Monday, March 3, 2014

The Common but Misleading Use of Free

The EU is making rumblings of cracking down on the use of the word free to market games that are in the business of making money.  The effort is aimed primarily at makers of cell phone games marketed for children, which have an unfortunate habit of encouraging kids to run up bills on their unsuspecting parents' stored payment information.  While I'm not thrilled at potentially hapless government intervention, removing the word free from titles that are clearly not intended to be free is a perfectly reasonable effort.   

To be clear, developing games or any other product costs money.  Many people are less than thrilled to discover how those costs are being recouped by companies like Facebook and Google that are in the business of not charging users and then re-selling their personal information.  Sometimes an independent developer will choose to absorb the entire "cost" (primarily their time) of developing a "free" application either because they aren't in it for the money or because they're looking to establish a portfolio for future paid work.  That all aside, I don't share Azuriel's view that it's somehow hard to determine whether or not a product is offered at zero cost to the consumer. 

While this discussion is primarily aimed at phone games, I think some pictures might help illustrate the point that, whether you technically have the ability to download the client and create an account for free, pretty much every title that uses the word free prominently in their marketing is actually not intended to be played at zero cost to the user. 

For LOTRO's splash page, "completely free" is literally the bottom line.  This claim hangs its hat on the concept that you can chain re-roll and delete alts to earn pennies' worth of Turbine points per hour and thus theoretically earn access to $40 expansion packs. 

I haven't gotten out my ruler to measure, but it sure looks like "Play Free Now" is in bigger font than the Star Wars title in SWTOR.  In fairness, you actually can play pretty much the entire game for free, subject to some time-exclusivity for paid mini-expansions and some significant and annoying restrictions that can only be lifted by subscribing. 

Wizard 101 has managed to reserve the largest text for their game's title, though FREE is the second word on the page and the "Play for free" button has the most prominent location (followed by two more uses of "free" in bullet points and sentence explanation of the product.  This title is marketed to kids, and its use of free is by far the biggest stretch because you can't even access the entire first world in the game without paying.  Having your kid's character available as a hostage before you discover that this "free" game costs money is literally the point of the business model.

A world without free 
One last picture for you, from the world's biggest MOBA:
Funny how there isn't the word Free anywhere on that page - there's a link for "play now" and another link for "download the game", neither of which discuss cost.  League is commonly called a "free to play" game, and it can be played as such, but most people would agree this title is not set up to be played at zero cost to the user.  Instead, it's a solid title that stands on its own merits and pricing without the need to abuse the word free. 

I get where Azuriel is coming from when he points out that companies will still bait and switch as best they can, even if forbidden to use the word Free.  I just don't accept the lack of a complete and permanent solution to the marketing problem as a reason why a small change that makes the advertising less misleading is a bad idea.  From the other side of the coin, we will probably still see players complaining that things in game cost money even if we did remove the intentionally misleading word free from the lexicon.  I still see the removal of a promise that no one ever intended to keep as a positive change. 


  1. This comment is very late, but I've been very busy.

    I think the problem is less that there's deceptive advertising (as in, the company is directly lying to people), but that people are choosing to read what they want to read here. Take the LotRO example you show: I think it's pretty obvious that those last two lines are intended to be the same sentence. "Hundreds of hours of adventure *completely free*". Is this accurate? Let's say that 200 hours counts as "hundreds", and that's about 9 days /played. In LotRO, can you get a new account up to 9 days /played without spending money? Yes, easily, and more hours well beyond that. Of course, if you pay you'll get a better experience; we live in a capitalist society, so that shouldn't be a shock.

    At no time do any of these companies come to your house and hold a gun to your head to make you pay for the game. If any of these companies charged your credit card without your permission, they would run afoul of existing laws. All these games do exactly what the ads say: they let you play, in some cases a significant part of the game, for free.

    There have been plenty of examples of "free" not translating into completely unfettered access. Free trials, free demonstrations, one-time free events, free limited access, no cover charge bars, etc. You don't go to a bar with no cover charge and then complain when they want you to pay for the beer, do you? So, complaining that it says "free" in the ads but doesn't give you access to the entire game seems to me that the problem lies in your expectations, not in the game's advertising.

  2. @Psychochild: I sympathize with your point, but I don't feel your arguments make the case.

    - I'm not convinced you can spend 200+ hours in the unpaid content of LOTRO. (Ironically, there is so much FedEx travel in LOTRO that you might even level faster!) Most of the gameplay that would ordinarily take lots of player time at endgame - group content, even grinding trait deeds - is paid content. You can always use the game as a highly graphic-intensive chat client with your friends, or you can replay the free content an infinite number of times for an infinite number of hours, but where does that logic end?

    - I diverged from this point relatively quickly, but the starting point for this discussion was that the mobile gaming industry has a non-trivial issue with payments that the cardholder did not intend to authorize. Google just changed their saved payment policy to allow customers to require password for every in app purchase.

    - As you point out, if a bar says they have "no cover charge" they are not saying that there is nothing in their establishment that costs money - just that there is not a charge to walk in the door. If you advertised "free bar" and did not put any qualifier on there (such as "free admission") then you would indeed get people who expect that you are paying for the beer. Looking at my screenshots above, I nitpicked your LOTRO comments but they at least do imply that there is a limit of hundreds of hours. If you don't want people to expect free then you don't need to use the word - apparently the world's biggest MOBA is getting by without it.

  3. Unless they changed how LotRO work, you can play all the way up to Moria without paying. The only thing you can't do is the quests and faction grinds, but you can do the tasks for random drops from the boards. You can go grind level-appropriate monsters and pretend you're playing EQ1. You can go do deeds, which have the benefit of giving you TP to buy quest packs. You can play the game and advance your character over hundreds of hours without paying. You can even roll some alts if you want. If you argue that that the free parts aren't as much fun to you as the full game, I'll respond that the free samples at grocery stores aren't intended to replace a meal, either. (Not that I didn't try as a kid, though!)

    As for the cover charge thing, you've almost got my point. Nobody expects any other business to give everything away for free just because they waive some fees. A bar paying a band but not taking a cover charge isn't going to give you everything for free. So, why should a game give everything for free because they let you start playing without a fee? Why is it that just becasue a game says you can play for free, suddenly the expected interpretation from a consumer protection point of view is that everything in the game should be free? What makes games different than any other business offer?

    I agree with Kill Ten Rats that said "no cover charge" would be a better term than "free to play", but the unfortunate assumption of "games are for kids" in our society means that using a bar-related term would only cause a different type of heartache.

    In the end, I can't think of another phrase that accurately conveys what "free to play" games really offer. It's not a trial, because that has connotations of being limited in duration. It's not a sample, because you often get access to a substantial part of the game for free. These games are literally free for you to play, but eventually you're probably going to want spend money to enhance your experience, just like pretty much any other situation in our capitalist society.

  4. Warhammer used the term "unlimited free trial" to indicate that it was only part of the game but that there was no limit to the amount of time you could spend on it.

    DCUO no longer has a "cover charge" and uses the term "DLC", which has a well understood meaning (especially for the console audience, who are the majority of DCUO players).

    Whether or not you agree that it's possible to perfectly caveat your "free" claim, it's possible to make a good faith effort or to try and overhype what you're offering. Even if you do not believe that describing your product (to include its costs) should be done as accurately as possible, the whole point of this exercise is to win over potential customers.

    How many people learned all they cared to know about SWTOR's hard-worked re-launch when they clicked the "play free" button and were immediately prompted to spend money to unlock their hotbar slots? Sometimes you're better off having the customer's first impression be that you delivered what you promised, and not that your advertising copy met the minimum legal requirement not to be sued.

  5. P.S. I forgot that the Skirmish system in LOTRO is available for free, so the game definitely offers hundreds of hours of play for free. (I'm not convinced that the current exp curve is such that someone willing to grind mobs EQ1 style is going to take more than two hours per level, but I'm certainly not willing to test this theory.)

  6. An unfortunate side-effect of this is that the term 'Free to Play' has become so synonymous with over-monetized that a significant number of players are not even willing to try out a new game if it has that term in its marketing.


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