Free-to-play is without a doubt the greatest challenge to the traditional retail model that the games industry has ever faced. It brings a whole new set of challenges and opportunities to both developers and players.
It’s also a model that’s become hugely popular as players realize they can get something for nothing, and developers and publishers realize that if your product is compelling enough, people will pay for the microtransactions. It also allows production values to be lower, as the player doesn’t feel cheated out of their money — because they’re not paying any.
However, one of the limitations of free-to-play is that up until now, it’s been a mainly PC affair, with the likes of League of Legends, World of Tanks and Airmech being staples. But that might be set to change.
CCP, the makers of space-based MMO EVE Online, are releasing the PS3 exclusive Dust 514, a free-to-play MMOFPS which hit open beta earlier this year. Dust 514 is a grand departure from the standards of some previous free-to-play titles. It’s not a small budget game, designed by a few people in a shed somewhere; CCP are a professional team. While you may not have heard of them, they’ve been quietly running one of the biggest MMOs around for nearly 10 years.
Dust 514 has had a lot of press over the last few months, and for good reason. It’s set in the same universe as EVE Online, and I don’t just mean that they share lore. The two games, despite running on separate formats and being of very different genres, also share servers.
The games co-exist, each game affecting events within the other. The servers were officially linked on the 10th of January in closed beta before the launch of the open beta on the 22nd.
EVE’s players are able to offer contracts to Dust 514 players. The contracts reward Dust 514 players with ISK, both games’ currency, and the results of the Dust 514 matches affect the balance of power within the star systems of EVE. This can change their sovereignty, majorly affecting the balance of power within the EVE economy.
As groundbreaking and interesting as all this sounds, what does it have to do with free-to-play? Well, this kind of cross-game innovation, especially for Dust 514, would never be possible without the free-to-play model.
As a modern console FPS, CCP are pitching Dust 514 into an already saturated market. A studio with no FPS experience would be crazy to release a product into a market containing Halo, Battlefield and Call of Duty without giving their product an edge. Look at what happened to Medal of Honor.
For CCP, free-to-play is that edge. Think about this: Dust 514 is a deeply innovative game. That gets a lot of people talking, but who’s going to go out and spend £45 on an FPS that they can’t play with their friends? And it’s this issue of playing together which is set to become more and more of an important point — especially as gaming becomes more and more mainstream over the next five to ten years.
So your girlfriend/mother/friend/sister likes games. Great! But they could very well like completely different games to you. Case in point, my mother loves Bejeweled. (Whose mother doesn’t? — Pete) Because I don’t really play Bejeweled I’ve missed to opportunity to bond with her over the games she likes.
And it’s this issue which the increasing interconnectedness of games will combat. You love EVE but your brother only loves FPS? Now you can play different games, together. And if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that games are more fun when played together. Anyone who’s ever played World of Warcraft can attest to this. The theory of inter-game connectivity, for which Dust is a major pioneer, will help bring us closer to other people who love games — even if the things they love aren’t the same as the things we love.
CCP have used this idea of bringing varied parts of the community together in one game, using two games. It neatly sidesteps the issue of being unable to play with your friends, because you can play with friends who like FPS as well as your friends who like MMOs. And it’s free.
This wouldn’t work for Dust 514 without being free-to-play. There’s not quicker way to kill a mutiplayer-only game than to make it empty of players. By making Dust free, the low barrier of entry into the game guarantees it at least a modest player base on release.
The almost non-existent barrier to entry for a free-to-play model is another good reason for CCP to choose it over a more traditional distribution mode. As a game which interacts with an MMO, and specifically one as complex as EVE Online, there are some special considerations.
The economy of the EVE universe is driven entirely by player transactions, and that economy forms the backbone of all systems of worth within the game. It’s not like World of Warcraft where you can collect badges to trade for better raid gear, or where items have a ‘GearScore’ for easy comparison. No, in EVE, there’s just money. Maybe they should call it €V€?
And as Dust is brought into that economy, it will change. First of all, the market needs to decide on a value for the contracts. What are people willing to pay? What are people expecting to be paid? This applies to both sides of the equation, the Dust players as well as the EVE players. After the market stabilises a value system will be created.
In order for a stable market to be created, EVE players have to be able to rely on Dust players to take and complete contracts. That requires a large player base, which in the current shooter market, is best achieved through free-to-play.
My advice to everyone out there with a PS3 is to take advantage of the open beta and jump right in. So if you want to try a groundbreaking MMOFPS with deep customisation then you could do a lot worse than trying Dust 514. Regardless of whether it turns out to be a good, successful game in the long term, it may well mark a turning point in gaming, and that’s definitely worth being a part of.
FreePlay is Games Are Evil’s weekly column about games that cost you nothing to download and get started with, hosted by multimedia journalism student and professional cheapskate Ed Prosser.