Even a short few years ago the idea of downloading a game like Candy Crush for completely free was a mostly unheard of practice. Today a plethora of titles particularly Massively Multiplayer Online games and those released on to mobile platforms offer themselves up for free electing to sell players optional extra’s later via micro transactions – a sort of extended demo, the so called Freemium pay model. Freemium’s growing usage is thanks in no small part to the rise in popularity of social networks like Facebook and smartphone platforms where they thrive. Even monolithic publishers like EA have begun experimenting with free to play mechanics applying them into home console releases; recent titles including Dead Space 3 and Mass Effect 3 have included optional micro transactions. Despite its success the movement has found itself the victim of harsh critical backlash from traditional gamers, the group that is least partial to straying from traditional onetime payment models.
To understand the success of free to play models and their current upward trajectory you must first realise that gamers; therefore the market, are split primarily into two very distinct audiences – the so called core and casual. The core are traditional gamers, typically opting for devoted gaming hardware like PC’s and consoles as their preferred platforms; they rarely have more than a fleeting interest in either MMO or mobile. Regularly buying numerous games a year ranging from blockbusters to smaller indie titles they are the market whom publishers traditionally target. On the other hand are the casual, they’re pretty much everyone else, those who don’t devote tens of hours to exploring Skyrim. They primarily game on devices they own for other purposes, like smartphones, tablets or Facebook. This audience rarely buys devoted gaming machines unless they can offer something unique – like Wii’s motion control, PS2’s DVD player or Xbox360’s Kinect. The two groups are polarised on almost every front: including free to play.
Free to play’s rise in prominence is easily attributed to the increasing number of casual gamers – the relation is distinct. Years ago there was no casual audience, gaming was something only the enthusiastic core did – no one’s mom bought a NES (*ahem* apart from mine). The advent of the internet and mobile phones changed that, suddenly games were accessible; anyone could play them as a mere side effect of owning another device. Even the ancient, by today standards, Nokia phones foretold this eventuality, after all who didn’t play snake? Later still Facebook started offering up games, in unprecedented volumes people who’d never bought a console in their lives started playing Bejewelled against their friends online. What did these games have in common? They were all free as part of a device bought for other reasons.
They were free for an obvious reason too, because they had to be. Think about it, imagine trying to sell the average person a £40/ $60 retail game on top of a devoted video game console, it’s a hard sell- yet, for core gamers that’s fine. Now imagine they’ve already bought a smartphone for another purpose, following the traditional model selling them Candy Crush for £10/$15 would still be very hard. You could perhaps get them to buy it if you utilized a Trojan horse, say like offering it for free. Trojan horse tactics are powerful tools, just look at Nintendo Wii. Initially Nintendo targeted the core who showed the system to their casual friends and family, effectively allowing them to demo the Wii’s capabilities for free. Afterwards if they wanted it they could buy it, which they did in millions. Nintendo effectively Trojan horsed their way into casual’s lives selling them something they didn’t know they wanted until they played it. Sound familiar? It should, free to play utilizes that same tactic, put it in their hands for free; they’ll pay later.
Sadly Wii was doomed to the life of a fad, despite it’s incredible hardware sales software sales began to slouch as disillusioned core gamers departed from the system and the casual failed to move a significant amount of software in their stead. Another similar story and, more relevant to the free to play experiences of today is that of one time immensely popular Facebook game Farmville. Farmville as you probably know was a farming simulator. Players grew their crops and harvested them on a real time clock. The game could be played 100% for free but players who didn’t pay would start finding themselves at a disadvantage as their friends who did pony up cash farms expanded much quicker – exemplifying the worrying “pay to win” problem whereby those who pay are tactically better off resulting in free players being treat as second class citizens. Over the course of a year vast numbers paid for micro transactions earning billions for publisher Zynga – like Wii though the fad burnt out as quick as it lit and Farmville is largely forgotten.
Farmville pioneered the freemium model that is now widely used and, like all fads it raked in a phenomenal amount of money during its brief time in the spot light. Now that everyone owns a smartphone, iPad, tablet, android or has a Facebook account, getting an audience to pick up a free to play game is easier than ever and therefore the chances of being lucrative are increased. Saying free to play fads only last for finite amount of time is something of a null argument anyway. Traditional full retail games have a shelf life as well – a less prolonged one too, whereby on average approximately 80% of a games sales is done in the first week. Both free to play and the traditional onetime payment methods can only be sustained for so long – each just works better on one audience.
Unfortunately we live in a world where people need to be paid; games aren’t made out of the kindness in developer’s hearts. It’s integral that both they and their publishers make back their investment and turn a profit so they can carry on producing the games we love. The decision to release a title using a freemium model or including micro transactions is a business one and when targeting a casual audience it’s a wise choice. If only one in ten players pay the bite size amounts for optional content then you’ll still be turning a profit thanks to the astronomical size of the market – in theory that’s very appealing. Everybody wins right? Free games for players more money for the publishers. However, whilst entirely possible to complete a game like Candy Crush without ever spending a penny it’s incredibly hard and time consuming to achieve.
It’s not traditionally difficult mind, no rather free games tend to set up pay walls that players need to pay to overcome. In Candy Crush’s case it limits the number of lives players have, after a couple of failures – a relatively small period of time – they’re presented with a choice: buy some boosters or more lives for a small price or wait it out twenty minutes for them to replenish. To that end the game sells time and convince but, logically to sell convenience one must first accept inconvenience is a core pillar of gameplay design. How can you save the player time without first wasting it? The game appears to actively step in your way forcing you to break down and spend money. It’s not irregular either in free games for it cost more to buy all the content than it would to purchase a one payment comparative retail version.
For casual gamers who’d never pay for a full game that’s fine. For the core though this is a bit concerning, generally intelligent and notoriously difficult to trick they click on rather quickly realising the game is simply trying to make more money in small instalments than it could in one big lump up front. At best that’s a deal breaker, like many core gamers feeling on Plants Vs Zombies 2, at worst it’s an insult. Mostly the core would simply rather buy the game upfront never hitting pay walls or paying as they go, core games are a form of escapism; who wants to escape to a world where they have to think about real life money?
Free to play is a deceptively tricky beast though; although it can be done terribly it can also be done positively in a way the core can support. Planetside 2 is a great example a massively multiplayer PC FPS that puts players at no disadvantages for playing for free choosing to sell customisation options. Sure they’re other options available but none feel like they’re trying to steal money from you, rather they sell permanent content at a fair price. Valve’s Team Fortress 2 is another example of free to play done right, once a full retail game it can now be played for free and players pay for customisation options – nothing more.
I started this article asking is free to play a fad or the future. The truth is it’s a combination of both. During the time that publishers have tinkered with the model it has become crystal clear that whilst it benefits the casual audience it’s less friendly to the savvy core that are more than aware of its Trojan horse ways and actively oppose the model. Regardless of the core’s feelings free to play is a lucrative payment model that is inevitably part of the future – in fact I’d wager it will become the primary mechanism for making money on smartphones, tablet PC’s and social networks – home of the casual – in a the very close future. Even with some good examples of free to play systems in core games it seems like it’ll be a while longer before they’ll be a force within the core market – as long as it takes for the core to get routinely good deals. Ultimately the core’s uncanny ability to avoid being ripped off means they shouldn’t feel threatened by free to play’s success in the casual market affecting them. So is free to play the future? Casually, definitely. For the core? Expect to see free to play and traditional titles co-exist in the future, just not today.