A few days ago, an interesting docu-film named “Free to Play” – produced by Valve – was made available on Steam (for free, ofc): the movie chronicles the events that led to (and followed) The International Dota 2 Championship in 2011, as witnessed by some of its participants. This premise is then used to propose some general considerations about the whole e-Sports phenomenon, and how it’s becoming one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the world.

Personally I found the movie quite engaging and well done, although my friend AdrenaLena pointed out it’s difficult to understand why it took 3 years to produce it – and honestly I can’t blame him, it probably could and should have been made available a couple years ago already…

Anyways, it seems that lately the buzzword (or buzzphrase) in gaming is “Free to play”, one of the main reasons being of course the increasing number of top-tier game developers releasing AAA-quality games to the general public without requiring users to spend money on licenses or subscriptions.

The underlying business model is pretty much the same that has been used for some time now, and with success, in mobile gaming (and can be considered an evolution of well-known practices in the console market, in the SOHO printers market, and many others…) It’s the Freebie Marketing model: you give away the main product for free (or at a very low price, even at a loss) and have customers pay for accessories and premium content.

This is an especially good strategy for massively multiplayer games, making it easier to acquire a large player base sustaining premium (aka: paying) users – who would pay for a game which doesn’t work because no other player is available/online? – and lets the user decide how much to spend on “non-essential” game content.

The “non-essential” part is the key here: some games allow you to play “more time” by paying (many light-sims on mobiles employ this mechanism), some others just let you customize the overall appearance of your game/avatar (DOTA is the best example here) but give no other gameplay-related advantage to premium users. And some other games allow paying customers to acquire significant in-game advantage over non-paying gamers… And this is where things can get ugly.

Pitting people with very different “base” abilities and powers in the same game can be very frustrating for players: “basic” players risk becoming cannon-fodder waiting to be slaughtered by premium users loaded with unbalanced weapons, over-the-top skill levels, or infinite amount of in-game cash… And the closer to 1-on-1 the game is, the more this aspect gets prominent.

This is why it’s extremely important for these games to implement some kind of very well oiled “match-making” system: ideally, every match should be arranged so that the advantages given to premium users do not feel insurmountable by sheer skill – every gamer, premium or not, should feel having at least a fair chance against all others.

And this is where, at least IMHO, Blizzard’s Hearthstone is not living up to (my personal) expectations. I’ve been playing for about a week now, and despite getting some wins, I have the distinct feeling that most of my losses came at the hands of gamers definitely more equipped than me – that is, sporting several rare, powerful cards that only a very high amount of luck with drawing would have allowed me to counter.

The first impulse was to inject some money in my credit card and proceed to the shop in order to beef-up my decks, but then I realized that I shouldn’t.

I really feel I shouldn’t encourage game developers to enact some kind of plutocracy even in gaming – as it is in almost all other aspects of real life.
It’s bad enough having to compete with people who can allow themselves to spend more than 12 hours per day in front of the screen, or benefitting from the latest and greatest in hardware and state-of-the-art accessories. I simply won’t allow people who can afford to spend more money to buy victory as well, especially since DOTA2 proves you can have “Free to Play” without “Pay to Win. 🙂

P.S.: to be fair, there’s a sort of “sealed deck” game mode which basically puts all players on the same level at least in the beginning: might try that one and see if it strikes a better balance – although the above mentioned principle still holds true…