Feature Article

Is free-to-play going to take over consoles and PC?

The free-to-play model currently dominates mobile gaming, but will it also take over Xbox One, PS4, and PC? GameSpot's editors discuss.

It's easy to dismiss free-to-play games. After all, for every great experience, there are countless examples in the social and mobile sphere of horrendous free games riddled with intrusive advertising, overly aggressive monetization, and purposefully limited gameplay.

Free-to-play, for better or for worse, has taken over the mobile space, but will the same happen in PC and console gaming?

Titles such as Path of Exile, League of Legends, Hawken, and Hearthstone are proving free games can be fun and fair on the PC, while the consoles are also starting to get into the action with games like DC Universe Online, World of Tanks, Dust 514, and Warframe. And games that were initially full price are also finding renewed interest after making the jump to free, such as Star Wars: The Old Republic and World of Warcraft (free to level 20).

Will the number of free-to-play games in the core gaming space continue to grow? What impact will that have on "traditional" gaming? And will gamers be happy to go along for the ride? GameSpot's editors sound off and tell you what they think the about future of free-to-play gaming.

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Justin Calvert - A Welcome Console Future

The enduring popularity of Star Wars aside, few things amaze me as regularly as comments from folks who are dismissive of games simply because they employ free-to-play rather than fee-to-play models. It's true that there are countless examples of free-to-play games out there where the word "free" feels like a misnomer or which put you at a significant disadvantage unless you play with a credit card, but an increasing number of free-to-play games are monetized much more agreeably. The "pay-to-win" mantra of free-to-play detractors would more accurately be replaced with something like "pay-to-progress-more-quickly" or "pay-to-play-with-a-different-outfit-for-your-character." For the most part, though I doubt either of those will catch on.

I'm a big fan of playing games without having to pay for them first.

I really hope that free-to-play games continue to thrive, though, if only because I'm a big fan of playing games without having to pay for them first. If I decide that I really like these games I'll invariably find some way to throw money at them (I've purchased League of Legends skins, World of Tanks camo options, Hearthstone card packs, and extra storage space in Path of Exile to name but a few), but it's rarely motivated by some desire to gain an advantage over opponents. You could definitely argue that Hearthstone card packs do exactly that, but those same card packs can be earned in-game for free and I'm sure there are plenty of players with legendary decks who haven't spent a dime. I haven't paid for an unfair advantage, I've merely paid to speed up the process of gaining cards because I don't have as much time to play as I'd like.

For the moment, all of my free-to-play gaming is either on my PC or iPad, but I'm excited at the prospect of more free-to-play games landing on consoles in the future. I've already enjoyed games like Happy Wars, Warframe, DC Universe Online, and Killer Instinct on consoles without having to bust open my wallet, and I have no doubt that I have many more gratis games on consoles to look forward to.

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Justin Haywald - The Impossible Future

I was tempted to put together a snarky timeline that shows the inevitable evolution of free-to-play:

  • 2009: Zynga release FarmVille and the slow decline of Western gaming civilization begins
  • 2018: Multiplayer-only Call of Duty XIV introduces an energy-based economy. You pay to play more than 10 minutes a day, every bullet carries a hefty real-money cost after your first 50, and only the basic AR-15 is unlocked for free.

But that misses the point: Free-to-play can't take over everything, because it's not a model that makes sense for all games.

It works great in multiplayer experiences where you can show off your fancy premium-content hat or cumberbund to other people in the game world. Team Fortress 2, Hearthstone, and League of Legends are games that get it right because they don't feel manipulative--when I give those games money, it's because I want to reward the developers for making something great. I don't pay because that's the only way for me to unlock the next level or get past some annoying boss.

Of course, just because I prefer systems like that doesn't mean the horrible, money-grubbing ones are going to go away. Games that use unsavory business practices are going to keep expanding, and eventually, you're going to have the same calculated, Candy Crush-like experiences readily available on your console.

Games like The Last of Us or BioShock: Infinite would be nonsensical with free-to-play models.

But games like The Last of Us or BioShock: Infinite would be nonsensical with free-to-play models. Just because it makes more money, doesn't mean free-to-play is the only way to make money. AAA titles are expensive to produce, but that's why we get the constant progression of DLC for those games after release. And, whether you like it or not, microtransactions will probably become a big part of that model going forward as well.

Executives exist who are only looking out for the bottom-line and who'll go to any length to make more money. But we also have talented, passionate developers in the game industry who want to get their creations into our hands, and they don't all care that they could probably make more money by selling out and just turning their talents to making knock-off match-3 games.

Because they're short, pick-up-and-play experiences, mobile makes the most sense for free-to-play, and some free-to-play models work just fine on PC and console. But just like Vlambeer's excellent mobile game Ridiculous Fishing, which could easily have integrated a more nefarious payment model to keep you playing (and paying) indefinitely, some developers will want to create self-contained experiences where the goal is to have fun and explore.

They're not all focused on figuring how how to keep us clicking a button and making regularly monthly payments to a game without ever making any real progress--there will also always be developers who want to create blockbuster, cinematic worlds, and then move on to their next big, standalone project. And there are more than enough of us who want to play those types of games that i'll remain worthwhile to keep making them for the forseeable future.

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Martin Gaston - People aren't Stupid

Defending free-to-play often makes me feel like I'm a member of the NRA sounding off on gun control: free-to-play doesn't make games bad, people make games bad.

Despite a massive pile of evidence that regularly suggests the contrary, I choose to believe that people aren't stupid. The exploitative free-to-play mobile market will eventually collapse--it has to, because we're eventually all going to wise up to its cheap tricks and just play Threes! all the time instead--and we'll be left with free-to-play games that feel fair. The new Dungeon Keeper sucks.

The free-to-play element actually makes it more fun

But, overall, when it comes to free-to-play I say don't panic. I think free-to-play can work. I don't think they have to be sleazy and awful. Dota 2 is one of my favorite games of all time, and I will go so far as to say that the free-to-play element actually makes it more fun. Especially when it comes to its seasonal events, with Valve throwing up a whole load of holiday-themed new items that you can buy and gamble for. I can look through my in-game backpack and recall when I acquired these things--that's the sword I got from a crate during The International 2012, that's a courier I earned last Frostivus, etc--and trigger a flood of all the real-life memories that come along with these recollections. It's nice.

It's not free, of course. I've spent at least $110 on Dota 2 already. But I've also played it for 550 hours, and spent countless more watching tournaments, so that feels fine. And it also depends on what type of game you're making, too: a narrative-driven single-player adventure should still cost $60 and come on a disc and all that. But in the right context, free-to-play works. When it works, it makes gaming a richer, more diverse, and interesting hobby to have.

Now all we have to do is wait for all the awful free-to-play games to go extinct.

You've read what we think, but what about you? Agree or disagree, let us know your thoughts on the future of free-to-play in the comments below!

The products discussed here were independently chosen by our editors. GameSpot may get a share of the revenue if you buy anything featured on our site.

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