Walking away from a Free-to-Play time sink

It’s been a whole year since I posted this: Why I’m still playing Star Trek Timelines and what makes it a great Free-to-Play example, and now I’ve walked away. How does it feel to leave a game I’ve spent 3 years playing on a daily basis? How invested was I? Why did I quit? Do I take back anything I wrote a year ago?

A quick recap of Star Trek Timelines

Look at all the crew I've collected, and all the blank spaces that I would ache to fill.
My archive of characters. Frozen are archived, silhouettes are characters I haven’t found and the rest show my progress in levelling them.

The game revolves around collecting and growing your crew of Star Trek characters. You choose crew for missions, completing which rewards you with the resources to train your crew. There are story missions which are nodes of text boxes, and ship-to-ship battles which are very dull. But with over 300 crew members to collect and limited space to store them, the game for me became about collecting everyone, raising to max level and archiving them so I could collect more.

How invested was I?

I was playing this every day. Every. Single. Day. 3 times a day too, morning commute, lunchtime and evening commute. I was waiting for timers to end to start them up again, I was buying the monthly subscription to earn hard currency for a weekly character pack and I was actively part of a fleet, the first time I’ve ever actively participated in any kind of multiplayer clan feature.

Then there was my spreadsheet. 

A massive spreadsheet
I do like spreadsheets ?

I would add and update each character as changes occurred. I’d set up filters and functions to make it quick and easy to update, and had Google Forms tied in so I update it on the go. I even have graphs showing my bottlenecks!

But I’ll be honest, it’s the spreadsheet that kept me going. I built it before the game had itself a way of logging your collection, and maintained it for a couple of years. Fulfilling this spreadsheet, maxing out all the characters I could and collecting them all was my goal.

So why did I quit?

My girlfriend and I went to Japan, and I intentionally stopped playing while I was there. I wanted to focus on seeing a whole new place and enjoying a romantic trip. So I told my fleet I’d be away for a few weeks and hopped on a plane. I thought I’d go back.

Now I’m not going to pretend this was some kind of “freeing” moment. There was no grand light from the heavens relieving me of my burdens, nor was I anxiously missing the game, my finger hovering over the app icon, sweat dripping onto the screen as I tried with all my will to resist its pull.

No, I quit for one simple reason: It’s never going to end. I’m never going to collect them all. There are characters that are locked to premium content and it’s completely random to get them. And then if I ever did, I wouldn’t feel any accomplishment for it, the next week would introduce new characters to hope to get. It would never end. I was stuck in the loop – the central, core gameplay loop that a free-to-play game must have. I was hooked, and I enjoyed it.

How do I feel about quitting?

I’m fine. Have you heard of Audible? Fantastic for cycling to work. Or you can buy a phone mount for said bike and play Pokemon Go on your commute. There are plenty of other games and activities out there that bring me joy.

Do I regret anything from my previous post?

I ended my last post with this:

“And like most free-to-play games, as long as you only think about each session as you play, it feels valuable. […] but when you start to consider the game over the long term, you begin to question what value it gives you. Is it entertaining? An I enjoying this, or am I being manipulated? Does it matter?”

Rinse and repeat free-to-play gameplay
The same thing over and over and over again…

At the time I had decided that I was having fun, I was being entertained. More by my own goals than the mechanics of the game, but I was entertained all the same. I still think STT is a great example of what makes a successful free-to-play game and I don’t regret anything I said. All the pros and cons are still there – and that’s part of the problem. They’ve added some new features, but they haven’t added any fun, and that’s why I’ve decided to move on.

I still believe in the free-to-play model. For some developers, it’s a great constraint and I’ve seen some interesting games make use of the model. It’s also freeing for players, who can choose many different genres and games without cost, trying something new every day. I’ve had my time with Star Trek Timelines though, and rather than playing a game that feels like work, I’d rather enjoy the new golden age on mobile.

The sky’s the limit.