Free to Play: What Else Should We Call It?

free to play man

Is it all in a name? Image from

‘It’s all in the name’ is one of those happy cliches that everyone will likely use from time to time to describe something that is so evidently obvious that a title gives it away easily. But with the news that the European Commission is inviting Google and Apple to clarify potentially misleading costs surrounding ‘free to play’ games suggests that this particular name isn’t quite as clear cut as it might seem.

In particular, the EC are investigating whether the practices of game developers are luring people in with a false promise of a purely free experience. “Misleading consumers is clearly the wrong business model and also goes against the spirit of EU rules on consumer protection,”according to Viviane Reding, the EU justice commissioner, and that is of course completely right to stress. After all, if you do alienate consumers with false promises and trick them into purchases they aren’t happy with then that is far from a healthy foundation for a business to flourish on.

But the key issue here is that the term which is under attack is not actually misleading consumers in the majority of cases. ‘Free to play’ games are, in all responsible studios, free to play from the moment you open them. Whether it is Flick Kick Football Legends, Clash of Clans, The Simpsons! Tapped Out or Papa Pear Saga, you can play these games for vast lengths of time without ever having to pay a penny if you choose not to.

Now, of course, I appreciate that the model does rely on someone paying at some point in some way (whether through advertising, all forms of IAP etc). I’ve always liked to imagine that the term is ‘free to play*’ with the section after the star warning that your progress will be slowed without paying and that you should probably chuck some money into the mix if you want to extract a fuller experience. But that little * doesn’t disprove the earlier sentiment that the game is initially free to play and that there is no barrier of entry; it simply qualifies it with an honest expectation.

And that’s where I think this discussion should be heading towards. Rather than attacking the core term which is sound, developers need to be taking more time to explain the slightly obscured star that hovers uncomfortably above the term ‘free to play’ to consumers. It is not enough to sit at conferences chatting to one another about how the model works and expecting consumers to cotton on to the model. That kind of behaviour is in fact simply more likely to drive on consumer concern that the deployment of the term ‘free’ is simply a classic bait and switch to dupe them out of their money.

So developers should be taking more time to descend from on high to explain themselves better. With King and Supercell creeping into the minds of the mainstream business press as a result of their impressive performances, the time is ripe to go into the crowds and spread the message about how the model works.

Explaining to consumers that free to play relies on drawing in consumers for free and convincing them to spend or making money off advertising is an important step to winning their trust in the long run. Sure, it might wake them up to the fact that the reason we’re making these games is not for altruistic reasons. But by being honest, explaining how it benefits certain titles and how it is creating whole new concepts of game based on a different set of values (games as a service as one such example) will help to educate consumers in the long run and help them make informed decisions.

Provided developers do that properly and take this chance with the European Commission to make their case properly, there is no reason that the term ‘free to play’ should be changing any time soon.

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