Games as a Service

Free-To-Play, Pay-To-Win, and the Whale’s Call


With the constant connectivity of the internet and the recent great increases in the bandwidth available to the average consumer in recent years, one of the industries to take the most advantage of it is the gaming industry. Not only is it much more convenient to deliver a game via digital download, but the ability to further change a game after its release allows developers to deal with major bugs and issues that may not be discovered until after launch, and in the past might have spelled doom for a game.

Furthermore, being able to alter the finished product has created an entirely new way to approach game sales: games as a service. The meaning of this phrase is not readily apparent. Games as a service proposes that after a game is released, rather than spending an entirely new development cycle on an expansion, sequel, or other game altogether, the studio can continue to work on the game after it is released, adding new content, features, or story chapters. If an additional fee must be paid for this material, it is called DLC, or Down-Loadable Content. This allows a studio to expand their work without beginning an entirely separate project. However, this is rarely free. Whether an additional fee is paid or not, a game utilizing this model will often contain systems that encourage players to pay for items which may or may not affect gameplay.

Games as a service has also spawned the free-to-play genre. Free-to-play games (often abbreviated F2P), as the name suggests, have no price to download and play them. Instead, they sell small, optional items one at a time in some sort of in-game shop. Most players that play one of these games will spend little or nothing on these smaller purchases, known as microtransactions. Rather, the continued development of these games is funded largely by what are known in the industry as “whales.” A whale is a player who spends large sums, sometimes thousands of dollars, on microtransactions or DLC. Without whales, the free-to-play genre would not exist, as the average free-to-player will never spend enough on the game to keep the lights on. However, F2P games have themselves spawned a darker subgenre: P2W.

P2W stands for pay-to-win. A pay-to-win game, like the free-to-play, is free, at least initially. Usually, a new player will have a fair chance in the early stages of the game, but as he progresses into the more difficult sections, he comes to realize that either the options available to him without paying are too weak to progress further, or the more powerful options would take prohibitively long to unlock without either paying for some sort of boost or simply to unlock them outright. P2W games attempt to get players hooked early and then habituate them to spend money without thinking. In a P2W game, the playerbase is made up entirely of whales, as any player not willing to spend, spend, spend on the game is forced out by their inability to compete fairly.

What does this have to do with games as a service? Well, the pay-to-win game is the dark side of the model. While a game that is constantly adding more material that its audience wants is beneficial for both the studio, as it is able to produce more content at a lower cost, and the customer, who gets material much faster than otherwise, the temptation to try to coerce money from a customer is always there. Therefore, if you intend to use games as a service, remember that you should be trying to get the customer to pay because they want to, not because you want them to. A willing whale is perfectly content to pay your studio to keep updating his game, but when you extort money through deceptive and predatory practices, nobody is happy.