Free games are great, right? Not so much, according to a recent article. If the author is to be believed, the freebies offered with Sony’s PS Plus and Microsoft’s Games with Gold programs are devaluing games as a whole. The $0 price tag creates a sense of entitlement and expectation that the games on offer aren’t worth paying for, and thus neither are their contemporaries.

NOTE: For the sake of clarity, I will refer to PS Plus alone from here on out, but the same points apply to Games with Gold.

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Support for the author’s conclusion isn’t hard to find. Since their inception, both initiatives have seen as much criticism as praise with regards to the calibre of their line-ups. PS Plus has had it especially rough as of late, with many subscribers complaining of a steep drop in quality between this generation and the last. A brief scan of the comments on the Playstation blog is at once illuminating and haunting.

The article rightly points out the ignorance inherent in many of the complaints: when the PS Plus program was first introduced halfway through the last generation, the PS3 already had an established library of AAA titles to pull from. In contrast, the PS4 had to start from scratch, significantly limiting its viable catalogue. It’s naïve to expect the nascent PS4 to compete with the matured PS3; nevertheless, the outrage continues unabated.

Where the article falters, however, is in its proposal for eliminating this sense of entitlement. The author believes getting rid of the free games is the way to go, but I have to disagree. The perks of PS Plus are not responsible for the unfair expectations; the problem runs far, far deeper. Factors like the App Store and its homogenisation of the 99c pricing point, the rise of free-to-play and the shift from paying with money to paying with time, and the speed with which new releases go on sale all contribute to an economy where consumers demand more for less. This attitude is the reason microtransactions are invading even AAA games, and why the open-world genre is full of frivolous padding and trivial collectibles. The industry as a whole is suffering from an air of entitlement, and PS Plus is a victim in this, not the perpetrator.

Rocket League: a testament to the power of PS Plus

Retiring the free-games incentive wouldn’t only hurt loyal subscribers, it would affect developers too. One of the unsung benefits of PS Plus is the wealth of exposure it gives to games that might otherwise be completely overlooked. Take Rocket League for example. It’s a safe bet that it would not have blown up into the global phenomenon it has had the millions of PS Plus subscribers not received it for free and subsequently hyped the heck out of it. Despite those forfeited sales, the game has been an unequivocal success for developer Psyonix, selling over 5 million copies on PS4 and over 1 million on Steam. Even discounting the compensation paid out by Sony to Psyonix, the game has still achieved more than it ever could have without the leg-up of PS Plus.

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Exposing lesser-known titles is especially useful for getting players to venture outside of their wheelhouses. I would never have known about titles like Grow Home, Xeodrifter, and Apotheon had they not been included in PS Plus, and all three have been among my most enjoyable experiences this year. Furthermore, the program has served to breathe new life into games that were overlooked the first time around, as well as generate buzz for new releases by the same developers. Infamous: First Light, Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes, and The Unfinished Swan worked that way for me, convincing me to purchase Infamous: Second Son and getting me excited for Metal Gear Solid V and What Remains of Edith Finch.

There’s another less obvious, but equally valuable benefit to the monthly haul of free games. In order to access them, you have to log into the PSN store and drill through a number of pages before reaching your bounty. This process echoes the way grocery stores shelve milk and eggs on the back wall, ensuring customers get a good look at all the other stuff on sale. Similarly, once you’ve logged into the PSN store, you’re probably going to cast your eye over the promoted titles and latest sales. Maybe you spot an intriguing new release you hadn’t heard about, or notice that a game you missed out on a while back is 50% off.

Prior to signing up for PS Plus, I only checked out the digital storefront when a sale was big enough to warrant a news story on one of the gaming sites I frequent. After subscribing, however, I became significantly more invested in the economy, discovering unmarketed gems and hidden bargains on my monthly visits. I began logging in more frequently, catching more sales and putting more money back into the economy, easily offsetting the freebies I was receiving. Encouraging this kind of virtual window shopping becomes all the more important as the industry progresses towards its inevitable all-digital future.


(The data below was taken from PSN before and after the PS+ promotion for Oct 2015. I have aggregated the user review scores, since actual sales data is not disclosed)

Name

Platform

Release Date

Before Promotion

After Promotion

Broken Age

PS4

2015-04-28

4.65

4.32

Unmechanical: Extended Edition

PS4

2015-02-10

4.42

4.28

Kickbeat

PS Vita

2013-09-03

4.36

4.25

Kung Fu Rabbit

PS Vita

2013-07-16

4.30

4.15

Chariot

PS3

2015-05-05

4.66

4.46

Not the greatest of endorsements for freebies, is it?


The biggest problem with nixing free PS Plus games is that it wouldn’t actually address the issue of game devaluation. The people dcomplaining about the quality of offerings wouldn’t reverse their opinions just because of a higher price tag; if anything, increasing the cost of the ‘garbage’ games only invites more outrage and prejudice. At least if the games are free, there’s always the chance naysayers will give them a shot out of curiosity or a need to justify their resentment. All it takes is for one game to defy expectations and the prejudice starts to crumble. The protestor becomes the proponent.

Along with inciting widespread outcry, getting rid of the free games would have a ripple effect on the player bases of a number of games - namely, those of the online variety. When Sony joined Microsoft in locking online play behind a paywall, the move only escaped criticism thanks to the value of perks like the instant game collection. Microsoft had no choice but to introduce Games with Gold just to compete. Scrap those initiatives, though, and the pay-to-play model becomes far less appealing. Is it really worth $60 a year for just the occasional game of FIFA or Battlefield?

Where this becomes even more troubling is in the recent trend towards always-online requirements in traditionally single-player games. The Crew, the latest Need for Speed, and The Division (when it comes out) all demand a constant internet connection even if you want to pay solo. Without a PS Plus subscription, these games are unplayable. As this trend increases, so too must the value of being a premium subscriber, otherwise solo players will simply forego online titles entirely.

Despite all the benefits of free PS Plus games, there is one consequence that can’t be ignored. Interesting games from unproven developers are frequently passed over with the same excuse: ‘I’ll wait for it to go free on PS Plus’. The fear of wasting money on something that will be given away in just a few short months discourages gamers from taking risks on the more novel and ambitious properties. Diffidence here might prove beneficial for individual consumers in the short term, but it ultimately punishes the innovative games and developers who most need our support.

Another fun by-product of the Internet Age.

There are many other ways to discourage entitlement that don’t come with so many caveats. One avenue that Sony is already exploring is incorporating community choice into the PS Plus line-up. The Vote to Play program gives subscribers the means to influence the games they receive. Expanding upon that, the program could allow each subscriber to choose their own offerings from a number of options, such as picking between three ‘indie’ games and a single, bugger-budget title. That way, not only would players share responsibility for the quality of their freebies, they would be subconsciously predisposed towards their choice and thus more likely to appreciate it. This sense of control would also help address the issue of doubling up on games already purchases; subscribers could always pick the option that benefits them the most. Implementing this strategy would undoubtedly require a lot of work, both technically and in negotiating the necessary deals with developers and publishers. Nevertheless, it could be an effective way to quell the rebel crowd.

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Moving beyond the PSN and Xbox Live ecosystems, the ideal solution for dealing with consumer entitlement is better education. Currently, games development is an esoteric, almost arcane concept that few people truly understand. Unlike the movie industry, for which a general understanding of the costs and effort involved exists in the public domain, games have not yet established a clear, universal baseline for their processes and expenses - just look at the confusion inherent in the crowd-funding scene. Most people simply have no clue how massive an undertaking making a game can be, leading to situations where fans-turned-armchair-developers complain that a game made by a handful of talented but inexperienced creators doesn’t live up to the standards of Mario or Contra. If the sacrifices involved in shipping a game were as well-publicised as the budgets of Hollywood epics, maybe some people would think twice before dismissing something that simply doesn’t appeal to them as ‘hot garbage’.

Gamer entitlement is a real problem, but the answer is more, not less. More options, more education, more exposure. The indie-game stigma thrives on ignorance. Force an unbeliever to sit down and play Goat Simulator, Jazzpunk, or Octodad, and if they don’t smile at least once, they might need to get their humour checked. Run them through Super Meat Boy, Outlast, or Transistor, and if they still think indie games can’t stand up to the AAAs, then they’re a lost cause.

Every community has its detractors. As misguided as they might be, their whining is not worth spoiling the medium for the rest of us.

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Matt Sayer is 50% gamer, 50% writer, 50% programmer, and 100% terrible at maths. You can read more of his articles here, or tweet him cat photos at @sezonguitar