Since the advent of the first free play online video games, otherwise known as F2P games, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the format has experienced a near constant swell in popularity. While the first popular games to use this model were hugely successful MMOs such as Runescape and Furcadia, the birth of the smartphone and the emergence of digital distribution platforms such as Steam have allowed the F2P model to expand across all formats of gaming, ranging from social mobile casino games to hardcore online PC games. This is highlighted by the fact that by 2011, the revenue generated by F2P games had overtaken the more traditional premium revenue games in the App Store.

As the name suggests, F2P games are available to purchase, download and play with zero up-front cost. This initial download gives players access to major portions of the game content, providing a fully functioning game without spending a dime. How then, are these games so profitable for the developers? This is through offering optional in-game purchases, or so called microtransactions. These microtransactions include purchasing a virtual currency that can be spent in the game, unlocking extra game content, acquiring gameplay enhancements such as boosts or upgrades, or even purchasing cosmetic items like costumes and skins.

The model has proven to be a success for players and developers alike, with F2P games such as League of Legends and Fortnite being two of the most recognizable names in the gaming world. So, what is it about this gaming model that has proven such a success and why will it continue to be so important to the way we play games?

With no up-front cost, there are no financial constraints related to acquiring F2P games meaning anyone can play, so long as a person has got access to a device with which to download the game. This has enabled F2P games to become much more accessible than more traditional games where a significant initial fee is required, opening them up to a far wider audience. Furthermore, people who may be unsure whether they will enjoy the content are able to trial the game first – if they decide they do like playing it, then they can choose to financially commit. This essentially puts the player in control of how much they invest in the game dependent on their purchasing power. This model also allows players to decide not just how much money they want to spend, but the way in which they spend it. Are they focused on purchasing boosts to improve their character’s ability within the game or would they prefer to buy the latest character costumes so they can look good when playing.

Additionally, the huge success of F2P games across all gaming genres in the past twenty years has led to a highly competitive and saturated market. In order to stand out from the crowd, developers have had to use innovative methods to constantly enhance their games. This can be seen in the development of social casino games, one of the most competitive gaming markets. To keep up, innovation never stops, with developers constantly revamping in-game graphics and upgrading gameplay. Previously, when the next edition of a big gaming franchise was released, a player would have to repurchase the new game at a significant price. However now, developers have had to instead resort to providing rolling updates of games with improved gameplay free of charge. For example, those who play Fortnite can expect new aspects to the game every two weeks, with fortnightly updates. This intense market competition once again transfers the power away from the developers and into the hands of the players. If the game does not improve, players will simply get bored and find the next new game.

The inherent accessibility of F2P gaming and the player excitement generated by continuous updates has led to the development of vast and active player communities. Spurred on by the increasing popularity of online multiplayer gaming in recent years, playing games has gone from being a solo hobby to a way of meeting other likeminded people. Importantly, the free play nature has enabled the establishment of a global community, not limited by geographic distances or high relative costs. This has created a unique mixing pot of international cultures interacting through online gaming, establishing diverse and inclusive player communities. The emergence of global esports competitions such as the highly lucrative Dota 2 Internationals further highlights the extent to which international communities have now been cemented. Furthermore, gaming developers have begun to take feedback generated by online discourse within the gaming communities. This has meant that those who play the game are now having a direct impact on how the game they play is developed in the future, while developers are able to more quickly identify the areas of their game that require improvement. A win-win.

There are however still concerns with the model. Often criticized as ‘pay-to-win’ where those with improved financial situations maintain a competitive advantage over other players, there have also been concerns regarding the potentially exploitative nature of some of the monetization practises, as well as the purposefully addictive mechanics of certain games. It is therefore important that players and developers are aware of these downsides and use the supportive communities that have been established to address these concerns and maintain a healthy gaming environment.

It is clear to see that the F2P model has permanently changed the way we play games, and the way game developers approach their game production. By making the games accessible to virtually anyone, they have been able to attract huge global audiences who in turn have been happy to spend their money on in-game purchases. This has been highly profitable for gaming developers. For the players, they are provided with a constantly improving gamer experience where they influence how the game evolves. For now, it seems that free play gaming is here to stay.