Free to Play Games (F2P or FtP) video games are games that give players access to a significant portion of their content without paying or do not require paying to continue playing. Free-to-play is distinct from traditional commercial software, which requires a payment before using the game or service. It is also separate from freeware games, which are entirely costless. Free-to-play’s model is sometimes derisively referred to as free-to-start due to not being entirely free. Free to play games have also been widely criticized as “pay-to-win”— that is, that players can generally pay to obtain competitive or power advantages over other players.
There are several kinds of free-to-play business models. The most common is based on the freemium software model, in which users are granted access to a fully functional game but are incentivised to pay microtransactions to access additional content. Sometimes the content is entirely blocked without payment; other times it requires immense time ‘unlocking’ it for non-paying players, and paying the fee speeds the unlocking process. Another method of generating revenue is to integrate advertisements into the game.
The model was first popularly used in early massively multiplayer online games targeted towards casual gamers, before finding wider adoption among games released by major video game publishers to combat video game piracy.
In-game items can be purely cosmetic, enhance the power of the player, accelerate progression speed, and many more. A common technique used by developers of these games is for the items purchased to have a time limit; after this expires, the item must be repurchased before the user can continue. Another commonly seen mechanic is the use of two in-game currencies: one earned through normal gameplay, and another which can be purchased with real-world money. The second, “premium” currency is sometimes given out in small amounts to non-paying players at certain times, such as when they first start the game, complete a quest, or refer a friend to the game. Many browser games have an “energy bar” that depletes when the player takes actions. These games then sell items such as coffee or snacks to refill the bar.
Free-to-play games are free to install and play, but once the player enters the game, the player is able to purchase content such as items, maps, and expanded customization options. Some games, such as id Software’s Quake Live, also use in-game advertising to provide income for free-to-play games. In addition to making in-game items available for purchase, EA integrates in-game advertising into its games. In August 2007, EA completed a deal with Massive Incorporated, which lets Massive update and change in-game advertising in real-time within EA games. Independent game developer Edmund McMillen has claimed that he makes most of his money from sponsors by placing advertisements into the introduction of a game and the game’s title screen.
Comparison with Traditional Model
The free-to-play model has been described as a shift from the traditional model, also known as premium-priced games, where consumers paid for the cost of the game upfront and the game’s success was measured by multiplying the number of units of a game sold by the unit price. Within free-to-play, the most important factor is the number of players that a game can keep continuously engaged, followed by how many compelling spending opportunities the game offers its players. With free games that include in-game purchases, two particularly important things occur: first, more people will try out the game since there is zero cost to doing so and second, revenue will likely be more than a traditional game since different players can now spend different amounts of money that depend on their engagement with the game and their preferences towards it. Player populations that spend money on free-to-play games can be broken up into terms that borrow from gambling: “whales” which typically are the smallest segment, up to around 10% of players, but are willing to spend the most on a game; “dolphins” which represent a larger portion of around 40% of players who spend some money but not as much as whales; and “minnows”, representing about half the population, who spend the barest amount to maintain activity. As a result of this distribution, whales typically provide most of the revenue in free to play games, and in some cases, 50% of the revenue comes from 0.15% of players (“white whales”) in one report. It is not unlikely for a very few players to spend tens of thousands of dollars in a game that they enjoy.
On the PC in particular, two problems are video game piracy and high system requirements. The free-to-play model attempts to solve both these problems by providing a game that requires relatively low system requirements and at no cost, and consequently provides a highly accessible experience funded by advertising and micropayments for extra content or an advantage over other players.
Free-to-play is newer than the pay to play model, and the video game industry is still attempting to determine the best ways to maximize revenue from their games. Gamers have cited the fact that purchasing a game for a fixed price is still inherently satisfying because the consumer knows exactly what they will be receiving, compared to free-to-play which requires that the player pay for most new content that they wish to obtain. The term itself, “free-to-play”, has been described as one with a negative connotation. One video game developer noted this, stating, “Our hope—and the basket we’re putting our eggs in—is that ‘free’ will soon be disassociated with [sic] ‘shallow’ and ‘cruddy’.” However, another noted that developing freeware games gave developers the largest amount of creative freedom, especially when compared to developing console games, which requires that the game follow the criteria as laid out by the game’s publisher. Many kinds of revenue are being experimented with. For example, with its Free Realms game targeted to children and casual gamers, Sony makes money from the product with advertisements on loading screens, free virtual goods sponsored by companies such as Best Buy, a subscription option to unlock extra content, a collectible card game, a comic book, and micropayment items that include character customization options.
In 2020, a study from Germany concluded that some free-to-play games use the “money illusion” as a form to hide the true cost of products. When they examined the game Fortnite, they found that since the in-game currency does not have a unique exchange rate, it can conceal the true cost of an in-game purchase, resulting in players potentially paying more than they realize. In 2021 the study was used to take legal action against Epic Games, the publisher of Fortnite.
Pay to Win
In some games, players who are willing to pay for special items, downloadable content, or to skip cooldown timers may be able to gain an advantage over those playing for free who might otherwise hardly be able to access said items. Such games are called “pay-to-win” (abbreviated as “P2W”). In general a game is considered pay-to-win when a player can gain any advantage over their non-paying peers. Market research indicates that pay-to-win mechanics are considered much more acceptable by players in China than in Western countries, possibly because Chinese players are more habituated to recurring costs associated with gaming, such as gaming café fees.
A common suggestion for avoiding pay-to-win is for payments to only be used to broaden the experience without affecting gameplay. For example, some games, such as Dota 2, Fortnite Battle Royale, and StarCraft II, only allow the purchase of cosmetic items, meaning that a player who has spent money on the game will still be on the same level as a player who has not. Others suggest finding a balance where a game encourages players to pay for extra content that enhances the game without making the free version feel limited by comparison. This theory is that players who do not pay for items would still increase awareness of it through word of mouth marketing, which ultimately benefits the game indirectly.
In response to concerns about players using payments to gain an advantage in the game, titles such as World of Tanks have explicitly committed to not giving paying players any advantages over their non-paying peers, while allowing the users buying the “gold” or “premium” ammo and expendables without paying the real money. However, features affecting gameplay and win rate, such as purchasing a 100% crew training level, a premium account, premium vehicles, and converting experience points to free experience points, remain available for the paying customers only.