Swimming Against the Free-to-Play Current: An exercise in futility

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It has been said that the people swimming against the stream are the ones that know the strength of it. Which is why it never fails to surprise me when, at least once a week, I read another tirade against the Free-to-play “plague” that is wiping out all that is good in the industry. 
 
The first shots fired this week came from Chris Pruett, the mind behind Wind-up Knight. He suggested banning in-app purchases from Smart-TV apps for the first year or two in order to establish pricing norms and give premium a chance. 
 
A few weeks ago, Peter Molyneux made his vow to change the industry as well, saying that current free-to-play games “abuse and confuse” customers. Even the folks at Dorkly had something to say about the birth of every awful video game thing.
 
But the naysayers seem to be failing to realize one thing: this plague has no vaccination, at least not one that is coming any time soon. Moreover, the criticisms are coming largely from western developers and publishers who are only looking at the issue through a single lens. 
 

All Free-to-Play is not equal  

The way users approach free games in different markets is as varied as the platforms they choose to play them on. Just as Android rules in China and Korea, and Apple is dominant in the US, so too are there differences in attitudes about in-app purchases and free games. 
 
Korea and China are particularly relevant because they are the patient zero of the free play models. Nexon’s Maple Story, although not the first, was the game that made micro-transactions so popular. The model spread from Korea’s online MMO gaming models into China. Free games are now an expectation in the gaming culture.
 
This is perhaps best demonstrated by statistics from Google’s  Our Mobile Planet, showing that although Koreans have an average of 40 apps on their phones, only 2.7 are paid. China seems to have similar inclinations with an average of 26 apps and only 2.1 of them paid. This is a significant difference from both the US and UK markets, where users have an average of 8 and 7 paid apps on their phones respectively. 
 
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This is very likely due to the fact that Korea and China were both relatively late bloomers to the gaming industry, both coming of age in the era of online PC games, where free-to-play has been around since nearly the very beginning. This early exposure helped form consumer expectations. 
 
One manifestation of this was in Korea’s MMO culture, which had a history of gray and black market item trading. Virtual goods have always tended to be viewed much differently than in the west. Namely, in-game items seem to be more ‘real’  to Korean and Chinese gamers than they are by western gamers.
 
Virtual goods and currency trading came to legal battles in both countries. At one point, the use of virtual game currencies to purchase real-world items became so ubiquitous in China that the country had to outlaw the practice. Korea was not immune to these legal battles either. Suffice it to say, not everyone has the same view of free-to-play games and in-app item purchases.   
 

Free content is ubiquitous 

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While people, particularly gamers, have been pointing the finger at companies like EA for their over aggressive payment schemes (rightfully so), the bigger picture is being ignored. Free-to-play, or rather free-to-use,  is not unique to the game industry. News content, music, and film have all been free, legally or otherwise, since the days of Napster. As opportunities on the internet have grown, so have the expectations of consumers for the way their content will be delivered. 
 
The fact is, the majority of content is free now, and that mindset is not going to die any time soon. Rather than fighting the tide with a broken oar, the free-to-play naysayers might want to start building a better boat to weather the rapids. 
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