Critiques of Free-to-Play Games Aren’t All Snobbery

Apr 10, 2014

Let’s get one thing straight: snobbery is just another way of saying “I prefer this.” We’re all snobs about something by definition. The very act of preferring one thing to another implies a belief, conscious or otherwise, that the thing you prefer is superior to the thing you don’t, however much you might try to wriggle out of those implications to avoid being stereotyped as a snob. Snobbery is just another part of being human.

If you want to extend that definition of snobbery to include unwarranted disdain or condescension toward others who don’t hold with you on whatever position, fine, but I’m talking about the baseline definition of the word, plucked from the New Oxford American Dictionary. And I’m standing on that baseline definition only to make a point about former EA and Lionhead exec Ben Cousins’ claim in an op-ed carried by Polygon that “snobbery” drives critiques of free-to-play games.

I have no fundamental beef with free-to-play games. I’ve spent my fair share on them (I’m looking at you, Temple Run 2), and I’ve played plenty where the mechanic doesn’t feel intrusive or gimmicky, where the game experience benefits from having certain salable levers you can optionally pull in lieu of not having them. I’d argue freemium games with aptly balanced and carefully integrated micro-transactions have their place, that place being where the parabolic curve and sense of iterative in-game accomplishment dovetails with in-game insuperability — and you're able to surf that curve either way — for whatever intended demographic.

But I’m also as skeptical as anyone else of the effect and influence of commercial requirements on aesthetic choices in artistic mediums like literature, film, visual art, music and, more recently, gaming. I’m talking about the ways in which commercial demands shape or dictate the form a video game takes, and the follow-on assumption often made by the moneymakers that opened wallets equal thumbs up to design choices, and that popularity alone is all the justification art needs.

We’re making enormous culturally-driven assumptions when we argue any of that stuff has to be monetized to be sustainable or even worth doing in the first place, of course. Not everyone makes the same assumptions, and I’d like to think there’s room for a dialogue about this that doesn’t involve disdain or condescension toward artists who’d dare make art for art’s sake.

At the same time, I understand the allure of bandwagons and the tendency for commercial interests to swarm those bandwagons like sharks scenting blood. Free-to-play has been good to game-makers and players alike. On the casual side of the industry, it offers higher rates of return at lower entry thresholds, certainly when compared to the sort of Hollywood-caliber stakes involved in developing triple-A (or as Amazon’s VP of games put it the other day, quadruple-A) games like the Call of Dutys or Grand Theft Autos of the world. You can make a decent living off a successful free-to-play game without assembling battalions of developers and racking up tens of millions of dollars in art asset creation expenditures, and that more people are able to make games and sustain careers...all the poorly made stuff aside, I'm trying to see how lowering the idea-to-execution-to-sustainability threshold is a bad thing.

And looking at it from the player's vantage, swinging back to Cousins’ piece, he makes some important and valid points about free-to-play's overlooked perks: free-to-play games may on occasion take the form of bait-and-switch, but they can also be “played extensively before you even make a purchase.” There's an "implementation efficacy" test here -- plenty of free-to-play games get this wrong -- but I've found this to be true as often as not. Furthermore, Cousins is correct that traditional games, with their radically higher investment stakes, are often far worse about bait-and-switch in terms of promising things they don't deliver, because then that’s marketing and rate-of-return 101, ergo caveat emptor.

I can also see where “whales” — players who spend unusual sums on game additives — might well be simply cautious, methodical enthusiasts, as opposed to easily duped irrationalists. Spending more money on things you like than someone else isn't inherently irrational behavior. Assuming the buyer's not harming anyone, who are we to judge?

But I’m less persuaded by Cousins' argument, assuming it’s statistically correct (and it may not be), that there isn’t a predatory risk in free-to-play models when it involves consumers who might not possess the faculties (and economic experience, and psychological independence, and financial obligations) necessary to make responsible purchasing decisions — namely children.

The hypothetical issue of children getting snookered into spending money on freemium content may not be widespread, as Cousins argues, and even if it were, I’m not sure I’d be in favor of introducing regulation (free-to-play games are hardly cigarettes, and much, if not most, of ensuring children aren't racking up free-to-play tabs comes down to parental involvement). But we need to be able to have a conversation about how the most vulnerable among us might be more susceptible to making uninformed or impulsive purchases in free-to-play applications without slippery-sloping into bipolar "for or against free-to-play" bulwarking.

We should, for instance, at minimum be watchful of what developers and publishers are up to when building games expressly for children, as well as lobbying for evolving strictures on our computing devices to help us better self-regulate how we or our children interface with free-to-play content. Someone trying to sell you something has the most incentive to simply sell you that something, and the least incentive to consider anything else. Where that involves kids and spending money, we ought to at least tread lightly.

Last up, I want to take a swing at what I view as Cousins' weakest argument in the piece: In closing, he compares free-to-play to "the telephone, the jukebox, rock ‘n' roll and many other examples," adding "we fear what we don't recognize, and in this case it's the industry not recognizing where it's heading." It's as snobbish a claim as any I've seen: as if free-to-play were this inexorable, vanguard force, and anyone who disagrees hates The Beatles, technology and general progress.

Maybe that's true of free-to-play and maybe it's not, but it's just as true that industries head in all sorts of directions, not all of them healthy, and momentum alone isn't a rationale. You can recognize where something's going or trending and have concerns for reasons that have nothing to do with cultural shortsightedness or stubbornness. Not every industrial force or outcome is for the best -- slavery was once considered an economic godsend, to reference one of the most nefarious -- and not every skeptic's just a blinkered, elitist, fearmongering fool.

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