PC gaming is experiencing a free-to-play and microtransaction revolution.
Three or four years ago, at the annual Game Developers Conference (GDC) in the USA, most of the iPhone and mobile platform guest speakers were game designers and developers. Games like Flight Control and Angry Birds were making a name for themselves, and there was a lot of excitement about the possibilities in the mobile gaming space.
Fast-forward to GDC 2012 and a lot of those holding workshops were financial types, talking about methods to entice customers to drip-feed small amounts of money regularly in order to keep playing a game, or to fast-track their progress through it. This is in essence what the free-to-play and microtransaction business model is all about.
Rather than buying a game at a set (often high) price point, this model lets you download a game for free. So how do studios make money from them? That’s where microtransactions come in. The basic game might be free, but you are then encouraged to pay small amounts of money – usually not much more than a few dollars – to unlock new levels, skins, weapons, characters and so on.
This microtransaction financial model didn’t start in mobile gaming, but releasing a free-to-play (FTP) game and charging the customer from inside the game itself has become the dominant model, especially on iOS. Most people are probably more familiar with how it works from Facebook games like Farmville. Although offering arguably very little in the way of gameplay, you can do almost anything in these games through microtransactions – if you’re prepared to spend enough money.
Competitive multiplayer games like League of Legends and Team Fortress 2 are especially well-suited to microtransactions, and both offer enormous amounts of content for free before hitting any sort of paywall. But cosmetic additions such as hats, new weapons and new physical appearances and clothing are proving very popular and, by all accounts, are generating large amounts of money.
At several conferences this year, literally dozens of upcoming free-to-play titles for the PC have been shown. And a few of these are from established, traditional developers. It seems now that if your game doesn’t have a $100 million budget, and it’s not an indie garage venture, then FTP is probably the best way to possibly make a decent amount of money.
There are a couple of indications that things are changing even with mainstream triple-A developers. Crytek, the developer of the Crysis first-person shooter series, has announced that, after Crysis 3 later this year, all their releases will be free-to-play only. And even the massive game publisher Activision is developing a free-to-play version of their hugely successful Call of Duty franchise. This free version will undoubtedly come with microtransactions.
The MMO scene is undergoing a similar change. The gaming press is now consistently questioning the wisdom of heavy hitters like World of Warcraft remaining subscription-based rather than switching to free-to-play. The reason is that some less successful MMOs, such as Lord of the Rings Online and DC Universe Online, have reported revenue going up by 600 per cent as a result of making the switch to free.
How do I as a gamer feel about this? I love free-to-play, providing it isn’t constantly demanding I pay all the time, as Facebook games mostly do. But with limited gaming time now due to full-time work and being a dad, time has replaced disposable income as my most precious commodity. So only paying for content I might actually use in that situation makes a lot of sense.
But watch this space: this is the largest change to the gaming scene since the internet started. Things will get interesting.