By Peter Allen Clark
Free to play games have made it to the big time.
After the big three manufactures dabbled with a few experiments in the realm that has made mobile games so successful, it looks like the concept of paying to upgrade an initially free experience has found a new home.
Debuting in the 1990s with MMOs like Runescape and MapleStory, the free to play model of games, sometimes called freemium has dominated the mobile landscape and has gradually begun to supplant the old subscription-based model for monetizing games. Free to play developers provide free a game and offer in-game transactions to enhance the experience in some way. That could take the form of players paying for extra lives, as is the case in Candy Crush, or for power-ups/upgrades, like in Plants Vs. Zombies 2.
Bethesda’s Jan. 21 announcement that upcoming console game Elder Scrolls Online would shift away from a subscription model into free to play sparked a trail of similar declarations up through the present.
Just before the start of Games Developers Conference week, Microsoft-owned studio Lionhead excitedly proclaimed that flagship franchise sequel Fable Legends will launch free to play this summer. Since the original Xbox, the Fable brand has remained a console exclusive title that attracts attention, although the most recent additions to the series have gained mixed reactions.
We recently wrote about the four versus one cooperative/competitive multiplayer game as championing a growing gaming trend of asymmetrical gameplay. Well, it looks Lionhead found a second craze to sweep through Albion.
More recently, Wizards of the Coast said that the forth-coming new Magic: the Gathering game, Magic Origins will also come at a freemium price to the Xbox One this summer.
Surely it follows in the tradition of Blizzard’s successful mobile free to play card game Hearthstone.
Microsoft isn’t really a stranger to the freemium model. They experimented with it early on in the Xbox 360’s life with the competitive World of Tanks. The game has gone on to gain 5 million downloads across nearly 150 countries, according to their website.
World of Tanks will continue that free to play move into the current generation as it plans to come to Xbox One in the near future.
Pays to play on this station
When the Playstation 4 launched in November 2013, it kicked off the new generation with the first console out of the gate, but also with the first offerings of free to play games. From day one, players could download both DC Universe Online and Warframe for free and expand on the game with microtransactions.
“Our philosophy is simple,” Planetside 2 developer, now-named, Daybreak Game Company says on the game’s website. “Free games. No commitment. And if you want to buy, it’s on your terms.”
It doesn’t seem like Sony plans to abandon that line of thinking anytime soon. At a March 4 Game Developers Conference presentation, Gamespot reported Senior Account Executive Sarah Thompson outlined the company’s current philosophy.
"We're really looking at this as a significant part of our digital business," she said about free-to-play. "I think that it's going to be a really a big chunk of our revenues in the next few years; 3-5 years. And it's already growing at amazing rates that are really quite surprising."
We recently wrote about Nintendo’s flirtation with microtransactions and it seems to have sparked some real chemistry.
Pokémon Shuffle marked the latest in Nintendo’s attempt to test out a free to play game and a recent in-game post trumpeted passing the million download mark. With only two weeks passed since the game’s Feb. 18 release, Nintendo has to look on that as a positive reception.
Of course, they have not released any information yet on the game’s incoming revenue.
Pokémon Shuffle joins Steel Diver: Sub Wars and Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball as Nintendo's 3DS freemium test run. The Big N has had just a few console free to play games on the Wii U's eShop since early 2013, such as Tank! Tank! Tank! (exclamations theirs).
Praying for paying players
Obviously, the interesting thing about this new gaming model is that it relies on trusting that game players will spend money of their own accord.
A September 2014 report on monetization by the marketing platform company Swrve cast some really interesting light on where these games derive their revenue. It claims to have compiled the data from “10s of millions” of users.
“We’re now at a full 62 percent of revenue derives from the top 10 percent of payers,” the report reads. “To add further context, if we express that group as a percentage of total players they represent a mere .013 percent of that group.”
That seems like a lot of responsibly to place on the .013 percent of players.
The report also found, in July 2014, only 1.35 percent of players actually purchased something in the studied free to play games.
“[T]he vast majority of players deliver no revenue, and confirms again that great care should be taken when acquiring users to ensure they are, as much as possible, in the subset of ‘spenders’,” the report reads.
It also found that a full 65 percent of all the revenue to be had from paying players would be had in the first three days of play.
Do you want a boring graph to compliment these numbers? Of course you do.
Even with all of those caveats, Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo all seem to be embracing the changing winds.