The free to play business model is the latest twist on variable pricing, a practice that goes back to the earliest commercial videogames - arcade games took your money one coin at a time. The original concept of digital microtransactions (as the name implies) was to provide a contemporary spin on coin drops, by taking a small amount of money at a time. Rather than pay per play, as coin ops did, free to play games offer their base gameplay for free and found ways to ask for payment for other things. This varies from the scurrilous monetisation of frustration, where the game intentionally impedes the player and offers to restore progression for money, to the more ambiguous sale of cosmetic items.
Many players are horrified by free to play monetisation - partly because much of what they used to get included in the price is now charged for, and partly in resistance to the feeling of being shaken down by their entertainment like a virtual beggar lurking in the machine. However, since the game is coming for free, direct comparisons with games as paid products swiftly break down. These are practically distinct forms of media, designed and played in different ways, for all that some players are in the markets for both. A great deal of offence, however, is caused by the encroachment of microtransactions into paid games - a topic warranting a separate discussion that I will pick up next time.
What is often overlooked about free to play is that the vast majority of players are indeed playing for free. Paid players are only a few percent of the audience of most these games. Many of these players, the so-called ‘whales’, drop several hundred (or even thousand) dollars into the games they pick up... the surprising truth of the matter is that wealthy individuals are subsidising the poor in the market for free to play games: what looks from the perspective of an individual player like the epitome of capitalism transpires to be the most socialist market economics yet realised.
Yet still, we are not happy. Some players are getting all the perks and privileges while others scrape along with nothing, albeit without having to pay anything for many hours of entertainment. The trouble is, the game has to make the whales want to pay, but they can only do so by pressuring every player to pay, either through borderline abusive designs or through the inevitable peer pressure that says you can’t be seen with someone in a ‘noob skin’. Our desires are being manipulated, our greed aroused. Yet this is the psychological profile of the contemporary marketplace everywhere we look. Does it not count for something that in free to play games - and only in such games - the wealthiest 1% of humanity are subsiding their inestimably poorer neighbours? If we are horrified by this, shouldn't our outrage be directed at the vast wealth disparity that has been made apparent by such games, rather than the games themselves...?
A Hundred Cyborgs, #71, part of a ten part mini-serial on Gamer Cyborgs.
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