We all know that free-to-play is hard to pull off. There is a careful balance that must be struck between allowing the developers to actually be profitable and allowing the players to actually enjoy the game. Along the way, there are a lot of potential “hidden costs”, the most obvious being that you might actually have to pay in order to make significant, or timely progress. But while reviewing Fire Emblem Heroes, I recently came across another hidden cost: the fact that the business model has to be PART of the review.
After working for hours, I had edited my review down to roughly 1,700 words. While it was relatively succinct, I couldn’t escape the feeling that it was too long. As a good rule of thumb a review should be around 1,000- 1,200 words long; after all, people are supposed to read these things and the longer the review the less likely the reader is to actually, you know, read it. But then I sorta realized that this review had something all the other reviews I had written did not have: a whole section devoted to its business model. And that section was ~550 words long. Almost a third of my time spent talking about the game was spent talking about how the business model is intricately interwoven into the game in a manner that sorta screws the player over.
Since I have my own website, I can talk about a game as much as I want. But for other websites, you know the professional ones that actually have regular readers? Well, they really try hard to sparse reviews down. And since reviews are meant to help inform consumer purchasing decisions, it is kind of important to mention the fact that the business model screws you over. But this means that we ultimately get less time talking about the games and more time talking about how horrible freemium is.
The free to play model obfuscates game criticism. It diverts the conversation about games towards something other than the game: the economics. Free to play is a red herring that stops us from actually talking about whether the game is good or not– and specifically what makes this so. Technically speaking, the business model can completely ruin a game, but there are plenty of mechanics to talk about that comes between all the waiting forced upon the player that deserve to be debated and scrutinized too. Surely this is not the greatest cost of freemium– and there are certainly many pluses when it is done properly– but it’s merely another casualty in a mountain of corpses with a plaque at the bottom that merely reads: the price of free-to-play. I hear this once vacant lot was originally going to be turned into a Walmart before it went and got all corpsey…