Free To Play: Gateway drug to a full-blown gambling addiction

If you’ve never known anyone with a gambling addiction you probably don’t think it’s anything serious, but it is. People get so addicted to gambling that they destroy their own lives. It’s a serious issue for people with compulsive personalities.

So what does that have to do with video games? I’m concerned with the increasing use of gambling mechanics in these games. I’m going to use Firefall as an example but many games have similar mechanics which boil down to spending actual money on a chance to get a good prize.

In a blog post Firefall devs teased this cool glider.


How do you get it? It is an “Epic Reward” that comes from a Red Bean Reward Token. These are tokens you get when you purchase Red Beans in an amount above $20. Of course, just because you have a Red Bean Token doesn’t mean you’ll get that glider. You have a CHANCE to get it. How much of a chance? Since Firefall’s gambling system isn’t regulated they don’t have to tell us. Maybe it’s a 1 in 10 chance. Maybe its 1 in a million.

The bright side is that you DO get the Red Beans you purchase, so in this case the Token is like throwing your business card into a fishbowl at the local deli in order to get a chance at winning a free lunch.

Then there’re these wings:

So how do you get these? From Gold Tokens. Gold Tokens are purchased with Red Beans, which in turn are purchased with hard real-life currency. How much do they cost? Well that’s hard to say since Firefall devs try to obfuscate the cost of Red Beans as much as possible. For one example, $20 gets you 168 beans (technically 160 plus 8 bonus beans) which means a bean is 11.9 cents (the more you buy at once, the cheaper they are by a slight amount. Spend $100 and the’re 10.4 cents). A Gold Token costs 30 beans which works out to $3.57.

So you pay your $3.57, pull the arm of the slot machine and get… something crappy. OK spend another $3.57 and try again. Nope, not that time either. What are your chances of getting these wings? Once again, no one but Red5 knows. They don’t have to tell you. I’m going to assume it’s 1 in 4,000,000,000.

Oh, and just to add to the pressure, both of these items are only available for a limited time, so if you really want one, maybe skip making your car payment this month and buy more beans. You can always catch up next month, right? As long as no cool new items are introduced.

samurai_hatOf course you do get something. Unlike ‘traditional’ gambling, everyone is a winner. Of virtual goods that don’t cost the company anything to give you. And much of what you win is the same stuff you could earn by playing the game for 10 minutes. I won this cool (?) samurai helm that I can’t really even see. In my case I bought $20 worth of beans that got me a token which gave me a chance to win the first item above. Instead what I won was 2 Gold Tokens, both of which gave me a chance to win the second item above. It wasn’t my lucky day, though. I got the helm and some other stuff that made such an impression that I’ve already forgotten what it was.

If you DO get what you want, that’s awesome! That’s teaching you a valuable lesson: that gambling is the road to success! This is an especially useful lesson for younger players.

Of course, defenders of gaming will point out that many states have a lottery that is no better. I agree and I don’t think state lotteries are a positive thing. But a)they are at least regulated so you know what your chances are and b)at least part of the money you piss away on them goes to improving conditions for others: school improvements, better highways, or whatever. I think usually that money goes towards public schools.

The odds in these free-to-play gambling systems (and again, Firefall is just one example) all favor the house, and in an MMO the house is the publisher. I’d really like to see these systems go away and have less suspect systems replace them. Just sell items at a fair price and make your money the honest way. Inserting gambling systems into your game just makes you look shifty.

Time to bring back the shareware model?

So a lot of ink has been spilled recently (how long until kids have no idea what that means?) over declining revenues in the gaming industry. I’m not an insider so I don’t know if this is all alarmist press or a real problem, but I do see a lot of news items about layoffs and studio closings.

And I’m part of the problem. Y’know what I play every night before bed? Hill Cimb Racing. It’s an Android game, and it’s free. Their business model is getting you to buy coins. You may be familiar with Temple Run, which uses the same business model. I haven’t spent a dime on Hill Climb Racing. Why? Because the whole point of the game is earning coins to improve your car so you can do better and earn more coins to improve your car. Buying coins is deliberate reducing the ‘shelf life’ of the game for myself. Once I’ve maxed out my car I’ll lose interest.

But “free to play” seems to be where its at these days. The problem is that so few companies seem to get it right.

But free games aren’t a new thing. Back in days of yore we had shareware. You may have heard of some of the titles that started as shareware: Wolf 3D, Doom, Commander Keen… all shareware. You downloaded the game (or got it from a friend, hence the name…not everyone was online in those days) and played it for free. Generally these games were broken up into 3 episodes or segments and you’d get the first one free. If you wanted to play the rest of the game, you paid for it. By the time you finished the first part you knew if it was a game you were going to enjoy or not, and if you enjoyed it you’d be happy to pay for more.

I don’t see why more “free” game devs don’t follow this same practice. In Hill Climb Racing you spend coins both to improve your car and to unlock new locations to race in. I think the developer would’ve been better served to just sell the new locations for $1-$2 and kept the coins (remember, the point of the game) for improving your car.

Xbox Live has its mandatory Trial version of games and that can be essentially the same model as long as the trial is extensive enough, but on the PC and mobile marketplaces the system seems rare these days. Mobile devs will offer ‘free’ versions but they’re generally either full of ads or they constantly badger you to upgrade. With old-style shareware you didn’t feel badgered…during the first section of the game (which was generally several hours of quality gameplay) you weren’t constantly being prompted to purchase something or interrupted with ads; it was a pure gaming experience.

I wonder why it fell out of favor. It seemed like a win for everyone. You got to try and enjoy a game for free, the developers clearly did pretty well selling them (Id and Epic were shareware developers) and anyone who purchased the games knew they were buying something they were going to love.

Is 38 Studios going Free to Play?

I thought for sure someone was going to run with this but I haven’t seen anything yet so wanted to throw this out there.

Note: I’m using the common phrase “Free to Play” but we all know these games aren’t really free. Non-subscription based is more accurate but less catchy.

At PAX last weekend we went to’s “The Future of Online Gaming” panel. Great session, by the way.

One of the questions asked was about the trend towards Free to Play. Turbine’s Craig Alexander was the obvious person to answer the question and he spoke positively about how well DDO Online and LOTRO have been doing since going Free to Play. 38 Studios’ Curt Schilling was also on the panel, sitting right next to Alexander, and he was nodding along and enthusiastically supporting Alexander in sharing the benefits of a Free to Play model.

I wasn’t there as a blogger, just a gamer, so I wasn’t taking notes or anything, and so I can’t provide quotes, but coming out of the show Jeremy (@_JWGoodson) speculated that Schilling’s comments were telling and that they may have tipped us off to 38 Studios’ plans to forgo the subscription model and going straight to a Free to Play model when Copernicus finally launches.

Sheer speculation at this point, but I thought it was interesting enough to share, but too long for tweeting. 🙂