There’s a new business model in the games industry, one which has only come to prominence in recent years. It’s called “Free To Play.”  As I’ve demonstrated in the past, this name is a bit of a misnomer, particularly if one doesn’t keep careful track of their spending.

Although this payment model hasn’t quite caught on in the realm of console gaming, it’s gained a great deal of prominence on PCs, smartphones, and tablets. Currently, some of the most popular games online are available to the player free of charge, supported by advertising revenue, micro-transactions, or some combination of the two. Unfortunately, this has led to some rather severe problems.

Pay To Win

See, as with any business model, there exists a very large camp of organizations that don’t exactly understand how free to play is supposed to work.  These developers, either consciously or unconsciously, bungle things up so thoroughly that their games are effectively unplayable without shelling out your hard-earned cash. As a result of their greed or ignorance, their games ultimately end up being a complete waste of time. Sometimes, the level of sleaze is bad enough that you might feel the need for a hot shower after playing.

Today, I’d like to share with you a few common traits shared by virtually every poorly-designed free-to-play title in existence. Learn to recognize them, and you’ll save yourself time, effort, and enjoyment. Most importantly, you’ll probably save yourself quite a bit of cash, too.

The Servers Suffer from a Heavy Spambot Infestation

While it certainly doesn’t guarantee that the game you’re playing is a thinly-veiled cash grab, a title infested with spambots and hackers is definitely a warning sign. This could signify that the developer cares little about their title, save that it might make them a quick buck or two. That said, it could simply indicate that there’s a higher-than-average population of bots targeting the players. If you’re seeing a constant influx of players with such charming handles as “Xnf3fi3SRRReeeeee” bellowing offers of free gold, powers, or gear, and no one appears to be doing anything about it, don’t uninstall just yet. Simply approach with caution.

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There’s a Plethora of Bugs and Glitches which are never really patched out

To me, this is a much clearer indicator that the developer’s just in it for the money. A lot of the worst perpetrators of the ‘pay to win’ camp of game development are actually rather terrible at game design, and it shows. Their games tend to be riddled with more bugs than an ant farm, and glitches often take months to be patched if the developer bothers to address them at all. Try doing a bit of homework, and asking other users about any problems you’ve noticed (or simply do a Google search for the game’s community forums). If the game you’ve stumbled into is a poorly-disguised moneymaking scam, it should very quickly become clear.

The Shop Contains a Large Selection of Exclusive Gear or Power Ups

Most free to play titles include a digital storefront of some kind. Properly-designed ones such as League of Legends or Team Fortress 2 tend to only use that store to sell cosmetic upgrades, convenience items, or special perks. Pay-to-win games, on the other hand, will pepper their store with over-the-top gear or power-ups designed to create a wide gulf between free players and paying players. In games like this, there’s no way to win unless you’re willing to pay.

You Notice Some Ridiculously High Prices In The Shop

Are you seeing in-game gear for upwards of $30.00? Are there exclusive items all around that’ll set you back hundreds? If so, you could be embroiled in a pay-to-win scenario. Of course, it’s equally as likely that the developer of the game you’re playing simply doesn’t understand the concept behind microtransactions. As such, I’d put this warning sign in the same camp as spambots. It should raise a few red flags, but it shouldn’t immediately make you turn tail and uninstall.

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It Starts Out Fun, But Gets Boring/Extremely Difficult Very Fast

I may make a few enemies by saying this, but I hate Candy Crush Saga. If you were to write a guide on how to design the sleaziest, most underhanded cash-grab in mobile gaming, this game would be featured front and center. Oh sure, it starts out enjoyably enough, with plenty of Bejeweled-esque puzzley goodness to keep you entertained. Unfortunately, this initial sense of joy only lasts for a short while before Zynga ham-fistedly craps all over it. Eventually, the game hits you with so many ridiculous challenges and arbitrary restrictions, it becomes virtually impossible to win without paying. The difficulty curve turns, without warning, into a difficulty cliff…but the developer’s perfectly willing to sell you some metaphorical rock-climbing gear, for a small premium.

If a game starts getting incredibly frustrating, difficult, or just downright unfair, that might just be poor design. However, if it allows you to pay to make things easier? It’s basically shaking you down. Do yourself a favor, and get rid of it.

You’re Pestered To Pay

A few months back, I decided to give Neverwinter a try. I loved almost everything about the game for the first few hours. The graphics were gorgeous, the character classes were unique and entertaining to play, and the combat was top-notch. Unfortunately, one of the things that ultimately killed the experience for me was the shoddy means by which Cryptic and Perfect World implemented micro-transactions. Every few minutes, I was receiving a prompt about some awesome item someone unlocked by paying. Every hour or so, I’d receive a few drops which were unusable unless I paid something. Every time I used the crafting mechanic, I was reminded, indirectly, that I could pay to speed things up.

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It got tiresome fast.

If a game tries to make you reach for your wallet every five minutes, walk away.