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FRONTBURNR | September 16, 2014

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The Rise of Free-to-Play

| On 29, Mar 2013

Recently, Josh Deane wrote about how micro transactions in video games could pretty much snowball into the worst thing ever. He hit an incredible amount of points right on the head but something really started to nag at me. Micro transactions in purchasable games may be the stupidest thing in the history of video games, yet there are a plethora of great games that survive on nothing but these micro transactions. Now, before you jump down to the comment section to start ranting about Pay-to-Play or Pay-to-Win titles, please understand that I stand with you on how much those games suck.

What I want to discuss is the rise of the amazing Free-to-Play category.

Last year at E3, I sat down with Khang Le, the Creative Director for the Free-to-Play game mech combat game HAWKEN. When I asked if the ability to purchase in-game currency would impact the user experience of the game, he told me that while players will purchase weapons and access them earlier, that you could still grind out the in-game award currency to get these weapons. His reasoning behind this was simple: while you may have just purchased a shiny new mech add-on, it will take you time to adapt to the learning curve of your new weapon and modifications to your mech. During this time, the hardcore players that do not wish to spend money on in-game currency will also be able to grind out for these weapons as well. However, as they do this their mech changes will be more gradual and keep the competitive field at an even level. When HAWKEN launched last December, I got to play the game and see if Khang’s vision was anything more than a pipe dream. He hit the nail right on the head.

While HAWKEN is a relatively new game to the Free-to-Play scene, their fiscal plan works great because they put the player’s experience first. HAWKEN isn’t the only game to do this as SMITE, League of Legends, Planetside 2 and former subscription based MMO games like Star Wars: The Old Republic or TERA, have all made sure that players can now pay money to enhance their experience but not gain an upper hand over other players. Games like this are bringing Free-to-Play into an almost renascence-like period and is becoming an absolute force to be reckoned with.

The major issues that the Free-to-Play genre is encountering currently is the stigma that dates back to the initial introduction of the genre. Companies like Zynga and games like Lineage II helped launch the genre but also almost kill it in it’s infancy. Lineage II was well known for it’s Pay-to-Win concept, forcing players to pay for content or items that would allow them to advance further or be stronger than other players. I played this game for about a month before I tired of the fact that the people that were spending hundreds of dollars in the game were hunting down and killing players like me that were just trying to make enough to get by. On the other of the same coin, Zynga’s Facebook games almost turned the Free-to-Play concept into a massive joke when they introduced their Pay-to-Win strategy.

There used to be this game that I used to play with my wife, Cafe-ville or something. This game forced you to actually pay money to continue to play the game past the first 5 minutes that you sit down to do so. They made copious amounts of money by continually dangling shiny carrots in front of player’s faces and forcing soccer-moms around the world to get their credit cards out to spend a little more time playing. Then the MOBAs came…



Heroes of Newerth and League of Legends exploded out onto the scene, bringing balanced game play to players without forcing them to enter in a credit card number. While interestingly enough, Newerth decided to allow players to play any of their characters for free, while Riot Games; League of Legends had significantly different plans. League decided that players would get a free handful of characters each week on loan, while earning in-game points to purchase more or taking a shortcut to get them quickly. Like Newerth, these characters can be outfitted in different outfits and looks if you have permanent ownership of them. Both games were very clear that they had no intention of letting players purchase items or abilities to get a cheap advantage.

They will undoubtedly bring something fresh and new to the market at a triple A level. Effectively launching Free-to-Play right into the mainstream.

As Free-to-Play continues to grow, so does the attention it receives. MMO games are quickly making the move into a Free-to-Play format but the next level is yet to come. Games like FireFall take note of the power of free-to-play and have scrapped their game’s build three times to make sure they give the fans what they deserve. At the begining of this year, CRYTEK announced that their subsequent games after Crysis 3 were all planned to be in the Free-to-Play category. What makes this such a major deal is that they round out the holy trinity of game engines along with Frostbite and Unreal.

I remain extremely excited to see how the world of Free-to-Play will develop. While Josh was right in his points about those retail micro-transactions, games like HAWKEN or Planetside 2 couldn’t live without them. While the topic of Free-to-Play still is a double edged sword, it may very well be the next evolution in how we access our entertainment. 

Where do you stand or Free-to-Play? Is it a highly accessible way to get players into the game or an absurd cash-grab that needs to go the way of the dinosaur? Inquiring minds would like to know!



  1. Now in my defense Mr. Knowles :) I very much support Free-to-play and even micro transactional models in my op-ed, it is merely their abuse that I see as a demonstrative bubble if not checked. I very much believe the Free-to-Play model can offer a substantial check against traditional retail models and offer more creative opportunities for developers.