Free is my favourite word. It is one syllable, I like hearing it, seeing it at a mall sticks out like a sore thumb, and it carries alot of positive meanings of independence, exclusion of negativity and generosity.
Yet, when it comes to Videogames, 'Free' has unfortunately developed some sort of negative connotation on the PC platform. The word 'Free' has become so stigmatized to the point where the word is ironically excluded from the classification of such business models--hence, Pay2Win, and understandably so.
I am no stranger to Free games. I have been playing F2P games for awhile and not just on web portals like Newgrounds, but those larger and persistent online games you may have come across while browsing the interwebs. Gunbound was the first F2P game I got into, it is probably a game that you have never heard of, but it was certainly an enjoyable one. it was an online game in the vein of Worms, with stats, equipment, a multitude of different projectiles at your disposal, robust communication features, the 2D sprites looked fantastic and it ran on any PC.
"I bet you thought Gunbound was an FPS"
As much as I enjoyed it, I never paid a single damn cent, my friends didnt pay a cent either. But we didnt care, there were many laughs to be had, alot of shenanigains, plenty of memorable trickshots and our experiences spilled over during lunchtime school discussions. With all these discussions we shared about the game, Gunbound started to become viral through our grade. Most were eluded by the idea of a completely free game that didnt involve piracy, but with such low barriers of entry, almost half the grade ended up installing the game on their home computer.
For a few weeks, the game was flooded with people from my school during our peak hours. It got to a point where a public game would have you pitted against someone you knew. Gunbound quickly became our own online community: we set up teams, had one on one matches to see who was better, used our own signature projectiles and we even humbly acknowledged who among us was the most skilled at the game. We had in-game ambitions, gear and equipment that we wanted and mechanics to master. but none of us were aware of the sad truth lay ahead of us: The sense of our own compeitive community was all but a damn lie.
We were in a closed server for those starting off, once you reached a certain experience level, you become restricted to an open server of players. One by one we started breaking into the open division with excitement. But this exitement quickly became discouragement once we found out that we were all but fish taken out of its bowl and thrown into an ocean.
We tried to rebuild the sense of community that we had, but there was a substantial playerbase that had language barriers. We tried to remain competitive, but we were crushed by other players with high powered equipment that were well beyond us. We tried organising matches, but the discouraging nature of the open server kept people from playing. We became too segregated. School lunchtime talks about it became inexistent, people lost interest and we stopped playing. It was over. Our enjoyable Gunbound evenings ended, our in-game ambitions thrown out the window and my last memory of Gunbound was us just getting completely swept by an opposing team formed from a public group.
"This is what the open server was like"
Gunbound released at a time when Free to play games was still at its infancy. From my understanding, the model was formulated as a means to provide an accessible barrier of entry to make a business out of the Eastern PC market, where Piracy of PC games are at its most abundant.
I never understood the concept of the Free to play business model at that time, but after seeing the model develop over the years, I quickly understood why our wonderful time with the game did not last. Our biggest mistake in Gunbound was not that we were bad at the game, we were actually quite good at it.
Our biggest mistake was that we did not pay.
That's a damning thing. We were getting beat by people using real money to overcome this barrier by purchasing virtual goods that had statistical attributes to give them advantages. So what little of a barrier Gunbound had to form such community was destroyed by a monetizing barrier that we never foresaw. One could say that we deserved it, we were leeching off of a game that we were clearly enjoying and refused to support; but as a service, it defintiely wasnt a fair one. After several poor experiences with other F2P titles that followed after, the F2P model quickly started to rear its ugly head. I stigmatized free games and I have never made a microtransaction since.
Gunbound was 2004. Fast forward to 2012 and it finally happened. I made a microtransaction purchase in a F2P game.
It's excellent. It's rich with production values, has great core mechanics, it has a high skill ceiling, it looks fantastic and it has some nice persistent online features. I never learned my lesson: I wasnt intending to pay anything for a free game. It was still in Beta and I thought I would hit that similar barrier like what happened several years ago, but it just never happened. I was getting by quite competitively even though I didnt have access to other cIassees, weapons and perks. Although, it is odd to compare such different games, Tribes: Ascend is as compelling as Gunbound, but the difference was that Tribes Ascend just offered a better service.
So, I finally caved to the model for the first time. I was quite willing to part ways with my money like it was the most natural thing for me to do in a videogame. It wasn't a virtual good or an in-game currency that won me over, it wasnt the XP boosting and I don't think it was done out of fear that I will be spat out of a free game I am enjoying. It was something else, something seemingly familiar to an everyday gesture and I ended up making a transaction on the grounds that I felt that I was provided a good service in the same way that I would have done towards a Taxi Driver, a Bartender or an incredibly hot Waitress.
The benefits I got for my transaction was just a bonus and in return with the extras I recieved, I didnt get better, nor did I get competitively complacent. I ended up getting more from a game that I was already enjoying and that is a service that works.
This is probably a turning point for myself as a consumer, especially with other F2P titles in the works like FireFall, Planetside 2, Hawken, Mecharrior Online, End of Nations, Dust 514, Super Monday Night Combat, DotA 2, Heroes and Generals--all of which show impressive production values and hopefully a solid framework for a Free to Play model as well as a compelling multiplayer experience.
And I am certainly asking ALOT of questions towards other games. Other Multiplayer titles where I have shelled out $40 up front for. You have a game that is trying so hard to win you over with a quality service and eventually had me voluntarily parting ways with my money to what is otherwise a free game. Then you have Manshooter 3: a game that has this fear of consumers being discouraged by a demo, wanted my $40 up-front purchase and is backed by a publisher that seems so damn convinced that all we want to do is pirate, or buy used.
Free is my favorite word. My recent experience has restored it to what it deserves to be. With the bar set with TF2 (a game that I paid for and excluded it from this blog), Tribes: Ascend and other online games having a crack at the model, F2P seems to have a very bright and positive future. It's one that we should stop ignoring and start embracing.