Dota 2
PCG254.feat_dota.g10


Welcome to the PC Gamer Game of the Year Awards 2013. For an explanation of how the awards were decided, a round-up of all the awards and the list of judges, check here.

One glance at the Steam player statistics will hint at the popularity of our E-sport of the year. At one point today 609,248 were playing Dota 2 concurrently, more than five times times more popular than the second runner. The International proved that Dota 2 has tremendous potential as a spectator sport, but beyond the realms of professional competition Dota 2 has collectively absorbed more hours of our time than any other game this year, and it's only set to grow in 2014 and beyond.

CHRIS My hands were nowhere near a keyboard at the time, but being in the crowd during the final of The International 2013 was the single most powerful gaming experience I had this year. Those final clashes between Alliance and Na Vi have become legendary, and with good reason they represent exactly why the game is so exciting as a sport. In addition to principles of technical mastery that it shares with StarCraft II, Dota 2 allows for both virtuoso creativity and epic metagame strategy. It is both mechanically and psychologically complex in a way that brings personality to the fore, but it doesn t just create rockstars: it creates leaders, strategists, rivals and friends.

It s also excitingly international: no single region has a monopoly on the best players or strategies. This was Europe s year, but 2014 could well belong to China or the nascent South Korean scene. Malaysia had a phenomenal showing in 2013, drawing deserved attention to Southeast Asian gaming. Who knows 2014 s International could even go to the USA. It probably won t.

Valve have pioneered new ways for e-sports teams to reward their members, laying the foundations for a stable professional sport that isn t as reliant on sponsorship and prize money. The International s crowd-funded prize pool was a stroke of genius that has since been adopted by the MLG for its own Dota 2 tournament, and the arrival of team and pro player-branded cosmetic item sets in the store has given players a way to display their affiliations while generating financial support for the sport itself.

EVAN One of Valve s achievements remains making Dota 2 so much more visually readable than League of Legends. The scale of the roster and the fact that some of its mechanics are based on Warcraft III engine limitations would limit accessibility, you d think, but all of Valve s effort to use lighting, silhouettes and colour saturation to convey clearly what s happening on screen is brilliant artistic and technical work that happens to make for an incredible spectating experience.

CORY What Chris failed to mention is that he s spent more than 300 hours playing Dota 2, a number that just knocks me out. I admit that I m personally terrified of the game. The few times I ve played have left me frustrated and embarrassed by the sheer amount of things I don t know how to do in it. And yet, I want to learn more. Watching good players play is unbelievably exciting. My goal for 2014 is to keep learning how to play. If I get as addicted as Chris, however, please arrange an intervention.

CHRIS Not more than 300 hours , Cory. More than a thousand. By my calculation, I ve spent 8.2% of my life playing Dota 2 since June last year.

Dota 2 s insane complexity is what makes it so enduringly fascinating to people with an eye for the stories that emerge from systems. I ve seen things you people wouldn t believe. I ve seen Reverse Polarity-Skewer-Glimpse accidents teleport entire teams into the fountain. I ve seen Wisp Tether-Relocate- Blink escapes that d make a grown man cry. I ve seen a ghost fight a bear in a hat. All those moments preserved in time, thanks to a robust server-side replay system.

Time to Dota.
Dota 2
Year of the Horse


While Dota 2 players are currently in the grip of Frostivus Wraith-Night, such necromantic festivities can't last forever. Valve are already planning the next update, and have announced its theme, if very little else about what it will involve. Referred to as "The Year of the Horse", it's due to arrive toward the end of January, to coincide with the Chinese New Year.

Given Dota 2's strong international following, it's a sensible move. Seasonal events in games - at least, in the games popular in the west - have a tendency to overwhelmingly map to western holidays, despite the real worldwide recognition of things like the Chinese New Year. Also, horses are cool, and should be celebrated.

Valve don't reveal what the event will involve, instead using the teaser post to kick the community into a Workshop submission frenzy. "We are looking for submissions that draw on visual themes from the Chinese New Year, Chinese history, and springtime. Be sure to mark your submissions using the Spring2014 tag when placing your items on the Workshop. For everyone else, the best way to help is to visit the Workshop often and vote for which items you d like to see in Dota."

You can view the seasonal Workshop submissions here. At least, you will be able to when there are some.
Dota 2
Dota 2


Maybe you've spent the last couple of years Doing the Dotes*. You've gained an almost scarily obsessive knowledge on the many intricacies of Valve's wizard-'em-up; and taken QoP to the top, Axe to the max, and Puck to... er, no. For all your successes, spare a thought for those on the wrong end of the queueing system that grated access to the game. Those who've never before had a chance to experience the thrill of sub-grouting a megascamp with a three-man sagwidget**. At least, they haven't until now, as the digital gatekeeper formerly restricting access to the client has today been retired. Dota 2 is available to all.

"We ve used this system to gradually increase the size of our playerbase, as we ramped up our infrastructure and improved the experience for new players," write Valve. "As we have recently completed a set of server management upgrades as well as released a huge number of enhancements to the new user experience, we re going to remove all restrictions to playing Dota 2."

It'll be interesting to see if this will spark a jump in player numbers. I suspect that most people who wanted to play Dota 2 already have access, but the promise of being instantly able to try the game might persuade those few people yet to push lanes into seeing what the fuss is about.

One thing of note in this announcement is Valve's reveal of the game's active monthly users. According to them, 6.5 million people are playing Dota 2 each month - which seems like a more representative figure than the easily available concurrent player total. To make the obvious comparison, in October last year, Riot announced that League of Legends was picking up 32 million active monthly users. Of course, with no solid data in the 14 months since then, it's hard to know whether that number has grown, or whether Dota 2's official release has dampened that figure.

*I have decreed: playing Dota 2 will henceforth be known as Doing the Dotes.
**Er, or whatever it is you actually do in this game.
Dota 2
Dota 2 Wraith Night


In a completely unpredictable shock twist, Dota 2's Frostivus event has been cancelled. Again. So what holiday halting incident has hit the wizard-'em-up this time? It's the return of the King. Sort of. Wraith-Night is the newly announced seasonal event, and it's centred around the Skeleton King's transformation into Wraith King. He's got a new look, a new name, a new voice, and, most importantly, he's ballin' out of control.

The new announcement page isn't entirely clear how the Wraith-Night mode will play out, only that the Wraith King must be protected, and that souls are to be collected. A good bet then, is that this is the rumoured 'Holdout' co-op mode: a horde-style defence against waves of enemies.

Also on the cards for this update: Legion Commander, who has seemingly been in the making forever. Other updates include the ability to set the minimap to right side of the screen, and the fixing of an annoying shop bug. I don't play Dota 2, but these things sound significant.

For more details on the Wraith-Knight update, due out later today, head to the update's Dota 2 micro-site.
Dota 2
Dota 2


One of the stupider things about humanity is that we keep engineering the future tools of our own demise. For instance, computers are now constantly ranking us based on a variety of factors that measure our performance against each other for fun and entertainment. Naturally, come the awakening of sentient machines, the AI Prime will look at these rankings and think, "hmm, xXx_n00bst0mper_xXx has a higher K/D ratio then any other meatsack in quadrant four. Let's shackle his consciousness with nano-orbs and harvest his muscles into slavedroid neurostims."

Ah well, while we wait for the inevitable to happen, we might as well enjoy ourselves. Valve's Dota 2 ranking system will soon be getting an upgrade that's designed to better support more experienced players. Ranked Matchmaking aims to enable the move towards more competitive play by making the game's usually hidden MMR (matchmaking rating) visible to players.

A post on the Dota 2 blog outlines the conditions needed to unlock Ranked Matchmaking:


Ranked matchmaking is unlocked after approximately 150 games.
All players in the party must have unlocked the mode.
Currently, only All Pick, Captains Mode, and Captains Draft are available.
You may not participate in ranked matchmaking while in the low priority pool.
Coaches are not allowed in ranked matchmaking.
Matches played in normal matchmaking do not impact your ranked matchmaking MMR, and vice versa.
Your ranked MMR is visible only to you and your friends. The MMR used for normal matchmaking is not visible.
When you first start using ranked matchmaking, you will enter a calibration phase of 10 games. During this time, your ranked MMR will not be visible.


Head through to that post for a more technical breakdown of how MMR is calculated, and the aims of Dota 2's ranking system. Dota 2's next update will also kick off the Frostivus event, details of which can be found here.

Thanks, Strategy Informer.
Dota 2
frostivus


Today, Valve announced that Dota 2's Frostivus holiday event is making a comeback this year. Judging by the official website, we should expect something similar to the last celebration, with special holiday maps and items.

"The longest night of the year is a time for weaving by the hearth!" The teaser site reads. "Collect bright winter berries and sprigs of fir, and twist them together into mementos for family and friends." It sounds like Frostivus will include drops that take advantage of the new crafting and socketing system introduced in the Three Spirits update.

"The traditional Frostivus truce is in effect," the site continues. "Radiant and Dire may gather to play games and exchange gifts. Find the Frostivus Wish-List of some worthy friend or prickly foe, and play the role of Furtive Frostus, gifting them with something they didn't know they wanted." This implies that some kind of Secret Santa gifting will play a big role in the event, and that it may even introduce a new mode.

Last year's Frostivus was quite eventful. In addition to the regular celebration, Valve used the event update to add in-game items created by winners of the Polycount Contest. Last year's Frostivus was also cut short by pesky Greevils, who did the Dota 2 equivalent of canceling Christmas.

With the inevitable Steam holiday sale on top of it all, it's sure to be a very merry time, with you glued to your PC while your extended family sips eggnog and wonders where you are.
Dota 2
Image source: 'scainburger' on Reddit
Image source: 'scainburger' on Reddit

つ ◕_◕ ༽つ Have DIRETIDE. That's Valve's message to the community today, as they announce the impending release of Three Spirits for Dota 2. For some, the return of the much requested seasonal event is far from the most exciting thing about this update. To quote Chris on learning that a redesigned Storm Spirit would be making an appearance: "AAAAAAAAAAAAH!" He is a very happy man. Find out why, below.

The titular spirits of the update are the Radiant trio of Storm Spirit, Ember Spirit, and original DotA newbie Earth Spirit, who focus on Intelligence, Agility and Strength respectively. But the update doesn't just expand (or re-skin) Dota 2's already overwhelming roster. A round-up of new features will expand customisation, provide official support for in-game coaching, and give a new purpose to unwanted items.

For newer players, a training has been added to help perfect those vital last hits. In addition, those playing Limited Hero mode will have bots step in to replace players who abandon. For players who want to coach, they can join a game separately from players and spectators, and will have the power to draw on the map, and ping points of interest for their team.

A new socketing system will let you customise your items and mounts with a variety of Gems, which can imbue that item with new animations, colours, and stat boasts. A crafting system has also been introduced, letting you melt down unwanted items for more desirable replacements.

Finally, of course, there's the return of Diretide, the game's 'Halloween' event. Previously, Valve said they'd made some changes to how Diretide would work. Those aren't revealed on the game's update page, but players will soon find out first hand. The event will run from November 14 - 28.

Pop over to the Three Spirits micro-site for the update's full patch notes. Three Spirits should now be available on the test server. The public release is due out later today.

(Image source: 'scainburger' on Reddit)
Dota 2
Dota 2 Diretide


Diretide was the title of last year's Halloween Dota 2 event. It added a new game mode in which players battled for candy while avoiding the clutches of the monstrous but relentlessly persecuted Rancor, Roshan. There was candy, and giggles, and there were Greevil eggs you could massage with magical essences in preparation for the wintry Greeviling event.

As with all of Valve's seasonal events, Dota 2 players assumed that Diretide would return this year, but October 31 rolled around and nothing happened. As Valve explain in a post on the Dota 2 blog, they decided to drop Diretide to finish work on the next big update, but then slightly forgot to tell anyone. Good news, though! It will roll out with that update, and they've "made a few changes to Diretide that we think makes it more fun than before."

Valve are responding to a bit of drama that broke out when the free update failed to appear. Some Dota 2 fans, frustrated by silence from Valve, started inundating the car manufacturer Volvo with Diretide requests. As Kotaku noted, the "GIVE DIRETIDE" requests even reached Barrack Obama's Facebook page.

Valve explained their silence in the blog post "telling you that you weren’t getting it at all wouldn’t have really helped much. Now we started thinking in terms not of “what should we say?”, but in terms of “what should we do?”

They haven't outlined their plans for tweaking Diretide yet, but the next big update "isn’t far away now." They add "while we always want the community to tell us exactly how we’re doing, this is probably a good time to stop cc’ing innocent car manufacturers with your messages."
Team Fortress 2
Team Fortress 2


"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



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.

Item rental



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.

Account Buffs



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.

Mini-DLC



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.
Nov 1, 2013
Team Fortress 2

"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 opportunities 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.

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 highly untrustworthy. Nobody wants to feel like they're being duped, and being as straightforward as possible with customers is the way to solve that.

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.



Crates/card packs and random chance drops
Team Fortress 2
Mass Effect 3 multiplayer
Hearthstone



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 taunting delivery that pops up in the same space used 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 encourages. The positive side, in the case of TF2 and Dota 2, is that revenue from crate sales goes back to community item creators.

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 operated more like a randomised unlock system that you can speed up with money if you wish.

Verdict:

In-game item stores
Buying items
World of Tanks
Tribes: Ascend
League of Legends



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 alternatives 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.

Verdict:


Energy bar restrictions
Spiral Knights
Teacher's Story
Farmville



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 in ways that feel entirely arbitrary. You’re not failing to progress because of a lack of skill, but because of the expiration of a made-up, 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, like many microtransactions, are carefully hidden from view until you’ve spent a certain amount of time playing. Very unpleasant.

Verdict: KILL IT WITH FIRE

Cosmetic items
Dota 2
Battlefield Heroes
Guild Wars 2
League of Legends



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, 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.

Verdict:

Expiration
things you’ve earned that need replenishing with consumables
Fifa Ultimate Card thing (player renewal contracts)
Bullet Run (Weapon degradation)



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 targets in-game currency, asking you to spend in-game currency on restoring expired items so that you run short, and might feel the need to top up that currency with a purchase.

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’s also -creates a persistent, unpleasant pressure to pay and is an unsatisfactory purchase if you do cave in. 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.

Item rental
Battlefield play4free, I think?
Need for Speed World (was/is awful for this)
Quake Live - wasn't the only thing you really had to pay for rented server access?



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.

Verdict:

One-off account upgrades
Star Wars: The Old Republic - inventory slots, the ability to resurrect, basically everything
TF2 - free players have account/drop restrictions until they spend money - for any item - in game.



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. The expanding number of payment options that surround free-to-play games make them a daunting prospect for some. Just try deciphering this table for The Old Republic - http://www.swtor.com/free/features - The most important questionXXX

Account Buffs
Tribes: Ascend
Guild Wars 2
World of Tanks



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. It's a question of fairness. A community has an innate sense of whether they're being artificially held back. If a game is perceived as a grind, then it's sacrificing a player's potential enjoyment by making the buff 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.

Verdict:

Mini-DLC
Shogun 2 blood pack
Saints Row 4 GATV pack
Paradox portraits etc.
There are loads of these



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.

Verdict:

Free-to-play games that get it right

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. The items Dota players buy are expressions of fandom

Team Fortress 2

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.

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 given as levelling gifts as you play.

Tribes Ascend in its early days

League of Legends - LoL's rotating selection of playable characters gives free players a wide slice of the game


Rift: we linked to Star Wars: The Old Republic's payment option screens above. Here's Rift's.
...

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