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As a young kid of about six or seven, I would often accompany the old man on his regular visits to the guitar shop. A seasoned veteran of the local gig scene, my dad loves nothing more than to talk about music and try out new instruments; having a good friend run the local store must have been like winning the lottery.
I can still see my mum rolling her eyes now as he’d casually suggest that we pop down for another visit, whilst throwing me a cheeky wink and a wry smile.
And although it took another decade or so for the guitar bug to bite me, I was more than happy to tag along for the hour or two that we’d be there for a very different reason indeed: the back room of the guitar shop was a small arcade, fitted with around a dozen of the best machines of the day.
Before I could even get my coat off, dad had flipped his friend a tenner and gotten me a jug full of ten pence pieces with which to keep me occupied. I’d snatch the kick stool from behind the counter and rush into the back, climb up to the first machine and slowly work my way around the room as the jug gradually emptied.
You name it; my dad’s mate had it: Defender; Space Invaders; Pac-Man; Missile Command; Galaxian; Asteroids; Scramble; Frogger; Moon Patrol; Galaga; Centipede. Each time there would be at least one new machine; each time at least one new experience.
And if you remember classic arcade games being hard and have since put that down to being young and inexperienced, you’re completely wrong: they’re just plain hard. But that never seemed to deter or upset me: I was just happy pumping coins into the machines and enjoying the thrill that I got from them. In fact, seeing just how long I could make each ten pence piece last seemed to be an integral part of the experience, one that was uniform from machine to machine. And all of this was in the days before we had any form of games console or computer in our home so you could say that these visits to the guitar shop shaped my passions for years to come.
So if I was weaned on the concept of pay-to-play, why am I now so averse to the modern equivalent concepts of free-to-play and in-app-purchases? What is it about F2P and IAPs that makes me recoil in horror?
As I kid, I arguably didn’t know any better and I wasn’t even spending my own money so why on earth would it register any negative emotions? There was the slightly hollow feeling as the last coin was consumed by whatever was my favourite machine of the day but it was a fate that I accepted as I knew that I would return soon enough. But even through to my late teens, arcades were a fairly commonplace affair and throwing my own money away on them still didn’t seem like a poor trade given the pleasure that I still managed to glean from the whole brash, gaudy experience. By this time, however, I was growing ever more accustomed to the kind of value that a full-price game could stretch to with such monsters as Wipeout, Final Fantasy VII and Tekken spanning entire months of my life, not just a mere afternoon.
Indeed, it was arguably the growing power of home consoles coupled with the value that a single purchase could represent that was the death knell for the humble, British arcade. Couple this with our dire weather systems and it’s not hard to see why people chose to stay in and play with their mates instead of pumping coins into machines that were a good car drive or more away.
In real terms though, I’ve spent an incalculable amount of money on home-gaming as opposed the relatively small amount that I’ve poured into arcades over the years so if I have a problem with any business model it should arguably be the traditional one; and yet I still put much more stock in it. The satisfaction of owning a physical product; the comfort of having a reasonable trade-in value; the material sense of possessing something new and special: all of these experiences add considerable weight to this model as opposed to the impermanence of the arcade, pay-to-play experience.
Yet we find ourselves in an age where developers and publishers have sought out more inventive and ingenious business models and since the mid-90s we have enjoyed the concept of F2P with one of the first major milestones being the 2001 classic, RuneScape. An iconic title that is still enjoyed today by millions of gamers with over 200 million registered accounts, it has netted its UK co-creator, Andrew Gower, a personal worth in excess of £100 million. There’s clearly a coin to be made in the F2P industry: a concept that app-developers riding the wave of the 2007 explosion that was iPhone were quick to embrace with ever more titles eschewing traditional methods of payment in favour of, well, gold farming. And it almost seems a little petulant of the likes of me to be distrustful of this business strategy. After all, if it channels more revenue into the gaming industry that can surely only be good for its long-term health and evolution? And yet I find myself feeling more than a little cheated by these titles, perhaps because they hide behind the thinly veiled moniker of ‘free’. Yes, they may be free to try, but so is a demo, which pretends to be nothing more. Instead here, we’re offered the pretence of a full-title that’s actually incredibly hobbled and limited unless we fork out a substantial amount of money.
Now, that doesn’t seem quite like cricket to me. Call me old-fashioned, but I like things that do what they say on the tin. Horse-burgers, anyone?
Perhaps the most striking similarity between pay-to-play arcades of old and free-to-play or in-app-purchase titles of today is that they all boil down to a pay-to-win mentality. Sure, you can experience the basic premise of a game by standing next to a machine and watching someone else play or by downloading the core platform for free, but if you want to glean anything meaningful from the experience you need to invest time and, more importantly, money, with top-tier success stories only coming with significant levels of investment on both fronts. But it was never something that I had a problem with in the arcades of old. I knew exactly what I was letting myself in for and embraced it as such. F2P is, and will remain, the greatest misnomer of the modern gaming industry. At least IAPs are more up-front about their true nature, if equally devious in their aims.
And yet, as fate would have it, some thirty years after introducing me to pay-to-win mechanics, it’s my dad that finally brought me round to accepting F2P and IAPs for what they are: quite harmless.
A self-professed addict of the rather excellent World of Tanks, my dad was introduced to the game by a friend and has played little else since. After lecturing him for a good twenty minutes on the evils of F2P and IAPs, he sat me down and explained the mechanics of the game to me, showed me the ropes and, lo: a couple of hours later and I became equally hooked.
A taut and tense experience that’s as enjoyable with the free, entry-level tanks as it is with the big boys that have to be bought and paid for; there is a surprising amount of strategy to this fifteen-man-team deathmatch affair. Whilst the overarching design is nothing new as far as competitive multiplayer goes the contrast between the slow, monolithic movements and strategic positioning of the tanks on the battlefield and the lightning-fast reflexes required in the heat-of-battle are guaranteed to have you on the edge of your seat. It’s a deliciously addictive juxtaposition of experiences that, even after a full evening spent absorbing, I felt as though I was only just beginning to scratch the surface of. Given that the game holds the current Guinness World Record for most players online simultaneously on one server at 305,000 (a full year after its launch), it’s clearly an experience that has cast its magical spell far and wide.
After a particularly satisfying string of victories, I glanced over at the old man to find him throwing me that same wry smile that he would when handing me the jug of coins at the arcade.
“I asked myself what a good game represents to me and I figured it was about forty quid’s worth. So that’s how much gold I’ve bought and that’s all that I’ll ever spend. So far it’s lasted me three months and there’s still a tenner left.”
“When it runs out, it runs out”
I do hate it when he’s right.
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Husband. Parent. Gamer. Go figure.