Feature Article

Trials Frontier and the Dangers of Free-to-Play

Push me, pull me.

Trials Frontier accomplishes something that I did not think possible: It miraculously brings the precise racing Trials is defined by to a touchscreen--albeit in a streamlined form--and offers a welcome alternative to the real thing when you're not in front of your television. And for the first half hour, I was tilting my rider through crazy obstacle courses on my way to racking up gold medals. It was only after I had been amazed by how much fun I was having that the door was shut in my face. The dark side of this free-to-play offering showed itself, and I stared at the screen, puzzled at this invasive pricing model, and how it has kept me from enjoying this mobile experience.

Although free-to-play business models have become an omnipresent way to rope people in on both mobile devices and PCs, I've somehow never been directly exposed to them. More by happenstance than conscious avoidance, my ignorance of this field has kept me out of the many debates that have sprung forth; I could only nod as voices rose and fell with each new outrage. After almost 30 years of buying games in the traditional way, I was used to those games being complete experiences, and Frontier introduced me to a style that was immediately off-putting. When engagement is difficult to obtain and so many pieces of entertainment are vying for my interest (and dollars), why, I wondered, would a developer choose to interrupt my enjoyment? Isn't the risk of alienation so strong that the developer would fear monetary prompts would push people away? I had no concrete answers, so I could only imagine the psychological cost of such endeavors.

Frontier is not sleazy in the way it uses its free-to-play model. Completing races earns you items you use to upgrade your motorcycle, including money, gems, and parts. Such a system makes sense no matter which pricing scheme a game uses, but it's how Frontier manages its finite resources that pushed me away. You see, upgrading your bike takes time. In the beginning, I stayed in the shop for a few seconds as modifications were made. Then it went up to half a minute, half an hour, and then two hours. I could choose to speed up that time by spending my precious gems, but I chose to put my iPad down instead while I worked on other endeavors. And it's that action that has informed much of this editorial. Why would a developer purposefully include a system that could urge you to walk away, to enjoy something else while the game ticked away in the background?

And these delays aren't the only thing that irked me. After a little time playing Frontier, I had missions to track down specific parts. What started as a free-flowing, exciting racing game transformed into a tedious grind as I strove to gather every part that I needed. Parts are earned by spinning a wheel at the end of each race and hoping that you land on the right space. You can spin more than once if you spend your hard-earned gems, though I quickly went through my cache. Eventually, I ran out of gas, so I had to wait while my tank refilled. Every element of this game is conspiring to push me away. Given the choice, I would have paid a premium (say, $10) to play this game without the grind, but as it is, I want nothing more than to play Trials Fusion on the PlayStation 4 rather than spend another minute in Frontier's exploitative ecosystem.

Isn't the risk of alienation so strong that the developer would fear monetary prompts would push people away?

The world is filled with excellent games. And I do not use the word "excellent" lightly. Even if we focus on just the iPad--ignoring the dozen other devices out there--there have been a bounty of riches released in just the last couple of weeks. Hearthstone, Monument Valley, FTL: Faster Than Light, and Hitman Go are all fighting for people's attention, and winning that battle with ease. When there are so many alternatives out there, many of which either employ a F2P model (such as Hearthstone) or can be purchased for less than what your lunch costs (Monument Valley and Hitman Go are less than $10 combined), what would compel me to stick with Trials Frontier when I know that more breaks will interrupt any rhythm I've built?

There's a certain confidence that goes along with a free-to-play model. Or maybe it's cockiness. The model supposes that a certain number of people will be so enthralled by a game that they will ignore the barriers being constructed. It assumes that, for some people, any minor bump can be safely overlooked. I admire a team that could have such faith in what they've been working on, though it seems like a dangerous road to venture down. With Frontier, I need only exhibit a bit of patience and I can have fun without shelling out a dime, or just switch to another game or application while I wait for the upgrades to complete. But once I moved on to Faster Than Light, I became so invested in my space conquests that the act of digital motorcycling seemed dull. Frontier is fun, there's no doubt about that, but not fun enough that I can swallow what the developers have shoved on my plate. So they've pushed me away.

Not everyone feels the same way that I do. Free-to-play games have done a masterful job of destroying the initial barrier that could keep people from trying a game. By letting us test a game for no money, the developers open the door for more potential customers than those games that require an investment up front. However, getting people to play a game doesn't pay the bills. It's keeping them coming back that can be lucrative. So a free-to-play game has to be so good and so immediately captivating that not only will people continue playing, but they will eventually shell out money to keep the experience going. Even ad-supported games need to keep you coming back. That's a tall order, especially in a world filled with so many entertainment options. We know from a recent study that two-thirds of people stop playing free-to-play games less than 24 hours after they begin, and such a turnover is probably assumed before pricing models are set. Many of us are window shoppers, happy to look without buying, so it's no surprise that people would get a taste before moving on to something else.

The problem with Frontier was not just that it was asking for money, but how it did so. By halting my progress, the game held me captive. "Wait or pay," the game seemed to say to me. "It's your choice." But neither of those options was appealing. Waiting rubs me the wrong way because I wasn't interested in other activities. I wanted to play Frontier, and was prevented from doing so. But paying was just as ugly. I buy more games than I have time to play (mostly on the Vita), so rewarding developers for their hard work has become a decent part of my budget. But I need to know exactly how much I'm going to spend before it makes sense. With a traditional game, I shell out, say, $12, and know that I will never be asked to spend another cent. If I had relented with Frontier, I knew I would have faced a similar money-versus-time dilemma down the road, so I didn't want to spend any money.

In my eyes, free-to-play games can work only if payments are integrated seamlessly into the action without halting your fun. By letting you earn cards through payment or playing, Hearthstone is much less invasive. Or we could look at how Path of Exile gives you clothing options that have a purely visual impact. There are many acceptable approaches to free-to-play integration. It's when progress is stopped, that you have to waste time grinding or waiting for an arbitrary counter to tick down, that it's a problem. Competing for people's attention is one of the toughest things a creator has to deal with today. Don't make your lives harder by pushing people away.

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63 comments
mr_azim
mr_azim

I can't continue in the game.... all bike upgrades say "Play to Unlock" but it's impossible to beat the current little robot race (I'm getting a gold medal on completion but still 1-2 seconds behind it).

Syphen_bast
Syphen_bast

Once games were made by gamers for gamers, it was pure entertainment, you buy, you play, and move on.


The market is changing and it still seems that companies are trying to decide in which payment method to aim for, DLC´s, halting the game to ask for money or to speed up the waiting time(waiting time in a game that is anti-fun btw, it will harm the game in the long run.)


Aren't games supposed to be for fun/enjoyment/relaxing?


Games oughta be to make you dream while awake.

Veenox
Veenox

Is it just me or EVERYONE in the Gaming Industry. gamers included, have forget that DEMOS are doing the perfect job to let gamers try new games without any shenanigans? The F2P model is simple : Create a cheap and addictive game and try to lure out rich gamers to become impatient and waste money on irrelevant upgrades.

Squirrelatwar
Squirrelatwar

Wonderful article, you highlighted all the reasons why free-to-play CAN be good, but there are always models that punish players for playing the game.

lionheart051
lionheart051

The enchant vendor in the Elderscrolls online said it best.

"Quality has a cost my friend..., quality has a COST!"

This is why Diablo 3 is visually pleasing and POE makes you want to gouge your eyes out.

Death to the f2p model! Life to gaming!

El_Zaggy
El_Zaggy

Gaming is turning to shit with those greedy shitty company that want you to pay for a long long time to play half finished games.

BigBadBanther
BigBadBanther

"After almost 30 years of buying games in the traditional way, I was used to those games being complete experiences"  

This comment has not been true since the exploitation of day one and extra playable character DLC. Take Elder scrolls online for example, Who locked an entire playable race unless you pay for the more expensive game version :( You will never get the full game any more when people are willing to pay for DLC.

Gourry_Inverse
Gourry_Inverse

I think what people are missing in this thread is that it is completely possible to do Free To Play "right."  There are a handful of great, well-crafted, high quality F2P games whose purchase models allow you to be great at the game, experience most if not all of the available content, and not spend a single dime to do so (DOTA/LOL, Hearthstone and Path of Exile spring immediately to mind).  If we as gamers rewarded the developers who do it right, as in these instances, we might start to see less of the junk F2P games and more high quality ventures and risks taken.

Kjranu
Kjranu

F2P is for developers who are too lazy to build a demo. Simply put. 

Hunter1428
Hunter1428

Erm Eve has this system for its skills and that's a subscription based game. Which I find much worse wasting those valuable hour/days waiting for a skill to train. Where this is completely free! 


The trick is to upgrade when you go to bed so you wake up and vala done! 

Daveof89
Daveof89

I'm surprised how many people don't understand how this works. Almost every mobile game with some sort of clock/time based delay can be bypassed by adjusting the clock on your mobile device. Simply bump the day forward, switch back to the app, and voila, you're back in business. The reason this works is because the timer has to be connected to the time on your device so that you can still play offline.

Sam_021
Sam_021

I've spent £20 so far and I still can't get my bloody bike fast enough lol, I love Trials series but this is cruel!

ScottOakley
ScottOakley

F2P works if you have a spending limit of $50. When you reach that point you fully own the game and everything is unlocked. You start to play for free like a demo, you like it and don't want all these microtransactions and waiting times, just give the game $50 and you own it.

LeCage
LeCage

The only way to kill off P2W/P2P in game purchasing is for all players to resist. That'll never happen unfortunately. There are way too many easily addicted rich kids who have no issue spending hundreds just to get ahead. As if there's some valid prize for doing so. There's not! They burn out all options, the game becomes no fun because there was zero challenge, they eventually dump it and move on to the next hot game and do same. These people aren't gamers, they're just compulsive addicts with tonnes of spare cash. They'd be better off hitting online casinos and leaving these games to the rest of us. 

gunnmetal
gunnmetal

they do that because they are ashamed of putting a price tag of 160$ on the game (the simpsons)

zeek_fox
zeek_fox

I've played a number of F2P games that made you wait for stuff, but had an option to pay to skip that.  However, when it comes to city building or farming things, the passing of time moving things along is part of the expectation.  But at the same time, if you're playing something like Farmville and plant some Watermelons that take four days to grow...you can still play the game because you have plenty more space in which to plant, put animals, make buildings, etc.  In the end, there's so much potential space nowadays that a long-standing player who checks in once a day...could be at it for over an hour, easily.


That being said, it's not an excuse to put that sort of "pay or wait" thing on everything.  But part of the reason it's become so common is that a lot of F2P mobile games are quite short, big names like Candy Crush Saga excluded.  If there were no wait, you'd probably be done in a week, and without some sort of endgame or PvP that a serious game has, you'd never stick around for an update or limited time sale or anything.  Plus, for those who are willing to stick to a F2P game as a free player, there is some sort of achievement to boast about if you are one of the few players who can survive such.



I will say this though...if you truly haven't played anything F2P, the worst offense comes in F2P MMO's, where you are sold the ability to get stronger, which is completely unfair in a community-driven game.  Hard work and skill should determine who is a top ranked player, not how deep one's pockets go.  Try being in the same area and competing for monster kills with a player who dropped a few hundred bucks into having their damage be 3x what yours is.  There's your next article.

DarqStalker
DarqStalker

Agreed. I've been playing Trials Fusion since it was released and while it was fun the first few days, it quickly became a game demanding money to progress. Time to delete it.

khaos107
khaos107

Never played a free to play and never will. The quality of the games are so far behind that of a real game and some people end up spending more then $60 on these titles. Just look at that Simpsons game you can spend over 100 bucks on it and still not own the whole game. I'll leave the phones and tablets to non gamers and keep playing the real thing thank you.

Gelugon_baat
Gelugon_baat

So I guess the next freemium model to face the heat is "free-to-wait". :/

Vodoo
Vodoo

Had to stop reading halfway through. I don't know how the author managed to steer clear of the FTP bullshit for so long, but the article just voices the complaints everybody's had about all the different price-gouging models that make up the majority of the FTP market. Most devs, especially from big publishers, aren't giving away anything for free. Moreover, they're gonna make you bleed trying to progress through that game without paying anything.

FTP games didn't smash the mold by letting people try their games for free. We always had that... they're called DEMOS. Tedious fetch quests and using extensive bouts of time to bar progress are only some of ways these game companies inflict dread on customers. They don't care if you put the ipad down to wait out the timer. They don't want you. The game is purposely trying to get rid of you. If you're not paying money, you're wasting their time. They're trying to weed you out to get to the person who pays for upgrades.

What they should be doing in addition to the slimy tactics they use, is give the option to purchase the full game up front. They don't realize that a lot of people will pay if given the option to. Like Tom said, he woulda bought the game, but instead they prefer to nickel and dime. A mobile game shouldn't even have an option to spend $100 on their crap, but they do. These companies know full well that they're ripping people off. They just don't care!

petersonsam
petersonsam

I have no issues with F2P except for the amount of $$ the developers want to unlock all the options.


Take Loadout for example.  You need to spend money to unlock different outfits and more loadout slots.  The game is fun and I would consider paying $20 for the game except $20 only gets you like 1 outfit and a days worth of extra XP.  You would have to shell out over $700 to unlock everything in the game.  


$700 is ridiculous for any game.  If the developers had a $20 option to unlock everything I would shell out in a heartbeat to purchase this because it's a fun game.  But I'm not going to shell out $700 to unlock everything and I'm not going to shell out $20 for one or two outfits.


The developers made a great game that is fun to play but they completely pushed me away with their pricing model.

therealeu
therealeu

Someone just discovered F2P and has a job reviewing games here?  Kind of interesting point of view... for 10 years ago.  Everything in this article is what everyone thinks when they first play F2P.  


WTF?  Is gamespot gonna review the new social network MySpace next?    

DrKill09
DrKill09

WTF is Trials Frontier?


Heard of Trialls, Trials 2, Trials HD, Evolution, and Fusion, but not Frontier.

nl_skipper
nl_skipper

I don't understand how this "pay to remove timers" nonsense has become so prevalent and successful.  Any game with such a design is worth nothing more than a passing glance, and certainly not worth constant payments to allow you to keep playing.  It makes me sad that there are enough people out there gushing over such exploitative games that they are able to not only suceed, but make millions, DAILY.  It's a little bit sick, to be honest.

Frostbite24
Frostbite24

It is very annoying how people consistently ignore the glowing examples of F2P games that work perfectly fine. Hearthstone, Dota 2, TF2, PoE and quite a few others all offer excellent quality with a F2P model. People need to get perspective. There is nothing inherently bad about F2P models. If there is something off about a F2P game it is because it is specific to that particular game or the way they implement the model, nothing more. 

The argument that F2P is dangerous is like saying the Pay2Play model is dangerous because they could charge you $200 for a single game if they wanted to. In fact there have been cases of Pay2Play models infringing on the expected price already. EA has done this with their PC released games which, under any other publisher, would only cost $50 to buy instead of their imposed $60..

wEEman33
wEEman33

Great article, Tom.


These types of shady business models deserve to be dissected and shown for what they are: ripoffs.

Gallowhand
Gallowhand

This seems to be a good example of how the business model has negatively affected the game design, and unfortunately this kind of thing has become all too prevalent for F2P titles.  As Totalbiscuit has expostulated on several occasions, there is an insidious science behind many F2P game designs, using psychometric analysis to determine the appropriate artificial barriers to place before the player to induce the level of frustration required to get you to spend money rather than wait or grind.

Some F2P games manage to get the balance right, but many are designed simply to farm as much cash as possible in the shortest time.  I tend to avoid F2P games as a result.

OllieBrown
OllieBrown

"Why would a developer purposefully include a system that could urge you to walk away"

Interestingly enough, most first party Nintendo DS games do just this.  After a while, they prompt you saying "you've been playing a while, why not go take a rest!"  Of course, it doesn't force you to do so, it's just a reminder probably suggested by their lawyers as an effort to reduce eye strain and medical complaints.

andfx8
andfx8

The developers need to pay their bills... simple

crucifixd
crucifixd

@Veenox  Probably never played a F2P game that has been done right then.

Stinger78
Stinger78

@Gourry_Inverse  Team Fortress 2, Tribes: Ascend and Warframe are fun Free-to-play games I've spent time playing.  Planetside 2 is also supposed to be decent :)

Gen007
Gen007

@ScottOakley That's actually a neat idea that ive never seen implemented but it probably never will be. The whole reason the game industry is obsessed with F2P right now is because it's a chance at easy sustained money. Normally you make a game and you release it and it sells most of what it will ell in the first 2 weeks then sales drop off sharply unless theres a sale or something. Then you have to hope that that you made enough to carry you into the next project.

F2P allows you to keep raking in money off the same game for much much longer. From their point of view its like if your willing to spend $50 why not more? No way they are gonna cap it and prevent you from spending more money. IN the long run it's more money for them for less work and it has to be working because more and more the industry is turning to the f2p model and if a game isn't f2p it's chalk full of dlc and mico transactions to try and fill the same role.

Sam_021
Sam_021

@DarqStalker  Trials Fusion? You mean Trials Frontier? I've also spent a lot of money about $30 and still can't get a fast bike lol.

crucifixd
crucifixd

@khaos107  Great, you find bliss in ignorance. If you decide to come out of your shell, you might see F2P games being done right. Valve games, for instance.

Silv3rSt0rm82
Silv3rSt0rm82

@petersonsam  Well being free to play means some people won't give you a cent and play your game so you have to charge a lot more to those you are "milking" to cope for the loss of the free players.

If they'd charge 20$ to unlock everything whereas the total ammount adds up to 700$, there's probably 5/10 that would get it and you'd be doing 100$ out of 10 people.

On the other hand, their current system probably allows them to milk dry 1 out of 10 who's gonna be sick enough to waste way over 100$ on the game...


As long as some people (even if it's a minority) are willing to get triggerhappy on the credit card transactions the F2P patterns will go on and on!

I'm not supporting it I'm just bringing facts...

Lhomity
Lhomity

@nl_skipper It suits people with short attention spans, who play little bits at a time. Taxi rides. Lunch breaks. TV show commercial breaks. That awkward few minutes waiting for a reply text from a friend. Which is quite a lot of mobile phone users, oddly enough.

nl_skipper
nl_skipper

@Frostbite24  The problem is those good example make up about 0.00012% of all free-to-play games available, and they're almost always exclusively on PC, and not in the mobile space.  Also the extreme exploitation trend is only gaining momentum while those good examples you mention are becoming less and less frequent.  It's unfortunate (and a little hard to understand) since those games prove you can create a fun and popular game, while still having it free-to-play, and STILL make a lot of money and manage a successful business around it.

TomMcShea
TomMcShea moderator

@Frostbite24 Yeah, I pointed out some examples of games that do F2P right. Valve is particularly good about it.

Thanatos2k
Thanatos2k

@OllieBrown That garbage enraged me in A Link Between Worlds.  I'll be the judge of when I play my video games, thanks Nintendo.


It does it if you've been playing for longer than ONE hour.  ONE!

fig56
fig56

@OllieBrown Are you kidding me? A game that is concerned about kids health because their parents let them play for 5 hours straight is forcing them to walk away? At least it's not asking them "If you want to continue..go get your mom's credit card and pay $30 bucks to continue playing. Not even the same thing.

olddadgamer
olddadgamer

@andfx8 Yeah I think a point here is that they're not paying them this way.  We, as gamers, make the mistake that asking for money means they get it.  Could be these games are failing.  When two thirds of all people don't pay, you ain't paying your bills.

ScottOakley
ScottOakley

@Gen007 @ScottOakleySad but true indeed. The idea I had is fair but the industry is always trying to earn more money in various ways. I hope people will notice that the F2P model is more expensive so it can make way for a more fair pay method.

mxgod
mxgod

@nl_skipper @Frostbite24  The problem arises when people actually pay for games that are clearly not a good free-2-play model. Games should just stick to Skins and non-crucial to play things for games, otherwise it should be named other than free-2-play. If people know anyone who is paying for these kinds of games they need to encourage them to play different games to fix the issue.

Tera Online does Free-2-Play well.

OllieBrown
OllieBrown

@fig56 @OllieBrown Where did I say it was the same thing?  It's not at all.  I just found Tom's statement a bit odd knowing about that warning and thought I would mention it.