During my leisure time, I often play some video games. I have a game console (Nintendo 3DS), but I like games on PCs and smartphones as well. Some games on PCs and smartphones are like games on other consoles such as PS4: if you want to play, you need to pay at a store and get the copy of these games. Although many games still have more contents which are available for purchasing, you can just enjoy most of the contents in these games. A typical example is the PC version of the popular video game, Grand Theft Auto 5. No matter what platform the games is on (game consoles, PCs or smartphones), if you want to play these games, you need to pay for the copy first. They are “pay-to-play” games on PCs and smartphones.
I think the many of these games are worth purchasing. However, these games are expensive. Pre-owned copies can be found in stores because they are much cheaper than new ones. Not everyone can afford to buy a lot of games—that will cost hundreds of dollars. So the amount of users is limited. In order to enlarge the group of players, some companies created another category of video games: “free-to-play” games. “Free-to-play” means you have the access to the play these games without paying and you will pay for some items (or contents) in these games. They are available on smartphones and PCs. With the expansion of the group of players, even if many players pay a little (even 1 dollar), these games can still generate much revenue. Now this sort of games have dominated the video games market in some countries like China: one of the main companies which offers many free-to-play games, Tencent, announced “net profit rose to 5.86 billion yuan ($937 million) from 3.91 billion yuan a year earlier” (Osawa par. 4). As for free-to-play games on smartphones, we can also find some successful examples. For instance, Supercell Studio’s very popular free-to-play game, Clash of Clans “raked in $892 million in revenue, and the app can bring in up to $5.15 million per day (in 2013)” (Tweedie par. 3).
I’m not a “hard core” game player (who usually have a large collection of various categories of video games), so free-to-play games seem like a good deal for me. I intended to have some fun without paying (although sometimes I paid for some pay-to-play games). When I was at home in China, I often played free-to-play games from the large company, Tencent (which I mentioned previously). I remembered my experience from playing one free-to-play game from Tencent. This game is called “Crossfire”. It was a game just like the famous FPS (first-person shooter game), Call of Duty. I enjoyed this game at the beginning when I opened an account. Although its definition was like the original version of another FPS called Counter-Strike (it’s not with high definition), the free FPS was not bad for me. But the situation gradually changed as the release of powerful items (of course, in a FPS, these items are guns). These new items were very expensive and powerful. You could win the game easily with more reliable and powerful weapons. And because of the release of these items, I thought that this game became a “pay-to-win” game. In fact, players who didn’t pay at all like me were not many. Many players paid a little, and they could enjoy this game. That was reasonable. But with the release of expensive and powerful items, “arm race” appeared. Players who could pay more to buy expensive items got advantages and won more games. In other words, people who could pay more money than the average could win games easily. Players were divided into different “social classes” based on how much they paid. I felt depressed and didn’t play Crossfire any more since then.
Some people may think free-to-play games are not worth playing at all just like what I felt when I played Crossfire. Nonetheless, not all games are like Crossfire. In some free-to-play games, paying more money is not the only option to have advantages. Last year, I started playing Hearthstone, a free-to-play collectible card game. I should say in some aspects, what I saw in Crossfire also exists in Hearthstone. Players will have some kind of advantage if they buy some rare cards. And they are randomly given when players buy card packs. So if a player can buy more card packs, they will have a higher chance to get more rare cards. But if you don’t want to pay much to buy a lot of card packs, Hearthstone offers other options for these players. They may “get 10 gold for every three games you win, up to a maximum of 100 gold per day” and “get a daily quest which is usually worth either 40 or 60 gold. You can save up to three daily quests at once, so you can complete all your daily quests even if you don’t have time to play every day. Expert packs cost 100 gold each.”(Friedman par. 12). Not bad. Players like me still have a chance to obtain rare cards. While I was playing, that was what I always did. Actually, I got some rare cards by finishing these quests. Although I still cannot be as strong as some players who paid a lot, I had an opportunity to beat more average players who paid little or didn’t pay. After all, not every players will pay a lot of money. But I didn’t think anyone could be masters without paying till I met some players during the spring break: I coincidently found that some players became masters without paying much. They built great card decks and won by their interesting strategies with very limited amount of rare cards. According to the amount of rare cards in their card decks, I was pretty sure that they were not players who paid much money. Obviously, limited number of rare cards meant less purchases, otherwise, they might have more rare cards than I saw in their card decks. A good deal, isn’t it? But… Wait a minute! In this case, in order to have more good cards, players need to spend more time on Hearthstone. If do so, Players don’t have to pay much money to win games. They spend much more time than average players. So I think free-to-play games like Hearthstone are still “pay-to-win” games somehow: the cost is not only money, but also time.
Now even free-to-play games like Hearthstone which offers other options for players who don’t want to pay much money do not seem good. If so, we wouldn’t see them in the market of the video games. Who will play games which are not worth playing? But the reality is opposite. Many companies developed this kind of games and earned a lot of money from them. The reality seems weird in facade: many people pay for free-to-play games. Why do many players pay money or spend more time in these games? What’s their motivation?
When I see the word “motivation”, I come up with another one, desire. People are driven by some kind of desire. So there must be something appealing in these free-to-play games. In order to find these appealing features, I think I should see what’s in the accounts first. In free-to-play games, each account represents a virtual avatar. Some items such as cards and golds in Hearthstone belongs to these avatar. The status of a personal account is determined by the personal skills, the amount of money paid, and time spent on games. Many people think they will enjoy these games if their accounts can have better statuses, in other words, be stronger avatars. So they continue to search for some methods to make these avatars better. That’s a common idea. A good avatar can bring satisfaction. Avatars could be a better representation of these players themselves. Here I want to quote something from another article, “Studying the Digital Self” to make further discussions.
In “Studying the Digital Self”, the key term “digital self” is very important. Actually, I think it’s the key to answer why people want to pay for these free-to-play games. “The self becomes a commodity to be packaged and brokered on media sites such as YouTube and on product-related sites” (Smith and Watson par. 7), and I think similar things happened in free-to-play games. Many people tend to think their accounts are very important and tried to make them better. Their accounts became their personal brands. If people can be masters in a game, no matter how they approach this level, they may be tagged by others with something like “having prowess in games”. I think no one doesn’t like the praise when others see the record in a game and say “wow, cool”. So one reason why many people want to pay for free-to-play games is clear now: people wants to be praised or at least complimented by others for their prowess in games, especially when they play a popular game. Free-to-play games make many people feel comfortable and satisfied when they think they can do better in games than others.
Another reason is also relevant to “Studying the Digital Self” and its key term “digital self”. I think people don’t only feel satisfied when they compare their avatars with others, but they also feel satisfied when they compare the avatars with themselves. In “Studying the Digital Self”, I found a sentence: “however malleable and interchangeable identities are online, they are qualified offline by the complexity of embodied social identities” (Smith and Watson par. 8). Indeed, no matter how a person wants to manipulate “digital self”, the “digital self” can still be a reflection of his or her social identities. People cannot avoid expressing their social identities even when they use their avatars. In free-to-play games, the situation is pretty similar. For instance, in many games, the masters will be professional players. Their skills reflect their identities in the society—professional players. “Identity ‘play’ cannot erase the intersecting, historically specific aspects of offline social identities” (Smith and Watson par. 8). It seems that according to these claims in “Studying the Digital Self”, the “digital selves” match social identities or classes of these players because the inevitable intersection between them. But I don’t want to interpret these claims in that way. Actually, I deem these claims in “Studying the Digital Self” as an explanation of the other reason why people pay for free-to-play games: the mismatch between status of avatars in games and social identities in the real world.
Indeed, “digital self” can be a reflection of social identities. So it seems that there’s a contradiction between what I said and claims in “Studying the Digital Self”. But that’s not what I mean. Just like what I said, these claims in “Studying the Digital Self” is an explanation of my argument. Now I want to make analysis about that.
In many free-to-play games, more money or time is the key to get a stronger avatar. People who pay much money or spend more time can have better statuses in these games, that’s what I described in the previous paragraphs. If evaluate the cost of these free-to-play games, I should say whether they are much or not depends on the criterion of the evaluation. For games, the cost is pretty high. Many people pay more money than “pay-to-play” games like Grand Theft Auto 5 in free-to-play games. And some others spend much time in finishing a lot of tasks with rewards. But when I replace the criterion by something in the real world, the costs become pretty low. Comparing with the cost to be at a higher social class in the real world, the cost to be powerful in free-to-play games is way too low. For example, if a person wants to be a successful CEO, he or she may need opportunities, money, specific social networks, diploma, knowledge, and so on. And in these free-to-play games, by paying money and “paying” time, many people have better avatars in these games with better statuses, and their “digital selves” may be at a higher “social class”. And if they think about their position in the real world, they may feel satisfied because their avatars have high classes in games (a virtual world) relative to their social classes in the real world. So now I can draw a conclusion: the most important reason why people want to pay for free-to-play games is the mismatch between the “digital self” and social identities (classes). And this phenomena reflects the social identities of many players—they are not as successful in the real world as they could be in these free-to-play games.
- Osawa, Juro. “Tencent Earnings Rise on Games Business.” WSJ. The Wall Street Journal, 18 Mar. 2015. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.
- Tweedie, Steven. “Why ‘Clash Of Clans’ Is So Incredibly Popular, According To A Guy Who Plays 16 Hours A Day.” Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 25 Sept. 2014. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.
- Friedman, Daniel. “Is Hearthstone Pay-to-win? We Find out.” Polygon. Vox Media Inc., 09 May 2014. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.
- Smith, Sidonie, and Julia Watson. “Studying the Digital Self.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 21 Apr. 2014. Web.27 Apr. 2015.