If you’re even remotely interested in gaming, you’ve come across the acronym F2P or the term “free-to-play.” What does this mean, though? Are there any strings attached or is it free? Let’s have a look.
Free-to-play has meant different things to different people at different times. The shareware of the ’90s could be described as F2P. F2P is when you get a game free of charge, or at most the first part. This was a great way for developers to make their name known. Your author was one of the many poor gamers who got to enjoy a free game.
In its current form, F2P refers to something quite different. There are many free games, some of which are quite good. However, when we refer to “free-to play” (notice the hyphens), we mean games that use the freemium model.
The Freemium Model
At first, freemium meant you could access a game without having to pay. However, in order to make progress, you had to pay. For example, you could run around in a game with certain basic weapons, but to get better ones or to upgrade them you needed to spend some money through so-called microtransactions, where you spend a dollar or even less to buy one specific in-game item.
This particular model is not very popular with gamers and very few examples exist. Most freemium games offer the game free of charge and let you earn weapons and upgrades by playing. Microtransactions still exist, but they don’t unlock the game. Instead, they speed up your progress, often significantly. This is just a general observation. You may find some specific examples that are not as common.
Pokemon Go, for example, lets you play the game, catching Pokemon and making coins, but you can also give yourself a head start and buy a bunch of coins for real-world money. Team Fortress 2, a game developed by Valve and available on its Steam platform, lets you play for free, but you can buy loot boxes that contain any number of items, most of them valuable for gameplay.
Freemium is an interesting system for both gamers and developers. Freemium is a great way for both gamers and publishers to get free games. While they miss out on the initial purchase money, which for AAA games could be as much as $60 or $70, they instead get a revenue stream that could, potentially, pay out more over time.
The Problem With F2P Games
This alternative revenue stream is an incentive to engage in shady business practices. Although the freemium model looks great at first, it is vulnerable to abuse and there are many examples of it being used. Free-to-play games employ a number of psychological tricks, putting you into a virtual Skinner box.
The Skinner Box
The Skinner box–properly called an operant conditioning chamber, which is why we call it a Skinner box–was developed by B.F Skinner, a mid-20th century psychologist and behaviorist. He experimented with rats and placed them in boxes using a lever. The reward for pushing the lever would be a reward, which was usually a food pellet.
As you can see, rats would quickly learn this and hit the lever like mad–even if the reward didn’t always arrive. The reward was almost as satisfying as hitting the lever. If you’re interested, you can read more about Skinner’s experiments and what they tell us about both rats and humans. There is also this excellent presentation by psychiatrist Dr. Ryan Black that goes deeper into the psychology of it all.
The main takeaway from this story is that F2P games are a game where you are the rat and the game developers have placed a lot of shiny levers in their boxes. Instead of a food pellet you receive a shiny upgrade to your in-game gun, or a glittering trophy. You’re just another rat trying to find new levers to feel that satisfaction.
The Skinner Box and F2P Games
It’s that sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that dr