Putting the “play” into “Free-to-play”

Kids play on beach - photo by Idban Secandri (flickr)

Kids play on the beach – photo by Idban Secandri (flickr)

It seems Nintendo’s CEO has been pondering the term “free-to-play” and thinks it would be better to use another phrase to describe the concept, especially as it applies to mobile games…

“I do not like to use the term ‘Free-to-play,'” Iwata said. “I have come to realize that there is a degree of insincerity to consumers with this terminology, since so-called ‘Free-to-play’ should be referred to more accurately as ‘Free-to-start.'”

Fixing free-to-play’s image problem

Well I’m always pleased if a business wants to describe its products more honestly, but I think there are several problems with his particular idea. Firstly we already have a perfectly good term that means “free-to-start”. Such things are called “a trial”, or if you must underline the freeness of it, a “free trial”. Trialability is a good quality for any product to have, and free trials are usually a good idea whether we’re talking about test driving a car, trying a free weekend of an MMO, being able to level to 20 for free, or whatever.

However free trials don’t have the appeal of free-to-play, at least when that is a fair description of what is on offer, and not just a bait-and-switch tactic. Would I use Gmail or WordPress.com if they were truly free-to-start as opposed to genuinely free-to-use? Almost certainly not. Whenever I see anything that has a free trial, a free month or some such, my first question is always: “Well how much would it cost me if I were to really keep using this thing?” Often that simple info is made rather hard to find, and at that point my interest in the thing ends. Even when the info is clearly and fairly presented I’m usually not going to bother to take advantage of a free trial in most cases.

“Free-to-start” might be a more well-meaning and honest description of what a company has in mind than “free-to-play”, but that’s like a baker truthfully describing their offering as “stale bread”. Thanks for not trying to fool us, but we actually wanted a fresh and tasty loaf, not just for you to use the right terminology for what you’re selling.

Of course there is such a thing as bad free-to-play, and there are plenty of examples. However there are good examples also, and what’s good about them turns on it actually being fair to describe them as “free”, and it being fair to describe what you can actually do for free as “play”.

Whether something is free is relatively simple to determine. Lying about something that is not really free and calling it free-to-play is going to be found out pretty quickly. At best you’ll have bitter customers who resent how you conned them to get them hooked on your game. At worst you won’t have any customers anyway because people aren’t stupid and they can figure out the con before they ever download your game.

Whether what people get to do in the free part of your game is even really “play” is a big question however. Defining the essence of play is fascinating and important, but also difficult to do, though many have tried and come up with good ideas. (For example The Definition of Play.)

I’m not going go into any formal definitions, but there are certain qualities that to my mind are fundamental to something being play and it being fun. For example…

  • You should be able to immerse yourself in it, get lost in the flow, lose all track of time while you’re doing it.

  • You should experience a sense of freedom and possibility. There are many different things you could do, many ways to approach what’s in front of you, many ways to explore, many ways to express yourself.

  • You should mostly be enjoying what you’re doing in the moment, doing it for it’s own sake, not doing it solely in order to attain some other goal or fulfill some obligation.

Well, when you consider such things, the problem with some F2P games is that they are sorely lacking in actual play. There are exceptions though, and they are the ones that when reviewers discuss them they use phrases like “a generous free-to-play model”.

Freemium works very well in many tech-based businesses, and it can work very well in games also. But it’s critical to freemium that the free service is satisfying in itself and provides core functionality and an experience that more than adequately meets the needs of most people who give it a try. In a game, that means people can have lots of fun with it, for free. If you’re not going to provide that, don’t bother calling it free at all.

Advertisements

6 thoughts on “Putting the “play” into “Free-to-play”

  1. I am in agreement with the European Union. Last year, they pressured Google to remove ‘free’ from Free-to-Play apps on the European Google Play store. I do think it is a misleading way to categorize things.

    I also agree with you. There are far too many games that either overly abusive or derivative. Too many apps lack any real gameplay. It’s problematic to have those offerings right next to products more rightfully called games.

  2. I am amazed that so much F2P is actually produced… when it is so far from free… my investigations with my sons android tablet and later smart phone (both dead *sobs*) revealed very few games that were actually FUN to play. Some were passable, and some had fun to be found …eventually!

    Any app, game, program that claims to be free but wants my details and especially my (non- existent) credit card details is regarded by me as NOT free!

    I hope there is a revolution in F2P gaming coming, NINTENDO entering the fray may help…
    More FUN truly for FREE!

  3. I think the entire industry is in a bit of a flux now as lawmakers and consumers come to terms with what “free” actually means, although what it means is constantly changing over time and between products.

    I welcome some changes though, and definitely better regulation on how they market themselves and maybe even added safety guards for people to use

    • The law has a hard time keeping up with tech. Altering laws is a glacial process, and tech is ever changing. But I guess by now the gaming business is big enough, mainstream enough and old enough that lawmakers are at least paying more attention to it and getting more of a handle on what it’s all about. Which is a very good thing as far as I’m concerned.

      This is a nice article with some good ideas about how to make this stuff work for everyone.

  4. Pingback: Link Dead Radio: The Perception of Play - Healing the masses

  5. Pingback: The Great Pay-to-Win Debate: Roundup & Commentary | Thinking Play

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s