More and more, we see the industry pushing towards free games. The idea being that people would rather get a game for free than pay for it. And I don’t know how I feel about it all.

So let me break down some of the different perspectives I try to take on this.

I’m what would probably be call a hardcore gamer. I play pretty much every system and I go for a breadth (play more games) as opposed to depth (milking a single game) approach when it comes to gaming. I enjoy AAA titles for their size and polish as much as I enjoy indie titles for their fresh ideas and charm.

To date I have yet to buy any DLC. Often because it comes out after I have beaten the game and moved on.

I have 3 paid games on my phone and I regret 2 of them.

I have dozens of free games on my phone and regret none of them (although only 2 are any good.)

The only micro-transactions I have ever done were

  • Trying out buying keys in Team Fortress 2. I felt like crap afterwards.
  • Purchasing the “Digital Collector’s Edition” in League of Legends. I was able to justify this purchase because it felt like buying a digital copy of the game due to the large amount of content you get.

I have tried a lot of free games. I once had to study Facebook games for work, so I played a dozen of them for a few months. Other than burning a hole in my brain that I will never recover from, it helped me recognize the 3 sins of free games. (Coincidentally the 3 pillars of profit for free games.)

  1. Money Gates
  2. Social Gates
  3. Time Gates

In most free games, these are the three ways to progress. Either you have to pay them, bother your friends (generating new users like a virus,) or sink unreasonable amounts of time and careful timing to not lose progress.

I hate all of these and usually stop when I can no longer reasonably progress without them. But the main reason why they don’t work in most the games you will find on Facebook is that the games themselves have terrible pacing and design. They are designed to profit from compulsive behavior that lasts as long as you have patience.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes I love a good compulsive game like Harvest Moon or Minecraft. But I realized after enough Facebook games and MMOs that if a game isn’t fun to play, the only reason I will chug through it is to have the experience of beating it. I can’t beat Minecraft or League of Legends, but I will play them for years because at their core, they are fun. Crappy free games don’t have an experience.

I guess another factor to all this is the difference between a game as a service versus a hold-and-release product. I generally prefer games as a product and while I do play games that you cannot beat, I only have room for one or two of those in my life at a time.

I like to think of “paid” games as games I “own.” The single most infuriating thing about free games is finding out that the juicy content has to be bought, piece by piece. I enjoy my encapsulated and polished experiences. I’m sure this is a legacy of the age I grew up in and the products I am used to; it’s defined my assessment of content value. And this is probably my shortcoming.

I still want to see and enjoy games as products. micro-transactions feel like you are cutting up a product and selling it back to me in such a fashion that I cannot accurately judge the value of the content. And part of that stems from the industry practice of making something, putting it on the disk and selling it to me at a later date. That just feels wrong. Studios nowadays are making content during development and holding on to it so they trickle it out later. This makes sense from a business and production standpoint; but it pisses me off as a gamer.

I like to buy something and know that it is, in itself, a polished pearl. I like knowing that the only thing standing between me and the best-ending, is my skill and commitment. I like knowing that a designer purposely plotted out the pacing of the game with appropriate frustration, challenge and refrain. I guess my problem is that I’m too in-love with the art of game design. I just don’t feel it in (most) free games.

Now here is where I have really conflicting emotions. I want to make games, and I want to make money off of them. Everywhere I turn, I see smart folks saying “You need to learn to make games for the free market or you will get left behind.” And while I know the paid market will not go away, it’s hard to argue the benefits of free games.

  1. Much greater exposure since the barrier to entry is so low
  2. Fixes the issue of Piracy (to some degree)
  3. Can be profitable with only 3% of customer base paying anything
  4. Let’s Player’s pay what they think you deserve

But at the same time, the devil/angel on my shoulder tells me that adapting your “pure” game design to a free-to-play model is dirty. And I apologize for being snooty enough to qualify game design as pure or not.

So I’m at a weird crossroads where I don’t know… And I guess that’s the point of trying to connect with your community. I want to know what player’s want and to be able to adapt to that. I guess we’ll see what we end up doing when I try to make a living off my games some day.

Final Thoughts
I know what the statistically correct answers are. I’ve seen all the graphs that tell me how to make the best game that will make the most money. But as a creative, you can’t be driven by data. That’s giving up. I’m not here to make money, I’m here to make games.  Making decisions that might not be the best decision is what gives your work personality and charm.

What (most) free games are missing is charm. Angry Birds is charming. Minecraft is charming (Not free but its run as a service.) Every free indie game ever is charming. FarmVille is not charming.  There is never a point in FarmVille where I feel like there is an experience that a designer crafted to please or excite me that doesn’t feel driven by profit. Free games need a better conversation between the player and the developer. Free games need more Easter eggs. Free games need more of this.