The topic of what constitutes "free-to-play" is somewhat frustrating to me. All too often people consider F2P as a "one size fits all" proposition and that it is a single design with a single outcome. As more and more games adopt versions of the F2P model, this thinking seems to become more and more prevalent, which frustrates me all the more. Why? Because nothing could be further from the truth. The concept of F2P is not a single, unified scheme. There are several different ways to approach F2P and they are quite different in terms of the access a non-paying user has to the game, or how a non-paying user can play the game. People who think the F2P "revolution" will result in them being able to "freeload" their favorite franchises are sorely mistaken. The way I see it, F2P can be broken down into two general frameworks, and I want to use this post to lay out the major differences between the two.
Disclaimer: I don't like F2P. I've said so before, but I just want to be clear. The tenor of this post is going to be rather negative. But I do want to differentiate the two major "schools" of F2P as I see them.
Free to Play, But Pay to Stay
Ok, these are the kind of games I think most people have in mind when they think of F2P. I use Runes of Magic as an example because it is a game I actually played for a bit during my "wanderings" after leaving World of Warcraft. In this type of game, the client itself is free. There is no charge or fee to download, install, or run the game. And within the game itself, the vast majority of the actual content is accessible to any player without regard to payment. You don't need to buy access to questing zones, raids, PvP battlegrounds, etc. Sounds like a pretty good deal, right? Well, just because you can access something doesn't mean that you will, at least not for free.
Where a game like this makes its money is through its shop. Since they aren't selling content per say, a game of this type sells power boosts, conveniences, or both. It is common to find items such as XP boosting potions, travel mounts, inventory expansions, even just the ability to speak in global chat channels in the shops of these games. Depending on the game, you can even directly buy weapons, armor, and other items to boost your character. Often in games that allow this, the content is designed with the assumption that you are going to purchase this gear, or XP boosts, or other cash benefits. The result of this is that non-paying players will find their advancement very slow and "grindy" as they are playing on a lower "curve" than the content is designed for.
Conveniences are also often only available through cash purchases, or heavy accumulation of in-game funds. What do we mean by conveniences? Mostly we're talking about mounts, inventory space, and chat privileges. A non-paying player in a game like this will often find that they are limited to normal running/walking speed, or short duration "rental" mounts, a small personal inventory, and only have access to local/spatial chat channels. Now how much these things matter is going to vary from person to person, but again the game is designed around the notion that you are going to buy these conveniences to some degree, limiting the options of a non-paying player.
What appeals to the average player about this system, and the reason I believe people think it is the "wave of the future," is the issue of content access. In a game like this, if a player is willing to make do with limited conveniences and "grind" their way through things, they can do anything a paying player can do and see all the content the game has to offer. The game itself is free and the content expansions are provided for free. And by providing alternate paths to acquiring cash shop benefits, the illusion is maintained that anything is possible without paying a dime. While this is true in theory, in practice I would argue that very few players are willing to put in the time and effort that these games require in order to obtain the same "free" benefits. Let's be honest here, instant gratification is already the "word of the day" in modern MMO design (hi there, WoW). Do you really think that the "average" player is going to grind themselves to death in a "free" game just to avoid paying a few bucks? Because I don't see it.
Freemium: The Trial Model
The second F2P camp, and the one I think developers really have their eye on, as opposed to the above model, is what I like to call "freemium." Dungeons and Dragons Online is the first game I can think of that adopted this model after launching as a standard subscription product. If anyone can think of an earlier example of "freemium" though, do let me know. As with the "true" F2P model, the client of a "freemium" game is also free. But that is where the similarities between the two end. While "true" F2P does not rely on payment to access content, "freemium" games are based primarily around that very concept.
While "freemium" games employ a cash shop much like "true" F2P does, the emphasis of that shop is much different in a "freemium" game. Here the emphasis is not so much on convenience or boosting (although those may or may not be present as it varies from game to game). Instead the emphasis is on selling you content. A non-paying player in a "freemium" game is going to find large portions of the game inaccessible. A game of this type focuses on selling things such as quest packs, additional zones or dungeons, and even full sized expansions. If you are not going to pay any money for a game like this, you are essentially playing an "extended trial" rather than the full game itself. Doesn't sound too great does it? So why have games that switched to this model (DDO, Lord of the Rings Online, DC Universe, Star Trek: Online) become more profitable?
This model puts a degree of choice into the hands of the player. Very often a "freemium" game will continue to offer a full subscription option. If you really enjoy the game and know you will play it monthly, you can continue to pay according to the traditional model. In most "freemium" games this means automatic access to each content update as they are released and a monthly "stipend" for the game's cash shop. So for the "traditional" MMO player, nothing much changes, which is appealing to them. For others, "freemium" gives them the option to purchase content as they use it, rather than on a flat fee schedule that may not suit their needs. Don't feel like booting up the game this month? No problem, no investment. Big content update next month? Drop in and pick it up. A great deal of flexibility is afforded to the player.
"Free" is really an illusion with this model, much more so than with "true" F2P. Yes you can play a "freemium" game without paying anything. But often you will reach a point where you simply have no alternative than to pay in order to continue. And unlike "true" F2P, it is much more rare in a "freemium" game to find alternate paths to obtaining the same content for free that other players are paying for. They may allow you to save up enough to buy some new bags or a mount, but getting access to that next questing zone or dungeon is often only the realm of the cash shop.
Which brings us full circle to why the discussion of F2P frustrates me. Based on the comments I read around the 'Net, I am left with the impression that when the average gamer thinks of F2P, they are thinking of the first model. The game is free, the content is free, you just get "nickle'd and dime'd" on conveniences and shortcuts, and people think to themselves, "Well I can live without those things. I beat the system!" Not only are they underestimating just what is necessary to truly play for free in these kind of games, they are misinterpreting the intent of game developers. Because when they talk about embracing F2P, I don't think developers are looking at the first model, they are looking at the second.
The precedent is already there for many current games and franchises. When you look at games like Call of Duty, Mass Effect, Battlefield, etc. you can already see the "freemium" concept at work. Yes for now you are still paying for the "client" up front, but what are you paying for after the fact? Content. DLC in these games often takes the form of new maps, new quests, new zones to play in, much like what you find in a "freemium" MMO. THIS is what MMO developers have in mind when they say the "future" of games is F2P. They don't want to sell you a backpack (although some of them will do that too) they want to get you in the door for "free," and then "sell" you the rest of the game piece by piece.
So yes, F2P may be the inevitable future of games, but don't think it means that we'll be living in some gaming utopia where we are playing World of Warcraft II for free. If you look at what developers are really saying, I think you will find the actual message to be something much different.