Free Online Games: The Future?

Free Online Games: The Future?

Planet Earth has a perpetual shortage of Awesome Cool Free Stuff. There’s just never enough of it to go around. Oh sure, there’s “Love,” but eh, that’s an okay start. “Peace?” Still not there.

Zynga’s Mark Pincus knows of something awesome that ought to be free to everyone: Video games. When filing Zynga’s initial public offering (IPO) at the start of July, Pincus’ letter to potential investors outlined Zynga’s core philosophies, including the belief that games should be social, accessible, and cost the player zero dollars.

“Games should be free,” Pincus wrote. “Free games are more social because they’re more accessible to everyone. We’ve also found them to be more profitable. We have created a new kind of customer relationship with new economics—free first, high satisfaction, pay optional.”

Pincus is referring to the increasingly popular free-to-play model: Games that cost nothing to access, but offer certain items and bonuses through microtransactions. While free-to-play titles have certainly been a huge help in expanding gaming’s general audience, it’s impossible to conceive of an industry wherein every game is free-to-play. Not unless every game writer, developer, manufacturer, publisher, and retailer decided it was no longer important to eat or pay rent.

Pincus’ declaration would be more sensible if he had re-worded it to state, “We at Zynga believe our games should remain free.” After all, how could the industry survive if every game competed for that lint-covered dollar sitting in the bottom of the player’s pocket? A mass studio extinction would follow, and/or Zynga would simply inhale its competitors.

Pincus is also working on the assumption that every game can fit into the free-to-play model. How would that work for Mario? “Get the first five worlds free, but pay up if you want to see World Six?” What a nightmare scenario.

The game industry needs choice and variety if it’s to survive and thrive. That’s because we don’t reach for the same game day after day: Our impulses change with our moods and even the events that happen in our lives. Zynga’s social free-to-play games are a great way to re-connect with a cross-country cousin, but they won’t do the trick when you want to blow off some steam in a death match. They’re definitely not the answer if you just want a few lonely hours to explore a sprawling world that would be impossible to fund on microtransactions.

Zynga’s drive to bring gaming to a wide audience is admirable, but one size does not fit all as far as game development is concerned. Sometimes it’s necessary to pay up for an interactive experience, and it’s not because Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony want to swim around in money vaults, Scrooge McDuck-style.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

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