The Rise of Free-to-Play: How the revenue model changed games and playing

Research output: Book/ReportDoctoral thesisCollection of Articles


Free-to-play games have permanently transformed the game industry. Offering a game for free and gaining income through voluntary purchases during gameplay have proven to be the most successful way to gain revenue. Due to the model, more people than ever before play games, and the economic significance of games as business has multiplied. Simultaneously, the model has received a backlash for offering inferior, imbalanced game experiences that take advantage of players, manipulating them into playing and paying.

Despite the criticism and changes in game experiences, the research on free-to-play games is still heavily focused on economic aspects, with the goal to maximize revenue and find the best practices by which to implement the model. The voices of players are measured mostly through log data or quantitative surveys, while exploratory, qualitative research has been in the minority. The significance of free-to-play games and their connection to our game culture and society are still lacking critical inspection.

This dissertation takes up the challenge by studying free-to-play games from various perspectives through multiple methods, concentrating on qualitative approaches. The work shows the broad view of how and why free-to-play games have become so successful, how they have transformed games, and what problematic aspects are connected to them. The main claims of this dissertation are connected to: 1) the undervaluation of free-to-play games; 2) the unique challenges between money and gameplay experience; 3) the different framings of fairness and equality; 4) the need for transparency and legislation; and 5) the transformative power of free-to-play games on the consumption and creation of games.

The results show that while free-to-play games are played extensively, they are less valued than other games. This is especially true with mobile or casual free-to-play games and is descriptive of how we appraise and evaluate games. The lack of appreciation is connected to the nature of many free-to-play games, which are often never-ending and slow-paced, and offer challenges that differ from other games. The experiences that these games offer are different from the traditional, meritocratic values we have come to expect from games, and especially allowing advancement with money is in direct conflict with these values. The devaluation is shown in how the games are discussed, how they are reviewed (or not reviewed at all) by game journalists, and how they are studied. The players who engage with these games can also be excluded from gaming communities and gaming identities. At the same time, the challenges of the revenue model have resulted in new, creative solutions that bring diversity into game experiences and offer flexible playing for wider audiences.

The ethical issues connected to free-to-play games do need to be taken seriously. Problems connected to a lack of transparency, problematic playing, a resemblance to gambling, marketing to under-aged players, and privacy issues raise valid concerns. While free-to-play companies need to be especially mindful in giving players enough information and to implement tools to prevent accidental purchases and problematic playing, the industry also needs regulation that comes from outside itself. Thus, to create fair and functional legislation, we need academic and industry expertise in the committees doing the legislative work.

Despite the challenges and undervaluation that free-to-play games encounter, it is an indisputable fact that their impact on the game industry and on game consumption is both formidable and irreversible. They therefore deserve our attention and a critical exploration as a legitimate part of game culture. If you do not know free-to-play games, you do not know games.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationTampere, Finland
Number of pages262
ISBN (Electronic)978-952-03-1774-4
Publication statusPublished - 2020
Publication typeG5 Doctoral dissertation (articles)

Publication series

NameTampere University Dissertations - Tampereen yliopiston väitöskirjat
ISSN (Print)2489-9860
ISSN (Electronic)2490-0028


  • free-to-play
  • freemium
  • digital games
  • revenue models
  • design
  • experience
  • attitudes
  • fairness
  • ethics


Dive into the research topics of 'The Rise of Free-to-Play: How the revenue model changed games and playing'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this