Free-to-play's become a bit of a dirty word for a lot of gamers.
And not without good cause, either; mobile and social games in particular have, on numerous occasions, ably demonstrated the worst possible way to implement the model: exploiting players through unbalanced gameplay to generate "friction," which in turn pushes them in the direction of microtransactions that unbalance the game in the other direction. Pay-to-win, in other words.
However, this doesn't mean that free-to-play is a universally bad concept, and indeed there are a number of games out there that are brilliant examples of how to do it right. Valve's Team Fortress 2 is often put in this category, as are the popular MOBAs Dota 2 and League of Legends.
Now it seems that Path of Exile, the Diablo-style action RPG from the New Zealand-based developer Grinding Gear Games, can join that illustrious list. Just a month after its official launch out of beta, the game has already considerably exceeded the company's initial expectations and picked up 1.5 million unique players, 250,000 of whom are daily players.
Path of Exile's success can be attributed to two important factors. Firstly, that the game itself is rock solid, offering an innovative twist on Diablo's gameplay with a Final Fantasy X-style skill tree, Magicka-style combinable skills that you socket into items and level up independently of your character and some really neat options for competitive and social play. Secondly, the free-to-play model is completely unobtrusive -- so much so that, for once, the claims that "you can play all the way through for free" actually hold water.
Path of Exile makes use of a model that Grinding Gear calls "ethical microtransactions," you see. In concept, these are similar to the microtransactions we see in many mobile and social games -- not to mention a few entries in the Xbox One's launch lineup -- in that you purchase a premium currency with real money, then spend it on... stuff. The difference between Path of Exile and other titles that use a similar model is that the things you purchase with premium currency in Path of Exile don't affect gameplay at all: they don't give you an advantage, they don't give you a boost, they don't save you time. Instead, they simply allow you various options for customizing your experience, whether that's adding new animations or clothing options to your character, changing spell effects or making use of a new social avatar for the game's online features. In essence, they're providing you with a free, non-game-breaking gift in exchange for "tipping" the developer.
Indeed, these microtransactions have successfully funded a "significant portion" of the game's development, according to Grinding Gear, and have helped contribute to the costs of both creating new content and continuing to run the online servers. Grinding Gear is now offering special "Supporter Packs" for between $50 and $900, each of which comes with points for spending on in-game microtransactions, plus extra exclusive cosmetic effects, T-shirts, hoodies and the game soundtrack. Sales of Supporter Packs plus the already existing microtransactions are helping fund development on the upcoming "Act 4" to the game's story, which is set for release in March of next year.
Path of Exile is a fine example of free-to-play implemented in an honest, open way that doesn't exploit its player base -- and it's a great game for action RPG fans, to boot. If you haven't tried it yet, take a look at the official website or give the game a go for yourself. It is free, after all!