I have mentioned the whole free-to-play business model several times in the past. (Here's an example. And here's another one.) While I have my doubts about the long-term sustainability of this model, for now it's a great way for fledgling MMORPGs to build the communities their games need in order to succeed. No one wants to play in an empty MMO after all, so ensuring there is a strong community is one of the most important factors in maintaining a MMO.
But now the RTS (real-time strategy) game is following suit. Just last week, longtime RTS hit series Age of Empires added a new iteration that has a free-to-play option they claim will deliver over 40 hours of free content. That's plenty for players to get themselves addicted and maybe spend small chunks of change until they realize they've spent over $100 on a game that they thought was free.
Age of Empires Online is a radical departure from the traditional formula of the series. For one, it contains a more cartoony visual style. More important to the core player base, though, is that in some aspects it plays like an MMORPG. The world you play in is persistent, changing and progressing even while you are away from it.
So maybe it's not all that strange, then, that this new entry in the Age of Empires series would take on a radically different business model. In a lot of ways, it's a radically different game than Age of Empires III, after all.
But here's a more surprising development: StarCraft II has adopted a limited free-to-play option as well. The StarCraft series is sort of the golden standard for the RTS genre. It's a massive budget production with insanely detailed visuals. Most impressive, though, is that there are three very different playable races, each with a unique play style, yet the game remains incredibly balanced. Sure, there have been a few tweaks here and there, but for the most part, StarCraft II has been the standard that any RTS should aim for in terms of balance and fairness between factions.
Simply put, StarCraft II is the megahit of the RTS genre. In fact, you could even say it's "the WoW of RTS games." (Quite an appropriate description, as Blizzard is behind both games.) But the fact that even StarCraft II is adopting a free-to-play entry model means there is something to it. (It must be pointed out, however, that as of yet, StarCraft II hasn't implemented a microtransaction store.) Is this the new wave for the RTS?
And what of other genres? This is a model that would work for a wide range of games. The fighting game is well on its way there, with its ever-expanding character rosters. At some point will we see free-to-play fighting games that start you off with four or six characters but have you pay for others piecemeal? Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is actually getting a lot of flak for its decision to not offer its additional characters piecemeal. Would players be happier with a F2P fighting game model?
How about the 2D platformer? Will we see a free-to-play platformer that has us paying for additional levels and playable characters with different abilities? For example, you could play the opening world of New Super Mario Bros. for free, but pay a small fee to unlock additional worlds, or a playable Luigi. (I'm actually thinking Super Meat Boy with a microtransaction element might be a more appropriate example.)
In fact, there are even shooters that are doing the F2P thing. The upcoming Blacklight: Retribution is a prime example, and I wouldn't be surprised see more of these F2P shooters hitting PSN, XBLA, and Steam in the near future.
My prediction: The RTS is going the way of the MMORPG. And that means the free-to-play model will be more and more commonplace among RTS games. Watch both Age of Empires Online and StarCraft II, as they could both provide insight into the future of the genre.
With other genres starting to follow suit, I have a feeling it won't be long before we start seeing free-to-play fighters, free-to-play platformers, free-to-play action games, and so on. In fact, we're halfway there already. I just feel like this is going to be increasingly popular as time goes by.
The downside is that you'll have to deal with the ads for the microtransaction shops. "Come on down to the StarCraft superstore, where all your StarCraft needs can be taken care of for a low low price."
CCC Editor/Contributing Writer
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*