I regularly spend money on free-to-play (F2P) games. This is a massive point of shame for me – first just as a person who likes games but now even more amplified as a game designer.
My first experience with disgust and abhorrence over F2P games was the release of Plants vs. Zombies 2. Plants vs. Zombies (a tower defense game where you plant a garden of anthropomorphic plants to protect you from waves of zombies) was one of my favorite games and a hugely social game for my family, my partner, and me. Even though the game involves solo play, we all used to talk about it all the time, help each other defeat levels the other could not, and bond over strategies for setting up the best garden defense system. PvZ was hugely successful (see Plunkett’s Micro-Review) and released on a number of platforms – I think at the time the folks in my social circle bought it it cost us each around $15. I paid for and loved the original Plants vs. Zombies but PvZ 2 was (to me as well as many others) a disaster of a game because it relied on forcing the player to spend money to make any meaningful progress.
I hated the way paying made me feel. It emphasized that I wasn’t “good enough” to win the game or succeed or progress without paying for it. It felt like cheating at something I used to be really really good at.
A review title for PvZ2: “Plants vs. Zombies 2 review: Sticks to its roots, but paywall leaves us feeling dead inside”
Now I pay regularly while playing F2P games. I’m not sure when this started, but I completely feel shame and regret whenever it happens. As both a game designer and HCI researcher I know intimately the techniques the designers have used to convince me to spend money on their games. Slowing my progress down, putting an upgrade that will help me take leaps and bounds ahead, subtle design choices that nudge me are all things I notice and that work on me anyways.
The game above, Gordan Ramsay’s Restaurant Dash is a game I love to play for the same reasons I loved the original PvZ. My sisters all play it and we get to bond over our favorite restaurant maps, the best speed boosts, and the funny delight of being yelled at by Gordon. They’re pretty upset when they find out that I occasionally spend money on the game, but honestly, I do all the justification Jesse mentioned in class about it being “worth it.” I do legitimately believe that if someone spent the time making this game, they do deserve my money. It’s just unclear how much. What exactly is that social connection and that bit of fun in my day worth?
My dad is a whale. A person who spends hundreds and hundreds of dollars on F2P games like Star Wars: Commander and Clash of Clans (see Good’s “Who Are the ‘Whales’ Driving Free-to-Play Gaming? You’d Be Surprised “). So my own status as a normal payer seems so minimal by comparison. But that shame is still there. And weirdly it comes from those social connections that make the games so inviting. Whenever I tell someone, ESPECIALLY game designers and HCI researchers that I pay, I get the typical “we can’t be friends anymore” or “what’s wrong with you” responses. And I get it, I feel the same way. But this is SO pervasive in F2P games, it’s why they exist! So why do we have to be SO elitist about those games?
I’d love to write something pithy and clever about why F2P games are amazing and great. But honestly they’re not. But they make me happy and IDGAF I’m going to keep playing and probably keep paying.