Why 'Pay to Win' Isn't the Biggest Problem with 'Free to Play'

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I wish I could say that I remember my first experience with Microsoft Flight Simulator like it was yesterday, but that's not particularly true. That's not to say I don't remember anything, however, because I remember quite a bit.

I remember that, on December 31, 1999, my father took me to the library so I could download some content for it, thus introducing me to the internet. I remember shaking with anticipation as I walked up to the store counter to pick up $240 worth of accessories. I remember listening to Canyon while blasting through, appropriately, the Grand Canyon. I remember running into the house after I'd mowed the lawn, not even stopping to shower, so I could play the latest island I'd downloaded. I remember changing the game so I could drop nuclear bombs.

I remember crossing the Atlantic in a Concorde one Sunday afternoon and the thrill of seeing North America emerge on the horizon, the joy of taking components from one of the games and putting them into another, just to see if it would work, and spending hours on various websites, looking for new content. I remember a lot of things about a lot of different flight simulators, but it's Microsoft Flight Simulator that I always come back to.

It's weird, I think, that a core gamer like myself would be so profoundly influenced by flight simulators, his preferences and understanding of the media defined by these games, but there you have it.

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Microsoft Flight Simulator 98 is the most important video game I have ever played. That's not to say that Combat Flight Simulator 1-3 or Flight Simulators 2000-2004 and X didn't have an impact on me either, because they did, but Flight Simulator 98 was the first, and so, to me, it was the most important. I still remember seeing "as real as it gets" on the box, and really believing it, because at that time, nothing had come close. Later improvements, of course, proved that slogan wrong, but it's an idea that's never let go of me.

It's an old franchise--Flight Simulator's older than Ultima, the father of all video game RPGs. It's older than Zelda and Mario. In fact, it's older than Pitfall and Pac-Man. It is, or, rather, was, one of the longest-running video game franchises of all time. The 2009 cancellation of the franchise hit me pretty hard, even though I'd moved on to other games by then. I still awaited the next release with the fervor of another Bungie or Remedy game. Microsoft later announced their next release in the series, titled "Microsoft Flight." I can't even begin to tell you how excited I was.

...then Microsoft Flight turned out to be a Free to Play game.

It was good, don't get me wrong. I got into the Beta. Much like Microsoft's other attempt at making F2P games, Age of Empires, it's actually pretty great. Unfortunately, Flight was canceled just five short months after its February 2012 release. Weird problems in Vancouver aside, it strikes me as odd that one of video gaming's most venerable franchises would be tossed aside so easily.

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Generally, people share one primary concern about the upcoming release of any Free to Play game: that it will be "pay to win." It's a reasonable concern, of course. In any competitive multiplayer game, if the best weapons are unlocked by money, then it means that the winner is whoever has the most cash to spend.

There are other concerns as well, such as overpriced content or community fragmentation. Will they have to spend $15 on a single sword, such as in EA's Dragon Age Legends Facebook game? Where Microsoft Flight Simulator X cost $60 for 23 airplanes and the entire world, Microsoft Flight is $101 for Alaska, Hawaii, and seven airplanes (some of which don't even include cockpits). Even the non-Blizzard side of Activision has never proven to be so greedy. What if you have to pay to get some new map, and if you didn't, you couldn't join your friends?

These problems, however, all have reasonable solutions. For instance, developers can make all paid content cosmetic, which means that the community is not fragmented and no one can pay to win. Create a reasonable price, and bam, you've just solved every problem Free to Play games have, right?

Wrong. See, none of the above are problems inherent to the model. They are problems, to be sure, but they can be overcome with some smart choices on the part of the developers. There are deeper problems, and these ones are inextricable from the Free to Play model.

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Recently, my dad brought me a flash drive. On it was a copy of Microsoft Flight Simulator X, fully installed. He'd backed it up from an old computer he'd found in the basement. Looking through the files was fun; I got to explore myself as I was five or six years ago. There's a lot of nostalgia that comes with that--pictures in my head of the fond times of flying, the sounds, the smells, everything--and it all came flooding back.

You can't do that with a Free to Play game.

How does a Free to Play game work? The short version is that you download a client, the account data is stored on the developer/publisher's servers, and you buy stuff from them online. This is how they profit. Nobody makes a free game out of the goodness of their heart, unless they're awesome, but those people are very few and far between. F2P games don't work all that well if you can access all the content while offline.

So... you might spend money on the game, but that doesn't mean you own a copy of that game, and it certainly doesn't mean you're going to retain access to that game in the future. Should the developer or publisher decide to discontinue support of the game, then you've lost your access. When a Free to Play game goes dark, there's no recourse; the game might as well never have existed.

Above, I linked Dragon Age Legends, a formerly F2P Facebook game. To my knowledge, it is the only game of its kind to have been rereleased, with all content available to players even after the game's release. It's a neat idea, and one I wish people would do more, but I also recognize that rereleasing a game to the public can be challenging.

While this inability to play the game whenever you want is a concern, it's theoretically possible that the game may never go down in your lifetime, or, as discussed above, the game might be released for free, so let's consider yet another problem: your money is worthless. Sure, subscription services like the internet or cable television don't let you retain access to what you had before unless you save what you've seen to your computer or something, but that's a bit different. A game is a discrete thing. It stands alone. If you spent money on it... well, that cash no longer matters.

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So, chances are extremely high that you'll be unable to access a game you enjoy in the future and that you've wasted your money playing it. Like I said, I've only found one instance of a F2P game that was still available after it was taken offline, and that's not a very good argument when you consider that there are thousands of these games on the market.

But there's another problem as well.

These pictures I've been using... they're not from Microsoft Flight. They're actually Duncan Harris' amazing shots of Microsoft Flight Simulator X, a game which has been modded fairly extensively. Microsoft Flight actually looks pretty bad, and there's nothing you can do about it. Why?

Because if you can mod a F2P game, you can access all of that delicious, gooey content that makes up the game. If you can do that, then you can break down the rigid restrictions of the pay wall and, quite honestly, do whatever you feel like with it. The developers no longer profit, and obviously, since their employees are all people with lives and families and obligations, profit's kind of important to them.

With a game players have already paid for, messing with the game files isn't really a problem. Some developers, like Bethesda, even encourage it, because they know that modding ultimately buys their sales. Arma II has consistently been one of the top sellers on Steam ever since Day Z released. Mods are wonderful for sales... but not for F2P games.

I'd like to take a screen shot of Microsoft Flight and give it to you, but, alas, this is the final fundamental problem with the model: account and internet woes.

I can't play the game.

Whenever I log in, Flight tells me that my code's already been used (of course it has--I used it!), and that I am not able to play the game. Just like that, I'm locked out of a video game I'd very much like to spend some more time in, because despite all its graphical failings, Microsoft Flight has a lot of really great ideas and is a truly enjoyable addition to the Microsoft Flight Simulator franchise. Any normal, non-internet-attached game would have no problem letting me in, but no, not Microsoft Flight. I have to be on the internet to fly around by myself. If I had spent money on the game, I'd be locked out of all that content as well.

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The next time a Free to Play game is announced, and it sounds awesome and exciting, remember: you might not be able to do what you want with it. It might not need to be flawlessly balanced, particularly if it's a single-player title, but even if it is, remember that you won't be able to, say, create your own global sensation with it, much less create a few interesting maps. There's always a chance you might not be able to play it right away, and it's even less likely you'll be able to play the game ten years from now, assuming you, like just about every other gamer on the planet, likes revisiting old video games. Pay to Win might be a problem with Free to Play games, but it sure isn't the only one, and it is by no means the worst.

For my part, I think I'm going to install one of my copies of Microsoft Flight Simulator 98 and fall in love all over again.

Big thanks to Duncan Harris, the genius behind DeadEndThrills, for giving me the permission to use his magnificent shots. You can, and absolutely should, check out a lot more of his amazing game photography on his website.

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