With the European Commission being concerned that “Games advertised as ‘free’ should not mislead consumers about the true costs involved” there’s a bit of kerfuffle over whether the phrase “free to play” is a perfectly clear description of a game that can be played (to some extent) for free, or a misleading veil drawn over an inevitable cash shop of some sort. It’s easy to forget, amidst its current ubiquity, that the phrase “free-to-play” is actually rather recent, coined in 2007 by Ian Free-to-play, but it has rapidly supplanted other models like Shareware (invented by Ian Shareware) and Adware (invented by Bob Holness during the sessions for Baker Street, between saxophone solos).
Delving further back into the past, it’s not too hard to find similar controversies over terminology. The earliest references are probably ostraca from Giza that, though fragmentary, seem to record exchanges between Pharaoh Khufu and his vizier Hemiunu, starting with the latter promising that “… a magnificent pyramid may be constructed, and the treasury of the kingdom shall not need to be depleted to fund this endeavour.” It’s not known if Khufu was influenced by the accompanying hieroglyphs of scantily clad maidens entreating him to “Come Build, My Lord”, but he was clearly delighted with the rapid speed at which plans were drawn up and foundations dug. As construction continued the Pharaoh became increasingly unhappy with the length of time the project was taking, a later note from Heminu assuring him that: “… of course construction shall continue without a single copper deben being invested, my initial assurance is entirely correct in that respect, however the next layer of stones may be put in place almost immediately should you make available nine hundred sacks of grain for hiring further masons and slave overseers.” A similarly dated ostracon indicated that an order for 1100 sacks of grain would grant the purchaser a bonus 150 sacks, but the Best Value option was 3500 sacks of grain with a whopping 600 bonus sacks.
Somewhat later, Dr Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language records:
“FREECOST n. ∫. [free and co∫t] Without expence; free from charges.
We muſt not vouch any man for an exact maſter in the rules of our modern policy, but ſuch a one as has brought himſelf ſo far to hate and deſpiſe the abſurdity of being kind upon freecoſt, as not ſo much as to tell a friend what it is o’clock for nothing, nor to permit him to gain experience points leſt at a much reduced rate”
Unwary coffee shop patrons such as Johnson himself would often be lured with a cry of “Come hither and MANIPULATE the sugar-preserved fruit ‘pon this TABLE for FREECOST”, but after five minutes the Freecostermonger would whisk a cloth over the table exclaiming “Nay, sirrah! You shall not proceed further lest THREE of your friends VOUCHSAFE that you may CONTINUE, or you may give me SIXPENCE and proceed FORTHWITH”
As the idea of mechanical computation took hold in the 19th century, so too did various payment models. Rather than employ a clerk as a human computer, paying a monthly wage (or indeed “subscription”), de Colmer’s arithmometer promised “… COMPUTATIONS* at NO FURTHER COST, for as long as your ARM has strength to CRANK”, though digging in to the small print revealed “(* basic model allows for addition only, subtraction available to preferred customers, preferred customers may multiply or divide five times per week or purchase a TimesOver season pass)”.
The real breakthrough would have been Charles Babbage’s analytical engine, had the technology of the time been up to actually building it; glimpses of its potential can be seen in Ada Lovelace’s notes on her translation of Menabrea’s Sketch of The Analytical Engine:
“[…] it might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine. Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent. Operations cards capable, when combined with appropriate cards of variables, of the composition of short and simple musical pieces might be made available at no cost, so as to entice and intrigue, with a charge then levied upon cards that would engage the mechanism so as to compose longer and more elaborate forms, perhaps coloured green, blue and purple to indicate yet more prized attributes, offered for sale as a package containing a random selection of operation and variable cards within a plain wrapper, thus offering a tantalising air of excitement to the transaction.”
It took another hundred years for computers, as we know them, to start to appear. Colossus at Bletchley Park was the first programmable electronic computer, designed to break ‘Tunny’, traffic encoded by Lorenz cipher machine, and it must have been tremendously exciting to see the results of a successful run, plain text appearing letter by letter on the teletype: “3. PANZERGRUPPE UMZUSCHICHTEN NACH SORRY YOU HAVE EXCEEDED YOUR DAILY DECRYPTION ALLOWANCE PLEASE PURCHASE MORE TURING-ENERGY TO CONTINUE…”
Briefly serious aside: while writing that I heard the news of the death of Jerry Roberts, one of the Tunny codebreakers; it doesn’t seem terribly appropriate to dedicate a light-hearted bit of fluff, but it’s worth taking a bit of time to read up on the incredible work of Captain Roberts and the others at Bletchley Park.