"Free-to-play" and "microtransactions" are dirty terms to some. That's understandable. Famous Facebook Skinner boxes like Farmville have clouded attitudes toward today's free-to-play games, and there's an assumption all microtransaction-driven game design is handicapped by the need to create ways to charge players. For some games, this is certainly true, but there are excellent free-to-play games out there that represent good value for money. Below we've assessed some of the most common methods used by free-to-play games to make money from players, and highlighted some of the fairest examples of free-to-play that are worth your time.
Convoluted shops and fake currencies
A lot of the distrust toward microtransaction-driven games comes down to the way they habitually obfuscate both what exactly you'll be paying for, and how much you'll be paying for it. This starts with the standard practice of exchanging of standard currency for fake fun-bucks equivalents. In Rift, it's "Credits", in The Old Republic, it's "Cartel Coins", in War Thunder, it's "Golden Eagles", to name just a few. The deliberately awkward exchange rates are of course designed to hide the actual value of the items you're buying, but hiding the value of every transaction at this fundamental level appears dishonest.
There's a widespread lack of clarity around the payment systems attached to free-to-play games. The price and payment method of engaging with a game should be quickly apparent, and expressed in a way that lets players know exactly what they're getting for their money. It should not, like Star Wars: The Old Republic, require the careful study of three different screens to unravel the various interlocking currencies, subscription deals, expansion packs and "preferred status" upgrades available.
If you're inviting players to make a purchase that you believe is worthwhile, why hide the price? Quake Live has two tiers of membership, which grants players various levels of access to premium arenas, and the ability to host matches, but look here, at the top of the page, a clear list of features and a price tag.
In short: We see this practice everywhere, even in otherwise decent free-to-play implementations like Card Hunter. The cost of playing a game should be clear, and that starts with straightforward price labelling.
Crates/card packs and random chance drops
If you hand someone a closed box full of promised goodies, many will happily pay you for the crowbar to crack it open. The tremendous power of small random packs of goodies has long been known the creators of physical collectible card games and companies that made football stickers a decade ago. For some, including our former reviews editor Rich McCormick, the allure of a closed box full of goodies is too powerful to resist. Whatever the worth of the randomised prizes inside, the offer of a free chest and the option to buy a key will make a small fortune out of these personalities. For those that like to gamble, these crates often offer a small chance of an ultra-rare item.
In Team Fortress 2 and Dota 2, a chest will drop into your inventory every so often. Keys can be bought with real money, or traded for, and are very popular - five of the seven TF2 store bestsellers are keys right now. As with card packs, the process of discovery and anticipation that goes into opening a box is as exciting as the item inside. Everyone has to decide for themselves whether that's a valuable reward, and whether £1.50 / $2.50 is a worthwhile price for that rush. The important thing is that players know exactly what they're gambling for when opening a box, and have at least a sense of the odds involved. The Team Fortress 2 wiki exposes estimated percentage odds for each crate, but as any Vegas slot machine designer will tell you, revealing all of the maths maths can ruin the glamour of the gamble, and make no mistake, this is gambling.
Boxes are easily deleted and ignored, but receiving one isn't a good experience. At worst, it's a taunt that pops up in the same space ordinarily to message gifts. Receiving a crate for the first time, and then learning that it requires a purchase to unlock, is a betrayal of the expectations that the rest of the drop system instils. The positive side, in the case of TF2 and Dota 2, is that revenue from crate sales goes back to community item creators, and the items you can earn don't unbalance the core game. Team Fortress 2's random drops also shower you constantly with gifts, which balances everything out somewhat.
In CCGs like Hearthstone, Fifa's Ultimate Team and Mass Effect 3's multiplayer mode, you can unlock random cards/players/guns from packs earned through in-game money as well as real currency. This accepts payment in the form of a chunk of your spare time, which is a good deal if the game is good. It operates more like a randomised unlock system that you can speed up with money if you wish.
In short: card packs and crate drops are a form of gambling. If you're okay with that, then there's no reason not to enjoy games like Hearthstone. It's worth checking to see if packs can be earned with a sensible amount of in-game progress before investing lots of time.
In-game item stores
There are two main questions to keep in mind when a game is asking you to spend real money for specific items.
1. Can they only be earned by paying up?
2. Are they better than what you have already?
The answer to both, if a game is being as fair as possible, is no. Games like Team Fortress 2 have a selection of alternative weapons and gadgets you can unlock for your class. That's alternatives, not straight upgrades. Many combine certain situational benefits at the expense of a well rounded, overall build. The Sniper being given a rifle that shoots piss is not at an obvious advantage, especially when against one that shoots bullets. And, in League of Legends, it's hard to know if the angry polar bear is inherently better than a girl with the shark cannon, but both have their uses when played effectively, and the rotating roster gives you options regardless.
Not that pure upgrades are inherently wrong. In games like World of Tanks, where a natural tier system denotes each country's best metallic beasts, it comes down to matchmaking to keep things fair. Put the paid-up kings against the outgunned newbs and you start edging towards a pay-to-win scenario. Keep everyone grouped around their unlock level, and the only advantage for those that pay is a quicker trip to the top tiers.
Even good in-game item stores can go bad over time. The community's faith in a game's integrity can be destroyed by a single update, and in competitive games weapons sometimes have to be rebalanced. That means the items you're buying might not retain its characteristics.
In short: Item stores that sell objects that affect your in-game performance are risky. If a game sells guns/cars that can't be earned any other way then treat that as a big alarm bell. Even if those items can be earned through progress, it helps to favour games with good matchmaking services and large playerbases, which can smooth out balance issues.
Cosmetic item stores
Offering players ways to stand out is a lucrative business. In the Dota 2 Steam Workshop, item creators compete for audience upvotes and Valve’s approval, and the successful ones have made a small fortune in the process. If you spend a lot of time in a game world with friends, cosmetic items like hats in Team Fortress 2, or new player skins in League of Legends, can set you apart without tipping the game’s systems. At worst, new outfits can corrupt character silhouettes or dilute a game's aesthetic, making battlefields harder to parse at a glance, but this is a minor trade-off for a system that lets developers support themselves and keep games running.
Buying cosmetic items is also a very transparent, obvious transaction. Buy the item for the clearly labelled cost, get the item, it’s yours until the game loses popularity and expires, or the heat death of the universe occurs. There’s no trickery, the integrity of the game is maintained, and everyone gets a nice hat. Cosmetic items make money out of happy players who want to express their fandom, which makes every purchase positive.
In short: A straightforward, easily understood transaction that doesn't unbalance the game. Ideal.
Energy bar restrictions
Energy mechanics take various forms, whether action points that expire with every interaction or a continuously dwindling energy meter that stops you from playing when it expires. The crudest variations attempt to encourage the player to buy more energy at the point of expiration, oodling out a few bucks of the sheer frustration of having a game cut short. Subtler time limiting devices are designed to encourage "sessioning," in which players devote five or ten minutes of their time every day to tending to a garden/city. The intent here is to turn the game into a regular life fixture that increases the player’s contact with other the monetisation mechanisms built into the game’s economy.
Energy bar systems straightjacket players with arbitrary systems. You’re not failing to progress because of a lack of skill, but because of the expiration of an invented abstract resource. Besides all that, the amount of time you choose to engage with a game should be your choice alone, and a pop-up message that says you’re done unless you buy X or wait 12 hours just feels insulting. Sure, game demos will stop you when you’re having fun and ask you to buy the full game, but players know the rules when they start the download. Energy mechanics, can be hard to spot until you've spent a certain amount of time playing. Very unpleasant.
In short: No no no no no no no no no.
Expiration systems cause components of the game that you use regularly to wear out and break unless a certain amount of money is spent on repairs. In Fifa’s Ultimate Team mode, players are benched if their contract expires, and you need to apply new contract cards to get them back on the pitch. These are dropped randomly in card packs that can be bought with in-game money or real money. If you pay for contract cards to support a player you bought through a card pack or on the transfer market then you’re essentially paying ongoing rental costs for a virtual product you’ve already bought. Sometimes expiration is designed to drain your reserves of in-game currency. A game might ask you to spend in-game bucks on restoring expired items so that you run short, and might feel the need to top up with a real money purchase. In the worst cases, there are shooters that charge players for ammo to fill their guns, and even offer premium varieties of ammo to give them a battlefield edge.
Being charged money to maintain the status quo earned through play is terrible, and can undermine any sense of achievement you may have enjoyed earning your gear. It creates a persistent, unpleasant pressure to pay and is an unsatisfactory purchase if you do cave. You know that you’ll have to pay again to recharge that item/player/gun soon enough. Expiration creates that poisonous sense of being slowly nickel-and-dimed.
In short: A great way to annoy players fast. Watching items expire isn't fun, paying to stop them expiring isn't fun. Putting money into a game should feel rewarding; paying to stave off the entropic decay of your virtual possessions isn't.
You could frame the renting of in-game items as a more transparent take on the expiration mechanic. In most cases you’ll understand exactly how long you’re getting an item, which can be tricky to ascertain in energy systems when you’re buying an abstract resource that’ll deplete as you play. The difficulty with rental items is that, in order for them to be desirable enough to purchase for a limited period, they need to be powerful. Need For Speed World let players rent blindingly fast supercars to take into races with ordinary cars, ruining the experience of the majority for the benefit of the paying few.
Even if a rented item isn’t overpowered, the perception among players that it must be is almost as damaging. The same effect applies to any in-game item purchases. If there’s a price tag attached, it’s natural to assume that it’s more powerful in some way, and if a competitive game doesn’t feel balanced it quickly becomes more frustrating than fun. Also, the notion of paying for a virtual item is enough of a barrier for many, the idea of paying for one that’ll disappear in a few days is even more absurd.
In short: If you're only intending to play for a short burst, a temporary item might be a cheaper option, but the cost of renting cars in games like Need For Speed World is surprisingly high. Rented items normally just aren't a good deal.
One-off account upgrades
The one-off upgrade offers a limited feature-set to new players that expands when you pay a one-off sum. In Team Fortress 2, buying an item, any item, at any cost, will upgrade a free account to a “premium” one. Free players have a backpack limit of 50 slots, doesn’t have access to rare and cosmetic items, and have access to limited selection of crafting blueprints. Buying anything from the Mann-Co store expands the backpack to 300 items and removes trading and crafting limits. Star Wars: The Old Republic’s free-to-play transition added more severe limits, constraining free players to handful of space missions and dungeons per week, forbidding new players from sprinting until level 10. Those limits could be lifted with any purchase of more than $5 on the in-game store.
The cost of transitioning to a less limited set-up is often minor, the intention being to familiarise players with the game’s shop and, in some cases, get players to enter card details. Team Fortress 2 is entirely playable with its free-to-play limits in place, but The Old Republic’s draconian restrictions leverage player frustration to incite a purchase. Not good. If you're looking to familiarise players with a store, then Guild Wars 2's tactic of gifting XP boosts and items provides a much better experience.
There is something to be said for one-off payments that unlock everything. Players put off by the complications juggling ongoing micropayments can instead just buy the game in an ordinary way. In Card Hunter, you can play a flat $20 fee and unlock all of the missions. This lets players treat the free-to-play element as a demo, and still gives players that don't want to spend a big lump sum a way to play for less money.
In short: Contrived limits like the The Old Republic's give new players a handicapped experience, which makes it unlikely they'll stick around, especially when the competition includes MMOs like Rift and Lord of the Rings Online. These offer a huge amount of playable content without charging for basic features.
Buffs give a temporary percentage increase in the amount of gold, XP, or other desirables that the player can earn through regular play. It's another example of microtransactions allowing players to pay to reduce the time spent between rewards. Unlike energy, though, buffs are a bonus applied to someone who pays, not a penalty against someone who doesn't. That's a key difference in their philosophy that, for the most part, stops them being exploitative.
For them to work, it requires a careful balancing of item prices and levelling progress. There's a strange psychology here. If a game is enjoyable, then a lengthy spell between rewards shouldn't be a problem. But if progression and upgrades are built into the DNA of a game, having to wait too long for them can feel frustrating. In games like World of Tanks, progression is swift to begin with, but slows greatly as you advance. This deliberately plays on impatience to incite a purchase, and is a classic example of game design serving a monetisation system rather than the player. If a game is perceived as a grind, then a buff becomes a requirement rather than a bonus.
It's not just currency that can be boosted. In the case of Card Hunter, your account subscription provides you with an extra piece of loot for every quest you complete. It's an upgrade that neatly sidesteps the balance problem. It doesn't feel like a significant loss compared to the 2-4 rewards you get in regular play, but a guaranteed rarity makes for a nice bonus for those who do subscribe.
In short: In free-to-play games, XP boost items can be symptomatic of an overly sluggish levelling curve, but for patient players there may never need to go near account buffs. If a game is entertaining enough, putting a lot of time into it shouldn't feel like a chore.
Blurring the line between microtransaction and full-fat DLC are these purchasable packs of extras and bonuses. Rather than a free-to-play focus, you'll generally find these attached to AAA releases. We're talking the added profile portraits of Crusader Kings II, the silenced sniper of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the Air Propulsion Gun of Just Cause 2, and the squirting blood of Shogun 2 (to name just a fraction of a percent).
As a practice, these mini-DLC packs are the most variable in quality of all the microtransaction methods. There's nothing inherently wrong with providing fans with a fun extra to flesh out a world they're enjoying, but too often they're created with little attention to balance or value. The worst, inevitably, were once pre-order bonuses leveraged as an incentive to tempt early buyers. As well as the aforementioned sniper rifle, DX:HR's Tactical Enhancement Pack added 10,000 credits at the start of the game, effectively destroying many of the game's early purchasing choices.
For non-narrative led, systems-driven games, mini-DLC seems to fare better. Crusader Kings 2's profiles and music packs focus on aesthetic improvements in a game about strategic depth, while Civ 5's extra civilisations expand user specialisation, without changing the core of the game. But that doesn't mean that other types of games can't utilise mini-DLC in a way that adds something enjoyable for the user, that doesn't make the original game feel lacking without.
In short: Mini DLC like the Total War blood pack and the inventive Just Cause items are a bit like professionally built mods. There's a perception that mini-DLC is stuff that's been held back from the final game to screw a few extra bucks out of players, but more often they're ideas on the developer's big brainstorming board that they can't justify putting resources into during the development of the main game. Mini-DLC is easily ignored, at least, but beware of pre-order DLC that gives you guns and gadgets at the very beginning of a game like Deus Ex - they could ruin the balance of those opening hours.
Games that get microtransactions right
At their worst, free-to-play monetisation systems create a negative experience that the player has to pay to resolve, but you'll miss out on a few great games if you steer clear of anything with a microtransaction in it. Here are a few quality examples that offer great value for money. In no particular order...
Dota 2 - You can buy cosmetic items like character armour and alternative announcer packs, none of which alter the balance of the game. Dota 2 can be played to a highly competitive level without any need to pay. Valve's in-game stores are clearly labelled with real-money pricing and profits are shared among item-creators, rewarding an involved and productive community.
Team Fortress 2 - Team Fortress 2 isn't terribly coherent these days, but it's still huge fun. Given the number of items that Valve have added over the years, it's a miracle that TF2 remains competitive, but the hard counters that defined its nine classes at launch remain intact, and it's still frequently the funniest game on the internet.
Card Hunter - Card Hunter's premium items feel like a sugary bonus on top of a heap of good loot you'd earn through play anyway, and you always have the welcome choice of being able to pay a flat $20 fee to unlock all of the quests and content, making it a traditional pay-to-play game. It's a friendly and satisfying CCG/turn-based strategy hybrid that's certainly worth your time.
Guild Wars 2 - You'll have to buy the game to play Guild Wars 2, but there's no subscription fee, and many of the XP boosts, dyes and other store goodies are regularly awarded as levelling gifts as you play. Your character's level is less important in Guild Wars 2 than it is in other MMOs, which makes its XP bonuses less essential, and most of the shop is full of inventive cosmetic items.
League of Legends - LoL's rotating selection of playable characters gives players a broad slice of the game, and works well on a try-before-you-buy basis. Aside from buying heroes, you can put money into new skins for your favourite heroes.
Planetside 2 - If you catch a good battle, there's nothing quite like Planetside 2. The huge sci-fi wargame gives new players a lot of war for no money. Players endured a catatonic levelling curve early in its life and its currency system was hugely confusing, but that doesn't dent the spectacle or the experience when you're actually on the battlefield.
Those are just a few. MMO fans might enjoy Rift and Lord of the Rings Online. Tribes: Ascend developers Hi-Rez have moved onto Smite. Action RPG fans should look in on Path of Exile. World of Tanks commits a number of the sins in our list, but has a huge playerbase and a tiered matchmaking system that'll support competitive matches at any level.
Do you steer clear of microtransactions on principle? If so, why? Have you had any particularly bad or unsatisfying experiences buying items in games? Have you been playing a free to play game that you'd like to recommend? Share away in the comments.