I have not had much time for gaming for the past week or so, much to my dismay, and the next few weeks aren’t looking either. And by “time for gaming” I mean uninterrupted time specifically. This uncertainty has changed my usual gaming M.O.
For example, I now float between a number of titles. Divinity: Original Sin 2 is a meaty title that I prefer to digest over time. It’s entirely possible to play it for 20 minutes or whatever, but you often lose the narrative in the process – it becomes much easier to start treating it as just another dungeon crawler than some kind of grand RPG.
Other times I will boot up ARK and collect resources until (in-game) nightfall and then get bored.
I have been actively trying not to play Oxygen Not Included, because while it is still engaging as hell, my base is hopelessly riddled with the equivalent of spaghetti code, and I get caught in priority loops that paralyze my planning. “I really need to get some plastic up and running. But that requires converting crude oil to petroleum. Maybe I could use that Iron Volcano to boil it? That means I need to prep the area to handle the 2000+ degree heat. Definitely need to solve the Polluted Water situation first though. Oh, and some Heavi-Watt Wire…”
This is not, strictly speaking, a very satisfying scenario. Each day, I am playing the game that I want to play in that moment and having fun. But it’s a shallow sort of fun. These sessions do not engage my mind, keeping me thinking at work about what I’m going to do when I get home. I very much prefer games that consume my life and take up residence in my mindspace. I need games that I look forward to playing, to the exclusion of all others.
And I have those games, technically. Just not the means (e.g. time) to satisfyingly play them.
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.”