This article first appeared as the opening column in issue 20 of Wireframe.
Free-to-play has brought gaming to billions of new players across the globe: from the middle-aged Middle Americans discovering hidden object puzzles to the hundreds of millions of mobile gamers playing MOBAs in China. People who wouldn’t (or couldn’t) buy games now have an unfathomable choice, spanning military shooters to interior decorating sims.
F2P is solely responsible for this dramatic expansion of our art across the borders of age, race, culture, and continents. The joy of gaming is now shared by nearly the entire globe. Yet many inside and outside the games industry see F2P as a blight, where the model’s success is down to its ability to trick unsuspecting players into spending.
Having spent nearly a decade making F2P games, I know that this isn’t an accurate picture of the average spending player. The titles most prolific under the model are successful because they become meaningful to players’ lives, with spending healthily repeated over months and often years. I’ve personally spent an average of £1500 per year on Magic: The Gathering over many years, well within the limits of my income, and have no regrets. The game has brought me a lot of joy and introduced me to some of my closest friends.
But it would be foolish to suggest that there aren’t players who make purchases in F2P titles that they live to regret, especially if they do so with impaired reasoning, as is often the case with children and vulnerable adults. I appeared on the BBC News back in 2013 talking about children accidentally spending money in games, and now, six years later, the BBC’s still running stories on the problem.
Some may say that the responsibility to protect lies with platform holders, parents, and carers. But this is a shirk. Game makers have a responsibility to protect their players, even if it’s from their own actions, and I believe there is a simple way to do so: refunds.
It’s possible to see the F2P industry adopt a simple policy, one which I know many studios already secretly offer: any player can close their account and receive a full refund for any spending within the last 60 days. This time limit gives parents, guardians, carers, and remorseful spenders a full billing cycle to spot errant spending and another cycle to request their funds back. It’s also a clear signal to our players and the gaming community that F2P is not predicated on one-time tricks but on building healthy, sustainable relationships with players.
How such a refund policy would be publicised and adopted is a little more tricky. But faced with mounting calls for censorship in the 1950s, the comic industry formed Comics Magazine Association of America to self-regulate. Today, the UK’s UKIE and the United States’ Entertainment Software Rating Board, along with Google, Apple, Valve, and other platform holders, could build a similar association.
The 1940s saw Fiorello LaGuardia, then mayor, take to the streets of New York with a sledgehammer to destroy pinball tables. Much of early gaming history is now lost, and the evolution of pinball was stunted until New York lifted the ban in the 1970s. Without self- regulation, F2P faces a metaphorical sledgehammer.
We’ve already seen regulation in F2P, with Japan outlawing a form of monetisation called ‘kompu gacha’ in 2012. Kompu gacha, meaning ‘complete gacha’, is a mechanic where players are rewarded for completing character sets dropped from gacha (also known as loot boxes). Since then, political pressure has been mounting across Europe and the world.
The F2P industry stands on the brink of regulation, which may cause endless headaches for developers. Governments have been proven not to understand video games, and their presence could tie developers in bureaucracy rather than focusing on what really matters: making great games. As game makers, we need to avoid censorship and regulation, push boundaries, but also accept responsibility for our players. And if we fail our players, then we need to make things right for them.