Being Free To Play (I prefer saying freemium) is sure to attract a larger audience than if people have to pay before playing your game. Besides, it is not impossible to design free-to-play ethically. However, the freemium model is not without flaws when it comes to integrating with the game design.
Designing freemium ethically
When I talk about ethics in freemium games, I mainly refer to how much a game can stay fair to non-paying users. I am not talking about the morality of the game story, violence or place of women in game here; just the monetization aspects. If non-paying users don’t feel unfairly at a disadvantage versus paying users –especially in the case of multiplayer games– then we can probably deem a game ethical, at least in regards to its monetization mechanics.
Ethical AND fun?
However, being ethical and being fun are two different things
It is not hard to imagine why a game’s design would suffer from the implementation of micropayments instead of being a paid one-off purchase.
Note that I am not covering games that are demos with an option to unlock the full game for free, or even games with the option to remove ad banners for a one-time fee. Rather, I am talking about games that are designed to allow virtually infinite spending from their users.
When you make a game and you know people will pay a fixed price for it, you just go out and make the best game you can within budget. That is, if you are honest of course –because one could argue there are loads of 60-dollar games that should never have seen the light of day if the developer/publisher had a bit of decency and respect for their customers.
[pullquote align="left|center|right" textalign="left|center|right" width="30%"]If the game doesn’t make the progression fun by itself, then it might be that the game is flawed.[/pullquote]
However, as far as game design is concerned, when a game is going to be a one-time purchase, the game designer’s –and the whole team with her– only concern will be to make a fun game.
At no point will a designer think “Oh, and what if I made this boss character slightly harder, so that players can pay for revival items?”, or “What about I rearrange the skill progression tree so that this Fire skill is not available (but still unlockable with real cash) at this point where players fight countless enemies with a weakness to that element?”
Never will she be thinking in terms of “Up to how many hours or days can I increase the building time of this Town Hall upgrade without upsetting the majority of non-paying users?” or “Should I make this task so bothersome that people will be willing to spend cash to skip it or do it automatically?”
“What about offering players the chance to revive their withered crops in exchange of money? Note to self: need to make crops wither more quickly”.
No, none of these concerns –so crucial to the typical Free-to-play game designer– have to get in the way of the designer working on a paid game. All their thinking is channeled to things that will make the game actually more fun to play rather than.
I see sometimes the following argument popping up here and there in favor of freemium: “Hey, if I want to skip this part of the game, isn’t it great that I can pay for it?” to which I want to reply “Well, if the game is so great that you want to skip playing it, why the hell are you playing it in the first place?”
If the game doesn’t make the progression fun by itself, then it might be that the game is flawed.
The impact of in-game payments varies greatly from one game to another, but there is no denying that it detracts the game designer’s attention from the core experience. Freemium puts game designers in situations where they don’t have to think only about how to make a game fun, but also how to make money within that game. In other words, how to place players in situations where they will be tempted to spend cash.
There are several ways of doing this, and some games manage to maintain the fun while being freemium and without harassing players to pay.
My point is not to argue that there can’t be good freemium games, but just that by going freemium, a game designer’s attention is diverted from purely artistic or at least entertaining goals to focus on business matters.
Freemium dampening creativity
Furthermore, the need to monetize the game post download does not affect only the game designer. It can affect the whole community around a game.
Imagine if Bethesda decided to make a freemium Elder Scrolls game (“oh, nightmare!”). The Elder Scrolls series, of which Skyrim is the latest episode, are awesome games in and by themselves. However, one of the draws of the whole series is its huge modding community (literally thousands of mods available for free), with Bethesda going so far as to release a Creation Kit complete with video tutorials. Do you think we would have all those millions of amazing, surprising, out-of-this-world fan-made contents (available for free on PC via the Steam Workshop or Skyrim Nexus) if the game were freemium? Of course not, because those contents are known to break the balance of the game (that’s actually one of the things that are fun about them), which would affect the revenues expected from in-game purchases.
We could probably say the same of Minecraft, a game known for ushering the creativity of its players –aside from being one of the major releases of the last ten years.
To sum up, free-to-play can be ethical and somewhat fair, but expect the game design to be affected –and often suffer– in some way.