Free-to-play a form of 'digital pollution', says Professor Richard Bartle

Here today, gone tomorrow?

Free-to-play a form of 'digital pollution', says Professor Richard Bartle

Such is the weight of feeling on both sides that the debate around free-to-play – and its relation to the more traditional premium model – often seems akin to the light and dark side of the force battling it out in a galaxy far, far away.

Talking on the understanding that, strictly speaking, there is no 'right' way to think about monetisation, at this year's Develop conference in Brighton, GamesBrief founder Nicholas Lovell and Professor Richard Bartle - game researcher and author of Designing Virtual Worlds - decided to stop the fighting, and instead have a healthy discussion about what F2P is.

A symptom of change

Kicking off proceedings was Lovell, who offered a unique take on F2P by explaining that we shouldn't look to blame the model for the horrors it has supposedly inflicted on gaming. No, we should blame Steve Jobs.

“Free-to-play is a symptom, not a cause. The cause is the easy distribution of digital content. Why wouldn't people give away content in order to find an audience?” asked Lovell.

F2P has been a monetising revelation, but will it be around forever?

“People want to give stuff away for free, but they want to live as well. It isn't a thing in its own right, it's a response to digital distribution.

“Blame Steve Jobs. He encouraged people to release products on iPhones for free because he wanted to get lots of software onto his platform. “

Short stay

Painting F2P as a victim won't appease those gamers who feel the monetisation model is slowly and methodically suffocating everything they love about video games, but they needn't worry too much, because it isn't going to be around forever.

“Free-to-play is a great revenue model at the moment, but it will tail off. There's a fixed number of people who are willing to spend a large amount of money,” offered Bartle.

F2P is a great revenue model at the moment, but it will tail off.
Richard Bartle

“It'll also tail off because the kind of games that people want to play will change: people will want to play more sophisticated games.”

Ultimately, Bartle believes that the toxic nature of F2P means it is destined to fade away.

“If you're selling things to people that helps them beat other players, then you're starting to pollute your products,” said Bartle.

Lovell couldn''t quite bring himself to agree with that assessment, instead explaining that F2P will expand, not shrink.

According to Lovell, it's only a matter of time until F2P makes the leap to consoles, and the only reason it hasn't done so already is because the manufacturers aren't quite ready to let go of premium. 

“I'd like to say it wasn't true, but free-to-play changes the game. When you pay upfront, you don't have to think about retention. Free-to-play games sell on experience, premium games sell on promise,” said Lovell.

“The only thing that stands in the way of free-to-play on consoles is because the console manufacturers don't want it to happen, yet.

What do you call someone who has an unhealthy obsession with video games and Sean Bean? That'd be a 'Chris Kerr'. Chris is one of those deluded souls who actually believes that one day Sean Bean will survive a movie. Poor guy.


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I agree, Oscar. The reason I proposed a talk with Richard is so that we could have a rational discussion, rather than the usual polemic. I don't agree with much of what Richard says, but his comments are thoughtful rather than vitriolic, and I've nearly always left a conversation with him full of ideas of how we can adapt F2P game design to be even more successful.
Oscar Clark
As long as we continue to be obsessed with the Free Vs Paid debate we will miss the amazing creative and design opportunity offered by changing the moment of the buying decision from before playing to during playing...

I've said it for a long time this is darwinian: Poor implementation will fail and those that adapt will survive. No rocket science needed here build products or services people value and find the least friction and most satisfying way to supply/monetise them.

Monetisation should be just another aspect of design - like it is in almost every other industry.
Clive Gorman
I think you're hitting the nail on the head, Oscar. I work for a company has made a Free-to-Play game and we're focused on quality but using the F2P model. We believe we can deliver something truly great and long-lasting for gamers but deliver it with a monetization strategy that is fair to all gamers.