Thinking on Free

The word “free” comes with quite a bit of baggage.  Just sticking to money, as opposed to freedom, rights, and so forth, the baggage is not always flattering.  I see things being offered as “free” all the time, usually falling into one of these categories (straight from my spam folder):

  • Buy one, get one free
  • Free with purchase
  • Free gift with paid subscription
  • Free if you order now
  • Free consultation
  • Free resort vacation

The first four are not free.  Nothing is “free” if you have to buy something to get it.  And of the latter two, a free consultation is likely nothing more than an extended sales pitch, while the final one on the list is free if you don’t count the time you need to spend at the hard sell presentation to get you to buy a time share condo.  The purpose of the exercise is to get you to buy, not to give you a vacation.

Basically, the word “free” is pretty much a red flag to me.  I am either not getting anything for free or it is just a lure to try and sell me something.

Sometimes it is okay.  At the grocery store, if something on the shopping list is “Buy X, Get Y Free,” then that amounts to a price break, so long as it isn’t something perishable that will likely go bad before we use it.

So, despite the fact that, at an intellectual level, I can accept the MMO free to play business model for what it is and can see that it is beneficial in some ways ( it has probably kept LOTRO alive a couple of years longer than it might have otherwise lasted) at another more emotional level, it still sits on the same plane as somebody trying to sell me a timeshare in Scottsdale, Arizona.  (Cue rant about EverQuest II popping up the “upgrade to GOLD” dialog in the middle of combat.)

Does anybody use “free” as their prime marketing message and not suffer from this?  Can free be a business model without the intent to hit people up early and often for some money?

Free, Free, everywhere!

Free, Free, everywhere!

I like the Rift ad especially.  That they felt the need to add “No Trials. No Tricks. No Traps.” speaks volumes.  And I think, of F2P models, they do offer more for free than most.  Probably too much, truth be told.  But it is clear that they understand the stigma, while perpetuating it at the same time.

Of course, this might just be me.  There is a very strong “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” theme in my world view.

I started writing this post a couple of weeks back after reading a particularly asinine “how dare you expect to play for free” comment in some thread somewhere.  “Devs gotta eat, who are you to question them?” sort of stuff.  I should have saved that link… or maybe it was better that I did not.  Anyway, I started in but my head of steam dissipated quickly, as it tends to on this topic these days.

And then the European Commission announced that they were looking into the use of the word “free” when used with games that have in-app purchases, with an eye to it being misleading.  And while their focus seems to be more on mobile apps, if “free” becomes bad for in-app purchases on one platform, it is pretty easy to then extend it to others.

I thought this would lead to another round of free to play blog posts, but not much has come along.  Azuriel posits that basically nothing can ever be called free if the European Commission’s potential ruling comes to pass, at least in the EU.  Meanwhile, Green Armadillo seems to be more on my own wave length, that using the word “free” when you fully expect somebody to pay is misleading at some level.

I was also interested to learn in that post that League of Legends has apparently stopped marketing with the word “free.”  Good for them.  (Though I had to quickly update my collage of free, as I had an old “Play for Free” LoL image in it.)

I can be a cynic, the world having thus shaped me, and talk about money tends to bring out the worst in people… you can mess with a lot of things, but as soon as cash is involved, the lid tends to come right off… but I also have mixed feelings on this.  Who decides what the litmus test is to determine how “free” something has to be in order to claim to be “free?”  And there is something to be said for personal responsibility.

What do you think?  To be “free” or not to be “free?”

32 thoughts on “Thinking on Free

  1. Pasduil

    Freemium is a big thing now.

    Gmail or for mail, Dropbox for cloud storage, Heroku for hosting web apps, and so on and on. even, which we are on right now.

    I could write a long post or comment about it all, but suffice it so say that there can be such a thing as a free lunch where the “marginal cost” of providing that lunch is essentially zero.

    Running the infrastructure costs a lot of money, but providing blog service to one more user costs essentially nothing. They can provide the service to free to the vast majority of users and still make a profit from selling upgrades and running a few ads.

    Similar logic can apply to games.


  2. Scott

    I would really rather the industry had come up with a better name for the model but at this point the damage is done. For most people it’s “free to enter,” in that there are no barriers to entry. No running to the store to buy a box, no money spent at all, just download and start playing. From that point, the model splinters as we’ve seen.

    Path of Exile has been very successful where people buy stuff just to give them money for building a great game and never once being asked to spend a dime. Most other games have their hand out at least once per gaming session.

    Still, in every F2P game I play there’s a non-trivial segment of the population who devotes a serious amount of time into grinding the currency in-game and truly play for free.

    Here’s where I personally get a little fuzzy. For PvE games, I have no problem tossing a little (or sometimes a lot) of cash to the studio if I really enjoy the game. But for PvP (Planetside 2 or Ghost Recon Online off the top of my head) spending money quite frankly is the last thing on my mind. Perhaps because they’re both shooters, and I’ve grown up on years of “normal” (I suppose the term now would be Buy2Play?) shooters so I’d rather just play to level up. I can’t see “myself” so why buy cosmetics? I don’t have a rational excuse for that behavior other than “because” but it’s something I’ve noticed about myself recently.


  3. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Pasduil – Except that games are a lot more in-your-face about wanting money.

    If Gmail or popped up ads while I was typing or limited how many words I could type in a given post without subscribing, or said I couldn’t post again for 12 hours without buying a token, that might be a more apt comparison.

    But if ad revenue (and data farming) are your revenue channels, you want as many people as possible both using your service as well as visiting and you don’t want to scare them off by doing the hard sell all the time. (And actually makes its real money by hosting things like CNN’s blogs. We are, as you say, a minor incremental cost once they had the infrastructure for the big clients.)

    I don’t feel I need to buy anything to blog at, but if I went back to play EQII, I would subscribe again to remove the layer of annoyances they put in your way to get you to pay. So I get what you are saying, but the cases are just different enough to not be parallel in my view.

    But there is clearly a case there where “free” hasn’t made me completely suspicious.

    (I do pay $30 a year to keep them from injecting ads into my blog. I don’t see even see them if I don’t, but I really don’t like them. But that is more because of me than being able to blog.)

    And no, I had not seen that post. It is worth a read.


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  5. Jonathan

    My real opinion?

    The Ukraine is being occupied, half of the economies of Europe are a shambles, the Euro is busting at the seams…

    Don’t you guys have something more important to do?


  6. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Jonathan – Oh, you’re right. I’ll get right out there and save the Ukraine today.

    One of the truisms of the world is that everybody’s life and interests and little bitty opinions continue to exist even when things are going on elsewhere.

    That you have time to worry about what other people are talking about marks you as a troll and a hypocrite. Don’t YOU have something more important to do?

    [I probably should have just deleted Jonathan’s comment, but I haven’t had a real “get a life” troll comment in a while, so I thought I would savor it. I apologize for the distraction.]


  7. Asmiroth

    The context of Free is the issue. What we expect as “free” in the MMO space does not align very well with the mobile space, where the real issues seem to be. IAP for gems is a separate offence compared to IAP for features (a-la SWTOR) and IAP for content (a-la DDO modules).

    The proliferation of free though, and the 87 variants on implementation, certainly do make me less hesitant to take it at face value. You get what you pay for after all.


  8. kiantremayne

    I’m with Scott. “Free to play” has to be taken as “free to start playing, at some point you will want to spend some money.” Anyone who really believes that they’re entitled to the full, technicolour experience without paying something at some point is naïve at best and mind-bogglingly stupid/greedy at worst.

    I’m convinced it would be a better (or at least less frustrating) world if we could put the works of Robert Heinlein on the curriculum of every secondary school on the planet…


  9. C. T. Murphy

    There can be nothing free under the sun (or on the moon, who I hear is a harsh mistress).

    I much preferred when ‘free’ was a bit more obvious. It was a ‘Free Trial’ or a ‘Free Account’ which you easily understood to be the most basic of basics. Like you, I really hate when games TRY to convince me to pay.

    Truthfully, I believe in paying what I owe. That means that when a good product comes around, I actually ENJOY seeing my money go to it. A restaurant that gives me great food, service, all at a reasonable price? TAKE MY MONEY.

    The F2P model often boils down to a ‘We feel Free to Beg’ model. For some reason, the begging part always rubs me the wrong way, even if I do like the product.


  10. bhagpuss

    As Azuriel highlighted when he quoted me in his follow-up piece, my issue is with the use of language in the phrase “Free to Play”, which is extremely fuzzy. Both words are equally problematic.

    The underlying problem is that both “Free” and “Play” require context or qualifiers to be meaningful. If no qualifiers are used and no context given then they default to their absolutes, which would mean “Utterly without costs of any kind to take part in to the fullest extent”. If that isn’t what you mean by that phrase you need to explain what limitations you are applying.

    Given how many limitations, qualifications and exceptions there are to most of these offers it’s surely better to find another way of describing them. I can’t really see what the objection can be to more clarity and accuracy.


  11. zaphod6502

    In the context of MMO’s my thinking is siding more with Syncaine these days. So many of these so called “free” MMORPG’s simply annoy me now. Annoy me with constant offers to spend money in their virtual cash shops, annoy me to spend money to increase my bag space, annoy me to spend money to unlock new content.

    In some cases I spent more money on “free” games than I did on standard “retail” full price monthly sub MMO’s. It wasn’t until I checked my account history that I realised the full extent of the spend.

    My belief is there are no truly free MMO’s even when they claim to be. Even the much loved Guild Wars 2 has psychological hooks designed to make people part with their real cash (Lock boxes – grrr).

    As for non-MMO’s I have yearly subscriptions to both Office 365 and Dropbox (100GB). Both offer great value for my needs. I wish Google offered some sort of sub service so that it might actually guarantee they would not close services they had previously offered (Google Reader!).

    Sorry if this meandered off subject.


  12. Toldain

    Dan Ariely has written and posted a bunch of stuff about how the concept of “free” gets people to make irrational economic decisions. So there’s little wonder that lots of businesses use it to try to get people to make irrational purchases. And that you (and I) have developed a very cynical defensive reaction to the use of the word.

    That said, I think there’s a lot to be said for “frictionless entry” into an ongoing game. You can play board games with someone else’s copy before you buy it, for example.


  13. Rammstein

    I’m reading this blog for free, real free, not faux free, so, thanks. No, seriously, thank you for that.

    The free2play business model, which I find highly annoying, would be less annoying if they were honest about their business model; however, since the honest name would be “annoy2pay”, as they annoy you until you pay(and often afterwards), it would still clearly be annoying. Obviously, I’m describing only the largest branch of the many varieties of game trying to brand themselves as free2play. To me, that is the missing piece in the above analysis–if the basic business model is already hostile to the user, why bother having an honest/friendly name for it?


  14. Pasduil

    “Except that games are a lot more in-your-face about wanting money”

    Maybe some are, but the ones I have experience of are nothing like as intrusive as you suggest. I’ve played LOTRO a lot, and a bit of Rift, STO, SWTOR. None of them ever say you can’t play for another 12 hours without paying or show anything that I’d call a pop-up ad. Some people get worked up about notifications when you can buy something but they’re not much different than “you have mail” notifications in their size and behavior. If those anger people it’s probably because they’re predisposed to anger at any hint of a store.

    In mobile games, Hero Academy is a good example. You can play free as much as you like. (On mobile, the PC version costs.) There are the extra teams and cosmetics to pay for if you want, but nothing to stop you having a ton of fun with the game or restrict your playing in any way.

    I guess the totality of my argument is:

    – Because of the marginal cost issue, there is a lot of software or software-as-a-service that can indeed be provided free to (most) users without there having to be some inevitable hidden sting to it.

    – Not only is it possible in theory, but there do exist some games that in practice meet the criteria of what I personally would consider to be an accurately named “Free to Play” game. i.e. You can have a satisfactory long-term play experience without paying anything.

    – That doesn’t mean all F2P games are good, or that all of those that are called F2P really deserve the tag. But there are some, and enough that you can’t dismiss them as outliers and weird special cases.


  15. Pendan

    I believe Jonathan comment was saying the European Commission has better things to worry about. So I don’t think he was trolling you the way you think.

    The counter to his statement is the government has a lot of different departments. The guy that worries about if citizens are being miss lead is not likely the same guy that worries about Ukraine problems.

    Gamers do something similar when they complain about something like icons being updated when “more important bugs need to be fixed”. The artists that makes the icons are way more likely to add more bugs if they worked on your more important bug in the code instead of doing artwork.


  16. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Pendan – That is a more charitable view of Jonathan’s comment than I would have allowed. It isn’t clear to me who he is complaining about.

    @Pasduil – “but the ones I have experience of are nothing like as intrusive as you suggest.”

    Suggest? Heh! Are you implying that I am perhaps not telling the truth when I complain that EverQuest II has repeatedly popped up “Go Gold” dialogs regardless of what activity I have been involved with, such as being in the middle of combat? Because I am not suggesting anything, I am stating fact.

    If you’re telling me I’m exaggerating, I have to suggest that you are perhaps understating the pervasiveness of the real money presence in some games. To use your own examples, every dialog in LOTRO has some link to a real money transaction. In Rift, there are no more individual vendors, all such in-game transactions go through the cash shop. And I am not even sure where to put the selling of UI elements like hotbars, ala SWTOR. But those certainly adds up to more than a notification that you have in-game mail to me.

    And while I will now, as I have on past occasions, affirm that annoyance at seeing a constant stream of real money offers in nearly every aspect of the interface is as much an emotional issue as anything, that does not make it any less important to any given individual. Characterizing that as merely being “predisposed” strikes me as being a bit dismissive of the situation, as though there was no legitimate objection that could be voiced.


  17. Jonathan

    @ Pendan — Yep, wasn’t trying to troll Arcturus. And I do understand how big the government is — I deal with a number of rather huge agencies in D.C. And I do understand that the standards of what makes sense over in the U.S. where I reside is different than what is normal in Europe.

    That having been said, I am always stunned when I hit this sort of thing as a regulation or a point of law. For us, as private citizens who play and enjoy these games to debate and argue over the merits of Free-to-Play and Subscribe-to-Play and Pay-to-Win and Once-Up-Front-with-a-cash-shop is one thing — we are doing this on our own time with our own dime, as it were.

    But can you just imagine how large the actual regulations will end up being? Remember, at the end of the day, some company might get sued over this and have to defend it in court, with lawyers arguing over the definition of “free” and the precise meaning of “a game” and “playing”. Oh, and for an online game, jurisdiction.

    Maybe I’m just silly, but I’m not very excited about inviting a large bureaucracy to help me by regulating my entertainment further than it already is. Call me old-fashioned, but I’m rather fond of the good old Common Law approach — if I feel I have been overly mislead, I sue.


  18. Isey

    I try to keep it simple.

    A free to play game for me is one I play, and pay if I am enjoying myself and want to reward the developers for giving me enjoyment. (see – League of Legends)

    If I have to pay to enjoy myself (ie; remove artificial barriers, etc.) then it isn’t free to play. It is pay to play. (see: LOTRO)

    Let’s not make it difficult =)


  19. Telwyn

    I do think the EU / national governments should stop trying to over-regulate our daily lives.

    As for F2P models, they’ve given me and my friends the chance to play games we otherwise wouldn’t, e.g. SWTOR, for very little cost (in a year of playing we’ve payed less than $15 each). I’ve also tried games I wouldn’t have bought probably – Aion, Tera, EQ2, Neverwinter.

    I’ll agree that the pop-up in EQ2 and the horrid ever-present store links in LOTRO may have been a small factor in me never sticking to those games. But I suspect weaknesses in the core game were more of a factor for me in explaining why I’ve never quite gelled with them longer-term.


  20. wokyr

    For me the meaning of “FREE” is pretty clear. However, how to check if a game deserve it or not is something else entirely.

    I do think it’s a good thing the UE is trying to do something here. Dunno if it works but well, I’m really tired of the use of this word… but they should do it everywhere, like on your introduction’s examples.

    Back to the games, if I had to list a few games that I really consider to be free, I would see LoL first. I stopped playing a while ago, but I never had the need to buy something with real money. If I had continued to play I would have did it, not because I needed it, but because I considered they deserved my money.
    Another example, would be Tera at low level (I’m not sure it works later) ; you can buy the items on the ingame auction house. Of course they are expensive, but you can buy them for the game’s money, so it’s good.
    While saying that you could thinks I consider EVE to be free… but it’s not, at all. I did played with PLEXes for years, but I didn’t considered that as F2P… because it takes LOTS of times to be able to afford the ISKs needed, and on EVE [IG] money is everything, so it doesn’t work. For it to consider F2P I would have needed to see the ingame money as something without much use for the game itself, but as here you buy everything with money it doesn’t work. The only time I considered it true was on 2009, when I was carebearing in wormholes, and could buy 1 PLEX by hour if I wanted… at this point money had not enough value to be so precious, I had way enough, so IG money could be used to pay for game time without hurting.


  21. Jonathan

    @ Arcturus – Not a problem at all, sir! And, in truth, looking at my initial comment, I cannot deny that it appears bright green, covered in warts, and regenerating 5 HP / sec. Not my intention, but certainly how it came out sounding! I should know better than to post at lunch between concalls.


  22. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Kevin Brill – Yeah, my thing with Rift is that I worry that they are giving too much away. It is a fine line to walk I suppose, but once something is free it is tough to roll back to charging for it. I hope there is enough money in souls. The companion pet updates in that post sound interesting.


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  24. dachengsgravatar

    More thoughts about this on my blog, but your comment gobbler, Akismet, will gobble my comment if I dare mention my blogsite, so you’ll have to figure it out yourself by hovering over my “gravatar”, that image at the top of my comment.


  25. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @dachengsgravatar – Is that a different Dàchéng in the feed already?

    And no, Akismet won’t “gobble” it, it will just put it into the moderation queue for me to approve. People do it all the time. Though I am tempted to delete both of your comments as being particularly useless. Try mousing over your “gravatar” there and see what you can figure out.


  26. dachengsgravatar

    Oops! My mistake. It is indeed in your MMO Blogesphere list. I jumped the gun in my impatience!

    When I mouse over my gravatar, I see a popup (hovercard) containing “Hi, I’m Dà Chéng, the author of the Dàchéng Diaries over at I got this gravatar becau…”

    It also contains a link to “Turn off hovercards”

    Since you tell me you will see this in you moderation queue, let me risk adding a direct link here:

    There! Now I will be sent into limbo.


  27. Pasduil

    @Wilhelm…. You seem to have taken exception to my comment which was meant to be far more mild-mannered than you seem to have taken it as.

    The word “suggest” was not meant to question the truth of what you said. (The word to do that would be “allege” or some such.) Rather “suggest” means that my impression was you weren’t making any strong assertions about the subject, more saying what your impression was, and saying it in a way that seemed aware that other views could be reasonable also.

    Re “predisposed”… it wasn’t meant to be dismissive. It was meant to say something like “Such things are in the eye of the beholder.. Hot button issues for some people, but minor matters to others.” If you find the stores intrusive, so be it. You are entitled to that as you are entitled to find a dessert too sweet.

    If you’re asserting that the dessert is not only too sweet for your tastes, but it is objectively too sweet, and anyone that finds it palatable is just wrong then it’s you that is making the mistake that you thought I was making. i.e. Failing to realize that other people are entitled to have different feelings about the thing .

    Frankly I don’t know why people get so excited about this subject.


  28. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    Pasuduil – “Some people get worked up about notifications when you can buy something but they’re not much different than “you have mail” notifications in their size and behavior”

    That sounds a lot like you’re saying that the dessert is not too sweet and that people should get over it. Plus, your statement is verifiably untrue not just in some game somewhere, but in games you brought up as examples.

    I get the “eye of the beholder” thing. But when you preach that and then go on that it isn’t a big deal and that you don’t know why people get excited about it, it sounds remarkably like you do not.


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