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The dark side of free-to-play gaming

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On the surface, you can't beat free-to-play games. After all, having access to titles people used to pay $15 a month for without ever having to open your wallet? It sounds too good to be true.

Unfortunately, it often is.

While some free-to-play games live up to the billing, too many take advantage of our inherent desire to save a buck. Instead of paying cash up front (whether it's $60 for a retail game or $1 for an app), you'll often end up paying much, much more on the back end. Or worse, you'll wind up playing a cut-rate version of the game while others have all the bells and whistles. After all, you get what you pay for.

Here are a few things to watch out for:

Free-to-play = Pay to win

If you haven't learned by now that there's no such thing as truly "free" in this world, a free-to-play game will teach you quickly. You'll very likely have to put up with a barrage of advertisements just to get going, but that's an annoyance most people are willing to tolerate in lieu of a lump sum payment.

It's the more subtle fundraising that surprises many, however.

If you want to advance in any real way in a free-to-play game, you'll quickly learn about microtransactions -- small payments for in-game items that help you become more competitive. A buck or two may not seem like much, but over time, you'll find yourself buying more and more items, since not doing so results in your continued death or being left behind by your online friends. Before you know it, you may well have spent more than the game would have cost you had you bought it in the first place.

Disabled features

Just like it's sometimes hard to spot a fake Prada bag, you might be deceived into thinking free-to-play players get the same benefits as those with monthly passes.

Take recent free-to-play conversion DC Universe Online. Folks who opt to pay $15 per month have everything unlocked, but those who opt for the free-to-play version have some serious restrictions. Want an expansion pack? It'll cost you. Planning to create more than 2 characters? Open your wallet. Inventory? You can carry less than half as much as paying players. Auction slots? You get none. You also can't trade items or form a league. In other words, although you can technically play for free, you probably won't really want to play it for very long.

Surprise bills

If you've got a kid playing a free-to-play game on your mobile device, keep a close eye on them -- and your credit card statement.

Similar to microtransactions in other games, these titles make it incredibly easy to buy in-game currency -- often used to eliminate long wait times by instantly refreshing energy used to take turns, for instance -- using real world funds. And often, players can shell out up to $100 for the faux coins without realizing it.

How easy is it for a child to run up a bill? Ask Stephanie Kay, who watched her 8-year old Madison rack up $1,400 in charges while playing "Smurfs Village" on mom's iPad.

Welcome to Jerk Central

Griefers -- players who intentionally and consistently harass other players -- are a problem in every online game, but they really come out of the woodwork when it's free-to-play. It's one thing, after all, to put a lot of money into building a character simply to terrorize other people. But when it doesn't cost them much (if anything), griefers will just create new accounts even after they've been banned by the game's administrators.

They might come looking for the person who got them in trouble in the first place, or they might find someone new to annoy. Either way, it's a breeding ground for gamers with annoying habits.

Land of confusion

When you're playing for free, it probably won't come as a shock that customer service isn't that interested in helping you out. After all, those agents have to get paid themselves, and wasting time on freeloaders doesn't earn anyone anything. Instead, players are often just advised to check the forums if they're confused about game rules or tech issues.

That's easy enough for some core gamers, but new and casual players (who the publisher might be trying to upsell to a paying subscription) often find the forums confusing and/or hostile. And rather than digging deep to find out what they know, they give up entirely.

Here today. Gone tomorrow?

Free-to-play games are a lot like casinos. They depend on a few high-paying customers (called whales) to foot the bill for everyone. If a title can't do that, the game disappears. Just ask players of Lego Universe, which shut its doors last month after failing to "convert a satisfactory number of players to paying subscribers." If you plan on playing a free-to-play game and not spend a dime, don't be surprised if it doesn't last long.

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