What is the correct usage of the term "Free-to-play?"

I would expect it to mean any game that is at least partially free, up to and including games that are fully free such as freeware or abandonware. However, I tend to only see it in relation to the former and never the latter, with "totally-free" not being considered "free-to-play." In fact, the term seems to be applied broadly to games that use micro-transactions, thus making its usage seem more based on how one pays for a game as opposed to how one does not.

Is this just degrading slippage of the word's original purpose? Is it just a marketing scam? Is my sample-set just biased?

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    Why would anyone call a game that is fully free free-to-play rather than free? – TimLymington Mar 13 '14 at 17:56
  • @TimLymington Because that is the official definition, according to Wikipedia, and I think that definition makes sense. – Southpaw Hare Mar 13 '14 at 18:08
  • "Free" to play – IQAndreas Mar 13 '14 at 19:43

I'm not sure there is a formal meaning for the term "free-to-play," but we can talk about a prima facie meaning and a cultural meaning.

The prima facie meaning is as you said: the plain meaning of the words suggests one is referring to any game that one can play without paying money.

Culturally, however, "free-to-play" generally emphasizes the "play" part, meaning you can play it for free, but other aspects of the game are not free. Indeed, the game may be only minimally playable without in-game purchases. Culturally, then, the phrase is meant to emphasize that some, or many, aspects of gameplay are not free, but the game can be launched and some minimal level of playing is possible without paying.

As you observe, "freeware" is a term generally reserved for games that do not charge anything either to run or to enjoy the full game experience. Like other terms such as "adware" (games that require you to view ads to play) or "spyware" (software that installs phone-home programs as a condition of using it), "free-to-play" denotes a kind of game that is partially but not fully free.

  • I have to agree here as the explanation is in the words if you take them at literal value. "Free-to-play" but not necessarily "Free-to-win" or "Free-to-complete". A game that featured all of its systems/items/aspects for free to all players would simply be categorized as a "Free" game, not "Free-to-Play". – RenaissanceProgrammer Mar 13 '14 at 19:30

This article explains it better than anybody here can, and it's on the first page for googling "free to play": http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free-to-play

But the gist is this: you're right, free-to-play can indeed mean anything from "completely free" to "free but with paid features". However, lately when people say free-to-play, what they're really talking about is a freemium game.

  • I did read the Wikipedia page before posting. It just didn't satisfy me, as, like you say, the common seems to differ. – Southpaw Hare Mar 13 '14 at 17:23

Instead of thinking of free-to-play as a specific term (i.e. "this game is free-to-play"), you should think of it as a general, blanket statement for any game that costs nothing to begin playing. All free-to-play means is that you do not pay to install the game/you do not pay to play the game. For example, you're not paying to play Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook. It's free to play.

But, that's really broad, so you could say under the blanket of Free-To-Play games is...

  • abandonware: software abandoned by developers
  • adware: software supported by ads
  • freeware: software with no payments of real money at any point in the game
  • spyware: software that installs additional software to be used
  • freemium: software with premium content that must be paid for

But some of those things are redundant. For example, is a freeware game free to play? Obviously, right? So you could just call it freeware. I'd say abandonware is in the same boat, but that's up to interpretation, I guess.

But just because something is free to play doesn't mean it's free-to-win, in the sense that you can play it, but that doesn't mean the game is set-up in such a way that you'd win it. Freemium is the biggest offender here, because freemium games are games that hamper completion by making premium content either necessary or the most logical solution to beating the game.

In other words, free-to-play games only imply that playing the game is free. It doesn't say that you can't be interrupted by ads, it doesn't say you can't have microtransactions, and it doesn't say that you won't accidentally install malicious or otherwise software. You can branch out from the general term once you know what the game actually is. (For example, "I thought MLP:Friendship is Magic was free-to-play. Turns out it's freemium.")


Generally the term is used only for games that have an online component. Essentially free to pay (aka: F2P) is an online game (sometimes a downloadable app) that has no up-front costs for playing.

That means you don't have to pay anything to install the client on your system, and there's no overt monthly fee to get access to the game servers.

However, such a game can (and almost certainly will) have some other way to collect money from you on a voluntary basis. These run the gamut from online stores and subscription options offering cosmetic items to intrusive in-game solicitations for things that are essentially required to have any success in a reasonable amount of time.

A business model where there's no subscription option to give you access to everything is called "freemium". Freemium games are still technically F2P if they are still playable without paying anything.

However, when you get down towards the bad end of that spectrum, players have other terms they use. For example, a game that is on paper F2P, but in reality not realistically playable without paying something, is called "pay-to-win" (P2W). This is a moniker bestowed on a game by players. It is not a positive term, and you will never see it being claimed in marketing material.

A P2W game is not considered real F2P, no matter what the game's owners may claim. The two terms are effectively mutually-exclusive, although different people will use them for the same game sometimes.

"Freeware" (and "abandonware") are terms used to describe software in general, not just online games. So they really don't belong to the same taxonomy.

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