The debate on free-to-play games is the fiercest ever in the gamesindustry. Is that a problem? And why is it so hard to find common ground?

Heated debates are nothing new for the gamesindustry. For starters, there’s the ongoing discussion on whether or not games lead to real life violence, closely followed by the debate on game addiction. Participants are typically divided along the lines of industry versus non-industry. Put simpler: the gamesindustry versus the rest of the world.

Lately, a number of discussions arose within the gamesindustry. These range from a friendly professional conversation on games as a storytelling mechanism, to a much more fierce debate on inclusion and gender.

However, it took the subject of free-to-play to turn an industry wide discussion surprisingly hostile. The gloves are off and both parties are hell-bent on making the other adopt the ‘right’ point of view.

As many industry people will have discovered, the tone of the discussions in the press and on social media has turned sour. It’s starting to resemble the heavily polarized American political climate. Less exchanges of arguments, more questioning the other’s intellect for not accepting the obvious truths.

More problematic: this debate is starting to hurt the industry as a whole. No matter your personal take on free-to-play, a divided industry is a paper tiger. Right now, the European Union is drawing up legislation making monetizing free-to-play games more difficult. Conversion rates are already reported to be as low as 1.5 percent (according to a recent snapshot by Swrve). Imagine what adding additional barriers could do to free-to-play depended companies.

But since the gamesindustry itself is nowhere near a consensus, launching an effective lobby for a more industry friendly form of regulation seems an impossible task.

There are more recent examples showing how a deeply divided gamesindustry could damage itself. GameOn is a combined governmental/private game investment fund in The Netherlands. Its recent launch was met by hefty criticism from within the industry itself. Mainly due to the fund’s focus on free-to-play investments.

And again, no matter whose side you’re on in this discussion: an industry that apparently does not welcome governmental support with open arms, may soon find itself without.


The real issue is ‘why?’ – why is it so hard to accept someone else’s point of view. Why is it so hard to find common ground? After all, we are talking about a mere business model, of which there are many. (In this analysis we focus squarely on free-to-play games based on in-app purchases.)

Four reasons spring to mind.

1: Core interests no longer align

Traditionally there has always been some kind of tension between publishers and marketeers on one hand, and developers and designers on the other. There are stories aplenty about publishers pushing developers in a direction they didn’t like – for the sake of increased sales potential. (We’re not taking a stand here, we’re making an observation.) But the general rule of thumb was this: a better game simply sells more, hence: the ultimate goal was either the same or at least very compatible for all parties.

With free-to-play this is no longer the case. Everybody still wants to, no, has to make money in order to keep making games. And one could argue that currently, the free-to-play model is the best way of doing that. However, adopting such a model only really works if a game is completely build around in-game monetization.

This leads to a paradigm shift: from a business point of view the ultimate goal no longer is creating the best game possible, but the best ‘monetizable’ game possible.

To be fair: for game-startups launching with an exit strategy in mind, this is a solution, rather than a problem. The initial investments – i.e. risks – are a great deal smaller compared to traditional AAA or mid-core game development. This means it’s easier for game start-ups to get funding and if successful, to scale their company. Success almost certainly leads to a prolonged and steady cash flow, making the studio an attractive target for acquisition or in some cases, even an IPO.

However, not all designers start a company much less a career in the gamesindustry with an exit in mind. Which brings us to:

2: Compromising game design

For a free-to-play game to be successful, the core gameplay loop has to be designed around monetization. Not all designers oppose this idea, however the ones that do argue that currently gameplay is being severely compromised. Player progression is deliberately stalled, earning in-game currency a drag and spamming social media rewarded. For a lot of designers this is not the way they want to design games.

And that’s exactly why many designers are so rigid in their complaints: free-to-play touches the very core of their job, the very reason they became game designer in the first place.

Until somebody comes up with a successful free-to-play mechanic that does not compromise gameplay in any way, a large portion of professional game designers will remain firmly in the anti free-to-play camp.

3: Missed opportunities

Investors never fail to see opportunities. They see the increasing but still moderate financial success of dozens of indie developers. But most importantly, what they see is a tremendous potential – if only these studios would change their business model, ditch premium in favor of freemium and take investment to spend on marketing and user acquisition. So, no, investors and publishers will not be silent about the benefits of free-to-play, it’s their core business.

Furthermore, they simply do not get why developers would turn down a chance to increase their profits. This became abundantly clear at the recent Casual Connect Europe. The traditionally free-to-play oriented conference boasted a large indie expo. A place with certainly a lot of mix, but not so much match. It was easy to overhear conversations between developers and potential investors that went absolutely nowhere. They genuinely did not seem to understand each other. Imagine the surprise of a developer whose game is currently for sale on PlayStation Network, having an investor say: “So you don’t have a valid monetization model?” Certainly a Casual Disconnect.

For developers who don’t feel like making free-to-play games, this poses a problem. They simply can’t match the attractiveness of free-to-play studios, so getting funded is becoming harder. They’re left with increasingly sparse options: doing work-for-hire and hoping there’s enough time left for the development of their own IP; or launching a crowdfunding campaign – which is a huge risk in itself.

4: Ethics: where it becomes personal

Another catalyst of the debate is the question whether or not free-to-play games are ethical. This is a subject that is extremely difficult to discuss. It’s impossible to consider certain free-to-play games unethical, without questioning the morality of their creators. And by doing so, the conversation is basically over before it even started – nobody likes to be called immoral.

This further explains why for some it’s so hard to just let the others be. He who considers free-to-play immoral, probably wants the model to vanish completely. And therefore others need convincing. (Which in turn is close to impossible, because it would take a lot of free-to-play developers and publishers admitting to unethical behaviour.)

Free-to-play has such a strong pull on developers, that even outspoken opponents like Peter -Molyneux, are starting to experiment with the model. It will be interesting to see if it is at all possible to create a successful free-to-play game without compromising gameplay at all. •