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Free To Play (And Buy To Play But Only If You Want To)

The free to play business model is suddenly everywhere in video game news from Valve's "Free To Play" documentary about the booming success of DOTA 2 to the emergence of free to play games on the consoles to the celebrated official release of Blizzard's free to play card game, Hearthstone. 

I haven't watched the documentary yet but a trustworthy source assured me that the captions work well. Kudos to Valve for captioning a internet released documentary!

The free to play business model in gaming is often scorned as "Pay to Win." Personally, my only forays into the genre were free game downloads for my smartphone. After I tired of the constant "hints" that I could speed up my progress or my progress all but utterly stopped unless I participated in microtransactions I gravitated more towards the "free but with ads" editions of the most popular smartphone titles.

However, a few games lately have made me reconsider the purpose of microtranscations in video games, particularly in the more complex PC and console titles. After all, I remember a time when we questioned the episodic releases of Telltale Games' first season of The Walking Dead.  Due to the constant and prolonged delays we theorized that the episodic business model was doomed.  Now, Telltale Games is releasing season two of The Walking Dead along with simultaneous development and release of The Wolf Among Us while two more episodic series are in development.  The gaming industry is not standing still.

Flames always look ominous, especially green flames. 

World of Tanks

World of Tanks by Wargaming recently hopped from the PC onto the Xbox 360.  The free to play game is widely popular on the PC alongside its "World of" brethren, World of Warships and World of Warplanes. With World of Tanks free and available on my Xbox 360 I was ready to try the game.  I struggled with the concept that mid-century tanks could anchor a game but a friend of mine gleefully talked about his time on the PC in World of Tanks.  

With playable tanks, the matches are slower than the average multiplayer brawl. In tank based multiplayer, the most important map characteristic is the terrain. Passable routes, foliage for hiding, and holding the high ground are only a few of the terrain based considerations that factor into the game's strategizing. Holding a designated area that is at the bottom of a valley against the enemy tanks camped along the rim is a different type of difficulty than run and gun multiplayer.   

The game is free to play with experience and Silver, the in-game currency, earned in matches for leveling up as well as for purchasing additional tanks and upgrades.  Microtransactions don't buy experience or Silver but provides Gold which is the ultimate in-game currency that is used mostly for timed access (from 1 to 360 days) to a Premium Account.  A premium account includes exclusive tanks and other goods but most importantly substantially increases the experience and Silver gained in matches. 

This screen shows a Premium account with the experience and Silver of a free to play account grayed out but still a visible reminder of the difference between a paid versus a free to play account. 

After a few battles I appreciated a design strategy in the User Interface.  At the end of a multiplayer match the familiar final screen is a statistics list that includes the experience and Silver obtained.  Unobtrusively but clearly present is both the gained experience in a free to play match versus the experience that would have been earned with a Silver account. Staring at the "lost" experience match after match slowly sunk the concept into my head of all that I could unlock with a day of Premium. Well played Wargaming.  

Additionally, Wargaming's marketing savvy is not a one hit wonder. Regardless of our personal opinion about paying separately for multiplayer gaming through Xbox Live access to World of Tanks, a multiplayer only game, requires Xbox Live Gold. However, players with Xbox Live can download World of Tanks receive a free 7 day trial. World of Tanks aims to be competitive in the console market.  

Soulcalibur: Lost Swords

I am not a Soulcalibur expert or even novice. I recognize the franchise as a known fighting game and I owned the Wii single player game, Soulcalibur Legends (an adventure game spin off of a fighting game genre with only motion controls, judge me not about my Wii collection).

Soulcalibur: Lost Swords is a free to play, single player, 3D fighter that is releasing on the Playstation 3 in April 2014 in the Americas.  The game released in Japan in February 2014.  Many details confuse me such as why a free to play franchise that is known as a fighter is a single player game in a multiplayer gaming world.

The game touts its high level of character customization with a new weapon system that binds elements to weapons for special attacks and a wardrobe that contributes towards the fighters' statistics.  As expected, the currency for purchasing new clothes, weapons, and upgrades is earned in-game in well-fought matches or purchased with real world currency.  

Yep, that is a fighter wearing only undergarments for protection against a sword. 

The unique use of the free to play model is that each character begins in undergarments.  The initial fight is a fighter naked except for the bare (pun!) essentials.  As an unreleased game here in the Americas I am unsure if this model provides quick and easy access to in-game currency in the initial levels to  facilitate players' use of the customization options rather than relying on default character builds. Or if cash purchases are all but required in order to obtain the bare (pun!) minimum in clothing. We will know soon but for now I know of and remember a game that's an exclusive on a last generation console.    

Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Phantom (formerly known as Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Online)

Ubisoft's free to play Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Phantom strives to combine deep tactical strategy with the action of third person gunplay. The game is undergoing a rebranding for its upcoming April 2014 release out of beta into its final iteration.

Again earned in-game or bought with actual money is gold that is spent on new weapons, armor, and upgrades.  In an example of a constructive dialogue amongst the players and developers, based on feedback in the beta the game altered its matchmaking criteria.  Matchmaking now weighs both player skill and gear.  This consideration in matchmaking ensures that regardless of how players achieved character unlocks multiplayer matches don't devolve into a "Pay To Win" because both character levels and gear are roughly equal. 

I am unsure how common multiplayer matchmaking factoring in gear along with character level is but the detail seems especially important for free to play games in order to facilitate fair matches.

I have to point out that I am a big fan of Hearthstone's multiplayer communication consisting of preset text messages. 

Hearthstone

Hearthstone is a digital card game by Blizzard based on the lore of Warcraft available on PC with ports for iOS and Android in development.  Recently the official game released out of its beta.  Players don't need expertise in card gaming or Warcraft in order to enjoy the game. 

With a card count of about 382 cards players collect cards by obtaining card packs with random cards and by a crafting system that requires destroying excess cards. Players build custom decks for each of the 9 Heroes for competing in casual, ranked, and arena matches.  Gold, the in-game currency is required for buying card packs and for the entry fee into the arena which is a series of matches that ultimately rewards the player based on the number of won matches.  Gold drops in-game primarily by completing "quests" such as "Win 2 games as Hunter or Mage." While real world cash buys card packs directly.   

However, buying card packs out of pocket doesn't guarantee unlocking the desired card.  Sure additional card packs results in more cards and more options for destroying cards into dust for crafting the preferred cards.  But matches require a surprisingly deep strategy.  While the cards in deck contribute to victory each player needs a variety of cards to address a range of situations.  Winning depends heavily on a diverse deck (and each Hero's default cards are gained by leveling up to level 15) and on using the cards correctly.  Players can obtain more options but ultimately winning is up to the player's skill (and some luck of the draw).

Hearthstone's microtransactions feel ideal. Minimal money ($1.50 for a pack) for a permanent gain aka keeping the card rather than money spent for a temporary power boost.

Thus I don't feel pressured to buy card packs. I can earn gold simply by winning games and no amount of real world purchases will win a game for me. In fact, in my time enjoying Hearthstone the biggest reason why I consider buying a card pack at $1.50 is not for my gameplay experience but in order to support Blizzards' efforts.  The game actually feels "Free To Play" and has no constant reminders about the option to buy card packs, the store is simply available if desired.   

Gaming is changing.  Not even discussed here are the free to play titles available on the Playstation 4 - Warframe, Blacklight: Retribution, and DC Universe Online.  The standalone, onetime $60 purchase is now one of many options available when buying a game. I don't pretend to fully understand a business model that is based on the overwhelming majority of players not spending a penny. But the latest in the free to play market shows that the business model isn't inherently evil with game breaking rewards for paying gamers. Deep gaming experiences are available with free to play games.  The game defining design is how the developer implements microtransactions.  

Thank you all again for reading! Lately, I haven't had as much time for gaming as I would like but the 15 minute increments that I can devote to Hearthstone have resulted in a pretty wicked Mage deck that can take down those overly confident Hunters. 

Are you playing any free to play games currently?

What is your favorite and/or least favorite free to play game?

Do you think that free to play games are here to stay on the consoles?

 

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