The comments to yesterday’s post about a EU regulatory body’s intention to crack down on the use of “free” in game descriptions were rather illuminating.
As you may or may not have known through prior posts, I vastly prefer the “B2P” model (e.g. the default) to F2P because the latter is associated with (IMO) compromised gameplay mechanics that serve no intention beyond the enforcement of the payment model. Plus, I cannot turn off the parsimonious part of my brain when it comes to purchasing things, thus frequently leading me to extreme and, frankly, insane behavior to save a literal handful of dollars that would have been eagerly frittered away en mass in other contexts.
That said, both eyebrows were fully cocked at what I was reading yesterday:
Saying you can play LoL for free is like saying Spaghetti Bolognese is a vegetable meal because you can just choose to not eat the meat part. I’m sure the EU doesn’t allow you to label Spaghetti Bolognese as a vegetable meal.
F2P has become a buzzword added to everything, completely useless in providing information as if you can really play for free, so it’s not that bad if they force producers into labeling their games into something more informative.
No for-profit product or service should ever be generically described as “Free”. It breaks the language.
“Where is the confusion”, you ask. Lawyers are very good at finding the confusion. Leaving the definition to be argued in court would be sure to burden games players and EU taxpayers with the very expensive costs of both sides of such a court case.
Regarding that last one, it is indeed true that Apple ended up settling their court case with the FTC for $32.5 million this year over in-app purchases (IAP). I suppose there is something to be said about “kids games” having IAP and potentially targeting children specifically, but I can’t help but wonder if companies other than Apple are being held accountable for the children of parents who hand them credit cards unsupervised. And to what degree court cases like this justifies the UK banning of porn. It just sorta seems like a concession that adults are incapable of being responsible parents by default; I mean, you’re either not monitoring their phone/game usage, or you’re not utilizing both Apple’s and Google’s ample parental controls before you hand over the small supercomputer to a seven year-old.
Let’s dial the politics back a bit though, as I want to focus on F2P. Or rather, how it apparently does not exist.
It was Bhagpuss that quipped that second to last quote, regarding how the term F2P “breaks the language” because it has free in the description when you can’t actually play for free. Or you can, but since the company is for-profit, it’s misleading. Just like those “free samples” in grocery stores. Or my anti-virus program. Or, I suppose anything at all from any for-profit company as we can assume they’re making money somewhere along the line. To be charitable, Bhagpuss suggests that the way games are labeled will be changed to accommodate the new rules, by making them say “Free to download, IAP optional.” Which they pretty much already do:
My question from the prior post still stands though: where are the EU-approved (no-IAP of any kind) free games? I poked around the Google Play store for a bit before running into an old stand-by that pretty much highlights the gaping holes in the EU commission’s logic: Where’s My Water?
Hey, look! No IAP at all! EU 1, Disney 0. Of course, scrolling down a bit, we see…
I’m actually pretty sure that I’ve seen these sort of “free trials” or demos for game apps long before IAP were ever implemented, so there’s a certain symmetry to companies circling back to what worked before. Because, let’s face it, if in-app advertisements are fine, advertisements for the full version of the game you’re playing (and others) are fine too.
As you might expect, the completely and totally free version of Where’s My Water? is a severely truncated mess that plays full-screen video advertisements every 2-3 stages you complete, followed by level selector that ends with a link to a paid app and the Where’s My Water? 2 sequel. At least they’re not selling gems though, right? Sure. But there’s no reason to suggest that they couldn’t advertise the full, “Try Now!” version that is also free to download with all its microtransactions intact. Considering that even a child will burn through these IAP-removed “free” games within 20 minutes, and they can still navigate to the app store via handy in-app advertisements to purchase the “full” IAP game within moments, I have to start wondering if the language is worth saving. Seriously, I was three clicks away from purchasing either a new game or the unlocked version of the one I was playing.
I mean, what, will the EU disable click-through advertisements next? If they did, that would actually be pretty amazing. They won’t though, because they can’t, and since this entire concern is predicated on children being able to circumvent their parent’s (likely nonexistent) IAP prevention measures, it won’t stop kids from buying the entire App store.
In which case we’ve come full circle, minus the word “Free,” while doubling the number of ad-riddled Shareware in App stores. So… success? Or maybe they could have simply mandated that IAP (and ad-supported) filters be more prominently displayed, so that reckless parents have one last chance at sanity before they download just anything and let it babysit their child for hours.
The European Commission is in the beginning stages of passing down a mandate on F2P games, with the following as perhaps one of the definitions:
“The use of the word ‘free’ (or similar unequivocal terms) as such, and without any appropriate qualifications, should only be allowed for games which are indeed free in their entirety, or in other words which contain no possibility of making in-app purchases, not even on an optional basis,” they wrote.
Now, I am about as pro-consumer as you can possibly get, but this… seems a bit off.
For one thing, where is the confusion? It’s called Free-to-Play and all these games – even the one with really manipulative, coercive business models – are literally free to play. It seems like kids being lured into purchasing in-game items is the thrust of the legislation, but I’m not entirely sure what about that gets solved by labeling these games as “Freemium” or whatever marketing term fills the gap. They will still be free to download, parents will still be dumb and leave their credit card info auto-filled in or account signed on, and kids will still be manipulated to do things.
In fact, I’m kinda curious as to what possible games truly fall under the “unequivocally free” category. In-app purchases will disqualify you, but the game designers are getting paid somehow, so… what? Rampant and misleading in-game advertisements are okay? Maybe affiliate links to Amazon pages with one-push purchasing of an Angry Birds plushie? Do donate buttons count as in-app purchases? I mean, little Johnny might get confused and push the Donate $20 button a few times in a fit of youthful exuberance.
While I do not like the implicit design channels that F2P inevitably inform (payslopes, time walls, extra grinding, etc), I’m completely fine with the term itself. And it seems somewhat dishonest to put League of Legends into the same category as Clash of Clan derivatives, just because the former happens to have cosmetic purchases. Have a special “IAP-supported” filter criteria if you must, although I’m not sure if those searches will turn up anything these days. I mean, the last time I saw any truly free freeware was either on 3.5″ floppy disks or a random CD in my Captain Crunch cereal.
In a rather topical turn of events, Blizzard has confirmed both that the level-90 boost will be $60 for real, and that it’s priced that way for your own good.
“In terms of the pricing, honestly a big part of that is not wanting to devalue the accomplishment of leveling,” Hazzikostas said.
“If our goal here was to sell as many boosts as possible, we could halve the price or more than that – make it $10 or something. And then hardly anyone would ever level a character again.
“But leveling is something that takes dozens if not over 100 hours in many cases and people have put serious time and effort into that, and we don’t want to diminish that.”
He added: “I am not an economist, I’m not the one setting the dollar value myself, but it’s not the profit maximizing price. That was not our aim here.”
You know, because anything less than $60 devalues your leveling accomplishments from years ago. Aside from everyone getting a free 90 with the expansion. And aside from those free level 80s via the Scroll of Resurrection (RIP). And aside from getting triple XP for putting a character on /follow for $12.50. And aside from the people cajoling their friends for power-leveling AoE dungeon runs while wearing full heirlooms. And, of course, aside from the inevitable XP reduction that comes with each expansion.
What’s extra interesting to me now though (and with Wilhelm too), is what Blizzard is going to do when the price of the expansion inevitably drops. I ended up buying Mists of Pandaria for $20 over Christmas a few years ago. Will the $60 character boost go down in tandem with the box price? Or will their stomach for the “unwieldy” buy-extra-expansion-copies suddenly steel up?
My post yesterday came across to Tobold as an admonition of in-game purchases or whatever. While I do not expect people to maintain a full inventory of my opinions, I do hope that I am occasionally afforded the benefit of a doubt. Just so we’re clear though, here are my thoughts.
Way back in July 2011, I posted The Problem with F2P and Microtransactions. Over the years (!), I have come to concede the point that microtransactions are not going away. However, I have and will always continue to fight to slow the steady erosion of consumer surplus whenever I can. To me, there is no inconsistency with being okay with DLC in general, but not being okay with on-disc or Day 1 DLC. Similarly, there is good F2P and bad F2P, the latter of which can be summarized in Green Armadillo’s “To Vote Against Monetizing Nuisance” post. I’ve spent real dollars on PlanetSide 2 and Hearthstone, but would never spend anything on Dungeon Keeper or Candy Crush Saga, even though I have nothing against playing those latter games.
In fact, I talked about games like Dungeon Keeper just about two weeks ago. Their business models suck and they are emblematic of the wrong way to take game design, but if you treat their nuisance as an extra layer of challenge, you can re-extract the consumer surplus you inevitably lost somewhere else. Plus, paying in time management games is an extremely bad trade of value. Getting extra imps or builders or whatever usually results in maybe an extra minute or two of gameplay if you’re lucky – you will be able to take a few extra actions but will otherwise still be required to put the game down for an arbitrary period of time. Compare that with Don’t Starve or Terraria or whatever full-fledged indie game you could have bought with those same dollars.
In any case, circling back to Blizzard, I hope it’s clear that I’m not against all in-game purchases. I’ve used both the Scroll of Resurrection and dual-boxed a RAF account in the past (that’s the origin of my Priest named Freexp). My opposition to the $60 instant-90 is precisely the dollar amount, on top of the bullshit PR logic used to justify it. I have always had a problem with the $25 character transfer service too, which really came to a head when they dropped the price for a week. These services are priced so absurdly compared to what other pieces of entertainment you could be buying because, quote, it’s to discourage their use. Yeah, okay. Tell that to the thousands of people left duped and abandoned on no-pop “Recommended” servers that Blizzard left to rot for 6+ years. To those people, it was “pay $25 on top of the subscription to continue playing the game.”
A lot of people have already weighed in on the $60 cost for instant-level 90 WoW characters, but let’s tackle this topic a week late and a dollar short. The funny thing is some people were actually surprised the price was so low. After all, the reasoning goes, it would cost more to buy another boxed set + expansion + character transfer to your main account.
Personally, the discussion regarding the “reasonableness” merely cements in my mind how completely unmoored from reality one can get in the midst of an infatuation. I mean, in the context of a game with $25 mounts and $25 to have your character transferred to different servers (in a completely automated fashion), sure, $60 sounds kind of like par for the course.
At the appropriate distance, on the other hand, it’s fucking absurd. That’s an entirely new AAA game. With the current Steam sale, that’s FFXIV plus four months of playtime. Hell, that’s four months of WoW game time. It’s the same sort of logic that considers it reasonable to suggest “investing” $20 into a F2P app like Dungeon Keeper.
Nevermind that Blizzard was giving away level 80 characters for free almost exactly two years ago. But hey, what a happy coincidence that the Scroll of Resurrection “ran out of charges” on the exact day of the $60 purchase leak.
The value of anything is subjective, true. Different people have different levels of disposable income, tastes, desires, and sees their gameplay time as more or less important. That being said, the fundamental constant in all this is opportunity cost. Sixty dollars here is sixty dollars not over there. Blizzard is banking (perhaps literally) on players not thinking their options through. I could give you a dozen game suggestions, any one of which could provide more entertainment per dollar than this exchange, even if you play WoW for 4+ hours a day.
Hell, the more you play WoW, the less sense $60 makes; heirlooms and guild mates could power-level you in a weekend. Recruit-a-Friend makes it so you could do it solo even faster, at a fraction of the cost (not to mention netting you three high-level characters). Seriously, do the math: the base warchest is $12.50 on Amazon and includes a free month, but the next month is also free since the veteran account gets it as well, just in case your casual dual-boxing takes a bit longer. So you get one level 85 and 42 bonus levels on whatever character for $12.50. Or you can purchase a second level 85 for an additional $25. Or take all of it over two months for $42.50.
Or, you know, $60 for one dude, I guess.
Trouble is that Blizzard put themselves in somewhat of an awkward scenario here. I would have suggested $25 as being an appropriate price for instant level 90 – the equivalent of a server transfer without destroying the original – but as with anything RMT, its mere existence instantly puts a price on everyone’s gameplay. Even now, there are people straining to control their incredulity regarding my suggestion that it cost $25. “Oh, $40 is the least it should cost!” “They’d be justified in pricing it at $100!” All of which is silly, because I just told you the price of a may-as-well-be-instant level 85 is $12.50 on Amazon.
Time will eventually tell whether the price of the character boost will be $60 or something else. Perhaps it will debut at that price to make the preorder of the next expansion seem like such a good deal, and then eventually get discounted. What isn’t particularly up for debate is that something was necessary. WoW has been hemorrhaging subscribers for years, and even though the flow has been staunched for now, the largest potential growth market continues to be ex-WoW players and not new ones.
I am not particularly convinced, however, luring ex-players into the Draenor expansion is going to make them consider $60 to boost their alts out of Cataclysm hell to be reasonable. After all, it is only after you unsubscribe that you realize the fragility of the “$15/month is cheaper than anything” argument. It may actually still be cheaper than many alternatives, but if you at any point deviate from that narrow path onto character transfer-land or RMT mounts, a single Humble Bundle or Steam sale can demolish you in dollar per fun. I played Terraria and Don’t Starve for 60 hours apiece. A subscription might get you 80 hours for the same price, but it’s the wrong comparison. How does 60 hours stack up against a name change? Or that shiny new mount?
Heard about that Dungeon Keeper controversy? You’d be forgiven for thinking that EA must have cooked up some particularly nefarious innovation in the mobile wallet extraction app market, but the reality is that this game is merely another straw on a camel-back-breaking pile. From the article:
Whenever you write about this phenomenon, the common complaint from people making the games in question is that not all of them are bad. As Thomas Baekdal realised though, the problem is definition. When your free-to-play game is all economy mechanics rather than game mechanics, when your game is all business design rather than game design, you’re not actually making a game – you’re constructing a scam, whether you realise it or not. If you’re doing it knowingly, you’re just a high-tech gangster.
If we get right down to it, I almost agree with him.
It is not a particularly robust defense to say that Dungeon Keeper isn’t doing anything worse than what other games have done before. Tobold compared it to Clash of Clans, which I haven’t played, but I have played Castle Clash which I assume to be similar. And between Dungeon Keeper and Castle Clash, there are a lot similarities, mechanics-wise: building troops (which takes time), harvesting resources (which takes time), removing obstacles on the game map (which takes time), attacking other players’ maps and stealing their resources (which is kinda fun). Indeed, about the only real difference between the flavors is how quickly you can reach the sticker-shock of needing to waiting 24+ hours for an action to complete; Dungeon Keeper immediately requires a day to dig a particular type of dirt block along the edges of the map (but there’s plenty of inner-map space), whereas Castle Clash took a while before revealing building upgrades would eventually start taking 7-10+ days.
In fact, as I type this, I have 5 days to go to upgrade my Gold Mine to level 16, 2 days and 10 hours for my Barracks to hit level 14, and it’d take 15 days, 7 hours, and 24 minutes if I queued up the level 3 training to improve my Ornithopter troops. As near as I can tell, it’d cost roughly $1 in gems to knock off one full day of one timer.
The trick about these games is sort of the trick about Hearthstone: as long as it isn’t your primary source of entertainment, the restrictions are mostly irrelevant. I “play” Castle Clash maybe 3-5 times a day, for about five minutes at a time. Under this schedule, there really is no difference between an action that takes 10 minutes and one that takes 3 hours, as I’m either done with my break at work or whatever loading screen I was waiting on for my PC game has finished. If you only play Hearthstone every 2-3 days, then you will have enough gold to pretty much do whatever you want in each play session. You generally only really get into trouble with F2P games when you feel compelled to play them every day for hours.
Of course, that’s kind of the rub. Tobold is challenging people to think up a better alternative to the wait mechanic that doesn’t result in finishing the game in an hour, but it does sort of strike me as profoundly cynical to engineer a game where not playing is a game mechanic, especially when you offer money to bypass it. I don’t think it’s “entitlement” to ask for a game I can reasonably play for more than 10 minutes at a time, if I have need to. I have zero complaints for having spent a few bucks apiece for Angry Birds, Plants vs Zombies, Dungeon Raid, 10000000, Where’s My Water, and so on, so the admonition of “game devs need to eat” rings hollow. Especially when it’s suggested that dropping $20 on Dungeon Keeper for more imps – which will allow you to run twice as many 24+ hour queues at a time, but still otherwise constrict you to 10-minute play sessions – is considered “reasonable.”
All that being said though, I have officially added Dungeon Keeper to my game app rotation. I’m not a fan of it’s constant up-selling in terms of ringtones/wallpapers and such, or the badgering for me to log onto my Google+ account (which I silenced by creating a fake profile), but it’s otherwise a perfectly serviceable Progress Quest-style game for those who derive pleasure from time-management multitasking. Between Dungeon Keeper, Castle Clash, and Candy Crush Saga, I can have an almost uninterrupted 30 minutes (!) of gameplay.
Which is a pretty sad thing to get excited about, don’t get me wrong. But there’s only so much you can do when you’ve beaten all the other mobile games you’ve paid for.
Gevlon had a post up last Friday about Hearthstone that claimed the following:
My problem isn’t that you must pay to be anything but a punching bag. I’ve played 5 years of World of Warcraft, paying 720 euros in the process. My EVE accounts are over 1000 Euros, luckily they’ve been paid by bad EVE players. It’s obvious that you have to pay to use a product and can only get a sample for free. However – unlike in subscription games – there is no fixed cost. If I pay the subscription, I can play EVE or WoW fully. If I pay even $1000 on Heartstone, there is absolutely no guarantee that I’ll be competitive against someone who paid $2000. Even worse, there is no guarantee that my wins are mine, and I’m not just stomping on better players with smaller wallets.
So no thanks, I keep away from Heartstone and the rest of the pay-to-win games.
It is worth noting at the start here that the math is off: on average, you’ll have every Hearthstone card after opening 512 packs, or spending roughly $640. Or it could be as few as 215 packs, for $213. Or you could end up like me, who has just about every card I could conceivably want (not a full set) after having spent 3+ months and $50.
Gevlon countered that there will be more expansions and thus cards later on, but I don’t find that particularly relevant because a dude named Reynard took a 5-day old account and navigated a completely F2P warrior deck to the Legendary Rank, all on Twitch. This wasn’t a guy who spammed Arena games 20 hours a day for every card in the game – this is a guy put us all to shame with his brass balls, mad skillz, and a deck with six Rares (no Epics, no Legendaries). Granted, he is about a pro-CCG player as a person can get. “Results not typical” and all that. But how much money or cards it takes “to be competitive” is not quite as descriptive or damning a statement as it sounds. Is it possible to prop one’s lack of skill with more powerful cards? Sure, probably. Where exactly are those goalposts though?
The larger question of whether Hearthstone is P2W obviously depends on your definition of the term. Is having more/better cards an advantage you can purchase your way into? Yes. However, you can also earn your way to those same rewards using in-game currency. In fact, the whole Dust and Crafting mechanic is something about Hearthstone that has significantly moved my original opinion of its apparent P2W tendencies.
See, I do consider card games like Magic to be P2W for a few specific reasons. First, the power level of the cards heavily and unapologetically skews towards the higher rarities. While there are some very nice Legendaries in Hearthstone, the vast majority of even the top tier decks consist of Basic class cards and Commons/Rares. Second, and more importantly, you have zero control over acquiring any specific card in games like Magic. Yes, you can absolutely buy cards off of other players, but that’s exactly where the P2W part comes in. Or, actually, it comes in at the very beginning, wherein you have zero cards in your collection and have to purchase some to play at all.
Crafting in Hearthstone, along with your ability to complete daily quests and purchase packs with in-game currency, shifts the focus away from paying for advantage to paying for time. Given time, you will have all the cards you could ever want, with zero dollars spent. Is paying for XP boosts in other games considered P2W? Not likely.
But if accelerating the grinding process constitutes a win one pays for, that by definition should encompass most all MMOs, WoW and EVE included. Gevlon thinks dropping $1,000 on PLEX and walking away with a 100m Skill Point pilot inside a Titan as a Day 1 player “doesn’t count” because those were player-made, and thus there was no net increase in power in the EVE universe. But isn’t all power relative anyway? That new player in a Titan is at a significant advantage over all his/her Day 1 peers, not to mention anyone not flying around in a Titan-hunting band.
Besides, what actual difference is there between purchasing currency directly from CCP, and simply siphoning the currency generated from thin air by 1,000 players completing 1,000 missions? Or even completed ships built from ores from the ether? Rate of in-game inflation? If one is P2W, surely the other is as well.
In any case, my opinion right now is that Hearthstone is not P2W, even though it otherwise has most of the trappings of decidedly P2W CCGs. Your early games with the default card selection will suck. There are a number of strictly-better cards at the same mana cost, and they’re usually more rare. A Legendary card dropping at the other end of the table is liable to ruin your day.
That being said… it’s been proven that one can be competitive with a six-Rare deck. You will end up with all of the cards in the game if you keep playing (for free!) long enough. Hell, it’s not even one of those “you can technically get everything but it takes 10,000 hours” F2P payslopes. Other CCGs have allowed players to buy packs using in-game currency, but Blizzard’s willingness to allow Hearthstone players to craft the exact card they want should close the P2W debate once and for all.
At least, for now. We’ll see what the future brings with expansions.
I have been flirting with the idea of dropping $49.99 on Hearthstone to purchase 40 boosters. That is, strictly speaking, directly against the advice I have and will continue to espouse. It is absolutely unnecessary in order to advance in Ranked Play – a good player can navigate the Basic Mage deck to Masters level with little apparent trouble. (Watch this video, especially the 2nd game.) In fact, that thought led me to an interesting question: exactly what cards am I missing?
The surprising answer? “Not much.”
Heading into Crafting Mode allows you to see ghost images of all the cards missing in your collection. When looked at from this angle, the amount seems daunting. Yes, you can legitimately play for free. Yes, I have been actually gaining gold from playing Arena lately. But 3-11 games games per Arena entry is starting to grate on me a bit when you get stuck with a sub-par selection of cards. Like when you pick warrior and can’t pick up any weapons. Or a Warlock without demons (I actually went 5-3, but I had 3 Hellfires so…). As I have mentioned in the past, my favorite part of Magic: the Gathering was building decks. So each time I go do a daily and end up using the same generic cards I’ve been using for the last two months, I die a little on the inside.
But then I found the weird thing: not all the Epics were good. In fact, a lot of them were outright bad. There are basically 3 Epics per class and 10 Neutral ones, compared to Rares with 5/class + 36 Neutral. And when you really just sit down and look at the card selection, it becomes pretty clear that the Rare cards (and Commons!) are the backbone of most of the classes.
You know, Rares, the card guaranteed to be in every booster pack.
There are a few notable exceptions in Epics being better than Rares, of course. Brawl for Warriors, for example. Hunters pretty much have to use Bestial Wrath in every deck, and Snake Trap combos well with the rest of the kit. But when I look at some of these others, I just start scratching my head. It looks like Blizzard was including some “metagame” cards to perhaps hedge their bets against every possible deck contingency. But, honestly, you can (and will) beat someone’s face in with relentless vanilla cards all day long. Chillwind Yeti is a bitch to deal with no matter what Rares/Epics you are packing, and it costs 4 mana while easily slotting into every deck.
So… now I’m not sure about buying boosters any more. If I’m honest, my primary impetus towards doing so was efficiency: if I spend some of my 600 Dust crafting a given card, I’d hate to then open up duplicates of said card later. Plus, which class would I focus on, at the expense of the others? Besides, I’m already 1/3rd of the way to straight-up crafting a Legendary. In large part due to, by the way, cracking open and immediately Disenchanting the legendary Millhouse Manastorm. Because clearly Blizzard feels it necessary to follow in the M:tG tradition of printing junk cards in the highest rarities. But, hey, 400 Dust from a single card ain’t bad.
By the way, according to this write-up, I may have made a huge error in Disenchanting him. And I realize now that, either way, I certainly lost a ton of comedy potential in putting him in every deck and simply seeing the mayhem.
Anyway, the fact that I am even going through this thought process at all is a clear win for Blizzard. I have said before that Hearthstone can be played legitimately for free as long as it is not your primary, go-to game. The best method, as explained indirectly by Wilhelm in a brilliant post this summer, is to treat it as you would Candy Crush Saga: something you play until you “run out of lives,” and then come back to tomorrow. Becoming more invested in the game leads to, well, investment. Of the monetary kind. Which is… bad. Because it’s free. Or something.
Have I mentioned that I hate F2P due to how it warps my mind? Yes, I believe I have.
After becoming increasingly disenchanted with Scrolls while still craving a card-game experience, I found out that SolForge was in Open Beta as a F2P game. On Steam, no less. Score!
SolForge plays a lot differently than many other CCGs (there is no trading that I’m aware of): it has the most distilled, fast-paced card gameplay that I have ever seen, outside of maybe Dominion. The basic premise is that you build a 30-card deck with the goal of reducing your opponent from 100 HP to zero. There are four “factions” that roughly correspond with certain card themes, and your deck is limited to having cards from only two factions. Each player draws five cards, someone is selected to play first, and then you see this screen:
The first big twist is that there are no resources to manage. On your turn, you can play two cards from your hand, be they creatures or spells. When you play any card, an upgraded version of that card is shuffled back into your deck. There is a combat step where all creatures attack, and you can trigger it at any point during your turn (before, in the middle of, or after you played your cards). At the end of your turn, any leftover cards in your hand are also shuffled back into your deck and you draw a new hand of five cards. Every four turns or so, your avatar “levels up” and then you are able to start actually drawing the upgraded versions of the cards you played previously (even if the original is still on the board).
A quick note about the leveled-up cards: it is way more strategic than you think. A lot of cards might have an especially weak Level 1 form, only to ramp up in power with Level 2 and Level 3. Others are strong Level 1 contenders, but feature a definite lack of scaling that almost make them dead-draws in the endgame. Still others sort of force you to use them early to keep them relevant at all. An example of the latter is Cull the Weak, a removal card which destroys a creature with 4 Attack or less, which ramps up to 7 or less and finally 14 or less at Level 3. Played early, Cull will serve you immensely well into the late stages of the game; drawing into a Level 1 Cull around Turn 15 though, and it may as well be a blank card.
Examples of the first two types of cards (late vs early game focus) can be seen here:
Where things really get (further) mind-bending is combat. Creatures you play
have Summoning Sickness are “On Defensive” until the start of your next turn, meaning they won’t initiate combat. Creatures will also stay in the lane you played them in (unless they have the Mobility trait), attacking anything directly across from them. Once creatures are “On the Offensive,” they will attack every turn. As in, creatures will attack on your turn, and then attack again on your opponent’s turn. Damage a creature takes is permanent, as are most boosts and the like. As you might imagine, creatures die pretty quick; conversely, this means that any creature that does stick around (especially if they have a nice ability) start becoming increasingly dangerous.
What I am failing to get across in words is this: the tempo is SolForge is insane. And addicting. Let’s say that I play a 5/5 creature and my opponent then plays a 7/7 across from it. If I do nothing, my 5/5 will automatically run to its death, and my opponent will begin dealing 7 damage a turn with the now 7/2 creature. Before the attack phase, I might cast a spell that gives one creature +3 attack and another creature -3 attack, making the match-up a 8/5 versus a 4/7. On my opponent’s turn, if he/she doesn’t kill the creature with a spell or throw another creature in front of my now 8/1, it will attack again on his/her turn.
Goddammit, words aren’t working. Here was board position of the closest fight I have ever seen:
It is my opponent’s turn, late in the endgame. His creatures are the 6/10 Savant that let’s him give a creature -3/-3 whenever he casts a Level 1 spell, and “just” a 24/7 wurm. Mine are all just vanilla creatures aside from the Dryad, which gets +1/+1 each time a creature comes into play on my side. He just cast the +3 Attack/-3 Attack spell I mentioned earlier, targeting his wurm and my dryad, taking out one of my 2/3 Ether Hounds with the -3/-3 trigger. He then plays his own Ether Hounds, providing blockers for my Dryad and Marrow Fiend, using the Savant’s trigger to kill my last Ether Hound. He attacks, creatures die, and we go down to 7 and 4 HP respectfully.
What are my options on my upcoming turn? Well… the 6/5 is just a vanilla creature; the 4/6 will spawn a 1/1 creature in its space after it dies; the 14/14 creature has Mobility and gets +6/+6 when a creature dies across from it; the card Enrage gives a creature +5/+5; and the last card gives a creature -3/-3. Hmm. After I make my moves, the board looks like this:
I had tossed my 14/14 in front of the Savant because the -3/-3 triggers were generating insane card advantage, and would basically negate my center lane gambit. Said gambit was tossing in the 4/6 creature in the path of the 24/7, and relying on the 1/1 that spawned after its death to give me the reprieve I needed to win. And, in fact, I would have won on his turn, but he managed to cast either another Savant or perhaps a Gloomreaper Witch (kills a 1-power creature when it comes into play) to remove my 1/1 and block my 20/14, and then some other throwaway creature to stand in front of my 17/11. The wurm, unopposed, kills me. GG.
Whether all of that sounds like gobbledygook or a smashing good time probably depends on how familiar you are with card games, or with Magic specifically. Oh, did I forget to mention that? Richard fucking Garfield had a hand in SolForge’s development, along with the guys who made Ascension, who were already pro Magic players. Now that I think about it, Richard fucking Garfield worked on Card Hunter too. Dude gets around. Considering how everything he touches seems to directly trigger my nucleus accumbens, I’m going to say that this is a Good Thing.
Less so for my wallet.
A few days ago Tobold made what seemed to be a reasonable argument that F2P games are just like cell phone plans – some plans work better than others depending on how much you use the phone. That seems fine, until you realize that phone carriers typically give you a choice between subscriptions and buying minutes, even for the same phone model. But more than that, what I want to talk about is how/why I feel that F2P is always bad for me as a player.
I’m one of those people that derive pleasure from “optimizing the fun out of games.” Of course, I don’t actually see it as fun reduction at all; if anything, I get the most entertainment possible when I can lever the whole of my mind in opposition to the game designer. It is not that I want to discover the ultimate ability/gear combo to make the game trivial (most games have cheat codes, Save file hacks, etc), it is that I want the game to be difficult or deep enough to drive me to discover it using the tools the designer gave me. The optimization part is simply the nominal destination of a thoroughly engaging and fun journey getting there.
This brings me (back) to the topic of F2P. One of the common defenses of F2P is that it evens the playing field between the time-rich and the people with limited time. Frankly, I feel that is bullshit right off the bat. One of the hallmarks of a fair game is everyone playing by consistent rules – if I have to kill 1000 boars, everyone has to kill 1000 boars. If killing that many boars takes 15 hours, then yes, someone who can spent 15 hours a day playing the game will have an “advantage” over someone who can only play two hours.¹ Then again, a particularly skillful player might be able to figure out how to kill the required number of boars in only 10 hours, perhaps by optimizing his/her equipment, farming strategy, and/or ability rotation. The “time-rich” player might still have the “advantage,” but their brute-force approach is inefficient.
The typical F2P experience is thus the worst of all possible worlds for players like myself. I am both time and money “rich” (i.e. I have disposable income), which already presents uncomfortable gaming decisions on a daily basis. If you have no money or no time, the solution to any F2P problem is pretty obvious: grind it out or pay to skip the grind. Conversely, those of us who can do both are stuck rationalizing every possible decision all the time. “Do I grind for another 2 hours, or do I just spend the $5?” Maybe the default should be pay-to-skip in that scenario, but what about all the other games you could be purchasing with that same $5? Is “saving” two hours in one game worth purchasing a different game that could last you 20 hours by itself?
The real kicker though is the fact that F2P more or less invalidates any real sense of optimization. All of us already know that the most efficient move in a F2P game is to load up on XP potions, convert cash into in-game currency to clean out the AH, and open lockboxes all day until we have everything of any value. There is no possible way to beat that. “Just figure out the most efficient path without spending money.” Playing with an artificial handicap is simply not as engaging to me. You can technically increase the difficulty of a FPS by decreasing your mouse sensitivity, but that will never feel as satisfying as having more intelligent opponents.
Where I agree with Tobold is that F2P is here to stay. Outside of the CoDs and Battlefields and Counter-Strikes of the world, I’m not sure many multiplayer games could exist on their own in sustainable numbers. Astute readers will also know that I have been playing PlanetSide 2 for 230+ hours now and that’s a F2P game. Then again, I also spent over $100 in Ps2 thus far, including being “subscribed” for the last six consecutive months (efficiency, yo). Not to mention how I bought helmets and camo for my characters almost entirely because of the extremely slight advantage that they bring (arguably P2W).
I am not against F2P games on principal, it’s just that they quite literally cannot be as fun to me as they could be. I play these games to submerge myself in their fiction. Being constantly reminded that for the low, low price of $4.99 I could have X, Y, and Z not only breaks the immersion and puts a price tag on my hitherto priceless time, it also serves as a reminder that the solution to every problem is just a credit card away.
¹ Advantage is in scare-quotes because I don’t recognize an advantage as being “playing the same game more.”