Free-to-Play Games

I have spent a lot of the last few weeks trying out some of the ‘free-to-play’ games that are now available on Steam. I’d like to share some of my ideas and opinions about these….

The Free-to-Play Model

The idea behind free-to-play is simple. Any player can sign up, download, install and play the game for free. It sounds crazy, but its become a very successful formula. More players end up playing the game (because they don’t have to pay for it) and the company makes money from advertising, or from a small number of players who are willing to buy extra things for the game.

Certain items are available to buy, usually in the game itself. 50p here to buy new rims for your car. £1 there to receive double experience for a week… doesn’t sound like much, but you’d be amazed how quickly these things add up. Lord of the Rings Online is the classic example. They were haemorrhaging money when the game had a subscription fee, but when they went free-to-play they started returning a profit overnight!

So, it seems the free-to-play model is a here to stay, and works for a lot of games. But how do the games make the system work? Lets look at an example

Age of Empires Online

Age of Empires Online is, as you’ve probably worked out, the latest instalment in the Age of Empires series and has been transformed into a sort of MMO game. It has a new 3D graphics engine that captures the spirit of the original games in an interesting cartoony, even if the actual battles are more simplified. Its a very enjoyable game that works quite well as an online game, while still having good single-player features.

As for the free to play element? Well, here they did make a mistake (in my opinion) when the game first launched. Three Empires were available for free, and one (the Persians) that had to be purchased. You also had to upgrade your empire to a ‘Premium Empire’ in order to unlock certain features.

I have no problems with these ideas. The problem for me came from the fact that the only way to unlock the Persians or the Premium Empires was to pay real money (in this case, through the Steam wallet system). Upgrading an empire cos about £6, which seemed like a lot, and I was still very reluctant to purchase them. I did end up paying to upgrade my Celtic army in the end (in the Sale!), just to see what it achieved. It did add a lot to the game, but personally I’m not sure it justifies the price tag.

This, to me, is the wrong approach. And it seems that others agree with me as you can now purchase these upgrades using Empire Points, which you earn in-game by doing quests.  You can, of course, still buy the upgrades yourself with cash, but it also possible to unlock them by playing the game, which is what I would personally rather do. But hey, it takes a long time to earn the upgrades and if you’re less patient than me, really enjoy the game and can afford to pay for the upgrade then I won’t stop you!


In general I approve of free-to-play games, as it lets me play them for free while other players with more money (and, perhaps, less patience) fund the game using micro-transactions and purchasing upgrades. I only object when key parts of the game have to be purchased with real money and cannot be unlocked by playing the game.

Free-to-play is clearly the future for MMO’s (even, I suspect, World of Warcraft in the long run) and I look forward to seeing more such games in the future.