The video game industry has undergone several furious upheavals. Not bad for a pastime that's only had a widespread commercial presence for maybe half a century. But for all the trends that have come and gone, few have been as divisive or as rage-inducing as the free-to-play formula that currently dominates the mobile gaming market.
"Free-to-play" is a bit of a misnomer, as the format's critics are quick to point out. The game usually is free to download, sure, but things can get a bit muddy from there. Depending on the game, you may be required to spend money in order to bypass wait times, refill vital items that let you keep playing, or gear up with weapons that let you surmount challenges that are explicitly tailored to keep you from succeeding unless you pay up.
In fact, game fans with a few years behind them may look at free-to-play games and be reminded of machines from a past age: Arcade games. Many arcade titles were likewise packed with challenges that were borderline unfair so that players would be enticed into feeding a constant stream of silver into the cabinet.
But whereas twenty- and- thirty-somethings look back fondly on the smoke-holes of our childhood and smile about getting blatantly ripped off, we tend to fly into a rage when we encounter the words "free-to-play." Why are we so tolerant of one money-making method, but prepared to start a war over the other?
Remembering Good Times at Ye Olde Arcade
One of the easiest and more obvious answers is "nostalgia." Going to an arcade was an experience. It was a thrill to be surrounded by like-minded gamers, even if you had to endure cabinet-hogs, joysticks made forever flaccid by rough handling, and games that hoovered quarters by the roll.
Philipp Seifried, the developer of the mobile space shooter Ace Ferrara & the Dino-Menace, also believes we're more forgiving towards arcades because for a long time, home consoles couldn't match up.
"In the heyday of arcades, there was a gigantic gap between the capabilities of arcade machines and the gaming systems you might have at home," he says. "Compare the visual fidelity of the arcade version of Ghosts 'n Goblins to its NES port. When you were feeding these machines with coins, you were buying experiences that you couldn’t get anywhere else."
Multimedia personality Patrick Scott Patterson likewise thinks nostalgia is a big reason why we don't rail on arcade games as much as we do free-to-play games. More specifically, we look back on our arcade quarters as money well spent.
"In hindsight, that $30 a gamer spent to push through Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in Aladdin's Castle in 1993 is long gone. Only a fun-filled memory remains," he says. "However, that $30 they are being asked to spend to play a game that's right in front of them now is money they are being asked to part with in the modern day. Nobody wants to do that."
The Ownership Question
That said, irritation with the free-to-play formula is strong enough to reach beyond our rose-tinted lenses. There is, for instance, the matter of ownership. When playing games at the arcade, we never felt like we owned the cabinet (though we often wished we did own it), so getting ripped off felt less personal. By contrast, the act of downloading a game onto your mobile device instills you with a sense of ownership that the free-to-play formula may quickly betray.
"Nobody felt like they owned an arcade game," says Patterson, "but if a game is on someone's device or computer there is a sense of ownership that is going to make some people upset when they have to pour money into something they already own."
Seifried agrees. He also believes shifts in the market have made people hesitant to welcome the free-to-play formula.
"In the 80s, it was normal to pay for arcade games. For a long time that was the only way people consumed video games," he says. "Now gamers are used to thinking of games as products that we own, and from that perspective, not knowing in advance how much you’ll have to spend until you’re done with a game can feel like you’re being nickel-and-dimed, even if you’re paying less for the experience than you would if it were a paid game."
I Don't Trust You
But when talking about the automatic hatred towards free-to-play games, it's important to address the EA-sized elephant in the room: Trust issues.
As we play these free games, we tense up as we play and wait for "the wall" — that moment when we're not likely to progress unless we grind for hours, endure exasperating wait times, or pay to get past whatever's in our way. When we're proven right, we get angry.
It's an unfortunate attitude that causes many independent developers to suffer (they literally have to give their game away for free to get noticed in the crowded marketplace), but said attitude didn't develop in a vacuum.
See, most small developers try to be fair about their panhandling for in-app purchases. And some of them succeed in winning a magnanimous audience. Hipster Whale's endless crossing game Crossy Road quickly made over $1 million via video ads and in-app purchases. At the beginning of the year, the game's creators told The Guardian that they credit the warm reception to "not getting in people's faces" about monetization.
Larger publishers, however, tend to opt for a more market-tested and researched method of coaxing people into paying up for free games. Upon its initial release, EA's mobile remake of the classic puzzle / action game Dungeon Keeper contained unbelievable wait times that made it glaringly obvious the game existed primarily as a cash-grab.
In fact, in February 2014 the UK's Advertising Standards Authority determined Dungeon Keeper could no longer be marketed as a "free" game (Dungeon Keeper is no longer on the UK App Store).
There's since been a push in Europe and elsewhere to move away from the word "free." Even the App Store has replaced its "FREE" download button with a "GET" button. A controversial monetization scheme by any other name is still controversial, however.
It's all pretty complicated and headache-inducing when compared to arcades, which just prompted us to pop our money into the machines, play, and leave when we were finished.
Today's Rage is Tomorrow's Nostalgia
When all's said and done, free-to-play's shortcomings may be moot. The formula is here to stay, and it's what today's kids are familiar with. The nostalgia machine is always churning. Older generations have a hard time believing kids can derive any kind of enjoyment out of whatever's popular at the time because "TV shows and games are total crap these days, not like when I was a kid."
Regardless, that's what happens. In the '80s and '90s, parents despaired over our arcade-slumming. They saw no value in the time and money we spent with the Ninja Turtles, the World Warriors, or Cody and Guy. We knew better, and we still hold these games and characters close to our hearts.
We don't even want to consider that children today have the same kind of reverence for Angry Birds, Candy Crush, and Puzzle & Dragons. And whatever method of payment replaces free-to-play years from now, they'll tell each other, "Man, remember when we were little and we could play all these amazing games for free?" They'll give a pass to the panhandling, the paywalls, and everything else that makes today's twenty- and- thirty-somethings rail against free-to-play games.
It's all part of the mighty Circle of Life: Digital Edition.