A gamer playing Hearthstone on a phone in front of a desktop PC.
Shift Drive/Shutterstock.com

If you’re even remotely interested in gaming, you’ve come across the acronym F2P or the term “free-to-play.” What does this mean, though? Is it really free, or are there strings attached? Let’s take a look.

What is F2P?

Free-to-play has meant different things to different people at different times. The shareware of the ’90s could be described as F2P. You got a game for free, or at least the first part of it—but, to get the rest of it, you needed to pony up. It was a good system for developers who needed to get their name out there. Penniless gamers, including your author, got something to play for free.

In its current incarnation, though, F2P describes something very different. While there are free games out there—some of them quite good—when we say “free-to-play” (note the hyphens,) we usually mean games that operate under the freemium model.

The Freemium Model

At first, the freemium model meant that you got access to a game for free—but, to progress in it, you needed to pay. For example, you could run around in a game with certain basic weapons, but to get better ones or to upgrade them you needed to spend some money through so-called microtransactions, where you spend a dollar or even less to buy one specific in-game item.

This particular model was never very popular among gamers, and there are very few examples of it existing. What most current freemium games do is offer the game for free and allow you to earn weapons and upgrades through playing. The microtransactions are still there, but instead of unlocking the game, they just speed up your progress—often significantly so. That said, please note that this is a general observation. Specific examples can vary a little.

Pokemon Go, for example, lets you play the game, catching Pokemon and making coins, but you can also give yourself a head start and buy a bunch of coins for real-world money. Team Fortress 2, a game developed by Valve and available on its Steam platform, lets you play for free, but you can buy loot boxes that contain any number of items, most of them valuable for gameplay.

Freemium is an interesting system for both gamers and developers. Gamers get a free game, while the game’s publishers get players. While they miss out on the initial purchase money, which for AAA games could be as much as $60 or $70, they instead get a revenue stream that could, potentially, pay out more over time.

The Problem With F2P Games

This alternative revenue stream, though, is a massive incentive for shady business practices. While at first glance the freemium model is pretty awesome, there is a lot of room for abuse and even more examples of it happening. Free-to-play games employ a number of psychological tricks, putting you into a virtual Skinner box.

The Skinner Box

The Skinner box—properly called an operant conditioning chamber, which is why we call it a Skinner box—was developed by B.F Skinner, a mid-20th century psychologist and behaviorist. He conducted a series of experiments where he placed rats into boxes with a lever. If the rat pushed the lever, they would get a reward, usually a food pellet.

As you can imagine, the rats would quickly figure this out and just hit that lever like crazy—even when, after a while, the reward wouldn’t always come. In a way, hitting the lever was as satisfying as getting the reward. If you’re interested, you can read more about Skinner’s experiments and what they tell us about both rats and humans. There is also this excellent presentation by psychiatrist Dr. Ryan Black that goes deeper into the psychology of it all.

What we should take away from all this is that in the case of F2P games you are the rat, and the game developers have put a huge number of shiny levers throughout their box. Instead of a food pellet, you get a nice shiny upgrade for your in-game gun or a glimmering trophy. In the end, you’re just another rat chasing down new levers to push to get that rush of satisfaction.

The Skinner Box and F2P Games

It’s that sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that drives players through F2P games. To be clear, though, some games are a lot more manipulative than others. The worst offenders are the cheap mobile games that are a dime a dozen on markets like Android’s Google Play Store or Apple’s App Store for iPhone and iPad.

There are a lot of them, and there’s a huge churn in their numbers—so it’s pointless to name any particular examples—but you probably know the type. They often feature rudimentary graphics and gameplay. Instead, they rely almost entirely on psychological trickery to keep the player busy and hopefully entice them into buying upgrades to speed things along.

Setting up this kind of reward scheme well means that the revenue flow you get from a hooked player can be a lot higher than that of any initial purchase price. In fact, the business model of these games relies on you getting addicted.

As anybody who has played one can testify, games like this are ridiculously easy to get hooked on. If you’re not careful you’ll be buying in-game currency to get some doodad finished a little quicker or get something unlock a little sooner. You probably want to keep well away from games like this.

However, it’s not just low-rent mobile games that try this on. For example, the loot boxes from Team Fortress 2 are pretty much a lottery as their contents are randomized. Before you know it, you’re spending a good amount of money in the hopes of getting a specific reward; it’s gambling by another name.

Though not every developer out there is setting out to get players addicted, the way that humans are always interested in getting more of anything means that it’s very easy to spend money to get unlocks, even if you don’t need or want them. By all means, play F2P games if you like, but always be on guard that you’re not slipping away.

Profile Photo for Fergus O'Sullivan Fergus O'Sullivan
Fergus is a freelance writer for How-To Geek. He has seven years of tech reporting and reviewing under his belt for a number of publications, including GameCrate and Cloudwards. He's written more articles and reviews about cybersecurity and cloud-based software than he can keep track of---and knows his way around Linux and hardware, too.
Read Full Bio »