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I recently finished playing Rocket Knight, an action platformer game that is easily one of my best experiences with a game on Xbox Live Arcade. After happily writing the review for it, I quickly learned what other people were saying about it: “Fifteen dollars is too much money for just two hours of gameplay. Is it really worth the money? I think maybe my cash is better spent on a longer game.” Even critics give the same opinion. I found a review that gave it an average score when the only bad thing the critic had to say about it was that it cost too much.

At first, this reaction made me fly into a frenzy of nerd-rage so extreme that my mom would have had to come out and tell me to “cool it” if I still lived with her. “How can somebody put a price tag on fun!?” I thought to myself as I smashed the nearest coke can. After having a few days to think about it, though, I realized that I should be asking a different question to gamers (and critics) with the “pricetag on fun” mentality:

“How would your perspective on games change if they were all free?” Join me as I take a theoretical look into how the landscape of gaming would change if developers still received money for “sales,” but all games were free, forcing gamers to think about how they want to spend their time on video games – not their money.

Sandbox Games

I predict that sandbox games would become immensely less popular. This is by no means because gamers would enjoy them less, but because Pricetag Gamers would feel less obligated to buy them to get their money’s worth. We’d see a lot more interesting ideas from sandbox games to get peoples’ attention.

No more droves of “being gangsters/cops while driving cars in the city and shooting people” settings. We’d probably see a lot more wacky sandbox games like Chibi-Robo!, demonstrating that a big city is not the only way to have a vast, open game world to explore.

JRPGs

Fans of the genre would realize that JRPGs are absolute garbage in their current state. Their charade being up, developers would finally have to explore new territory, and they evolve into a state of gameplay more advanced than what we saw in 1987.

Gamers who falsely thought that JRPGs were dead because they played Final Fantasy 13 and didn’t like it would discover that FF13 was just different and mediocre. Oh, and they would finally be much shorter, now that we won’t feel cheated unless we receive sixty hour-long epics.

Retro Games

Gamers may or may not get more irritable with the intentionally antiquated conventions of retro games. Games like Cave Story, which mix the feel of the old school with the design smarts of the new school, would reign supreme.

Since gamers want to enjoy the nostalgic feelings they get without paying the price of a full retail game for something like Mega Man 10, developers would find it much less risky to make retro games, and we’d probably see an even larger amount of games in this style.

Fighting Games

Gamers, no longer having to spend money on Fighters, would stop pissing and moaning about having to pay money for a new iteration of a game that they are positive should have been DLC. (It also might occur to them that they had been paying for the same game with every new Madden release, but that’s probably wishful thinking.)

Developers would now feel free to expand upon their games. It would no longer be as dangerous to spend lots of time adding new characters, content, and gameplay changes to any one game. This is a win-win situation for developers, casual gamers, and competitive gamers alike.

Shovelware, and other assorted awful games based on cartoons

…Actually, these could probably be a lot worse than they are now. These games thrive on uninformed parents buying them, and kids not knowing any better to want them. If they were free, these guys might be the richest people in the business. That’s the one thing about this ideal world that I think would be far less ideal. On the other hand, does it matter? The amount of great games would have increased by so much, who cares if there were still crappy ones?

If you’re reading this and thinking, “No way, dude. Free games would inspire devs to make crappy products,” I would have to say that’s an ignorant and presumptuous argument to take. It’s not something one does for the money, but for the love of the craft. If anything, the current business model is the one that truly forces game developers to rely on established franchises and safe gameplay mechanics in the face of taking real chances with their work.

And there you have it. All your favorite games will still be there, and will probably still be made. Many genres of games will be forced to improve and diversify immediately. Game critics will critique games based on their merits, not their price. The gaming landscape has infinitely improved. And honestly, what did it take? Nothing more than a change of perspective. In this “ideal” world, we had no choice to take on this perspective, because free games were the norm. In our world, we have a choice to look at games as time investments – not monetary investments. So, how about it? Wanna make games better?

  1. This is an interesting point. After all, the money we spend on gaming is already variable (since we presumably all live in a free-market economy), so why aren’t we looking at your relationship?

    I’m actually interested in the flip side, if game development was free and developers didn’t have to be tied down to advertising and sales numbers. Would the same thing happen to games then?

  2. I think a lot of these are true.

    People *would* be less willing to pay a super grindy JRPG if it was free. I know a lot of people (myself included) shell out $60 for an 80 hour game because they know it will last them a few months until that next big title.

    If you only have $60 budgeted for games for a few months until that next big title, there’s no way you’d get something like Alan Wake (which is 10 hours then you’re done) over Red Dead (25 hours plus multiplayer), provided you enjoyed both genres.

    It just doesn’t make sense to be twiddling your thumbs for two months if you really like games.

  3. I’m apt to agree when it comes to having serious overhauls of the more stagnant genres, at least when it comes to how they’re received stateside.

    As for Japan, I’m not so sure. While JRPG’s are about as derivative and grind-happy as it gets, there’s got to be a reason they keep on churning them out. We’d probably see less of them make it over here, but I’m willing to bet that wouldn’t stop Japan from producing. Popular stuff like Monster Hunter would probably end up becoming the new definition of the genre, if anything.

    Basically, I think this setup would result in a much more fluid environment, meaning that the prevalence of games in a particular genre would be directly tied to cultural or socio-economic preference, and we’d see great changes in the demographics much more quickly than we do now. It would be interesting to see these changes in a much more rapid fashion, because it would likely give us some useful information on how we act as a group, both culturally and purely as consumers.

  4. When I went to Turkey years ago, the games there pratically WERE free! Thing is, I came home with literally hundreds of PS1 games, but I hardly dedicated any time to any of them. Weirdly enough, I think you value and appreciate a game more if you’ve paid for it!

  5. Thanks for your responses everyone.

    Thomas: I think that perhaps you’re right that JRPGs in the current style would continue to be made. But on the other hand, I think the Japanese game devs consider the importance of the western market as well. I think that, at the very least, we’d see some much different stuff than we’re used to.

    Steven: I can understand that mentality to an extent, but do you think you’d feel that way if games had always been free, all your life? Back in the cartridge era, it was no shocker if games were 70+ US dollars. Nowadays, I bet people would be absolutely outraged if a game was released with an MSRP of $69.99 USD.

    Also, on the flipside, I think there are many people who can appreciate games they get for free; otherwise, game emulation wouldn’t be nearly as popular, piracy nowhere near as prevalent.

    • avatar MylloVely

      First, I’ll speak as a game developer (I’m still caitreng my PBBG):To keep the game free, we need to get some money. Firstly, to pay for the bandwich from our servers, and second, to get some reward for our hard work (yes, it’s hard and time-taking to create a PBBG). We don’t get enough donations (that’s a fact). So, to keep the game free, we need to do two things: insert banners/pop-ups and sell in-game items.As player:Pop-ups + SPAM + Unasked credit card charges = : ( -Conclusion:In my game, I won’t ad pop-ups: only banners / link ads, that are less intrusive.

  6. I’d be interested to see how MMOs would be affected by this model. They might finally remove the grind, which is the number 1 reason I don’t play them.

  7. Hey Jamie, do you realize you just categorized fighting game fans and hardcore Madden fans together?

    That’s an incredibly niche market that I doubt exists.

    • Under “Fighting Games” you stated:
      “Gamers would stop pissing and moaning about having to pay money for a new iteration of a game that they are positive should have been DLC.”
      -This sentence clearly refers to fans of street fighter.
      “(It also might occur to them* that they had been paying for the same game with every new Madden release, but that’s probably wishful thinking.)”
      *By stating “them” you continue to refer to fans of street fighter and state that they have been paying for the same game with the purchase of every Madden.

    • I think you’re just reading into it too much, haha. All I meant was, an average gamer says “Wow WTF, Super Street Fighter 4, it’s 40 bucks for DLC” and then they go “Oh hellz yeah, Madden 2010, CAN’T WAIT!” Maaayyyybe they would realize how hypocritical that is.

    • avatar Ferahtsu

      I guess I take things too literally lol. It’d be hypocritical for the same person to say tha-THERE I GO AGAIN! lol I get what you’re saying

  8. avatar MIND=BLOWN

    You spoke truth every step of the way.. my mind was blown.

  9. avatar LordCancer

    This is like asking what if I had a girlfriend… wait, what? nevermind.

  10. avatar Dion

    How are game developers supposed to make profits then?

    • For one: it’s a theoretical situation. Who cares, how? It was made up to demonstrate how different games would be if they were free.

      More importantly, the point of the editorial isn’t “We should make all games free!” Re-read it: the main point of the article is, if gamers (and critics) started viewing games as a time investment and NOT a monetary investment, we’d start seeing a lot better, more diverse games. The gaming industry as a whole would be much healthier. Re-read the article and think about it.

  11. I think you’re dead on the money with most of this stuff. The big budget gaming industry really has to play it safe… whereas, the indie market is constantly evolving, trying new things, and taking some insane chances (and sometimes even epic failures).

    What I wish is that the industry would just take a year off. My backlog is huge and most of it is garbage.

  12. avatar Dion

    In that case, Jamie, I’ll have to disagree. How the heck are game developers supposed to make their living? What they’re just going to sit down and make games and then give it to you for free? Dream on.

    This article, sorry to say, is right and all about how diverse games would be. But “What if all games were free?” is a very big if, and a very stupid one at that.

    • You’re still worried about the logistics of games being free. That’s not the only way to make games more diverse. The effect of games being free is that games would be more diverse…but it would be because we view games differently (again, as time investments instead of money investments). Making games free is only one way to accomplish that. But again, the point of the article is that whether or not games are free, we can look at games as time investments anyways.

      Games being free will certainly never happen. My intention with this article was never to suggest that. The intention was to demonstrate that we can make games better by changing our perspective. Try it.

  13. avatar Hodou Masaka

    @Dion:

    “…how the landscape of gaming would change if developers still received money for ‘sales,’ but all games were free…”

    “…if developers still received money for ‘sales…’”

    Lrn 2 read before acting all high and mighty about how somebody on the Internet is wrong, plz.

  14. avatar Dion

    Whatever, we’re clearly arguing about two different things, Jamie.

    And by the way, Hodou Masaka, you obviously don’t know anything do you? Yeah, you know what? Money is clearly and infinite source of repayment, and publishers, despite games being free, will still pay money to developers to develop games, and no one will run out of money, right?

    Idiots these days.

    • Sure. You’re arguing about the logistics of games being free, and I’m arguing about the point of my article. Frankly, I don’t care about how games can be free, or if they ever will be. So go ahead and keep discussing that, if you like. Just don’t come in calling my points stupid when you’re not even talking about my points in the first place.

  15. avatar Dion

    Lol, probably going to be my last reply. But yeah, your points are stupid in logic. That’s all I’m trying to say, it’s good that we’ve established that though.

    • avatar Selin

      I was looking for games, when I thghout why don’t I ask everyone their opinion? So i came here. Please I want a free ware full version game to download, fun, not too big, and preference simulation. Thanks!

  16. I’m glad that, after you misunderstood the entire article and virtually admitted it, you were at least able to resort to childish insults.

    • avatar Josimara

      I understand the rsoeans, as I have a PBBG myself, for 3 years now. Servers don’t come cheap, although mine isn’t that bad at the moment, I swapped to a cheaper server as soon as I saw the economy tanking.The problem is, the pop ups are everything that we ditched years ago, pop up blockers are built into every browser these days, and now these games are bringing javascript pop ups everywhere. Its not only annoying its a possible security risk. The good guys have the control of them at the moment, but that won’t be forever.All we need is a brag button, allow people to brag when they want, you don’t have to force their hand. Mafia wars for instance, now, will pop up saying you completed a mission level, then when you close that, it pops up a brag box. Its just getting too much.Give us the choice. Don’t try to force us, because thats not user friendly.

  17. avatar Hodou Masaka

    “Yeah, you know what? Money is clearly and infinite source of repayment, and publishers, despite games being free, will still pay money to developers to develop games, and no one will run out of money, right?”

    Yes, Dion. That’s EXACTLY the hypothetical situation the author was describing, actually. Because this article is based on a hypothetical situation. As in, logistics shit doesn’t apply because it could never happen in real life. Thanks for pointing all that out.

  18. avatar dd

    Concerning the JRPG section; You don’t need to play every game to know that the genre is in a bad state. Also, how do games like ”The World Ends with You”, ”Valkyria Chronicles”, ”Demon’s Souls”, ” Tales of Innocence”, ” Dragon Quest IX” etc. contribute to the ‘absolute garbage’ state?

    • I think it’s quite a matter of taste. I like the Dragon Warrior games, but they really aren’t very standout. The Tales games, other than their combat (which is mashy as hell), represent just about everything that’s bad about JRPGs today. Demon’s Souls is original, but still not that good.

      Valkyria Chronicles, as much as I liked it, was painfully embarrassing to play in front of people. The combat was brilliant, but the story and dialogue…let me put it this way. When I played VC, every single person who saw me play it, no matter how little they caught of it, laughed their ass off at the dialogue and presentation. The gameplay is definitely more how I would like to see things go, but that’s the only thing.

      The World Ends With You, yeah, that’s a good one. There aren’t many games quite like this one, though.

      Fact is, I absolutely love JRPGs, probably as much or more than any writer on this site. But they are just in a big, big slump. The amount of bad RPGs these days is so high that it’s alarming, and a lot of games which try to buck the trend go unnoticed – TWEWY and Valkyria Chronicles (which, btw, takes so many cues from critically panned Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter that it’s not even funny) being two notable exceptions in recent years.

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