to get over “this is a mobile game” hump in most people’s minds. These same games that would cost upwards of seven dollars on Steam are suddenly prohibitively expensive at two dollars in the App Store. Sometimes IAP are justified as tip jars when the free components warrants it, but predicting that is next to impossible.

Developers need to make money, though. That is part of that relationship cycle we’ve established with them as the consumers of their games. So somewhere along the line, we’ve broken that circle, too, albeit at the behest of the free-to-play model to begin with. Nothing is as egregious as some of the practices established or tested in the F2P realm, but it needs to be understood that businesses need to make money. Maybe all the kinks haven’t been smoothed out yet, but the video game industry is an ever evolving one. Maybe one day we’ll figure out how to monetize free-to-play games without insulting either the player or the people that make them. Or maybe we’ll just get back to paying for an entire experience all at once up front and skip the nickel-and-dime stuff altogether.

Or maybe we’ll just forget that Final Fantasy All The Bravest ever happened. God willing.

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