Free to Play Games and How to do Them Well

The Free to Play model of gaming is becoming increasingly popular, for a few obvious reasons. A free to play game is easily accessible to anyone who is unable, or unwilling to pay the money required for the latest triple A first-person shooter, or even some of the more indie games, that typically cost far less. Lowering the barrier to entry can come with a few problems of its own, however. Game quality is often lowered, due to the uncertainty of the game’s success, where millions of people could play, and with a decent level of experts and quality of work, most will not invest money into the game, and the project will come back at a loss to the company.

If the quality isn’t lowered drastically, the publishers of the free to play game will often use the “freemium” model of the game or, as we have said many times with derision “pay to win”. These games lower the barrier of entry, and then ask us to walk over hot coals because we didn’t have to climb very high. Of course, the company does have to make money back on their investment, they must offer something for money in a free to play, but in a freemium game, these purchases will often confer a colossal benefit over other, non-paying players, allowing them to beat non-paying players almost every time, hence “pay to win”.

Other games have found a way to make money in a manner that is more fair to their consumers. Take, for example, Dota 2, or Team Fortress 2. Almost all of the purchases available within these games are cosmetic, differing skins, armours, or even hats with which to show off your flair of personality! It presents a way to earn money (and this model does earn a lot of money, Dota 2 alone making $80M for Valve in 2013) whilst not presenting any game play advantage to the player who spends their money on microtransactions. It’s simply a way to make your characters more endearing to you, customisation being a big draw to certain games for some players.

But, there is at least one game that has a seamless blend of the two, without conferring ridiculous levels of power to the purchaser. That game is Warframe.


Warframe is a third-person, sci-fi shooter available for free on PSN, the Xbox Marketplace and on Steam, as well as from their own website.

Proudly boasting that “Ninjas play free” the game itself offers in game purchases with its premium currency “platinum”, often shortened to just “p” by its users. The in game marketplace allows any player with platinum to buy cosmetics, or fully formed weapons, characters, or accessories. Weapons and character take some time to become available to the player when playing organically due to the construction mechanic where a player must collect materials to build anything in the game (this time delay itself may be eradicated for each item individually with platinum, the cost depending on time remaining and the value of the item itself). This may, at face value, seem to go against the initial premise of Warframe not being a pay to win game, but the crucial part is this: items themselves will not make you powerful in Warframe. A crucial part of the game is levelling each individual item to increase the capacity for upgrades it can hold. This cannot be bought. In order to obtain decent weapons or characters, the player is forced to play the game organically, at least to some degree. And, whereas these upgrades can be bought in bundles, the upgrades are received are fairly random.

This is not mentioning “Prime” weapons, which are better versions of other, more basic weapons. These cannot be bought for platinum from the game itself, and must be collected from missions within a player’s career. If a player wishes to buy Prime weaponry, they must do so from other players, so there is even a way to earn premium currency without paying for it, if you can persevere through some longer grinding sessions of getting the wrong piece for a set, when you only need one more to sell the whole set for a lot more platinum.

Yet further, the platinum system will not allow a player to artificially buy something when they would not already be able to make it, due to being too low ranked to be permitted. That is to say a rank 7 player would not be able to buy a rank 8 weapon.

This presents a way to provide premium purchases that do not interfere with the natural feel of progression within the game. Higher ranked players should have access to a higher level, more punishing equipment. They’ve put in the time to earn them. It’s bound to be a shock if you’ve worked long and hard to just hit the next level so you can finally make the Golden Gun of Exploderific Death and then someone 4 ranks below you, but with a bit of spare cash can do the same in an instant.

The industry of free to play games has had its testing period to figure out how best to make a profit, and there are a few games out there with very good working models. Perhaps the future of free to play lies in following their example.

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7 years ago

Definitely agree with this on all levels… As a warframe player myself, I certainly agree that the game is very fair in it’s F2P ways… Yes you have to wait for construction, but it gives you time to do other things, or play another game entirely (as it continues constructing when you’re away).