The free-to-play future

When I started writing about video games, I discovered free-to-play/microtransaction games. I thought it was a very interesting idea. It can be fun to explore a game that is free to download and play, while being supported by in-game purchases.

South Korea is one of the biggest free-to-play nations in the world, with companies releasing free-to-play games supported by microtransactions. The exploding mobile market in the United States quickly adopted this model, with many iOS and Android developers releasing free-to-play game apps. Some companies’ entire catalogs consist of free-to-play titles. Now, the word “microtransaction” has recently been replaced with “in-app purchase.”

The success of the free-to-play model has expanded into social games since then. Now both developers and publishers are accepting the model for many multiplayer games.  It looks like free-to-play is becoming a dominant and accepted force in mobile gaming.

Are free-to-play games going to replace the triple-A title?
Moving to free-to-play

Crytek, the company behind Crysis, announced that they were going to transition from large titles to the free-to-play model after they completed their current contracts. Their first game using the free-to-play model, Warface, is a first person shooter using CryENGINE 3, the same engine behind Crysis 3. I played it at Game Developers Conference 2012 and was impressed with the quality of the game, but only experienced gameplay and not any in-game purchases.

Star Wars: The Old Republic revealed that it would be transitioning to a free-to-play model this fall. World of Warcraft has a starter edition where you can play to level 20 for free. Lord of the Rings Online also transitioned to the free-to-play model.

The massive multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG) genre is experiencing the most rapid change. In the past, many players would pay for the initial price of the game and pay a monthly subscription fee. Newer games can provide quality visuals, lots of gameplay, and still offer the game for “free.”

Companies like Nexon have embedded themselves into the free-to-play space long before Western companies started considering the model. Since South Korea is primarily a PC market and tend to market their games to players in PC cafes, they were able to flourish. Many of these Korean companies have moved into Western markets, releasing games that were launched years before. This delay gave them time to translate, re-design gameplay, and include previous updates for Western audiences.

League of Legends by Riot Games! is a title that was designed expertly to use microtransactions as a free-to-play game, for example, and newer games are illustrating how developers are smarter than their big brother brethren when it comes to game development.

American companies are seeing the potential returns on free-to-play games, and it’s not a surprise that many online games are adopting this model.

Mobile is a shrinking frontier

The Apple App Store and Google Play offer the best examples of free-to-play games. iOS showed that, early on, paid apps were usually worth the money. Early games like Canabalt and Doodle Jump offered simple, but addictive, gameplay.

The market for paid and free apps survived for a decent amount of time. Game developers released paid and free versions of their games and they generally did well. In the past couple years though, the free-to-play game started becoming the standard.

City building games, store manager games, and casino-style games exploded on both app stores. Offering a deep gameplay experience, highlighted by either waiting for more “energy” to perform tasks or spending real cash to buy extra energy, these games pushed monetization after the first five minutes. It was surprising that these kinds of games lasted as long as they did.

More recently, games built on resource management have dwindled. Users are looking for other kinds of games that don’t push spending money so quickly. But microtransactions are becoming a lot more common in other game genres.

Dead Trigger is a good example. It was originally a paid app, but due to piracy it was converted to a free-to-play game. When playing though, it was obvious the game was built with a strong base for required in-app purchases. After the first couple levels, you were stripped of your powerful rifle and lamely tossed a pistol with the option to purchase higher powered weapons with in-game currency.

Mobile games have taken a noticeable dive from even just a year ago. There aren’t many that present anything original and the mainstay publishers are releasing games that use the same recycled gameplay models. The mobile game space has become stagnant and will require scrutiny of development-to-monetization strategies for new games to be successful.

Games for Android and iOS are going to have to evolve very quickly to remain relevant and not fall into a endless cycle of clones.

Free-to-play is the future

The free-to-play genre has had growing pains. While Asia has been successfully producing these types of games for quite some time, the Western market is still attempting to successfully market this model. MMORPGs probably have the greatest success when changing gameplay elements, but mobile games are using the same model repeatedly and users have caught on. Social games have fallen in popularity and there hasn’t been another big trend for mobile gaming yet.

Developers building games with the free-to-play model need to stop applying this monitization strategy to the design phase of a game. Creating a game with monetization as the top priority will result in failure. Treating the player as a commodity for profit-only will eventually result in backlash.

While triple-A titles should never adopt the free-to-play model, there is room for open experimentation. Many multiplayer PC games can thrive with free-to-play rather than the old subscription system. Make a game that contains what players are looking for and apply the free-to-play model where it’s logical.

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