The Future is Apparently Free-to-Play, But is That a Good Thing?

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The future is free, apparently. With stores closing and retail revenues dropping, an increasing number of studios are looking to the free-to-play business model as their saviour. Encouraged by its success on PC and mobile, console devs are now looking to get in on the act. But is that such a good thing? 

Free-to-play games remove the barrier of entry for prospective users, allowing them to play a chunk of content for nothing. Once engaged, the player then has a number of purchasing options with which to supplement the free experience, all of which comes at a price. A combination of free and premium, the model is referred to as freemium.

Freemium has been a huge success. On mobiles and PC, games of this type generate far more revenue than their premium counterparts. From Bejewelled Blitz to Team Fortress 2 and any number of MMOs, the switch away from premium has led to rocketing users, healthy in-game purchases and significantly increased revenue. Put simply, it’s a model that works. 

As such, console developers are starting to sit up and take notice.

Speaking at GDC Taipai last week, Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney said that freemium titles represent the inevitable future of the industry. "We've been building these games like Gears of War where you go into the store and you buy a piece of plastic!,” he said. “You just buy this DVD. That is going to change rapidly.”

He’s not the only one that thinks so. Crysis devs Crytek recently announced their commitment to the freemium model. Very soon, everything they make will be free-to-play. “I think this is a new breed of games that has to happen to change the landscape, and be the most user-friendly business model,” said CEO Cevat Yerli.

The positives are clear. In theory, it means that you’ll never spend $60 on a rubbish game before you’ve even played it. It also reduces the risk for developers who can steadily add to the scope of the game according to popularity. In the best case scenario this leads to more interesting and less risk-averse games. These are all good things.

But is freemium really “the most user-friendly business model”? Not on current evidence.

Freemium games are designed in a completely different way to premium games. Their success rests entirely on their ability to suck you into buying things. Sure they have to be fun, but if you don’t spend any money then the designers have failed. As such, freemium games employ various tactics to encourage you to invest.

This usually means putting the non-paying user at a disadvantage, with less powerful equipment, time caps and content restrictions. The design of such games often means that if you’re willing to spend money you can effectively pay to win. It’s not about skill, or reactions, or problem-solving acumen, it’s about cash. The worst freemium games aren’t really games at all, but skilfully constructed traps.

Super Meat Boy developer Edmund McMillan has even stronger opinions on the subject. In a recent blog post he said, “There is a whole shit load of wrong out there these days, from abusive and manipulative money making tactics, to flat out stealing. 

“To us the core of what is wrong with the mobile platform is the lack of respect for players. It really seems like a large number of these companies out there view their audience as dumb cattle who they round up, milk and then send them on their way feeling empty or at times violated.”

He continued, “Words cannot express how fucking wrong and horrible this is, for games, for gamers and for the platform as a whole. This business tactic is a slap in the face to actual game design and embodies everything that is wrong with the mobile/casual video game scene.”

Harsh words. Yet following the startling success of the model, such behaviour is now set to infect core AAA games. Speaking at a stockholder’s meeting last year, EA CEO John Riccitiello outlined the company’s vision of a free-to-play future. It makes for terrifying reading.

“When you are six hours into playing Battlefield and you run out of ammo in your clip and we ask you for a dollar to reload, you’re really not that price sensitive at that point in time.”

“So essentially what ends up happening, and the reason the play-first, pay-later model works nicely, is a consumer gets engaged in a property. They may spend ten, twenty, thirty, fifty hours in a game. And then, when they’re deep into a game, they’re well invested in it.

Riccitiello continued, “At that point in time the commitment can be pretty high. It’s a great model and it represents a substantially better future for the industry.”

A better future for the industry, perhaps, but certainly not for gamers. Aggressive implementation of the freemium model has already led to consumer outrage in the mobile market, with some publishers - including Capcom - forced to introduce caps on monthly in-game purchases. When a business needs to be regulated in this way, is that good for consumers? Clearly not.

And what about games that don’t lend themselves to the freemium model? Will narrative experiences like Assassin’s Creed charge you to unlock each chapter, weapon, location and mission? Should we prepare to pay to see the story’s final cutscene? Or will non-freemium-friendly game designs simply cease to exist? None of those things are good for the consumer either.

Free-to-play isn’t the answer for everyone. The profits on traditional AAA blockbusters continue to outstrip those of freemium titles. Add in subscription services like Elite and Premium and there’s life in the old model yet. However, the fact remains that we’re going to be seeing a lot more free-to-play games in years to come.

The world of video games is evolving at a hugely accelerated rate and change is good. But when that future threatens the very way in which games are designed, when that future points to ridiculous things like paying to reload, when that future involves exploitative practices, then there’s a very serious problem. 

Console games may be heading towards a free-to-play future, but let’s hope a way is found to make that news as good for gamers as it is for publishers’ bank balances.

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