The free-to-play model has charted an almost meteoric rise over the last five years. And in that time both the number of people playing free-to-play games, and the amount of money the developers are making, has increased. In 2011, a study showed that the amount of money players were spending on casual games was decreasing, yet total spending on online games was increasing. While this study is a few years old now, it shows that as the free-to-play-scene has grown, the casual games market has decreased in favor of more ‘hardcore’ free-to-play titles.
However, even with the ingress of free-to-play games onto the mainstream gaming scene (think League of Legends, Dota 2, Planetside 2, Dust 514) the core market hasn’t changed all that much. Possibly with the exception of more mainstream games now giving you the option of buying extras with real money, similar to free-to-play titles.
So in a way, the main effect free-to-play has brought to the mainstream games market is to make the big publishers realize that they can withhold small in-game bonuses and players will still pay extra for them, even after paying for a $50 game.
In this way, the big franchises are still dominating the market, the Halo’s, Call of Duty’s, Forza’s and plethora of sports games. But despite the state of the market at the moment, we keep hearing that free-to-play is the future, and hey, surely that’s great? More games, for no cost, with more players, hell yeah!
I have some trouble believing that EA’s of the world are ever going to completely roll over and transition entirely into a free-to-play publisher. But the more you look at it, the more evidence you see that, especially with the emergence of the next-gen connectivity, free-to-play may well have an increasing share of the mainstream market in the years to come.
I picked EA as the representative of the behemoth-size publishers of modern AAA games in the above paragraph for a reason. First off, they’ve made some very popular games in the last few years (notably the Dragon Age series), and they’re fairly typical as far as industry greed practices go. But they were also among the first in the industry to adopt free-to-play. FIFA Online 2 is a joint enterprise between EA Singapore and Neowiz games released in 2006 in South Korea. FIFA Online 2 is a free-to-play massively multiplayer online soccer game and runs on the FIFA 2007 game engine.
So is the prevalence of free-to-play set to expand with the emergence of next-gen consoles? In my opinion, it probably will. Now that we’ve started to see the popularity of free-to-play titles on consoles increasing the initial boundary for publishers is closing.
In addition, with the increased social features of the Xbox One and PS4, free-to-play titles become ever more appealing. Playing together is always more fun, and there’s no reason not to join in with a friend if you don’t have to pay to get started.
But despite all of the signs, I don’t think we’ll ever lose the upfront payment model we have at the moment, and there are a few reasons why.
Firstly, the internet. In the constantly connected world inhabited by nerds like me, with Reddit, Twitter, YouTube and a million other websites all constantly feeding you information, it’s easy to forget that there are many thousands of gamers who play without the internet. In fact, most of the worlds population do not have internet access, so physical distribution is a necessity in making gaming available to the majority of the worlds population.
And the problem with distribution is that it costs a lot of money, there’s the raw materials, the company that presses the discs, the shipping to stores, the design and manufacturing of the game box etc.
And with all of these costs being sustained by developers/publishers before release, there’s no way a game could be released physically, for free.
There might be light at the end of the tunnel though. With the introduction of Smart TV’s and on demand streaming services for games, the end of physical game distribution might be on the horizon. Pretty far away on the horizon mind you, but still there.
So my view is that while the end of upfront payment might come to pass, and while free-to-play gaming will certainly continue to thrive and expand well into and beyond the next console generation, we will continue to pay upfront for games as long as your games console is a physical box you have under your TV.