14 Oct 2011

Free To Play Models

I’ve been playing Heroes of Newerth for the last month or so, and it’s caused me to think a lot about the pros and cons on free to play models. The basic idea is that, instead of charging £30 upfront for a game, you release it for free, with some significant limitations, and charge for the removal of those limitations. A lot of MMO games are moving over to this model, and League Of Legends has led the way in the MOBA/ARTS (whatever we’re calling it) scene.

The one big, obvious benefit is the low barrier to entry for players, but I don’t think that’s what people think of when they first hear the words “free to play”. In fact, what we’re all thinking is, “What’s the catch?”. We know that the developers slaved for months to bring us the game, and we know that they need to make a living somehow, so straight away we’re looking for how they’re going to con money out of us this time. the idea that we pay more the longer we play, rather than pay once and forget, is what makes us think like this: there’s a level of uncertainty introduced about the cost of the game.

Paying for a game over time isn’t a new concept, of course: MMOs have been doing it for years with monthly subscription fees, all the EA Sports games charge you yearly for a content update (dressed up in a new box, of course), and gaming franchises such as Starcraft plan multiple expansions, so why is free-to-play any different? I think that it comes down to the idea that there are facets of the game that exist, but are inaccessible. The recent debates about DLC back up the theory: gamers are unhappy about portions of the game existing, but not being available for them, while others can enjoy them. The other categories I’ve discussed have a very straightforward on or off mechanism: either you play WoW, or you don’t, but in Heroes of Newerth, you can buy every hero, but next week they’ll release another, and you’ll have an incomplete game again.

I believe that free to play offers games developers with a constant income, which allows them to support a game for as long as they choose to, and I think that is brilliant. I love the idea of stopping companies from making sequel after sequel and enabling them to focus on developing original content for their existing games. When I played WoW, I was constantly impressed with how much changed all the time compared to offline games, where bugs and imbalances would linger for years. However, I do worry that S2 Games, developers of Heroes of Newerth, now have no choice but to continuously add new heroes to an already massive (above 100) hero pool, potentially resulting in an incredibly hard to balance game. It is, regrettably, in their best interest to produce as many heroes as they can, as fast as possible, and not worry about balance, because people don’t pay for balance: they pay for new things. To their credit, they’ve resisted the urge so far and have actually produced a very balanced game, but how long will that last?

Finally, I’d like to consider eSports. I think that a big factor to the popularity of conventional sports is that you can play them yourself, and then see the pros play and understand how complex and demanding the game is. I think that eSports needs to follow that model, and I think that free-to-play is a great way to do that. However, I think that adding small amounts of content constantly is detrimental to the scene in a few different ways. For the fans, I think that it makes for a difficult to follow metagame which requires a great deal of time to understand, and that difficulty actually raises the barrier to entry once again. For the players, I don’t believe that the cost is an issue, but the potential for game-breaking patches to be released during tournaments is high. I’ve seen Starcraft release balance patches right before tournaments, throwing the whole game off kilter, and I believe that in a free-to-play environment, developers are actively encouraging themselves to do just that.

This is a pretty deep topic, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. When Dota2 announces its pricing structure, I think there’ll be a lot more to think about for the future of HoN and LoL.