It's been a tough year for free-to-play. Of course, the number of people playing these cost-free games continues to rise at a rapid rate. But free-to-play has certainly taken a beating in the media.
When the UK's red tops aren't leading a witch-hunt against the likes of Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty for their alleged role in corrupting today's youth, it's free-to-play taking the stick. The culprit? Micro-transactions:?the lifeblood of free-to-play gaming.
The business model behind these hugely popular titles has been scrutinised by just about everyone, particularly parents and the media. And they have their reasons.
There have been countless reports throughout the past year of children mistakenly running up eye-watering bills in games that their parents were led to believe were free. Earlier this year, one young boy ran up a 3,700 bill following an in-app splurge in PopCap's Plants Vs. Zombies among other games – an event that saw the boy's father report him to Action Fraud.
Such negative press has seen Ofcom launch an investigation into these apps, with the possiblity of legislation being brought in, while Apple has introduced stricter guidelines to the App Store. But the damage has been done?
I don't think so. People are spending more on mobile, especially on in-app purchases,” says Rob Kinder, marketing director at Jagex. The more people get involved in mobile gaming, the more we are likely to see these kinds of horror stories.
It's the user's responsibility to ensure their device is secure, locking off certain content to younger users.”
CCP Games targets a different audience with Eve: Online and Dust 514. But CEO David Reid reiterates that the responsibility of safeguarding those vulnerable from spending real money unknowingly lies with parents.
If there is a backlash it's through a feeling
of exploitation rather than deception –
gamers feel they have to spend more to
get something they thought should be
part of the core proposition.”
David Reid, CCP
Parents have learned they need to keep an eye on what their children are doing online – they need to monitor what their children are doing in the app stores,” says Reid.
But while the likes of Eve and Dust target players who are responsible for their own income, a high number of titles on digital marketplaces do target children. Games such as The Simpsons: Tapped Out and The Smurfs target broad audiences that certainly include younger gamers.
But Reid feels the media scare stories happen because customers feel exploited.
Reid adds: If there is a backlash it's through a feeling of exploitation rather than deception – gamers feel they have to spend more to get something they thought should be part of the core proposition.”
Kabam is now the world's No.6 mobile F2P developer and its titles – which includeThe Godfather, The Hobbit and Kingdoms of Camelot – cover a wide audience.
But studio president Andrew Sheppard isn't concerned about the negative press and says it won't slow down the growth of the sector.
I understand the concerns given the heritage of the medium,” says Sheppard. But F2P is marching forward on at a relentless rate. The mobile version of Fast & Furious 6: The Game received a higher Metacritic score than the console equivalent. You can expect more of this to happen in coming years.”
Kinder adds that F2P will always face its challenges and critics within the media. It's up to the firm's behind the games themselves to better educate gamers and reverse the negative image surrounding micro-transactions.
Anything that purports to offer choice and value, but actually puts up barriers and costs money, will be seen as negative.
This is the way F2P is often seen and it's our job to convince people otherwise. The issue is not with the model, but the way it is implemented, and also how it is communicated.”