Free to play has been coming under a fair amount of fire recently in the press, so I though I’d talk about it a little here. I’m not against Free to Play, I just think it needs to be handled with care.
Free to play seems to be divided along two axes: Visual vs Pay To Win, and Considered vs Gambling.
Visual is items that you don’t need to progress, but are just there for status. Pay to Win means you gain a real tangible advantage from paying. Somewhere along this axis is Unlock Earlier, where a player can grind to get an item/character/whatever, or just pay and get it right away. I think the safest camp to be in here is Visual, since you’re not giving anyone a way to progress with less skill. Unlock Earlier can be good as well, but if depends on a few factors: Is the grind needed unrealistically high? Does getting the unlock provide a clear advantage? Is the unlock available on some sort of ‘trial’ basis?
As I’m sure you can tell, Unlock Earlier can easy become Pay to Win, and this is a problem. If you’re paying to win, the ‘game’ is not worth your time (or money).
Considered is when you know exactly what you’re getting for your money, and Gambling is when you’re promised a random assortment of things. One of the problems here is that, much like in real life, Gambling can become addictive. The high you feel from your first ‘big win’ is something many people will start chasing (especially if it’s also a Pay to Win situation), sometimes to the detriment of their real lives. There are a few ways to combat this, like a spending cap that, once reached, gives the player ‘all’ the available unlocks … but I doubt you’ll see the big publishers go for this, since it means their income streams dry up faster.
I think you have to walk a fine line as a game dev making a Free to Play title, between getting enough money to keep making your games, versus getting greedy and trying to bleed your customers dry.