Yesterday, Valve's Steam service rolled out a new system to offer free-to-play PC games to its customers. To bring you non-gamers up to speed, Steam is arguably the most popular digital download service for PC games, and certainly in the top three. The combination of broadband penetration and diminishing amounts of retail shelf-space devoted to PC games is driving gamers to turn to digital distribution (or mail-ordering physical copies) and Steam, along with a handful of competitors, has been there to make that transition pretty easy. While that has been happening, another sea-change has been taking place in the multiplayer gaming space. It used to be that you'd buy a game for $50 or so, and then (in the case of Massively Multiplayer Games, at least) you'd pay an additional $15/month to play online. Smaller scale games wouldn't have the monthly fee but they'd still have that initial outlay of cash. Recently, that model is giving way to the somewhat misleadingly named "free-to-play" model where customers download the game client for free, and don't pay a subscription fee, but then buy virtual items from a "cash shop" to enhance gameplay in some fashion. You might pay to unlock certain levels of a game, or buy special gear for your characters, or a potion to help you advance more swiftly. You technically can play for free but sooner or later most players who stick with a game will come up against some sort of barrier that'll be worth paying a few bucks to get past.
[Also see: How to murder a Flash cookie zombie]
This free-to-play mentality seems to have originated in Asia and there has been a certain stigma attached to the games among many old school Western gamers, myself included. That feeling is slowly changing as Western-developed games test out the model (Turbine's Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons & Dragons Online are two very successful examples), but with Valve coming on-board I believe acceptance of the system will really start to gather steam (pardon the pun). Why? Well one of the biggest obstacles I've found with free-to-play games from Asia is a lack of trust. I don't feel comfortable typing my credit card info into a goofing looking, Flash-based website full of poorly translated English and using some e-commerce system I've never heard of. I'm not saying these games aren't safe and secure; they probably are. I'm saying they don't feel safe and secure to me, so I avoid them. But Steam I trust (well, as much as I trust any e-commerce system). And now when I'm playing one of these games and feel like spending $5 on a +3 Sword of Butt-Kicking, rather than buy some virtual currency from an Asian company I can just open my Steam wallet and pay out of there. I don't think I'm alone in feeling this way, and so I think the free-to-play games that Steam offers are going to sell more virtual goods than those with independent payment systems. Plus, of course, there's the whole promotion system that Steam has in place (apparently you can earn Team Fortress hats by playing one of the games, which was enough to get plenty of gamers to try out that title, from what I read in chat), and the cross-game community that helps word-of-mouth spread. The first five free-to-play games are available now. They are Spiral Knights (a cute robot game that felt a little like old-school Zelda gone multiplayer), Forsaken Worlds (an Eastern-developed fantasy MMO), Champions Online: Free For All (a super hero MMO), Global Agenda: Free Agent (a team based third person shooter which is well worth checking out) and Alliance of Valliant Arms (a first-person shooter). Just to test out the system, I downloaded and played a bit of Spiral Knights. After running my little robot dude around for a few minutes, I checked out the e-commerce system. It was almost too easy to buy goods. I picked a $19.95 Start Pack, hit Checkout and a Steam overlay popped up asking me to confirm that I wanted to buy the item using funds in my Steam Wallet. At that point I bailed on the transaction (I really don't need $20 worth of virtual robot parts, or whatever was in that Starter Pack) but it seemed I was just one more click away from completing the transaction. Did anyone else try any of these games, and if so, did you actually purchase anything yet?