Why Ethical Free-to-Play Game Design Matters


As of Monday, “Overwatch,” Blizzard Entertainment’s hugely successful first-person shooter (FPS) video game, no longer exists. In its place is the newly revised and reimagined “Overwatch 2,” which is similar to its predecessor in many ways, but with some small character changes and one significant shift to a free-to-play model. This means that players can download the game onto their PC’s or consoles and immediately start playing without needing to pay a single penny. 

Free-to-play games are not new to the gaming industry.  These games can be found across all platforms and are targeted to all audiences, from the late 90’s children’s virtual pet website Neopets to recent heavyweights like League of Legends, Fortnite, and Valorant. There are several business models behind free-to-play games. For instance, the most common “freemium” model grants all users access to a fully functional game, but they are incentivized to make microtransactions with in-game currency to unlock additional content. Much of this content is usually cosmetic, such as new outfits or gear for one’s character, but other purchases can be made to enhance the power of a player or accelerate progression. Some games include two types of in-game currency: one that players are able to gain by winning games and one that requires real-world money to purchase. In other games, content can only be made available if a player logs in a certain amount of time. Another method of generating revenue is through the use of in-game advertisements. 

The free-to-play model is a shift from the traditional model of premium-priced games, in which consumers will pay for the cost of the game upfront. With the traditional model, the measure of success for a certain game is in the sheer number of units that are sold; however, this is not the case for free-to-play. In this case, the most significant factor for game development companies is the number of players that the game can keep continuously engaged. While free-to-play models do not provide companies with as immediate of a cash flow as pay-to-play games do, the hope is over time, revenue will increase as different players spend different amounts of money as they engage with the game and develop stronger preferences towards it. The populations of players that spend money on free-to-play games can be broken up with respect to how much money they are willing to spend. “Whales,” which make up the smallest segment (typically 10% of players) have been known to spend up to tens of thousands of dollars on a game that they enjoy, while “minnows” spend the minimum amount to maintain activity. 

Many critics of the free-to-play model have found fault with the way that companies have developed these games, contending that there is no such thing as a truly “free to play” game. Some games have been unofficially labeled as pay-to-win, especially when in-game purchases actually affect gameplay instead of simply broadening the gaming experience. Some players still believe that purely cosmetic microtransactions should be the middle ground for both developers and consumers, arguing that this is enough to make the game unique to players while still allowing gaming companies to profit from in-game purchases and logged gametime. Even then, some fans have noticed that cosmetic purchases are not truly equitable. For instance, Reddit users have calculated that in order to complete a single “Overwatch 2” hero’s cosmetic collection the free-to-play way, players would have to log in five years of game play

As we are moving away from an age where consumers pay a one-off payment for a video game, developers must ensure that they are creating and updating games in an ethical manner. Game development companies need to take the players’ views into mind when they are putting out new products or launching new content in their games. Measures need to be taken to ensure that video games are serving their main purpose of entertaining their players. Without them, there can never be such a thing as a truly free-to-play game, or ethical and equitable game-making at all, for that matter.