There are a lot of predictions going around at the moment about the future of gaming and what platforms will grow and which will die out in the coming years. I’ve read several articles that are predicting that the next batch of consoles will be the last as the big players in the console game are not making money on hardware sales anymore and with several high profile, high quality free to play titles doing very well at the moment there does feel like there many be a change in the air over the next few years. Handheld systems like the PS Vita and Nintendo 3DS are also really having a hard time at the moment due to the rise of smart phones and tablets, but also the lack of software for these handheld systems has been quite alarming over recent months especially for the Vita. Although sales of the 3DS still remain quite strong in Japan.
There have been a couple of very interesting pieces of news that caught my eye over the last few weeks and although not really related to free to play they were both about the PC platform where free to play is currently at, the first was one showing that the PC was the fastest growing platform at the moment and another from EA showing that they made more money from the PC than they did from the PS3 in the first quarter of the year. The news that the PC is the fastest growing platform at the moment probably Isn’t all that surprising as we are so late in the console cycle at the moment with only Nintendo with its Wii U are anything like close to releasing something new into the market. This along with big releases like Diablo 3 and superb free to play titles like Tribes Ascend, Dota 2, World of Tanks and Blacklight:Retribution have drawn many people into PC gaming over the last few months. The second piece of news from EA was much more surprising, EA have almost shown distane towards PC gaming for many years, but with the launch of Origin and big titles like Battlefield 3 and Mass Effect 3 selling very well they are certainly taking the platform more seriously now.
For many years free to play games were sniffed at for being low budget games that generally weren’t very good and most of them weren’t , but this year has seen a real turnaround in attitudes towards these games after several high quality releases. I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time playing Tribes Ascend, Blacklight:Retribution and the soon to be free to play Path of Exile over the last few months and they are all very high quality pieces of software that you really wouldn’t mind parting with some of your hard earned money with to play. Blacklight feels as tight as any Call of Duty multiplayer with the added bonuses of optimized mouse and keyboard controls, a proper field of view for PC and direct x11 visuals that show up any Call of Duty game for the 10 year old game engine that it is running on. Tribes Ascend feels just as good to play, but in a very different way with big open maps and fast paced action its like a throw back to the games of ten years ago and reminds me of playing Unreal Tournament on the low gravity maps.
I think there is a lot of fear in the industry towards free to play games and what they could involve into especially from the big console game developers who don’t really understand or trust the business model of free to play. Developing games is a pretty risky business at the moment with the current world financial climate and games sales falling year on year so investing millions on developing a game that then under performs could be the studios last. So investing millions in a game that’s free to play sounds insane right ?, maybe not. Games like Blacklight and Tribes have a long term business model in mind and not a year after year reboot like many console franchise games that also incur year on year development costs that eat into there profits. Tribes and Blacklight will not have these year on year development costs and have made a game that will be played, added to and supported for many years to come. For course they have to make money somehow and they do it with equipment upgrade packs that are available on Steam and small micro transactions and many people buy these not only for the equipment upgrades, but to support the game almost as a show of respect to the developer for releasing the game as a free to play. Tribes recently passed one million registered players mark a few weeks ago and even if only half of those players buy the $20 starter pack upgrade off Steam, well you do the maths, buts that a pretty nice chunk of cash back to the game developer Hi-Res Studios and that is only in the first year of release. However many people are now starting to say that free to play is just becoming ‘play to win’, a term used for people who buy the equipment upgrade packs and then have an advantage when they play online against people who just have the vanilla game.
There is no reason why the free to play business model can’t work on consoles too with a bit of planning. The distribution model will of course need to be digital which wouldn’t be a problem for the big console players and as long as console manufacturers supply their machines with reasonably sized hard drives then storage of the games shouldn’t be a problem either. The big players will no doubt take a lot of convincing that free to play can work for them, but the makers of the Crysis games Crytek are seeing the potential and are working on their own free to play game called Warface which is due to be released next year. Using CryENGINE 3 this could be the most polished looking free to play game yet.
Free to play got me thinking about a friend of mine who loves his Call of Duty games on the Xbox 360 and the money that he pays year on year to play those games. Living in the UK so he plays £45 for the new game which is released every year, he buys Call of Duty Elite for £35 and of course you must have a Xbox live gold account which costs £40 to play the game online so that’s a total of £120 or roughly $180 that he pays every year which is almost the cost of an Xbox console itself. Many of my console playing friends say that they don’t game on PC because the hardware is too expensive which is a fair point, but if they actually totted up the extra money that they have to pay for their games and the services that they are charged for that should be free they may be surprised with the end result.
Its hard to say at the moment if free to play will be the future, but its growing fast and many of the big game developers will be watching to see how these games do financially to see if it is something worth dipping their toe into in the future. Physical box sales of games are falling year on year and the digital distribution model for games is growing fast and works well with free to play. I would expect many more free to play titles to be announced over the next year on PC adding to the already excellent batch of releases we’ve seen this year. Its a good time to be into PC gaming with the platform having a tremendous amount of diversity and creativity going on at the moment and lets hope it continues for many years to come.