The impact of free-to-play big budget AAA games

Free-to-play is kind of a dirty phrase in the world of gaming. When we hear it, we think of mobile games that forcefully lock away gameplay behind paywalls or inhibit progress without indulging in microtransactions. While they are “technically” free-to-play, actually having the full gameplay experience requires a player to drop quite a bit of cash in hidden fees, and if they want to be competitive they have to drop even more. For the most part, this pricing model has become seen as exploitative, and rightly so since it employs all sorts of psychological tricks to make the product as addictive as possible and incentivize people to impulse spend.

However, we have also quietly admitted that free-to-play models don’t necessarily have to be this way. Many popular games with collectible elements are free-to-play. For example, Hearthstone and other CCGs are all free-to-play. MOBAs tend toward the free-to-play model as well. League of Legends is an incredibly enduring title that still tops the charts on Twitch, and it’s free-to-play. Then there’s the modern battle royale craze, with titles like Fortnite being free to play too.

But even these have hidden costs associated with them. Digital CCGs allow you to trade time and frustration for money as you grind for packs, but to keep up with the meta each expansion you’ll probably have to drop at least some money on a pack or two if you aren’t a pro that has gone infinite. MOBAs only allow you to play certain characters unless you’ve paid for them, and then give you a whole bunch of aesthetic additions on top of that. Battle royales don’t lock away gameplay elements but do lock away important social elements, like events, limited-time skins, and other status symbols behind paywalls.

The Walking Dead

Another free-to-play model is (with all due respect) the “dying game.” These are games that at one point were full titles available for purchase, but as interest has waned their publishers have decided that they can likely make more money by trickling in revenue on free-to-play transactions. Usually, players are rewarded with some sort of bonus if they originally purchased the game, but then it falls more in line with other free-to-play models.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Team Fortress 2 might be the oldest example of this, releasing in 2007 and turning free-to-play in 2011. However, the community has been so active and the project has been so lucrative for Valve that Team Fortress 2 still has an active fanbase to this date, and is even still receiving content updates as recent as a few days ago!

Incredibly popular titles like Destiny 2 and Rocket League are also turning over to free-to-play models, and while their fanbases have dropped significantly from the heights of their release date, they aren’t completely dead by any means. By allowing more revenue to trickle in via microtransactions in a free-to-play model, developers can support these games with new content much longer than they would be able to otherwise.

There’s also the free-to-play MMO, which has an interesting history. Many early MMOs were free to play before they became bigger projects on the scale of Everquest and World of Warcraft. However, these games also shifted into a “dying” model when their fanbases waned, allowing anyone to play some content but gating many aspects of gameplay behind paywalls.

Which brings us to Genshin Impact.

The impact

Genshin Impact is a recently released AAA game that is, for the most part, free to play. On the surface, you are able to play this basically like any other open-world action game. It has Breath of the Wild-style elements, including the ability to go anywhere, climb on anything, and basically set your own pace. It allows you to play as many different characters each with their own abilities which can change how you travel the world.

It’s a beautiful game and fun to play as well. There is a decent anime-inspired story, really beautiful cutscenes, honestly, it’s a wonder that a game this good looking can run on cell phones, heck it even has full voice acting!

Look, I’m not reviewing Genshin Impact but I will say that this isn’t your standard free-to-play game. It feels like a standard AAA release. There was a ton of effort put into the graphics, sound, setting, gameplay systems, and much more. It’s like Breath of the Wild meets Dynasty Warriors in all the best ways. I would tell you to go out and play it now…. but…

The bill always comes due.

When Genshin Impact was first released, everyone said it was very free-to-play friendly. You could go anywhere and do anything without the game roadblocking you. While, yes, you sometimes need different forms of resources to open chests and uncover collectibles and these resources restore on standard free-to-play timers, but for the most part players seemed to be fine with bypassing anything they didn’t have resources for. Weapons too were beset with a standard free-to-play gacha crafting system, but once again players seemed to be fine with just using whatever weapons they had on hand.

… but the bill always comes due.

And of course, there was a gacha system attached to its character unlock system which is a central part of the game. But the game never forces you to use it. Besides, you can supplement your power by inviting your friends into your party and playing together. Like, the free-to-play systems are there, but if you don’t have to use them it’s not that bad right?

The bill…

Always….

Comes due…

Genshin Impact has been out for a couple of weeks now and you are starting to see the tune of the discourse change on social media. Players were able to explore to their heart's content, but eventually, there just wasn’t enough more to explore that felt rewarding. They wanted new abilities… which required new characters… which required gacha pulls. They wanted new items, which required more resources, which could be bought using real-world money.

This is the big problem with the free-to-play model. Even though the best free-to-play games don’t outright punish you for not spending money, they still have to give you some incentive to do so or else they… well.. don’t make money. Genshin Impact doesn’t outright roadblock you like many mobile titles. It’s more subtle than that. Its strategy is to only be an OK game… unless you spend money. Then you get to play a good game.

What do I mean? Well, look at the combat. For the most part, combat is one note. All you can really do is spam the attack button… unless you unlock a variety of characters and create varied character loadouts. Then you can create interesting combos with many different abilities that affect the environment in unique ways. Good luck getting these characters without spending money though.

So is Genshin Impact a revolution in free-to-play models, or is it just better at hiding its monetization tactics than most?

Then again, if the fanbase doesn’t care, is there anything wrong with its model?

Is free worth it?

The free-to-play AAA game is becoming more and more common these days. Just this month we are seeing the release of Bless Unleashed a massive new open-world MMO from Bandai Namco and it too is free-to-play. Warframe still gets updates and is big enough to be featured at prominent events like E3. Phantasy Star Online’s newest installment is a free-to-play title. If you click on the free-to-play tag on digital distribution platforms like Steam you’ll see that several release every week. Even some pay-to-play titles like Square Enix’s Avengers utilize free-to-play monetization models despite having a price of entry.

So the big question is, will this model work? Are we comfortable with free-to-play models becoming a standard in mainstream gaming?

It’s really a matter of psychology if you think about it. Look at fighting games. It is not uncommon for players to drop upwards of $100 or more on their favorite fighting games as they pay for each and every new DLC character to come out. However, the only difference between this and free-to-play models is they were barred from entry unless they paid for the main game which came with a base roster. But isn’t that just the same as buying a big “character combo pack?” What’s really the difference between that and a starter character pack in any given MOBA? Well, the big difference is that the fanbase is more restricted to people who paid the price of entry, but that’s it. Is that better?

This is why I say it’s a matter of psychology. Consumers need to feel as if they are getting a full game before they spend any money, even if the game is free. Genshin Impact is making, well, an impact, because it DOES feel like a full game, if only due to its incredible scale. CCGs feel like a full game even if you don’t own every card. MOBAs feel like a full game even if you can’t access every character. Dying games feel like a full game because they were full games before they started dying. Whether or not a free-to-play game succeeds partially comes down to whether or not it feels like a game before a monetization platform.

But again, the bill always comes due. At some point you are going to have to spend money on these games to get the full experiences, and when that point comes every gamer has to ask themselves a question: is it worth it? The free-to-play experience is something like a demo for what you COULD get if you spent money. Its job is to make the expenditure a promising value.

So in the end, whether or not we will see more free-to-play AAA games will come down to how good developers are at burying their monetization model… and I’m not sure we are there yet. Yes, games like Genshin Impact prove that there is a space in which players can be satisfied and companies can still make money, a sweet spot if you will. But EA still ends up in pricing scandals on a yearly basis, major releases get blasted by the community for even thinking to utter the word “microtransaction” and the space for competitors to mammoths like Fornite is incredibly small. I personally don’t think that Genshin Impact is a sign of things to come, for now. Maybe in a decade or two when we have gone more digital, alternative pricing models will become more prevalent, but for now, I just don’t think that the average consumer is comfortable with a free game that isn’t actually… you know… free.

What do you think? Will we be seeing more free-to-play games in the future? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.