The Free-to-Play Model and Why it Works
If you’ve been a gamer in the past decade or so, you’ll be familiar with games that hit the market free-to-play, generally with microtransactions, or purchases you can make in-game for mostly cosmetic items, such as character or weapon skins. These games can get backlash for seemingly being money sucking addictions, but these games aren’t just quick cash-grabs a lot of the time. There’s work put into them and the ones have been out for a long time now have continuously updated their games to keep it fresh. So, despite being free, why does this work?
The answer is simple: people like free things and games are no different. While you have the choice to pay for things in-game, you don’t have to and can absolutely unlock everything in each game by sinking time into it. Now, for this specific example, I’m looking at games like Apex Legends, Fortnite, Hearthstone, and League of Legends. The reason I’m using these examples more specifically is because there have been plenty of free-to-play mobile games that purposefully lock things behind paywalls that no amount of playing for free can get you. So, why does it work for Fortnite or League? Because the in-game items are really there for people who play very regularly and want to spend money making their experience more unique. Now, before you say that this is a dirty business practice, remember that all the essentials are entirely free. Cosmetics are cool, but they aren’t necessary to play the game. So, why would people spend money on a free game? Another simple question to answer: they enjoy these games and want to put money into them.
On top of that, people are more inclined to spend money on something they haven’t already spent upwards of $60 on. Let’s say someone plays Apex Legends for 8 hours a day. They’re already spending a lot of time in the game, and they really love what the game offers them. So, they buy cool things like skins for their weapons, limited items, or the seasonal battle pass to get the most out of their time. They can do all of that and spend less than $60 for the game. Indulging is easier when you can do so without the threat of a large purchase, but that can also open up a can of worms. Addiction is still a factor to consider here and with a lot of drama surrounding loot boxes and how some countries outright banned them, it’s hard to advocate for a system like that. If you’re easily addicted or are a gambling addict, then you should steer clear of games like these, because they can easily pull you in and not let go. However, I’d argue that phone games are much easier to just sink money into because of the more predatory nature of them. There are a lot of phone games that are made to just generate money and don’t have a regard for things like gameplay. They just want you to sink money into them so you can progress quicker. Don’t get dragged into something like that.
Now that I’m done going off on that tangent, let’s continue. Talking from personal experience, I’d say that when a high-quality game is free-to-play, it does pull me in much easier. I can explore what a game has to offer regardless of whether I’ll like it or not, and I don’t have to risk money on it. That being said, I’m not opposed to spending money on the ones that I really like. It’s natural to want to support game developers and invest in something you like, and I don’t feel shame for doing so, as long as it doesn’t become a problem. I do admit that I’ve fallen prey to one game that took a lot of my money when I played it. I was hardcore into Gears of War 4 (which wasn’t free, mind you), and they had a loot box system that took the place of the series’ previous unlock system. I can’t even count how much I spent on the game, and I don’t ever want or intend to do it again. Just consume games with microtransactions with caution and pace yourself on what they have to offer.
Some really big games make this system worth the money with high production value and solid games as foundations. But play them for the game and if you love the game, then buy something every now and again, but don’t go overboard. These systems work because people like to get cool things in games and free-to-play games know how to play to that better than any other game type. Don’t let them take advantage of you, but also don’t be too afraid to dip your toes in and have some fun. Like everything, these games are best in moderation.