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Free-to-play refers to any video game or social or mobile application that has the option of allowing its users (players) to download or play without paying. The model was first popularly used in early massively multiplayer online games (MMO) targeted towards casual gamers, before finding wider adoption among games released by major video game publishers to combat video game piracy and high system requirements. Since games using the concept are available at no cost to players, they use other means to gather revenue, such as charging money for certain in-game items (like powerful bonuses which are usually available for real money only) or integrating advertisements into the game. Free-to-play can be contrasted with pay-to-play, in which payment is required before using a service. Pay-to-play games usually offer equal gaming experience for all players while free-to-play games don't always give advantage to premium players, but can depending on the game. Free-to-play games are similar to freemium, a more general term and a business model in which a product is offered free of charge while a micropayment is charged for users to access premium features and virtual goods. Shareware by contrast typically only offers a portion of the game, such as Id Software's first-episode shareware versions of many of their early first-person shooters. If there is no charge payable for any feature in a game, it's known as freeware.
The free-to-play (F2P) model can trace its roots back to MMOs targeted towards children and casual gamers, such as Furcadia (1996), Neopets (1999), RuneScape (2001) and MapleStory (2003), or further back to text-based dungeons such as Achaea, Dreams of Divine Lands (1997). RuneScape has approximately 10 million active accounts per month, nearly 200 million registered accounts, and is recognised by the Guinness World Records  as the world's most popular free MMORPG. Neopets and MapleStory are also among the largest MMOs available today in terms of number of users and profits since their launches. Games by larger video game companies soon followed, such as Battlefield Heroes (Electronic Arts, 2009), Free Realms (Sony, 2009), and Quake Live (id Software, 2010). Independent video game developers also took advantage of the model by providing inventive and innovative titles that do not need the larger budgets usually required by blockbuster games, while earning significant amounts of revenue due to the fact that these development teams often consist of only one or two people.
The Internet has been cited as a primary influence on the increased usage of the free-to-play model, particularly among larger video game companies, and critics point to the ever-increasing need for free content that is available wherever and whenever as causes. On the PC in particular, two problems that are specific to the platform are video game piracy and high video game system requirements. The free-to-play model appears to solve both these problems, by providing a game that requires relatively low system requirements and no cost, and consequently provides a highly accessible experience funded by advertising and micropayments for extra content.
Some of the earliest games that adapted the free-to-play model after using another model were subscription-based games, such as The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar (2007), Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures (2008), Champions Online (2009) and Heroes of Newerth (2010).
Free-to-play is still a fairly "young form of gaming", and the video game industry is still attempting to determine the best ways to maximize revenue from their games. Gamers have cited the fact that purchasing a game for a fixed price is still inherently satisfying because the consumer knows exactly what they will be receiving, compared to free-to-play which requires that the player pay for most new content that they wish to obtain. The term itself, "free-to-play", has been described as one with a negative connotation. One video game developer noted this, stating, "Our hope—and the basket we're putting our eggs in—is that 'free' will soon be disassociated with [sic] 'shallow' and 'cruddy'." However, another noted that developing freeware games gave developers the largest amount of creative freedom, especially when compared to developing console games, which requires that the game follow the criteria as laid out by the game's publisher.
In comparison, Charles Onyett says in an editorial for IGN that "expensive, one-time purchases are facing extinction". He believes that the current method of paying a one-time fee for most games will eventually disappear completely, perhaps after the next generation of consoles has arrived. He admits that major video game franchises will continue to have few problems selling many units, but notes that smaller companies with lesser known games will have trouble selling their games due to prohibitively high prices and will instead have to switch to the free-to-play model to survive. Onyett continues by describing pricing models in video games as being in a "state of flux for some time now", concluding that this would naturally lead to the decline of one-time purchase prices. He claims that the reason that it feels as though the free-to-play approach is new is due to the fact that it has mostly been limited to computer games and outside North America until only recently.
Some games have both a free version, and a pay-to-play version that offers the full version of the game and all available updates. Free-to-play games with pay-to-play components utilize the freebie marketing technique to draw in a user base with this advanced type of game demo. The term "free-to-play" is frequently heard in the context of MMOs. In comparison, the term "forever free-to-play game" (FF2P) is used to distinguish MMOGs that promise to never charge a subscription fee from those that are currently free-to-play, but may become pay-to-play in the future. It applies only to online games, because while a conventional single-player freeware game becomes free forever as soon as it is downloaded to the player's hard drive, a free online game may start charging a fee and instantly convert into a pay-to-play game.
Many game developers keep a free-to-play version available so people can try the game before paying the membership costs. It also helps attract more players to the game. Other developers generate revenue by selling in-game items that enhance the player's in-game experience. Games with this option may be known as freemium games. In-game items can be purely cosmetic (vanity items), enhance the power of the player (power items), or accelerate progression speed (booster items). A common technique used by developers of these games is for the items purchased to have a time limit; after this expires, the item must be repurchased before use can continue. Another commonly seen mechanic is the use of two in-game currencies: one earned (relatively easily) through normal gameplay, and another which can be purchased with real-world money. The second, "premium" currency is sometimes given out in small amounts to non-paying players at certain times, such as when they first start the game, or when they complete a quest or refer a friend to the game. Many browser games have an "energy bar" which depletes when the player takes actions. These games then sell items such as coffee or snacks to refill the bar.
In-game advertising is another method that can be used by game developers to supplement income lost from providing a game for free.
Free-to-play games are free to install and play, but once the player enters the game, the player is able to purchase content such as items, maps, and expanded customization options.
The free-to-play model has been described as a shift from the traditional model in the sense that previously, success was measured by multiplying the number of units of a game sold by the unit price, while with free-to-play, the most important factor is the number of players that a game can keep continuously engaged, followed by how many compelling spending opportunities the game offers its players. With free games that include in-game purchases, two particularly important things occur: first, more people will try out the game since there is zero cost to doing so and second, revenue will likely be more than a traditional game since different players can now spend different amounts of money that depend on their engagement with the game and their preferences towards it. It is not unlikely for some players to spend tens of thousands of dollars in a game that they enjoy.
Critics of the free-to-play approach are concerned that if players that paid for special items subsequently become better at a multiplayer game than those who did not purchase the same items, then it will not be as enjoyable as other games since players who paid more money are more successful than those who simply rely on skill. These games are known as "Pay-to-Win" games. Instead, some[who?] suggest that payments should only be used to broaden the gaming experience without affecting the gameplay itself. They[who?] also claim that the secret is in finding the balance between a game that makes players want to pay for extra features to make the game more special, while also ensuring that players who decide not to pay do not feel as though they are getting an inferior product. The theory is that players who do not pay for items in a game would still increase awareness of the game through word of mouth marketing, which ultimately benefits the game indirectly even though it does not directly receive income from a specific player. A common concern about the free-to-play model is whether or not free games have to constantly request that the player buy extra content in order for them to survive or continue in the game, and if so, at what point does it become an annoyance or make the player feel uncomfortable about it.
There are many games specifically designed around the free-to-play model. The largest number of monetized (revenue generating) free-to-play games are developed in South Korea and Russia, where they dominate 90% of the gaming market. There are free-to-play, pay-to-connect games where there is no charge for playing, but often the free servers are congested. Access to uncongested servers is reserved for fee-paying members.
Free-to-play games are particularly prevalent in countries such as South Korea and the People's Republic of China. Microtransaction-based free-to-play mobile games and browser games such as Puzzle & Dragons, Kantai Collection and The Idolmaster: Cinderella Girls also have large player populations in Japan. In particular, the Nikkei Shimbun reported that Cinderella Girls earns over 1 billion yen in revenue monthly from microtransactions.
A survey carried out by market research firm VGMarket in July 2011 for global payments company PlaySpan, owned by Visa Inc., received responses from 1,006 American gamers aged 13 to 65 (with an average age of 25, 72% of whom are male, with an average income of US$68,897) for questions related to the purchase of virtual items in video games. The respondents answered based on how much money they thought they spent on virtual goods, rather than their actual spending patterns, and respondents are not necessarily the same ones from the previous year, making year-by-year comparisons possibly less reflective of actual spending patterns. All dollar figures were in United States dollars. Among the respondents, 31% said they had spent real-world money on virtual goods, and 57% of these made purchases at least once a month. More notable statistics, however, were focused on the gender split. For both MMOs and casual games, women spent more money on virtual goods than men. On average, women spent $111 a year in MMOs and $62 a year in casual games, while men spent $74 and $28 respectively. Another significant statistic was the change in spending from the previous year. For MMOs and console/PC games, the average amount spent was up 20% to 90% year-on-year, depending on category. However, for casual games, the average amount spent was down in all categories, by between 20% to 60%. Overall, all types of virtual content experienced an increase in average spending year-on-year, while average spending on virtual gifts dropped from $30 to $23 per year.
Mobile analytics company Flurry reported on July 7, 2011, that based on its research, the revenue from free-to-play games had overtaken revenue from premium games that earn revenue through traditional means in Apple's App Store, for the top 100 grossing games when comparing the results for the months of January and June in 2011. It used data that it analyzed through 90,000 apps that installed the company's software in order to roughly determine the amount of revenue generated by other popular apps. They discovered that free games represented 39% of the total revenue from January, and that the number jumped to 65% by June, helped in part by the fact that over 75% of the 100 top grossing apps are games. This makes free-to-play the single most dominant business model in the mobile apps industry. They also learned that the number of people that spend money on in-game items in free-to-play games ranges from 0.5% to 6%, depending on a game's quality and mechanics. Even though this means that a large number of people will never spend money in a game, it also means that the people that do spend money could amount to a sizeable number due to the fact that the game was given away for free.
Major video game company Electronic Arts first adopted the free-to-play concept in one of its games when it released FIFA Online in Korea. The company gave away discs containing the game away for free in the country, and instead charged money on items such as roster updates and new uniforms. They learned that 10% of all Korean households had downloaded the game, and that they made more money using this model than they would have made if they sold the game using traditional methods. The company introduced the free-to-play concept in one of its games to a North American audience in 2008, when it introduced its Play4Free program that debuted with Battlefield Heroes (still in beta at the time), and which provides free software but includes the option for players to make micropayments within games. Players can pay to customize the design of their characters and increase their character's abilities.
In addition to making in-game items available for purchase, EA also brings in revenue from its free-to-play titles by integrating in-game advertising into its games. In August 2007, EA completed a deal with Microsoft-owned Massive Incorporated, which lets Massive update and change in-game advertising in real-time within EA games, especially those focused on sports since advertising is an "essential component to create the fiction of being there". Other EA titles such as Battlefield 2142 and Need For Speed: Carbon include in-game advertisements that appear in virtual billboards.
With its Free Realms game targeted to children and casual gamers, Sony makes money from the product with advertisements on loading screens, free virtual goods sponsored by companies such as Best Buy, a subscription option to unlock extra content, a collectible card game, a comic book, and micropayment items that include character customization options.
id Software's Quake Live, a browser-based relaunch of another one of the company's games, Quake III (1999), keeps its revenue streams more simple than other free-to-play games by only making money through in-game billboards. It has been reported that they will offer paid-for content in the future, such as new character models and maps. However, it may be more difficult to make money from Quake Live due to the fact that players can simply purchase the full version of Quake III and receive all extra content for free.
Edmund McMillen, an independent game developer and co-creator of games such as Gish (2004) and Super Meat Boy (2010), has claimed that he makes most of his money from sponsors. One way that he makes money from his games is to, instead of charge for them, place an advertisement for an advertiser's website into the introduction of a game as well as the title screen. Video game development company Flashbang Studios, creator of Off-Road Velociraptor Safari (2008), monetizes some of their games by offering a subscription service to players to provide access to extra features on both their website and in their games, which do not affect gameplay itself.
Canadian video game developer BioWare announced Dragon Age Legends in May 2010 and launched it in February 2011. The title is a free-to-play Facebook game that ties into the Dragon Age role-playing game franchise. Greg Zeschuk, vice president and co-founder of BioWare, remarked in an interview that there was a good possibility that free-to-play would become the dominant pricing plan for games, but that it was very unlikely that it would ever completely replace subscription-based games. He concluded by noting that either a subscription-based game should offer much more content than a free-to-play game, or that it should be possible to obtain the extra content by spending roughly the same amount of money in a free-to-play game with micropayments.
Riot Games free-to-play online MOBA, League of Legends, recently became the most played PC game in North America and Europe according to Forbes magazine. The success of the game has many other video game publishers hoping to release their own MOBA, in order to capitalize on the burgeoning market for free-to-play MOBAs.
P2P to F2P conversions
Valve Corporation has adopted a free-to-play model with several of their video games, including the team-based first-person shooter title Team Fortress 2 and the multi-player online battle arena title Dota 2. Both Team Fortress 2 and Dota 2 are distributed online through the Steam system. Originally a purchasable title, Team Fortress 2 became a free-to-play title, supported by micro-transactions for unique in-game equipment through Steam in June 2011. Prior to release, Dota 2 was announced as a free-to-play title with all influential content readily available for players, while cosmetic items are purchasable through the Steam Store.
Turbine's Dungeons & Dragons Online converted to a subscription-less "free to play" game for players in North America, under the new name Dungeons & Dragons Online: Eberron Unlimited. The level cap would be increased to level 20 (also the standard level cap in the tabletop Dungeons & Dragons) and free users would have access to the majority of game content; some features would have to be purchased with Turbine points or unlocked through play. There would be VIP access with additional features available, as well as free Turbine points. Closed beta registration opened on June 9, 2009. The game and contents were free to download on September 1 for VIP members and September 9 for the general North American public .
Sony Online Entertainment has turned EverQuest into a hybrid F2P/subscription game resulting in a 125% spike in item sales, a 150% up-tick in unique log-ins, and over three times as many account registrations when compared to the subscription model.
Free-to-win (F2W) is a business model of video games monetization. It was developed by Wargaming and first implemented in its hit MMO game World of Tanks. The model is based on the free-to-play paradigm and is aimed at providing all users—payers and non-payers—with equal in-game options.
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