With full games and DLC it is pretty easy to tell if it is worth it. You either play the game or content yourself to see how long it is firsthand, or read the experiences of others to get a range of lengths (say 20-30 hours). It is then easy to apply the 1 hour per dollar rule (or whatever your personal rule is). On the other hand, free to play games offer an interesting conundrum.
Technically, you do not pay anything to play a free to play game. The bandwidth to download the game may cost some money, installing the game might take some of your free time that could be used for other games (time is money, even free time), but you do not pay anything directly to the developer or publisher to play the game. My little hour per dollar formula falls apart when the dollars are 0 (1/0 is undefined), so it would seem any amount of gameplay you get out of it is “worth” it. Not true.
However, I think most free to play games do have a real cost. That is the cost to advance all the way through the game. Almost all free to play games have some sort of barrier to your progression. The MMORPGs are most notorious for this. Your character might be capable of getting to the max level, but some of the leveling zones are not available unless you pay money. Maybe you cannot kill the monsters without upgrading your item which requires paying real money. Other free to play games can also do this, such as a shooter that requires you to pay to use the best guns.
To get the real cost of a free to play game, you simply look at all the things you would be required to pay to advance fully in the game. For an MMORPG this would be reaching the last level and getting the best items. For a shooter this would be getting to the final rank, and gaining access to all competitive weapons and accessories. If there is any point you have to buy something to progress, you add it to a tally representing the price of this game.
This is easier said than done. Most free to play companies are not clear about what you have to do to progress. They want you to rush into the game blindly, only discovering later that you need to buy something to progress after you have become attached to the game. The store is many times not available unless you create an account, so you cannot easily check how much things cost. I have found the players are the best source for information.
Once you have this cost, you can easily use the hour per dollar formula to see if it stacks up. You will find that many free to play games have a real cost over time to keep up with other players. Usually, you will not have to pay anything until you are halfway through the game or towards the end. You have invested so much time in the game by then it is hard to quit. You want to pay to continue even if it is not a very good deal.
I will always advocate for free to play games that do not have this real cost. Keep the microtransactions to cosmetic changes or gameplay variety, not basic essentials needed to advance in the game. League of Legends is a good example of this. You really only need Heroes, Runes, and Experience.
Experience and IP points are earned from every game finished. Runes and Heroes can be bought with IP points. A person who pays no money can progress all the way level 40, get any Hero they want, and get a full set of the best Runes for that Hero all with no cost. Heroes can also be bought with real money, but that is just more variety. There are also Hero skins for real money, perfectly fine for cosmetics.
A game that does not stack up is World of Tanks. In this game the tanks are classified into roles much like a MMORPG. There are light tanks best for scouting, heavy tanks made for the front line, and more. Within these roles are a variety of tanks to unlock over time. Each tank has ammo as well.
However, there are also Gold tanks and ammo. Gold tank statistics are better in most ways when compared to the freely unlocked tanks. You also get more “points” at the end of games with Gold tanks. Even worse, is Gold ammo which can be combined with Gold tanks for a clear advantage over free players. These special tanks and ammo are only available for real money. At the low levels a free player will do okay just with the free tanks unlocked over time, but to get to the highest ranks and be competitive they must pay real money.
I think there is hope for the future with free to play games. They are slowly becoming more and more like League of Legends. It is perfectly fine for people to pay to get things faster than people that play for free, but there should never be a progression roadblock or competitive advantage for paying money.
For many years free to play games required you to pay as much more than a subscription fee just to advance and stay competitive. They are getting much better now that you can pop in and out of the game casually without feeling like you have to spend money all the time to keep up. I think the future is bright, but we still need to pay attention to make sure we do not get ripped off. There are plenty of companies trying to do that.
Optimal Game Price vs Length is a three part series in which I explain how I compare a game’s cost with its length. In the first article, I wrote how to do this with a full game purchase ($50 or $60 for mainstream games). In the second part, I explained how to do this with DLC.