What is it?
Free to play is a relatively new concept in gaming. Thanks to the growth of digital distribution (which has helped bolster the Indie Scene) developers are able to maintain an ongoing relationship with gamers. This allows them to continue to introduce new content for games and sell it as “Downloadable Content” or “DLC” in the form of expansions, new skins, new mods, etc. Free to Play is the next logical extension of that concept. The developers builds a game and gives it out for Free over the net. A gamer can download the entire game and play it as much as they want.
The way the developers make money is primarily in two ways. The first is to sell items or gear in the game that can only be purchased for real dollars. In most cases, these are things like novelty hats, robes, or skins for your characters in game. They do not impact the flow of gameplay or allow you to “pay to win” by providing advantages to a gamer. They are just fun additions that only costs a buck or two and make the game more interesting.
The second is by allowing a gamer to purchase accelerators within the game. This is more common in RPG games, where a gamer can purchase limited time upgrades or “buffs” for their characters that will allow them to be moderately more powerful or allow them to progress through levels more quickly. These types of upgrades tend to be much more controversial, with some gamers calling the “I Win Buttons” and deriding games that include them.
What are microtransactions?
In both cases, the practice is kept alive through microtransactions. That is the ability to buy a small good for only a few cents or a couple of dollars. In some cases, allowing a player to tap a PayPal account or credit card whenever they want to make a purchase, or, more likely, having a gamer purchase a block of in game Currency and using that block slowly over time. That way, the developers get more up front and if the gamer ends up not spending everything in game, they come out ahead. This sounds a lot shadier than it is. Purchasing a block of Currency also makes the experience for the gamer far more streamlined
Some of my favorite games are Free to Play. Mechwarrior Online, League of Legends, Warframe, Team Fortress 2, and Tribes: Ascend are some of great examples of F2P and microtransactions done well. In cases where I play a F2P game and enjoy it, I make it a point to throw in a couple of dollars on something. Even if it is 4 bucks to make my warrior look like a Space Marine in League of Legends, or $2 for a custom paint job for my Mech in Mechwarrior Online. If you enjoy the hard work and dedication that goes into these games, you should let the developers and the industry know.
Impact on the industry?
Microtransactions have definitely changed the way we look at games. The ability to use real money inside of games is already changing the way developers build and market games. In some cases, not for the better, as the most recent Deadspace game showed us. But it also allows for games to exist and be played by a wider audience that would not have been made under the old “everything costs millions of dollars to build and we will sell it for $60” model. Right now some of the most played games in the world are Free To Play, and they are also making boatloads of money, so I guess they are not doing things too wrong.