The Free to Play (F2P) model is getting verbal support from some of the biggest developers in gaming. Executives at both Epic (Gears of War) and Crytek (Crysis) have recently made comments indicating their organizations will not only develop F2P titles, but they have projected this model will be the future of gaming distribution. There’s no doubt that by enticing gamers to play their games without upfront cost, is a tact that should result in more exposure. It’s effectively a marketing opportunity to open players up to a developer’s style and catalog. The big question is, will this attract sales? As we move closer to a purely digital era, it makes sense to take advantage of this model and attract gamers globally without the cost of “boxing” a title and shipping it to distributors. But rarely is it true in any market that what’s best for the manufacturer is best for the consumer. If that were the case nobody would care about carbon footprint, for example.
Let’s picture a world where F2P were the only way to experience a game. If that reality were tomorrow, it wouldn’t be a bad thing. We know which developers are generally good. We know the franchises we enjoy. But think 10 years from now when aside from Final Fantasy 30 and Castlevania: Rajon Rondo of Blood Diamond 4, we know nothing about the games we have to choose from. We as consumers are then forced to play a game for free to learn if we even like it. Sure we can rely on reviewers to tell us what to enjoy, but do we really want to put our trust into blogs that are “encouraged” to play particular games? And will it even work out well for us to trust someone’s opinion exclusively over formulating our own opinion? No. We’ll likely play everything that “looks” good (a lot of marketing jobs will become available soon) and hope that it appeals to us.
There is nothing in this country that is good that is also free. If that weren’t true we’d all be eating at soup kitchens. Anything of quality costs money. Take a Saturday morning and go from the Scion dealership to the Mercedez palace in downtown where ever you live. Not a car fan? Spend a month eating at McDonald’s instead of eating organic veggis and meats. Still not convinced? Next time you’re on a date and you think “this might be the night” switch your sheets to Gucci instead of the Kohl’s home brand. Let me take one more stab at it: the next time you go laptop shopping pay very close attention to what separates the $1,500 machine from the $349 special at Best Buy. It’s not the CPU and hard drive; it’s the screen. A high quality screen makes all the difference in the world. And guess what folks - it’s not cheap. Certainly the F2P model isn’t 100% free. But think of how the development model will change to accommodate. Publishers will be demanding more up-front quality while balancing lost dollars while the game is not released. Developers will be hard-pressed to release their titles early rather than when they’re ready. We see that today as well, and those games rarely succeed.
There is no game developers union. There are no rules for how to release a game. Consequently, there is a high likelihood the top-tier developers won’t follow suit. They’ll instead break off from 3rd party publishing and release their games when the see fit on digital platforms like Steam, XBOX Live and PSN. And they’ll release these games for the going rate ($60 in today’s marketplace). This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, this could be a good thing for gamers as it helps them distinguish what is of quality and refined (Mercedez) from what is developed at low cost and released with the only goal of making money while riding a trend (Scion). Both can be very good depending on who the consumer is. I know people who only look at a car as a utility. They don’t care about comfort and reliability. They don’t need ass-warmers while they drive 10 miles a day. But for those of us who want to drop lead on the gas pedal while we sit on a seat built for a king, we spend our hard-earned money on BMW and Porsche.
The reality is we’ll likely live in a world where there is more F2P on mainstream consoles. And even more likely we’ll have subscription options where we pay a monthly fee for access to a particular catalog of publishers. Unfortunately life is not about the change we experience, but about how we adjust to those changes. Some people stop watching the NBA when Jordan retired. Some people refuse to watch any Star Trek post Kirk. Guess what people - the world has moved on and it’s a lot better for it.