FreePlay: The Spiritual Home of Free Games

Rome Total War 2 was released this week, and players all over the world began building their empires. Empires fall however, and their fall can be swift and sudden like the Roman Empire or long and drawn out like the British and Ottoman Empires.

We’ve long come to accept the dominance of the great PC Empire as the one-device-fits-all solution to our daily needs in terms of work, entertainment, relaxation, procrastination and everything in between.

However, with the release of a new console generation and the increasing complexity of smartphones, tablets, and smartwatches we face a time of major transition. And it’s not gone unnoticed by the big industry players. It’s unquestionable that free-to-play is here to stay, and will play a major role in the shape of the games industry in the coming years.

Games on phones and especially tablets have been taking graphics, gameplay, and quality features usually seen only on consoles and the PC, up a few notches.

Games on phones and especially tablets have been taking graphics, gameplay, and quality features usually seen only on consoles and the PC, up a few notches.

The real question about the future of free-to-play games is where? Free games will always exist on PC’s as long as there are websites like Kongregate and Newgrounds, but it’s been a long time since these were at the cutting edge.The platforms with the most free-to-play games at the moment are mobile formats, the smartphones and tablets which have become part of our everyday lives. Then there’s the new console generation, and the potential expansion in free-to-play games there.

Many of the games announced for next-gen consoles feature additional gameplay modes or elements purely for smartphones or tablets. Battlefield 4 has the commander mode, where players with tablets can launch air and artillery strikes against enemy locations as well as issuing order to the troops on the ground. Destiny, from Halo developer Bungie, has features which run independently on your smartphone.

Watch Dogs allows other players to assist you by affecting the game world around you. In a similar way, The Division allows players with tablets to play as a remote drone, assisting players by identifying enemies, healing allies and so on.

The FPS already moved from PC to console, and mobile tie-ins are well on the way.

The FPS already moved from PC to console, and mobile tie-ins are well on the way.

All of these are big budget AAA games, which are being played (at least in part) on mobile devices. While we have seen an expansion of free-to-play games on consoles, there haven’t been any major successes, and whilst we are seeing free-to-play games coming out on the next-gen consoles, I wonder how much success they will have.

Free-to-play games are a strange beast. They have a history closely tied to the PC and indie games, but today they are most common on mobile devices and moving towards the mainstream as AAA on both consoles and PC’s. I wonder: willthe slow decline of the PC will force more developers of free-to-play games towards developing for mobile devices?

An undeniable fact, though, is that with the increasing sophistication of tablets and smartphones more games which we would traditionally see on other platforms will be released for them, and with the platform of mobile devices already so much more suited to the accoutrements of free-to-play platforms (advertising, micro-transactions, social network integration etc.) it seems like a natural fit for developers to choose.

As far as seeing AAA developers on mobile devices goes, it’s already begun. We frequently see free-to-play spin-off games of popular franchises on our appstores although these are frequently outsourced designs. Blizzard’s Hearthstone however, is developed by Blizzard and although is planned initially for a PC only release there is an iPad version in development which is planned to follow in the months after the PC release (although Blizzard’s perception of time seems to be on par with Valve’s).

Blizzard's free-to-play digital CCG's interface already looks designed and optimized for a tablet.

Blizzard’s free-to-play digital CCG’s interface already looks designed and optimized for a tablet.

Ultimately, games will triumph if they are made with care, and released where there is a market for them. And if there’s one thing there’s always a market for, it’s free stuff. I think that the future of the free-to-play games scene is the diversification of the types of games we see, whilst we see less variety on individual platforms.

For example, the subscription-free MMO Guild Wars 2 (admittedly not 100% free-to-play, but you catch my drift) could only exist in a PC environment. Candy Crush is the ultimate example of a free-to-play mobile game, lots of social network integration, a large players base, and potential advertising space galore.

This lack of diversity on individual platforms isn’t necessarily bad. Games which work well on the platforms they are designed for will be better for the players, make more money for developers and keep the flow of free games coming!

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