It’s hard to tell whether free-to-play games warrant an evil, corporate trend that is here to stay, or are one of those fads that facilitate the surfacing of nostalgic feelings of gaming days gone by – those without downloadable content. But when taking a colder look at the current, increasingly democratic video game market, F2P approximate the former rather than the latter, solidifying as something akin to a necessary evil. An added design system to the already complicated game creation process is the delicate balance between making a product just difficult enough to keep the player interested and yet profiting off helpful in-game purchases.
There’s one F2P that stands out above the rest: Warframe. Basically, Warframe a co-op space-shooter ninja RPG. Think Mass Effect, but with four players running around space ships and killing off enemies. Tenno, or space ninjas, are sent on quick 5-15 minute-long missions like assassinate a boss, eliminate all enemies, retrieve an item, and so on. Quick in and out, all while leveling up your equipment and finding unique modification items to improve and tailor your primary gun, sidearm, and a melee weapon. Add in several titular “warframes” themed on fire-abilities, psychic powers, frost, and stealth, and you have a pretty good formula for an addicting action title. And all this, for free.
Sounds amazing, right? Warframe has been in open beta since the end of March 2013. In about two months, I clocked nearly 60 hours of gameplay. Few recent games have consumed that much of my time and attention. Why is that? Partially because getting anything in the game without paying requires huge amounts of time. First, I was interested in a frame (think, “class”) that’s not available in the beginning. My options were to pay approximately 12 dollars or spend a ton of time finding randomly-dropped blueprints from the same boss. Three blueprints later, you still have to find components to build the suit elements, then wait 12 hours for each one to built, until finally (ooof) it takes 3 whole days to put the whole suit together. It took me about three weeks. After traversing most of the map and having a stronger character, forging suits and weapons is easier, but then you learn you have limited space for them, and you’re forced to purchase more. Platinum, the in-game currency you can’t get by any in-game means, is not vital but vastly speeds up powering up characters and weapons.
So what did I do? I caved in. For the first time in my life, in any game ever, I made an in-game purchase to get some of that precious currency. I spent 10 dollars to get 170 Platinum, necessary to expand my inventory space. I never believed in spending money to make a game easier. If it was possible to do, I always did it the hard way.
The free-to-play model is contentious. Even though the experience is gratis, after a while its hollowness starts to show. It becomes obvious that it will never be complete without making at least some in-game transactions (although some games certainly work fine). Most games then, mobile or not, engage in “panhandling,” methodical micro-transactions that take little by little. The sad thing is, it’s more or less a standard nowadays that isn’t going away. I can’t speak for most gamers, but personally, I’d rather pay up front for a complete experience. Maybe this is what will make up part of my personal old-school.
Why did I spill some up for Warframe then? Mostly because I felt the creators, Digital Extremes, deserved it. Warframe is still a project in beta, but it provided plenty of hours of entertainment for me. It absorbed my attention in a way few games have in the past few years. It’s probably the best-looking F2P game out there, and its idea of space-ninjas in four-player co-op speaks to gamers. If I put in that many hours into Warframe, I can certainly donate some cash to it.
Recently though, I haven’t played Warframe at all. I haven’t touched it for nearly a month. Although the creators introduced the dojo system (essentially building a guild house), I’m not as social of a gamer as many others, and it didn’t appeal to me. I ran out of things to do. My characters and weapons got maxed out, at least the ones I wanted to. I burned out.
Warframe’s flaws start becoming more visible after time, and many forumers analyzed the game’s lack of end-game content and its money-milking ways. People start demanding a more meaningful experience, perhaps forgetting that it’s one that they’ve never paid for in the first place, that one of the underlying game principles is to get the player to spend money. And that principle is a hard one to balance with game design that is meant to draw the player in and keep him happy, rewarded.
Warframe is constantly evolving. It’s set to be a PlayStation 4 release, alongside another F2P title, Destiny. Both point to a future filling up with such models, which we already see a lot today. Soon enough, everyone will realize that its not money that’s the more valuable gamer currency, but time and attention.