Years ago, it used to be the military complex that we’d hold accountable for invading and cluttering our beautiful language with seemingly meaningless acronyms: FOB, LZ, AA, SAM and even HALO. These days, the estimable task to maintain pollution levels rests with videogaming, where amusingly that last acronym also describes one of the industry’s most successful titles. But with the growth of broadband and subsequent proliferation of online entertainment options, the confusing letter clusters are coming thick and fast: MMORPG, MMORTS, MTX, MSG and F2P, to name a few. The prefix ‘MMO’ stands for ‘Massively Multiplayer Online’ and basically refers to any game that lots of people can play while connected together via the Internet, by the way, but we’re more concerned here with the last acronym, ‘F2P’.
F2P means ‘Free to Play’ and it’s good news for any tightwads out there who fancy a bit of gaming but don’t want to pay for the privilege. These games are all free – whether they’re free for the first few levels, for you to sample, offer a free demo or, best of all, stay free the whole time you play, F2P is a burgeoning force in the videogames industry. One of the most popular forms is the ‘browser’ game – so called, because you only need a good old internet browser such as Internet Explorer, Netscape or Firefox, to access and play them. How easy is that?!
From the very casual (Minesweeper and Tetris-style games) to pretty committed, or ‘hardcore’ (O-game, Runescape, QuakeLive, etc) and some soft and cuddly stuff for your kids in-between, free-to-play browser games are all the rage. Most use Java or Flash plugins but nearly all browsers self-install and update that kind of software these days anyway, or just require a couple of mouse clicks to sort it out. So if you can cope with that, you’re ready to get gaming.
And it might surprise you who’s playing these F2P games – the main audience is described as ‘casual’, but in fact their gaming behaviour would suggest they’re anything but. For instance, 90% of regulars on one leading free-play website play for at least 30 minutes per session, with over 50% playing for over an hour each time, racking up over 10 hours a week. That’s pretty far from casual, to misquote Marcellus Wallace. And another thing – the majority of people playing on their PC are female and over 30 years old!
Traditional games publishers have recognised this fast-growing area as a real money maker, of course, so they’re all in the game as well. Pogo.com from EA, Club Penguin from Disney (great for your kids!), PopCap, Big Fish, and so on. All these big guys offer free play on their websites with the aim, naturally, of sucking you in – or should that be ‘suckering’ you in – to pay for the full version of their games, or sign up to their ‘VIP’ level of the service, to get the cash rolling in.
But despite this rather desperate and undignified land-grab in online gaming, you never have to pay if you don’t want to and there are some real gems out there for you to enjoy for free forever. Pogo.com has Scrabble and Monopoly, for instance, as well as card games such as Texas Hold ‘Em and popular pub games such as Chess, Checkers and Cribbage. PopCap offers some wildly compulsive titles like ‘Bejeweled’ and ‘Zuma’, as well as the mildly amusing ‘Plants vs Zombies’ concept. Big Fish hosts an exceedingly popular and quite diverting series of ‘Mystery Case Files’ games, turning the player into a sleuth for a day.