That said, even if these games aren’t truly “Pay-to-Win”, they still need to be mindful of the experience of free or low-spend users. The major reasons to run a game as Free-to-Play are to allow players to sample the game who might otherwise not do so, in the hope that they become paying players themselves some day, and also to ensure critical mass for your user base, so players can always find games. While the goal of Free-to-Play games is always to try to get users to spend money at some point, even players who never pay a cent offer value because they help build the player base and community.
To that end, it’s important that the experience of a free player is at least reasonably fun. In a collectible game, this generally means offering ways for the free player to compete on a relatively even footing, with one another or with paying players. There are two major ways to do this – limited play and matchmaking.
Limited play, like Hearthstone’s Arena or draft in Magic or SolForge, offers ways for players with unequal collections to compete on even footing. In these kind of events, rather than using cards they own, players build decks from an assortment presented to them. This means that a new player and someone with every card in the game can compete as equals, since the collection advantage of the established player is eliminated.
The weakness of limited formats as a solution to collection imbalance is that they only offer a slice of the full collectible game experience. Personally, my favorite element of CCGs is deckbuilding, because I love the constant puzzle solving element of building and tweaking a deck as new cards are released, or as the metagame shifts. Limited play only offers a sliver of this feeling, and also lack the sense of progression and personal investment that comes with putting together a constructed deck.
For new and F2P players looking to play constructed without getting stomped by more established players, the key is in matchmaking. This is an area where digital games have a huge advantage over their physical counterparts. In Magic, a new player showing up to his or her local card store is at the mercy of who else is there, and what kind of decks they might have. In a digital game like Hearthstone or SolForge, however, you have a much larger pool of potential opponents to find games with someone at your own relative level of success.
Note the phrasing here – “relative level of success”. Not skill level, or collection size, or deck value. These are all variables that can contribute to a player’s success, but aren’t the sole determinant of it. If a player with nothing but basic cards is winning a lot, he or she should be paired against players who are also winning a similar amount, whether they have large collections and decks full of legendary cards or not.
At some point, this will certainly lead to a successful free player running into opponents who have cards he or she does not. On the one hand, this can lead to some level of frustration, because it may appear to the free player that the reason he or she lost was because of an insufficient collection. But that may also lead the free player to seek out a way to acquire those cards, whether through earning free currency and crafting them, or by – gasp – actually deciding to spend money.
That was essentially my experience in Hearthstone. When I decided I wanted to start playing constructed, I had been battling in the Arena as free-to-play for quite a while, and used the fifty packs or so that I had earned to put together a single Shaman deck without any Legendary cards (since I didn’t have any) that I played up to Legend rank. Once I’d reached that goal, I decided that I wanted to be able to explore more possibilities in deck building, so I spent some money on packs in order to do so.
(As an aside, I think the current popular “Last Hero Standing” format used in tournament play in Hearthstone makes the barrier to entry for free and low spending players who want to participate in tournaments extremely high. I know lots of players who have one or two decks they have put together over time with free-to-play rewards, but can’t possibly field the four or five decks that the format typically requires. I struggled to put together enough decks to compete in my first tournament, and I’m certain there are many players who simply don’t bother to compete because they don’t have enough cards to put together multiple strong decks. This is one of the many reasons that I’d like to see more tournaments experiment with single deck formats.)
It’s important to recognize that at the end of the day, the only reason “Free-to-play” games exist is because there are people who ultimately pay for them. Yes, the free players do help provide critical mass, but there have to be incentives for people to spend money in order for these games to exist.
It’s also important to note that in a game like Hearthstone or SolForge, there is nothing that a paying player has access to that a free player cannot also acquire, given sufficient play time. In truly “Pay-to-Win” games, paying players frequently have any number of benefits that free players can never earn which tip the scales dramatically in their favor. But when there is nothing exclusive to paying players, the playing field is at least theoretically even given a long enough timeline.