Free to Play always leaves a dirty taste in my mouth. My first experiences with the genre were when Facebook games like FarmVille starting popping up all over the place. Extremely aggressive monetization schemes push me away – like a used car salesman I guess. Some games have done pretty well by it, like DDO, where the proper game is solid and you buy more content for the game as you progress. I like the concept of a free trial and buying modules; that makes sense. What I don’t like is a game like TOR where you are given the entire game for free then nickel and dimed to get access to content not ever actually owning the content. Mind you, reports are pretty strong that lockboxes are keeping the game afloat since nearly every single update to the store includes a new lockbox package.
I am assuming I’m not alone in this distaste as the F2P genre is in the middle of a rather significant upheaval at the moment. Zynga is all but dead, iOS/Android apps have monetization barriers, Cryptic is taking a new business model, TSW is seemingly on its last legs and Planetside 2 is suffering from fairly massive player drops.
Take this with some salt but I see it a lot like the days of DAOC, EQ and UO, where choice was the prime determinant for games. You like PvE? EQ. You like PvP? DAOC. You like sandboxes? UO. You like a mix of them? Too bad. F2P has such a glut of gaming choices today that no sane person is going to play your crappy game and give you money when the next game over gives a much better experience for the same cost. If you like goblins that jump on pogo sticks and wave chickens, there are bound to be 2-3 games that can offer it.
A prime example of this new paradigm is Path of Exile. As I’ve mentioned in the past, the game provides an extremely full and rich quality experience. There are plenty of F2P action RPGs either out or coming out, but I can’t think of a single one that provides the depth and customization that PoE gives for free. Think of your typical loot based game where you have crappy loot and great loot. PoE gives you the ability to upgrade the worst loot in the game to be better than anything that can drop, if you roll the dice properly. Since the game is barter-based, there are no gold sellers. Micro-transactions are all convenience based since you can’t outright buy power due to the fore mentioned gear customization. One of the smartest moves they’ve done is to target a niche and under promise and over deliver on their product.
I can see this as the future of F2P, heck online gaming as a whole. Scope your target audience, budget accordingly, get the core requirements and systems down pat, communicate it with the audience and then deliver a bug-free, polished experience. There’s just no way today that a new IP can come out of the gate and expect to sell millions of copies in the first week or month. Target small, reach it, and then slowly build out.