The Ugly Side of "Free" Games

I’ve been thinking about free-to-play games a lot lately. Services like Microsoft’s Games Pass and comparable stream only option are becoming more and more prevalent and I am, more than ever, browsing them when I feel the urge to play something. It’s nice because I feel empowered to explore and try new things. Of course, not all these games are technically free – you are paying for the service, after all. But it’s easy to imagine a future where games rely on different monetization options to squeeze the most out of their presence on a gaming service. Monetization options like you see in free-to-play.

And, as I contemplated the value of free-to-play, an announcement came through that Rockstar’s incredibly popular title Grand Theft Auto V would be free for a limited amount of time on the Epic Games Store. Now, this is a solid game in its own right but it also grants access to the very, very fun world of Grand Theft Auto Online. In this game, players fill up servers, roam freely, compete in games, earn money, commit countless atrocities to one another, and buy houses. It’s a very social experience that thrives on chaos. Players either work hard for their in-game currency, or they spend real money on microtransactions. Either way, they end up pretty invested. Unfortunately, their experience can be tainted by hackers and modders. This isn’t entirely uncommon in online gaming, although Rockstar seems to face a particular issue on this front. But there’s a cost to hacking and modding. Getting banned means losing access to part of the game you purchased.

When the game went free, lobbies quickly filled with all sorts of cheaters. People playing by themselves were even getting trolled by aggressive hackers. Clearly, without the financial risk of the ban, people feel free to troll. It makes me wonder how communities differ between free games and paid experiences.

Of course, it’s not all about the community. Free-to-play can color an experience in a lot of different ways. Sometimes what you’re getting is a mostly identical experience to everyone else, except you have to work a bit harder to get some cosmetic items. Or there are some things you simply can’t attain without typing in some debit card digits somewhere. That’s not so rough. Even some mobile games feel like quality experiences, despite being free-to-play. Blizzard’s title, Hearthstone feels like a solid example of this.


But then there are games like Phantasy Star where I am constantly being reminded that the game wants me to invest some real cash. There are a lot of quality of life changes I can purchase, some cosmetic options, and more. It doesn’t feel pay-to=win by any stretch of the imagination, and I’m enjoying my time, but there’s something just a little immersion breaking about a persistently outstretched hand begging me for money. There’s also a premium service I could subscribe to. I’m not complaining because I recognize that this is fully within the developer’s right to monetize their game in this way. And it’s not like I’m being forced to pay.

It just makes me wonder, what would happen if the future did become more stream-reliant. What if a subscription-based distributors were the assumption, rather than the exception. What would monetization look like? And how would the trolls behave? I would love for games to be more accessible for everybody. It’s just interesting to ponder the outcomes of various approaches.

Benjamin Maltbie
Benjamin Maltbie

Writing Team Lead
Date: 05/19/2020

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