The Common but Misleading Use of Free
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 3 March 2014, 5:13 pm
The EU is making rumblings of cracking down on the use of the word free to market games that are in the business of making money.  The effort is aimed primarily at makers of cell phone games marketed for children, which have an unfortunate habit of encouraging kids to run up bills on their unsuspecting parents' stored payment information.  While I'm not thrilled at potentially hapless government intervention, removing the word free from titles that are clearly not intended to be free is a perfectly reasonable effort.   

To be clear, developing games or any other product costs money.  Many people are less than thrilled to discover how those costs are being recouped by companies like Facebook and Google that are in the business of not charging users and then re-selling their personal information.  Sometimes an independent developer will choose to absorb the entire "cost" (primarily their time) of developing a "free" application either because they aren't in it for the money or because they're looking to establish a portfolio for future paid work.  That all aside, I don't share Azuriel's view that it's somehow hard to determine whether or not a product is offered at zero cost to the consumer. 

Examples
While this discussion is primarily aimed at phone games, I think some pictures might help illustrate the point that, whether you technically have the ability to download the client and create an account for free, pretty much every title that uses the word free prominently in their marketing is actually not intended to be played at zero cost to the user. 

For LOTRO's splash page, "completely free" is literally the bottom line.  This claim hangs its hat on the concept that you can chain re-roll and delete alts to earn pennies' worth of Turbine points per hour and thus theoretically earn access to $40 expansion packs. 

I haven't gotten out my ruler to measure, but it sure looks like "Play Free Now" is in bigger font than the Star Wars title in SWTOR.  In fairness, you actually can play pretty much the entire game for free, subject to some time-exclusivity for paid mini-expansions and some significant and annoying restrictions that can only be lifted by subscribing. 

Wizard 101 has managed to reserve the largest text for their game's title, though FREE is the second word on the page and the "Play for free" button has the most prominent location (followed by two more uses of "free" in bullet points and sentence explanation of the product.  This title is marketed to kids, and its use of free is by far the biggest stretch because you can't even access the entire first world in the game without paying.  Having your kid's character available as a hostage before you discover that this "free" game costs money is literally the point of the business model.

A world without free 
One last picture for you, from the world's biggest MOBA:
Funny how there isn't the word Free anywhere on that page - there's a link for "play now" and another link for "download the game", neither of which discuss cost.  League is commonly called a "free to play" game, and it can be played as such, but most people would agree this title is not set up to be played at zero cost to the user.  Instead, it's a solid title that stands on its own merits and pricing without the need to abuse the word free. 

I get where Azuriel is coming from when he points out that companies will still bait and switch as best they can, even if forbidden to use the word Free.  I just don't accept the lack of a complete and permanent solution to the marketing problem as a reason why a small change that makes the advertising less misleading is a bad idea.  From the other side of the coin, we will probably still see players complaining that things in game cost money even if we did remove the intentionally misleading word free from the lexicon.  I still see the removal of a promise that no one ever intended to keep as a positive change. 


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