It’s another lovely day to be a gamer, friends. Today we’re going to touch on a trend that’s been around for quite some time and talk about what you can look out for when playing games using the free to play (F2P) business model. There are some games out there using this model that are an absolute gas to play and have even claimed a few dollars out of my wallet even though there is no actual requirement to do so.
If you’ve ever browsed Steam on a budget and found yourself tempted to play something free and thought, “If it’s free it must be terrible or half finished” then you’ve probably been burned once or twice. It’s a damn shame too, as there are some games that are designed with the F2P model in mind that show a great amount of polish and quality. The idea in a nutshell goes something like this: You sign up for the game in question, which usually just requires email and password (nothing too intimate, such as your credit card information). Most F2P titles offer two kinds of currency to pay for all the upgrades.
The first type of currency that is offered is collected during activities in-game. It might be rewarded after matches, for defeating monsters, or recommending the game to your friends; it varies depending on how the game in question is played. Purchases using this free currency are usually inflated (and just plain expensive), but it means with a little hard work, you can get the cool thing without giving up your Paypal account.
The other currency is a bit of a premium. This is the stuff you pay actual real world money for. Your premium funds are often worth five times what your freely earned in game currency is worth. Exchange rates will vary, of course, but that’s the basic idea. Most objects or goodies you can buy in F2P titles are not exclusive, and in a good game, the exclusive toys do not help you win, they just help you have fun. These items take the form of aesthetics like paint jobs, cool looking armor, or any other completely aesthetic items.
There is a dark side to the Free to Play market as well. There have been titles in the past that have allowed players to buy performance enhancing items, often only through the expenditure of real world funds. It’s a bad sign if, for instance, you are able to purchase the super-duper bad guy liquefier 3000 that you cannot earn with time and effort using the free currency. Games that promote this sort of marketing are often termed Pay to Win, a twist on the F2P title that indicates how difficult it is to be competitive without an investment of real world funds.
In the coming weeks, this reporter would like to show off some F2P games that you can jump in to right now. We want to discuss how the good guys get it right, and how the not so good guys miss their marks. We will identify where they went wrong in hopes of understanding their folly and seeing improvement made in the future. More importantly, we want to highlight how some titles get it right, right and pass on some good vibes to the games that earned it.
Today we’ve chosen to show you the cartoonish and chaotic tank battle known as Gear Up. Players take command of a simple yellow-green tank. Your mission? Blow up other tanks. It’s pretty simple stuff here. Sometimes you have to hold a point of interest under your team’s control, other times you shoot at anything that moves. It all boils down to the very simple design philosophy: you have guns and ammo, and need something to use them on. The real fun with Gear Up is earning free in-game currency for playing matches, and then spending those funds on new weapons and gear to customize your tank. Predictably, you’ll earn more currency if you win the match, which creates an incentive to play more and win more. Having said that, most developers/games grant you a small amount of currency even when you lose. This is a nice way to handle low pressure losses. Sure, we all like to win, get a couple freebies for participating (which can then be used to increase your chances of winning next time), then you are less likely to seethe over a loss. This helps keep the overall community from becoming too negative, as well as allowing new or casual players an avenue to progress and participate.
Every tank part in the Gear Up is available to you from the first time your treads hit the soil. Each part has a cost, and that cost must be paid to acquire it; as long has you have the funds, there is nothing that keeps you from getting the best gear available. Each part has it’s own balance of pros and cons, often using speed versus functionality as a method to balance parts. The biggest, most armored treads are also the slowest in the game. Having the lightest duty turret on your murder machine means it will snap to your mouse pointer just as quickly as you can move it; the trade off being that you will be a bit fragile. With every piece having it’s own see-saw scale of balance, you won’t be dwarfed by players who spend more time and therefore have the best parts because there are no overwhelmingly powerful options to choose.
On the surface this is pretty neat, but the coolest parts in the game are the ‘mobility’ parts. Not all tanks have treads, my friends. Some tanks hover over the water with the agility of a bathtub on roller skates. Others skulk around on gangly spider legs which can cling to vertical surfaces. A simple but reliable means of locomotion are the old fashioned rover tires. Wheels steer like a car and cannot turn on a dime like treads, but what you lose in maneuverability, you get back in raw speed.
Another interestingly fun feature has been around for years, but as a control scheme we called it archaic and unintuitive. Think back for a minute. Did you ever play the old Playstation game, Resident Evil? How about Tomb Raider, or Grim Fandango. There is something they all have in common (and most of us hated it); tank controls. By tank controls, I mean that in order to move around the world, you press a forward button, then aim yourself to the left or right, and then press forward again. You didn’t strafe left or right while in motion, you had to stop whatever elaborate escape you were in the middle of, adjust your own trajectory, and then mosey on. Put to use in a game about tanks, however, it’s a mixed bag of difficult and hilarious. It serves as a great equalizer, taking people who are often experienced with shooting games, and adding a new wrinkle to the control scheme. Driving one direction while shooting in another takes some practice, but in the end, it’s great fun, and allows for a number of different strategies and tactics.
All this for free, you say? Well yeah… Mostly. Gear Up is going to be our example of how a free to play game can do pretty well, but not quite reach the number one spot on the list. Here we don’t have the usual cash shop where you are given an opportunity to spend money on stuff you don’t need. Instead, Gear Up has three packages you can be a part of. If you downloaded the game for free, you have a storage limit on the huge variety of parts you can use/keep. Upgrading to the basic package for about $10 nets you unlimited storage and unlocks a better selection of colors to paint your various parts. You also get to take advantage of a load out selection in which you can pre-build up to three tanks that you can swap out during the match. Lastly, there’s the premium package. Here, if you spend twenty dollars, you get the last package and instantly unlock every available part in the game.
The problem lies in the Premium deal. Unlocking everything at once puts any new players or people who just have not bought the big boy pants at a bit of an unfair advantage. It isn’t exactly pay to win, like some games out there, but it can have an adverse effect on keeping new players around. Some could also argue that unlocking everything takes the fun out of playing and earning all the parts one by one. Certain parts may never see the battlefield if all parts are unlocked at once, rendering a portion of the parts catalog effectively useless.
This reporter also takes beef with the basic package as well. Before purchasing it, you can barely store any extra parts. Rather than encouraging players to hang on to pieces and experiment with old ones as you get better upgrades, it discourages you from doing any sort of experimentation. The point of the game is making your own creations and pitting them against others. You cannot be expected to get exactly what you want on the first attempt. As such, you gamble every time you buy a new piece of armor or new cannon. The sad thing is that if Gear Up were just sold as a ten or fifteen dollar game and gave you what they now call the basic package, I’d be totally happy with it. As a game, it does a lot of good. Gear up is a ton of fun for you and a pack of friends. However, as a free to play game, it misses the sweet spot by a bit. Besides making it a bit more playable, there just isn’t a real reason to spend your hard earned money on this game beyond the basic pack. Unlocking everything all at once is just like paying money for a cheat code. It cheapens the experience and just lowers the value of all those cool parts and pieces rather than piecing together your own junk heap of debatable fury.