Or, “Follow the money.”
Like many people that enjoy Blizzard games I got the token invitation to pre-order the “Origins Edition” of their new title, Overwatch. If you haven't heard of Overwatch, you must be new here. Welcome: This is Gamespot, one of the premier site's for game coverage. Blizzard is a relatively successful game developer that makes a few little games you might have heard of, like “Starcraft,” “Diablo,” and “World of Warcraft.”
Overwatch is notable for being a completely new franchise for Blizzard with novel content in a genre Blizzard previously has had zero experience in: First-person shooters (unless you count Starcraft: Ghost, which you shouldn't). If you haven't seen Overwatch, check out some Gameplay footage from Gamespot's own Danny O'Dwyer (some language NSFW).
The big news is that Overwatch will NOT be F2P (Free to Play). Blizzard has generally done a great job bucking the trend towards F2P, successfully pushing its new Starcraft and Diablo titles via the traditional retail sales model. So it might not be surprising that Overwatch would have a retail cost given Blizzard's traditional pricing models.
But Overwatch is an online FPS (first-person shooter). Because an online FPS is so heavily reliant on having a sizable playerbase – so you can actually get into a decent game with players of similar skill level – the quickest way to do so is to give the game away and charge for incidentals like character skins, access to premium items, and other perks. To charge full retail for a new FPS guarantees that you'll only get the hardcore fans and FPS gamers in, limiting your playerbase. It's also more difficult to justify retail pricing for a game without a substantial single-player campaign.
This is why most aspiring FPS titles of note are going F2P from launch: Loadout, Firefall, Blacklight: Retribution, and the current king of F2P online FPS Team Fortress 2. Even Unreal Tournament is going F2P with their upcoming release. You need that playerbase to ensure that there is always a game ready for anyone wanting to play. There's nothing worse than logging in and not being able to find a game to join. So why is Blizzard launching a new FPS with a retail sales model?
The answer is: Follow the money.
Blizzard has a huge, HUGE fan base. The company probably has one of the best reputations for producing high-quality games of any major gaming company in existence. World of Warcraft has been (and continues to be) one of the most profitable games of all time for good reason. Ditto to the other Blizzard franchises. So Blizzard knows that no matter what game they make, there's going to be a core fanbase that will throw money at it no matter what. Charging retail for pre-orders gives hardcore fanboys and girls an excuse to throw.
You might think it sounds crazy, but it is absolutely true in all forms of entertainment from movies to music. Hardcore fans always buy the latest film/album/comic/etc. of their favorite media producer. Just ask any “Juggalo,” the name for fans of the Insane Clown Possie, or anyone with “Bieber Fever,” or Dr. Who fans, Trekkies, etc.
Further, Blizzard further monetize its fans through cross-sales with its other games. The firm has already introduced cross-game items to great success. Now, buying into Overwatch early gets you a cute pet in World of Warcraft, a card back for Hearthstone, and more. Players in those games will preorder just to get the in-game perk in their title of preference.
So Blizzard launches said game and fans go nuts. Overwatch sells a bunch of preorders and, shortly afterward, many more copies at regular retail pricing. The game will almost assuredly get strong reviews, based on Blizzard's history and what we've seen thus far. But once the game launches and establishes itself among the core fans, what happens then? Blizzard faces five main problems:
- Blizzard cannibalizes their other titles' player population with every game launch, just like Pepsi introducing a new soda. Every time you drink a Mountain Dew or a Mug Root Beer you're not drinking a Pepsi. Video games are no different: If you're playing Overwatch you can't play World of Warcraft at the same time. Blizzard has a LOT of fans, but even their playerbase is not infinite.
- If you're gaming on a console, you won't be able to play against PC gamers. Lack of cross-platform gaming will make maintaining a perpetual online FPS playerbase ever more challenging by spreading players across multiple systems that cannot interact.
- The average FPS player is no longer accustomed to paying retail. It's a time-honored tradition going back to the shareware release of Wolfenstein 3D, and it's the reason all those aforementioned FPS titles (Blackwatch, etc.) have started out as F2P.
- The Online FPS is a saturated market. Getting a sustainable group of twitchy FPS games to log in reliably enough to maintain a perpetual matching system is a huge challenge. Does anyone play Super Monday Night Combat anymore? What about Titanfall?
- Overwatch is imitating Team Fortress 2 in many, many ways. It's hard to justify buying a new class-based online FPS when there is a very good, comparable alternative that happens to already be free.
But fear not: Blizzard always has a plan! Blizzard is a very, very savvy company: They hire the best people, and every title gets the white glove treatment. So once the initial excitement dies down post-launch and sales taper off, Blizzard will transition Overwatch to a F2P model to inject new life into the title. They'll introduce new items and skins with the switch to F2P, and paid players will have the benefit of retaining their premium cosmetics. The game will get its second wind, and enter its long-term cycle of support with the same model that has worked so well for Team Fortress 2: New cosmetics, new maps, and new game modes.
Really, it's all quite brilliant, and a model that other game companies would assuredly replicate if they had a fanbase as devoted as Blizzard's, a company so popular it has a dedicated annual fan convention that regularly sells out. But so far as Overwatch is concerned, its life as a retail game will be assuredly short.