Mostly ignored by the current console generation, free-to-play could yet shake things up when Xbox and PS4 arrive, says Marcus Mac Dhonnágain
As we now enter the very tail end of the current console generation, we’re beginning to learn more about the capabilities of next-gen hardware and can perhaps start to speculate on economic models that will be used by developers in the near future. The 360 and PS3 era saw many changes to how games were monetized. The likes of DLC, downloadable XBLA and PSN titles have changed the gaming landscape. However, one of the largest innovations in gaming – the free-to-play business model – has never been fully explored on the consoles.
Though there are a handful of examples of console titles that are free-to-play; the number is small when compared to those on the PC. With next-gen consoles on the horizon, how will these new devices incorporate f2p games and, furthermore, what wider impact could they have on the console sector going forward?
22Cans founder Peter Molyneux recently said that f2p allows developers to produce games that are completely different from traditional AAA titles.
Molyneux said, “If you think of console games as the equivalent of films – you go to the cinema, you watch it, consume it, you’re done with it – that’s what I think console games are like. I think free-to-play games are more like TV series. You watch a TV series for half an hour or 40 minutes, wait for a period of time then watch another one. That’s more like what free-to-play is.”
Other developers have also spoken out about free-to-play, and what it could mean for the next Xbox and PS4. Speaking to OXM, Spartacus Legends producer Josh Mast said that Microsoft will take notice of the new model.
“Free-to-play games have done a great job of disrupting other platforms like mobile, and I think it’s only a matter of time before we see them hit it big on consoles”, Mast said. “It wasn’t too long ago that developers started extending the lifetime of a game by releasing new DLC and once Microsoft saw that players were excited for it they put a lot of support behind DLC on Xbox Live, and we now design games with that in mind from the beginning.”
The f2p market has been hugely successful on PC, with the likes of Valve (Dota 2) and Riot (League of Legends) showing how profitable it can be. It will be interesting to see then how influential it could become on next-gen hardware – and what implications that could have on traditional AAA titles. Though the traditional retail model will surely survive for next-gen, could it again be altered in how it sells itself?
The success of Call of Duty has led many traditional single-player franchises to incorporate multiplayer modes, which allowed them to further monetize games. With f2p, however, will this still be the case? Will we continue to see the standard AAA franchises dominate, and with them their DLC models? Would someone pay full retail price for an online game when they could simply download a dozen other for free?
Not only that, but will f2p see the further empowerment of the independent sector? Indie and mid-tier publishers might opt to lower their costs by simply producing online games. Indies tend to thrive in the online space, while mid-tier developers have recently struggled to stay afloat. Perhaps f2p will give them both an avenue to stay competitive in a cost-effective manner. By having as few barrier-to-entries as possible, they can offer equally impressive online experiences to customers – thus giving them more options. As a consequence, this may very well take away from the sales of the juggernaut franchises.
If this were to occur, how could companies respond? F2P requires a large time commitment from players. The model makes them value their account this way, as it makes sure they’re constantly striving to reach a new goal, which in turn always giving them a payment option of some sort. This could rob the likes of Call of Duty and Battlefield of their audience, and make AAA less relevant when it comes to the online space. As a result, we could see a shift back to an emphasis being placed on innovative single-player experiences to entice the boxed-copy consumer.
Not all games work with f2p, especially single-player titles. With heavy competition for multiplayer, perhaps publishers will try to instead focus on developing expanded single-player games, while developing online f2p spinoffs. Take Dragon Age 3 as an example. If BioWare were to produce the traditional campaign people have come to expect, it could release it as a boxed copy. At the same time, however, it could also have another team work on a free online spinoff supported by Mass Effect 3-esque microtransactions.
Whatever shape f2p may take on next-gen consoles, it will have an impact on consumer behaviour, playing habits as well as their expectations. Who knows what larger impact that could have on the industry as a whole?
Follow Marcus on Twitter: @M_M_DH