Is the future free-to-play?

Develop 2011: Former Sony exec Phil Harrison says free-to-play will be the dominant business model as industry veterans discuss a service-driven future for games.

by

Who was there: Miles Jacobson of Sports Interactive, Phil Harrison of London Venture Partners, industry veteran Chris Lee, and David Braben of Frontier Developments.

What was said: Much of the panel's time was consumed by a wide-ranging discussion on the future of the industry, the way business models are changing, and what current social and technological trends mean for the games industry.

The panel mull the merits of free-to-play.

Harrison said that the balance of power is shifting between publishers and developers. Now that developers can get their games out there without a publisher and make money for themselves, they will be able to exert much more control over their products. All they'll be looking for from publishers are deals for distribution and exposure, rather than funding.

"It's hard bringing a game to market," Braben said. "Discovery is going to be more and more of a challenge," with the proliferation of platforms making the route to market much less obvious than it once was.

Jacobson then weighed in, saying that when a studio finds the right publisher, the power issues don't matter, but that with the wrong publisher things can be unpleasant. He pointed to Sports Interactive's time working on Championship Manager for Eidos for one such example.

"The us-and-them relationship that we were in was absolutely horrible. We just shouted at each other the whole time," he said. This echoed sentiments from Harrison, saying that when developers and publishers work towards a common goal, things become much easier than when goals diverge.

The panel then moved on to the subject of Apple, with Lee stating that "Apple presents a fantastic opportunity for developers." While "Modern Warfare 3 players aren't going to forget to go to the shops because they're playing Angry Birds," he explained, as mobile devices get more powerful, the likes of Apple could start crowding the traditional AAA space. Braben then went on to point out that bringing in new players and new modes of payment meant the industry was still growing, despite recent poor NPD numbers that seemingly show a decline.

Moving on to economics in general, free-to-play games were addressed. "By and large we're moving towards a free-to-play business model," Harrison said, suggesting that all games would work this way in time. Lee was a little more sceptical, suggesting that this might work for some online titles but that the level of investment required for making a traditional console game made this unlikely.

"The industry will change instantly overnight, forever," when we get a future Call of Duty game on the next PlayStation or Xbox console that's free at the point of entry, Harrison said. He then claimed that while this wouldn't happen this year or the next, it's inevitable, and developers need to be prepared for this sort of business model becoming standard. He also said that the current business model of spending billions on a chipset and then effectively taxing retail products was "over" and that making money off services was the way forward for all the big players.

Takeaway: The industry is changing at a very rapid rate, and no one can really predict exactly where it's going to go. Free-to-play and freemium models were generally agreed to be the way forward, but exactly what form the games financed by those models will take is anyone's guess.

Quote: "The sex is much better with Sega. Avoid the blue spikes and you'll be OK."--Miles Jacobson on getting out of the publishing relationship surrounding Championship Manager and into bed with Sega.

Discussion

102 comments
bigcrusha
bigcrusha

@Cloud737 To be honest, the way the world is going now, saying that humanity can't get any lower is an understatement. I wish it were true, that because it's instinctive, we can eventually move beyond those. Problem is, we'll probably be dead long before then. Media isn't helping either, we turn on the television to find constant streams of pop cultural garbage which are slowly dissolving the minds of the youth. (Cough* Jersey shore Cough*) Common dialogue is changing, text lingo is no longer restricted to virtual reality, more frequently by the day it's infusing itself with modern language. The invention of google and other search engines, the fact that people need constant use of cellphone apps to find things. Our brains are becoming weaker, cognitive thought is becoming faster but shorter. Nobody takes the time to slow down and think anymore. Very soon every desk in every school will have a mini tablet on it. All these adults who skip around with glee showing off their law majors thinking it's proof of intelligence. That piece of paper is going to mean nothing soon. All this mush as well is making it so much easier for the government to run us as well.

bigcrusha
bigcrusha

@Gelugon_baat Yeah I agree with you there, we must be careful not to categorize ourselves as generally superior intellect. when I say "unsmart" I'm referring to those with weaker constitutions and are easily absorbed by euphoric greed. If anyone understands the psychology behind it, it would be me. Back when I played, I was very much one of them, not to a ridiculous extent, around $60 in micro-transactions. Even after paying to win, the game never ends! You continue to feel the constant need and greed of surpassing those "bullies" to become an even godlier bully. I've long since left that game. While I enjoy the aspect of free to play anytime games, Having every company run on micro-transactions alone can't be good. I'm more than certain that the market will turn into a cut throat dog-eat-dog market. (more than now certainly)

MagicOneUp
MagicOneUp

every time i saw his face, i felt like punching it

MagicOneUp
MagicOneUp

this is Sony's former spin doctor... of course

Cloud737
Cloud737

@bigcrusha While I'm still very pessimistic about most things, I am starting to wonder if my perspectives are right lately. Tbh, pretty much everyone I know IRL (my parents, grandpa, friends, etc.) thinks that I'm waaaay exaggerating with how badly screwed the world is, that I "need to get out more often", but then again they're the ones who seem more shut-in than me for basically isolating themselves from any source of outside information. They seem to live in this tiny, limited world, where "the whole world" to them is nothing more than 20 persons max. I think that if they knew what I know and read what I read, they wouldn't think the same. I don't think what they know that I don't would have that much of an impact (but then again, that's what everyone mostly thinks of others and they're wrong, so that's why I'm wondering if maybe my perspective is wrong). In a more optimistic note, human nature has always been like this since the beginning of time, so it can't get worse than this. With more knowledge, as our civilization advances, we might be able to override those selfish and evil basic instincts when we see it does us more harm than good. So at the very least, the future will remain largely the same as the past, if not better. In this regard, I guess the future does indeed look bright and worth living for.

Cloud737
Cloud737

@Gelugon_baat As I said earlier to bigcrusha, interesting theory about pay-for-win games basing themselves on stupid spenders feeding their greedy, selfish egos by bullying the freebie players. However, I wonder if that really means the model would collapse on all itself because it's very design is flawed and akin to a ponzi scheme. The way I see it, after freebie players get tired of the game and leave, the bullies might enter an arms race against each other. Each could try to outspend the other, and thus the brunt of the bullying would be on those that spend the least amount (in the previous case, the freebie gamers). I think this (economic) model is more encompassing than yours (which seemed more like a particular case of it).

bigcrusha
bigcrusha

Cloud737@ I couldn't agree with you more. Not a day goes by without me thinking about humanity and our ongoing quest for superiority over eachother as our intellects begin to shrink bit by bit. As a human, I'll be the first to admit that I too am guilty of that sometimes. I try on every occasion I'm given to ostracise myself further from that category.

bigcrusha
bigcrusha

@Gelugon_baat: I think you're looking at this from a smart consumers perspective, it would be MORE THAN GENEROUS for me to assume that 40% of gamers fall into the "smart consumer" category, you know that just as well as I do I'm certain. As for business, 40% of the market (generous) will not be able to sustain the free to pay sector when competing against that 60% (probably much more) Us smarter gamers alone will not be capable of keeping these free to pay games going in the market. Infact, these smaller companies will eventually be forced into a pay to play scenario because of this. Oh and by the way, it's more than possible for us smart gamers to be bought by pay to win games. The average television program is required to be 22 minutes long so that 8 can be devoted to commercials. These 8 minutes worth of commercials for the most of us just goes in 1 ear and out the other, yet they still do commercials, why do you think that is bud? Psycology Gelugon i can't say that enough, once the Unsmart consumer falls into this trap, it becomes a vicious circle, you pay to win, you win to pay again. These "traps" are well advertised, The unsmart consumer will eventually fall suit, As for my Flyff refence, yes I agree with your statement that this would only work on those who are hooked and won't let go. Although, what do you think these micro transactions do? That is the power of euphoric pshycology. Just as potent as nicotine buddy.

Cloud737
Cloud737

@bigcrusha Interesting theory about strong imbalances creating a psychological illusion of amazing value. Sadly, I also think this is the case with this world. It seems too many people have the audacity to want to be God, to have egos so big as to think they are the most important thing this universe has and will ever see, and the constant urge to feed their greedy, selfish egos. If there's something I learned in life, it's to not underestimate stupidity.

Heshertonfist
Heshertonfist

@bigcrusha It is very plausible, I agree but free-to-play for consoles is still at least a decade away. Internet speeds, where I live, it takes over an hour to download a GB of information. Add that with some countries that have cap limits, throttling and usage based billing and the free-to-play market has some very serious hurtles to overcome to make it to consoles as the primary experience. And I really think that Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft would rather take their royalties from $60 games and microtransactions rather than strictly from microtransactions.

warhawk-geeby
warhawk-geeby

Hmmm.. Good luck explaining this free-to-play theory to Microsoft....

bigcrusha
bigcrusha

@Gelugon_baat I'm with ya mostly, Although I guarantee you TF2 will be a thing of the past. free-to-pay games will most likely be developed and maintained by smaller companies while pay to win will more likely be covered by much larger and more profitable companies. From a business perspective, if the gamer avoids pay-to-win, larger players in the industry will buy out rights to those smaller sectors to keep a pay-to-win competition base. As for the model of freebie sustainability, it's a psychological aspect, if purchasable upgrades create a high imbalance compared to the average free user upgrades, those who buy will experience a heightened sense of euphoric pleasure thus enjoying the game more. I come from a 5 year free to play Flyff history. The population there rather than purchasing upgrades and saying "enough is enough", that psychological restraint weakens when exposed to players with pickup pets. When premium pets became the norm, rather than the game dieing under the lack of freebies, gpotato responded by releasing even cooler multi featured pickup pets. The players responded in kind by making the next best pet the "must have" trend. Strong imbalance creates a psychological illusion of amazing value on the consuming gamer. The concept of being a god for a short period of time for just 10 bucks is becoming increasingly popular by the day.

bigcrusha
bigcrusha

@Heshertonfist Free to play is alot closer than you think, the web has plenty of those, google f2p mmorpg's, I'm literally talking hundreds if not thousands. As sad as it is, download speed is going to increase DRAMATICALLY within the following generations I guarantee you that. A gig will travel from server to console in less than a second very soon. I don't want it to happen but it is a plausible scenario

WDHellS
WDHellS

Create multiplayer arcades. or like MCDonalds, the official big company LanHouses where you pay for not buy the game or the computer,just to play there.

Mega_Skrull
Mega_Skrull

@Gelugon_baat I thought my "free to pay" pun was good, but I suppose "pay to win" is acceptable too, lol. I agree with all you said.

Heshertonfist
Heshertonfist

And, another thing (I'm writing this again because it disappeared), a lot of industry insiders aren't really sure what's coming next generation but they don't get to decide that, gamers do. Casual gamers spend more money short term, core gamers make franchises and that's where the real money is. The biggest selling games are not and never will be casual. Peggle will never topple a GTA game.

Heshertonfist
Heshertonfist

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

Heshertonfist
Heshertonfist

I can see certain parts of this happening. PC gamers will get far more free to play games than console gamers as they do now. I don't see Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft supporting this model much, let alone embracing it. And the only way free to play is coming to consoles full force is when games can only be downloaded and that's not for a long time. Most gamers I know would rather purchase a disc and then play the game in the time it takes to go home instead of the time it takes to download 7GB+. As a side note, imagine the best selling game being released and say, 10 million or more gamers downloading it at the same time. Free-to-play is a long way off.

SgtDarthVader
SgtDarthVader

I can't see this happening, but IF it happens, I would quit buying new games & consoles, and so would alot of other people... Which in turn COULD lead to a new video game crash, resulting in many game developers & companies losing alot of money and MAYBE even go bankrupt... What a "perfect" plan these so called "Experts & Veterans" have for the future of gaming -_-*

parrot_of_adun
parrot_of_adun

F2P = Bad. The only way to make money off of them is to alienate free players, nullifying the whole FREE thing right off the bat.

bigcrusha
bigcrusha

The day this happens is the day gaming dies. Competitive gaming will no longer be about who invests the most time but who dishes out the most cash. You just buy skill rather than working for it. Do this and we're going to see a repeat of the great video game depression of 1982. Then again, judging from the stupidity of today's consumer, they might be right....

FoeCrusher
FoeCrusher

F2P is neither good nor bad as pricing model. None of wants to pay $50 for a game that after an hour or two we wish we had not bought. Nor is a great idea to have microtransaction models which unbalance the game. My take is that a lot of titles that are done well will still be able to command decent prices. What they will face and have always faced on the pc platform is piracy. So many titltes which dont lend themselves to a F2P format may end up going that way. In two or three years this may be a moot point anyway.

lilflex1
lilflex1

if a games free to play there just going to make add-ons that costs around the original price they would of set the games to be

daabulls23
daabulls23

I hope free to play isn't the future. Free games are nice, but I really don't see COD going free. What's a map pack going to cost, $30 and each weapon $5? Well, Activision WOULD do that...

nimbulan2000
nimbulan2000

It is a sad future if free-to-play is what we have to look forward to. It sounds good until you start playing the game only to find out it will cost several times what a game normally would to get the full experience. On top of that, companies tend to focus more on how to make money from said game, rather than the gameplay itself so you invariably end up with a game that actually costs more than a paid game while providing an inferior gameplay experience. You can easily see the transition by looking at the history of Team Fortress 2 which started out as a great game but was completely ruined by transitioning to the free-to-play business model. I think I'll pass on this new genre just like I did with subscription-based MMOs.

moviequest14
moviequest14

the day all games go ''free to play'' is the day I stop modern gaming and go back to the classic ''old fashioned'' one pay games.For those claiming it is a better deal for free-to-play because you play it longer,these would still be the exact same games,just a different payment strategy,so for the exact same content you would pay $50 for you would instead end up paying $70-$80 for between ''premium'' areas and clothes which would've been included with the original game anyways! There are many negative reasons NOT to go f2p but few positive factors or reasons to do so.When it comes to things like updates,etc. there are already dlc packs for that or the old fashion thing I like to call ''Making a Sequel'' or even more old fashioned is the idea of making a game that already has so much to do and is so full of activity that you won't need an update anyways...here is what I see the 'change to f2p' Original ''old-fashioned'' game pricing= One payment which then gives you the full experience without any hidden fees or charge,you can have the best of the best,do whatever you like,and truly enjoy the game without any bonus payment ''surprises''.One payment gives you a full gaming experience The ''inevitable'' f2p method=the same game you used to pay 1 price for is now divided up into 10+ segments and ''premiums'' which end up costing you 3X's as much,no matter how much you pay you will never be able to have the FULL game ftp= Gamer's wallets - $$$ = $$$ + producers wallets

PseudoElite
PseudoElite

I hope not, Team Fortress 2 is free to play now and they are charging 10$ for a class specific weapon, jesus. Not to mention it gives player an advantage so ruins for other gamers.

Generic_Dude
Generic_Dude

You can bet that developers will find some way to squeeze as many pennies out of gamers as possible. It's already starting -- games are up to $60, and you have to pay extra to download an activation key to unlock everything on the disc. Next, you're going to have to pay $10 to play the game online if you buy the game second-hand, if you rent it or if you borrow it from a friend. Following that, they'll probably figure they can charge you $10 extra even if you bought the game new. Next comes the free-to-play model where they make it out like you're getting a sweet deal, but you've got to drop $120 in DLC before you get anything resembling a full game. And it's only going to get worse from there, because I've yet to see any meaningful backlash from the community that indicates that they won't stand for whatever outrageous bunko scheme companies like MS, Sony, Nintendo, Activision, EA, etc. want to throw at them.

NeverMore0
NeverMore0

I'd rather pay one upfront price than a bunch of microtransactions, or have to put up with annoying in-game advertising.

terry_tate
terry_tate

COD is a symptom not a cause but I am still not a fan of it at all. I loved it up until the bloody SECOND release. COD 2 was a genuinely fun game. After that it imploded.

terry_tate
terry_tate

free to play works for pc flash games. if this becomes the norm for everything quality will decline significantly and the consumer will be shafted. Everything else I want to say will be censored like crazy.

calvinsora
calvinsora

I don't see how free-to-play could be a future. Not at least a future that retains the core gaming experience we've been experiencing since the Atari days. It's a possible path to traverse, but at what cost? I'm not sure we'd be playing the same type of games with that sort of business model. Also, I'm not one to write off publishers entirely. They can be sneaky devils, but they also fund expensive productions that make for more technical wonder and content.

mysticstryk
mysticstryk

The fact that the majority of us are not on board with this is a sign that these panel guys are way off on their estimates.

Sidivan
Sidivan

I think when they are talking about F2P, they are talking more about taking the route of social games that Zynga develops. You can play the full game for free on your own, but it's incredibly time consuming. Or, you can drop a couple bucks, buy the items you want and be on your merry way. Multiplayer FPS: make everything extremely expensive to unlock and sell currency at the shop. Introduce new weapons, perks, skins, etc... throughout the life of the game. Single Player RPG: This one is easy. Buy levels, buy enemy skill abilities that are hard to find, items, potions/consumables... Fighting Games: Tricky here. I think you'll need to implement tons and tons of character customization and sell items that way. The Tekken series introduced equipment and this would have to take that sort of route. You could even have background items that are animated and such. Single-player action/adventure: Same thing as RPG. In games that are pure action, like Megaman style, you'd have to have character customization, maybe even alternate character skins and boss skins, cheats, etc... Open world games: GTA is a cash cow here. All the cheats would be a menu with on/off that you can buy. Tons of extra clothing options, haircuts/beards, facepaint. cars, weapons, houses, furniture, paint and skins for all those things. It's all about customization and convenience. You have to implement it in ways that make the more tedious things in a game faster.

JoSilver
JoSilver

I'll take annoying ads in a game if it means it's free... as long as they're not to annoying. Paying for games will never go out of style though. I can't imagine f2p games taking over.

l777l
l777l

I prefer the old, currently prevailing model of disc-based releases of complete games. The other approaches are rather problematic, I find. That already includes EA's Signature Edition, Project 10 Dollar, Online Pass and (excessive) post-launch DLC strategy/-ies.

AluminumAndroid
AluminumAndroid

When they say "free" they actually mean a monthly service styled after xbox live, only more expensive, and you get to play an extended demo version(freemium) of any particular game. Of course if you want access to the full game well that's going to cost you, a whole lot.

OJ_the_LION
OJ_the_LION

@TevoxZi Well, TF2 was a regular retail game for years, I don't think it really qualifies as a "F2P" game in the traditional sense. What these guys are talking about is making it F2P from the ground up, and from that perspective the best ever F2P game I've played would only be an okay retail game even with the premium items bought.

santinegrete
santinegrete

Nothing beats Free, unless you don't want it in the first place. I can't think of any F2P game that has a dedicated single player experience. Hell, I even remember how I ranted about the SP experience is the most expensive to create for obvious reasons. Only things I remember is some Half Life 1 and 2 mods, and original games aren't free.

Stonecutters908
Stonecutters908

How would the following genre's work on F2P? Sports games - Do you buy the team you want to use? Do you buy a franchise mode separately from the multiplayer matchmaking? Multiplayer FPS - What so people get which levels they want? how is that going to work for matchmaking? Do I get to buy the best guns if I have the money? Single player RPG - this is obvious, single player only games are impossible to make F2P without some insidious design Fighting Games - again, we buy which fighters we want to use? Nope Any Single player Action / Adventure - how do you do microtransactions in a single player campaign? Won't that sort of give away your progress? Any open world game - which parts of the map do I get to go to? Do I have to pay $5 dollars for a special quest item or can I just pay for it and not play the game? As for COD, the core will abandon it the second that it becomes an unbalanced mess where you are nickel and dimed to absolute death to make the game competitive in a MP environment and same goes for any other competitive MP shooter. This experiment will fail first with Ghost Recon Online for the PC. the Wii U version looks like it will be 10 times better anyway, all for one price. Sorry but these guys are so full of Sh1t. They want this to happen. Doesn't mean it is going to. A roundtable is supposed to address possibilities, not desires. Almost all of these guys are a group of investors and analysts, not developers and the ones that are work for Disney. If the barrier for entry is scaring people off, then make more demos and make them more available. That is all.

burgo81
burgo81

developers lose about 95pct of the profit from the game at it's present model, with the internet the way it is now the best way forward is to go digital where most of the money goes to the developer

tom_cat_01
tom_cat_01

I wish Call of Duty didn't exist.

Sepewrath
Sepewrath

That seems rather unlikely, at least certainly on consoles. Nor would I be interested in a game that I have a pay every 15 steps. That's fine for an MMO, whose whole purpose is to constantly just string you along, but for a game like lets say Gears of War, I don't want to be paying for every gun I pick up."You want to chainsaw this guy in half, 5 bucks please" I'll pass.

Drakillion
Drakillion

Free-to-play? Okay, the games better be THAT good in the future!

Henrique2324
Henrique2324

Maybe in the future they will have so much money that they will just go f2p

TevoxZi
TevoxZi

@OJdaLIONKing Unless you already own TF2, get it on Steam, it's f2p nowadays.

Wakkawipeout
Wakkawipeout

If F2P is the future, I think the industry comes full circle in the most ridiculous way possible. You had to pay to continue playing the game when arcades were huge the late '70s, '80s, and early '90s. If you reached a certain level, you had to put in another quarter. If you died, that's another quarter. If you beat the game and you want to replay it, that's another quarter. Sounds as if the industry is heading back to that. Funny how things work out.

Rocker6
Rocker6

@Diophage Same here unfortunately :( This Gen is already becoming more and more f$&()# up,so Im afraid what crap will Next Gen bring.Lately very few games made any lasting appeal to me,games like Demon Souls,Witcher 2,RDR.As long as we have games like that I will keep gaming,but when they dissapear,so will I from the gaming world.And since today everything is getting dumbed down,I have a feeling it wont be long untill that happens :(