Free-to-play games have risen over the years from humble beginnings to now occupying a huge chunk of the entire video game market, to the point where the most well-known game around right now is the free-to-play portion of Fortnight. But this begs the question; How do these games make enough money to sustain themselves with so many players and how do they profit?
There are many ways developers profit from offering their games for free. “Free to try” or “soft” free-to-play games are the most basic of these. A preferred method in the older industry, with games like Runescape and Adventure Quest offering huge games for free, with the option of paying for a membership which unlocks huge amounts of additional content.
While this may seem a lot like a simple demo like in the olden days, it is subtly different in that it is a method employed almost entirely by Massively Multiplayer games. This skews the developer’s design philosophies towards having huge swathes of content for players to enjoy and allows even a small percentage of this to occupy players for dozens of hours when offered for free.
In more recent times, the most preferred business model is a result of a few other models which have popped up other the last few years mixing together in a few games to create an intensely monetized homunculus. Be it on mobile or console, most high-profile free-to-play games hit the same spots when it comes to their general business model.
Such games will include a season pass, a premium currency with an item’s store, and very often some sort of “surprise mechanic”. The season pass in free-to-play games asks players to pay money upfront at the beginning of each development cycle in return for additional cosmetic and in-game upgrades while they gain progress along the season.
You must be this rich to play
Premium currencies in games are often only acquirable in return for the digits on your card. In return, the items you can purchase with them will often have some level of exclusivity and will help you stand out against other players in whichever game you play. Slightly on the darker side of this idea are games that allow players to buy powerful upgrades to get an edge over other players, like in the old days when you could just look up the latest working cheats for lots of modern games.
Usually purchasable with the aforementioned premium currency, we have the ever-controversial Loot-boxes, infamously referred to by an EA representative as “Surprise Mechanics”. These are an extra step on top of a premium currency store, in that you can no longer choose what you buy.
When it comes to buying a loot box, they are often cheaper than the potential asking price of any given item, in return for the customer receiving a random item or items. From the customers’ point of view, this often means on average receiving less than their monies worth, but with the possibility to receive something many times the worth of what they spent.
From the developer’s plinth, on the other hand, this taps into humanity’s natural gambling instinct and can encourage people to actually spend more than they would like on getting less than they hope. This leads directly to people who have large amounts of money to hand spending insane amounts of money on these “free to play games”, leading to these people being described as whales by several game developers.
Free-to-play games are essentially a way to encourage a few people to provide the funds to keep a huge game going for many thousands of people who don’t have the facility to pay. When done right, they provide brilliant entertainment for all players, with some players getting that little bit extra out of a game they enjoy. At their worst, they can be horridly exploitative and borderline evil. But either way, the existence of such a model speaks to the greatness of the modern gaming industry.