There's Nothing to Steal: Why Everyone Hates the Free-to-Play SwitchI'm not proud of it, of course, but I've profiled others according to skin color. You see, glowing, primary color skin on a character in D.C. Universe Online is a sure sign of a free-to-play player, especially if they're low level. It indicates they really didn't give a shit what they looked like when they rolled, they just wanted to jump in and start stuffing their piehole in the free buffet. Freebies, freeloaders, whatever you want to call them, I refused to talk to or help one when DCUO went F2P back in November, adding one million new players in its first week alone.


They all had incomprehensible names and Naruto hair and didn't lock their styles so every piece of crap they acquired was slapped on top of their thrown-together costumes. Egyptian headdress with a biker jacket and a short cape? That's a freebie player for sure. They asked stupid questions in chat and griefed in the hideouts, standing in doorways (in PvE phase) to block everyone from moving between the main rooms and the teleporter.

"God damn freebies!" I growled, electrocuting one (or what I believed to be one) in PvP. I probably sounded like Eric Cartman.

That's just in D.C. Universe Online, a rather mellow community otherwise. I imagine the same thing will be taking place soon in Star Wars: The Old Republic, which this week announced it would go free-to-play, to a chorus of moaning and groaning. The same kind of rank snobbery, suspicion and cynicism could be found even when Team Fortress 2 went free-to-play a little over a year ago—and that's one of the most widely admired games by one of gaming's most widely admired publishers.

Why does everyone hate free-to-play?

"Hate" may be rather strong, but the cynicism and japery in comments underneath a free-to-play announcement means the game's publisher might as well have added, "Oh, and we give up." Especially in the game's own official forums, a free-to-play switch is taken as a sign of desperation or of a failing product, even though there are many good, successful games out there on a free-to-play model. Plus, a high installation base, whatever the reason for it, should mean that if the developer isn't churning out new content, then the publisher is at least unlikely to turn off the servers anytime soon.

It does suck to see a game you bought—and a lot of people bought The Old Republic's collector's edition, too—given away for free to any schmoe with a mouse and a modem. I'm not sure there's ever been an item or a perk given to paying customers at the conversion to free-to-play that properly rewarded their investment in getting the game off the ground. Maybe you get subscriber perks, but that depends on continuing to pay. Badges or banners or emblems or whatever, if I got one, I think I stuck it in the bank and forgot about it. Fuck that, I worked hard on my goddamn costume, I'm not going to put a stupid sticker on it.

There's also some merit in the idea that a person who's participating in something for free isn't as invested in the experience as those who have paid for it. In massively multiplayer online games, this is a valid concern and expectation. Other players are teammates in raids, adversaries in PvP, and drivers of the in-world economy. And it's a role-playing game. While there are dozens of quest-givers and NPCs there to move the game's basic story along, a human community that's committed to playing along enriches the larger context of your superhero/science-fiction/dungeon-crawling fantasy. Someone showing up to a free buffet may socialize with others at the club; he might also be there just to stuff cocktail shrimp in his pants pockets.

Free-to-play games communicate more where the gravy train stops than the idea it's even rolling.

But I don't think, deep down, that these two things are what really bother hardcore gamers about free-to-play conversions.

The following is not an original thought; it was said to me by the head of EA Sports, who said he heard it at a talk given by Russell Simmons, the founder of the Def Jam hip-hop label. And Simmons probably heard it from somewhere else. But in answering how to keep customers happy, he said human beings have an inherent need to steal. Deep down, customer satisfaction is rooted in the sense you are either getting something for nothing, something extra, or at least you're getting the better end of a bargain. It depends on a zero-sum system: I'm gaining or taking something, someone else is losing or giving it up.

When a game goes free-to-play, even if there's a premium tier with extra features, the owner is declaring there is now nothing that can be stolen. And even if something is being offered for free, everyone can have it, making it less desirable. This truth of human nature is why people joke about leaving junked furniture on the curb with a sign on it saying "$20" to con someone into taking it away.

What free-to-play systems do, I think—and this is why they're scorned or mistrusted—is invert the original value proposition. In a paid MMO, everyone puts down their money and their subscription for the entire experience, which developers are reasonably obligated to refresh with extras that are "free" or at least feel that way. New raids, new classes, new powers and abilities, raised level caps, whatever. Free-to-play, in which there's a tightly defined basic, free experience, and everything after that costs money, communicates more where the gravy train stops than the idea it's even rolling.

There are other reasons a free-to-play shift invites skepticism, even outright scorn, especially when a monolithic force like Electronic Arts chooses to do it. It suggests that the game will make money by selling parts of its experience instead of the entire thing, and if a publisher is willing to gimp its product in that way, what might it hold back from the paying installation base? It also implies paying customers, and their investments of money and time (both of which materially improve an online game) matter less to the game's makers than someone dragged in off the street to create a growth figure the beancounters prize so much.

Video gamers, for all of their futurecasting and forward thinking, still show some previous-generation attitudes when judging a title's legitimacy and success, starting with the idea that anything worth playing has a price tag attached to it. (Otherwise, come on, who the hell is going to pirate a free game?)

If you play any game principally built on a multiplayer population, you should just accept the idea that at some point, the initial experience you're paying money for on launch day is going to be given away later—and factor that into your purchase decision. If Team Fortress 2 or Super Monday Night Combat can go free-to-play, it means anything with a very large multiplayer component could end up that way some day, from Call of Duty to Madden.

A clubhouse culture of exclusion in hardcore video gaming isn't going to stop it. Free-to-play will soon be a dominant format in PC video gaming, like it or not.

Hey folks, Something Negative is a rant. Love it or hate it, we all need to blow off steam on Fridays. Let yours out in the comments.