Design by Leilani Baylis-Washington

In middle school, I was always hunting for more games to add to my collection. Spending $60 on a new title was a luxury that I could only afford once or twice a year, so I would always peruse the Xbox 360 game market for cheap or free games to play. Most of what was available were demos or knockoffs of other titles that I’d delete within a few minutes, disappointed and bored yet again.

Today, that problem doesn’t exist. My middle school self would have been in a gaming paradise with all of the free-to-play titles that have been coming out — and quality ones at that. A wave of free games has taken over the industry in the last five years, with some of the biggest names in gaming joining in. Epic has been one of the biggest players in this new trend: The massive success of “Fortnite” aside, they have also recently purchased “Fall Guys” and “Rocket League,” turning them into free-to-play games as well. Even some of the biggest game franchises, such as Halo, Destiny and Call of Duty, have become, in part, free-to-play. Whether it be through the sale of battle passes, cosmetics such as skins and emotes or items like XP boosts that give the player a helping hand, these games have become what can best be termed “freemium.” This freemium model is insanely profitable for games like Fortnite, but that success has started a troubling trend within the gaming industry.

The trajectory of the mobile game market over the last decade is a good, albeit simplified, metaphor for the way big-budget games have been approaching the freemium model as of late. The early 2010s saw the release of some of the most iconic mobile games, including “Angry Birds,” “Cut The Rope” and “Plants vs. Zombies.” These all began as premium titles that required a one-time purchase of a few dollars to play. Sure, there may have been extra ways to spend your money in these games, but for the most part they focused on giving you a full game experience for the price you paid up front. However, upon seeing the success of freemium titles such as “Clash of Clans” or “Candy Crush” on the mobile market, these games adjusted their gameplay models for their respective sequels. “Angry Birds 2” implemented an energy system, meaning that after five attempts players must either wait 30 minutes, watch an ad or pay for another go. “Plants vs. Zombies 2” slowed its progression system by making players collect a certain amount of stars from a series of levels before allowing them to move to the next area, unlike the first title where beating a level meant moving right onto the next one. Of course, this can be made easier by straight up paying your way to the next area, saving you from having to perfect some of the game’s particularly (and suspiciously) hard levels.

Both of these games saw fundamental changes to their gameplay formulas and are arguably worse for it. It’s not fun to have to wait to play or have to pointlessly grind through a level, especially when previous titles had none of these cash-grabbing techniques. Even though they may be free to play, unlike their predecessors, core parts of these games were sacrificed in the name of a freemium model. Now we are seeing a similar shift take place in some of the gaming industry giants, with results that are just as troubling as seen in their mobile brethren. 

My worries about this trend started when Halo — a pillar of the Xbox brand and one of my favorite game series — announced that the multiplayer in their next title, “Halo Infinite,” would be free while the campaign would cost the standard $60. This was a departure from the way mainline Halo games had been sold for the last 20 years, with campaign and multiplayer bundled together as a single, paid package. Although the release date for “Infinite” was set for December 2021, the multiplayer portion was given a surprise release in November — smack dab in the middle of the release of “Call of Duty: Vanguard” and “Battlefield: 2042,” two major (paid) multiplayer games. This was an obvious smack in the face for the other two major franchises — Battlefield’s parent company, EA, has allegedly blamed the game’s poor reception on Halo — but since that initial moment of success it has become clear that this move to free-to-play has had a major impact on the game’s core elements.

Like many of its first-person shooter compatriots, Halo is built around glory. Players are commended for their skill in each game — how well they are able to pull off things such as headshots or multikills. Traditionally these things rewarded players with postgame accommodations that would boost their player level. As their level increased, so did players’ access to cosmetics, namely different pieces of armor to equip their character with. “Halo Infinite” does away with the performance-based experience system, instead making players complete certain weekly objectives to earn XP points. Working to get to the top of the scoreboard or pulling off an insane killstreak feels empty to me now. “Infinite” seems to promote the idea that your time could be better spent focusing on specific tasks such as getting assists or dealing damage with certain weapons rather than playing the game how you want to play it. Of course, these challenges are all optional, as they only serve to unlock armor from a paid battle pass. But when matches are filled with people rushing for certain guns or just leaving the game idle so they can reach a certain number of rounds played, it feels lame to try and compete and play the game the way it’s meant to be played — or at least, the way it used to be. 

When “Infinite” launched, I was excited about being able to jump back into one of my favorite franchises. I’ve been coming back to Halo since those middle school days, back when it was one of the few games that I did own. It felt like developer 343 Industries was preparing to deliver something fresh to the series after a six-year wait since “Halo 5.” I was even happy to see the game would be free to play, as it meant that more of my friends would be able to join in without having to pay the usual $60. I wasn’t alone in my excitement, as “Infinite” had the biggest launch of any Halo game. But it wasn’t long before it became clear that the new things this entry brought to the franchise weren’t all welcome ones. Game modes that were once standard for the series were missing, only to be added as a part of an in-game event focused on unlocking new cosmetics. Other standard content such as co-op campaign and the creative “Forge” mode were absent from launch due to production crunches, but their delay now feels like an intentional part of the drip-feed seasonal model that is popular among other free-to-play titles like Fortnite. The model keeps players coming back and checking the cosmetic shop, but undermines what people have come to expect from a Halo title. Without these once integral parts of the game, “Infinite” feels starved for content, an issue that has been widely lamented. My initial joy with the title has dissipated, leaving me, along with other long-time fans, to wonder how so many of the things I loved about Halo games could have become casualties of the shift to free-to-play.

Thankfully, 343 Industries has started to respond to some of the backlash that has arisen because of these changes. The traditional performance-based XP rewards have been promised to return in a future update, and players are now able to earn in-game premium currency by ranking up their battle pass, making cosmetics from the shop available to those who are already. The changes are steps in the right direction, but I worry that Halo isn’t the only franchise that will alter their game’s identity to become the next freemium behemoth. Recent news of Overwatch 2’s new battle pass design seems to suggest that companies are still convinced they have to join the trend. As tempting — and profitable — as the move to a free-to-play model is, gaming companies must remember the things that make their game great — and not corrupt it at the expense of the player.

Daily Arts Writer Hunter Bishop can be reached at hdbishop@umich.edu.