Free-to-Play (F2P)

What Is Free-to-Play (F2P)?

Free-to-play (F2P) is a gaming model that allows a user to download and play without needing a subscription or having to buy it upfront.

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Free games are free to download and play without needing to make any purchases to access all the levels and features, but free-to-play games use the “freemium” model.

While the game designers do not charge the player to join the game, it is designed to bring in revenue from advertisements or in-game sales. Players can typically pay for in-game purchases using a credit or debit card or a digital wallet.

Examples of purchases in free-to-play games include:

  • Upgrades
  • In-game currency
  • In-game items such as tools or weapons
  • Characters
  • Cosmetics
  • Special abilities or skills
  • New levels or downloadable content
  • Passes to access exclusive content or rewards

Techopedia Explains Free-to-Play

Free-to-play games center around gamers’ willingness to purchase items or pay for access to new content once they have tried out the game and become familiar with its mechanics. The idea of purchasing new content after playing a game, such as access to new areas, characters, or levels, allows designers to create many games on the same platform and then focus on expanding those versions, producing in-game purchases and revenue.

Free-to-play games often only provide free access to a limited portion of the game, requiring players to pay to progress to further levels to access the full game.

Some F2P games generate revenue from advertisements such as banner ads, video ads, or ads that reward players for watching.

Free-to-Play vs. Pay-to-Play

Free-to-play games contrast with the primary model that preceded it, which is called pay-to-play (P2P). In this model, players pay for a game once upfront for access to all the game’s content based on their skill and the time they put into gameplay.

The early F2P games were often much lower quality than traditional P2P games. However, F2P games have quickly grown in quality as developers recognized their ability to produce revenue.

Some gaming companies offer both free and paid versions of the same game, although there are many games created specifically for F2P as well.

Comparison of Gameplay Models 

Free Free-to-Play (F2P) Play-to-Earn (P2E) Pay-to-Play (P2P)
Initial Cost Free Free to download and play Free to download and play Requires upfront purchase
Core Gameplay Access Free Free Free Requires payment
Monetization Model No microtransactions Microtransactions, ads Earning through gameplay No microtransactions
In-game Currency Virtual currency or items Virtual currency Blockchain-based tokens Virtual currency or items
Ownership of Assets Limited or no ownership Limited or no ownership Ownership via NFTs Limited or no ownership
Economic System Centralized or decentralized Centralized or decentralized Decentralized blockchain Centralized
Earning Potential No direct earning Limited potential Players can earn rewards No direct earning
Governance Varies Controlled by developers Decentralized community Controlled by developers
Security Standard game security Standard game security Enhanced blockchain security Standard game security
In-game Progression Skill-based progression May rely on pay-to-win Rewards tied to skill/effort Skill-based progression
Community Influence Limited Limited Potential influence via DAOs Limited
Target Audience Casual gamers and players Casual gamers Gamers and crypto enthusiasts Hardcore gamers

Advantages of F2P Games

The advantage of the F2P model for players is that they get initial access to a game for free. This low barrier to entry makes gaming more accessible to players of all income levels.

Gamers can potentially play an F2P game without ever making a purchase if they are able to progress through the gameplay with time and skill. F2P allows gamers to try out a variety of games, which can bridge the gap between releases of games they may want to buy.

While the developers do not receive an upfront payment from selling the game, they get access to a revenue stream that could add up to more money over time as the player progresses through the game.

Disadvantages of F2P Games

Although F2P games are free to access, some require gamers to spend real money to progress or challenge other players. Players can end up spending more money on in-game purchases than the full retail price of a pay-to-play game.

The free-to-play model can also be open to abuse and fraudulent practices. It is also well-documented that children can gain access to F2P games and, often unknowingly, run up large credit card bills from in-game purchases.

Items purchased in F2P games can often be tied to the player’s account and hold no value outside the game. However, the emergence of blockchain-based F2P games allows gamers to buy or earn non-fungible tokens (NFTs) with real-world value that they can sell or trade on blockchain marketplaces.

The Bottom Line

Free-to-play games have democratized access to gaming by removing the initial cost barrier, and relying on microtransactions and ads to generate revenue. Players can gain access to games without having to pay to try them out, while developers can generate revenue streams from gamers’ in-game purchases.

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Nicole Willing

Nicole Willing has two decades of experience in writing and editing content on technology and finance. She has developed expertise in covering commodity, equity, and cryptocurrency markets, as well as the latest trends across the technology sector, from semiconductors to electric vehicles. Her background in reporting on developments in telecom networking equipment and services and industrial metals production gives her a unique perspective on the convergence of Internet-of-Things technologies and manufacturing.