Should You Fear Free-to-Play?

Should You Fear Free-to-Play?

If that old saying about “somethin’ for nothin’” is true, could this new trend be bad for business?

The face of the video games market is a very different one than that of just a few short years ago. If you think back to around 2007, the hottest things in regards to gaming on the go were the Nintendo DS and PSP. But now that technology has pushed our smartphones to act as entertainment hubs instead of just devices to make calls, mobile gaming has found new wings. Subsequently, this new landscape has left financial analysts trying to figure out the best method of monetizing the renaissance in order to capitalize on it in the most efficient way.

Enter free-to-play.

Of course, I’m aware that this business model is nothing new (nor did it truly get its start on platforms like iOS or Android). Many PC titles have been experimenting with free-to-play for years. However, I do credit the change in consumer’s habits (with a deep rooted NEED to never go anywhere without an electronic device in their pockets) as the gasoline that blew up this smoldering ember of a concept into a full on raging inferno. Over the last few years, this new attitude brought new opportunities (more specifically, a new revenue stream). However, it was clear from the start that tacking on big-bang price tags of $10, $20 or even $50 a pop for mobile content was never going to work. Free-to-play was the answer to that. By providing access to content on a “ground floor” level (and then allowing players to build the game piece meal via micro-transactions), many companies have slowly turned this rocky frontier into what will be their legitimate home for years to come.

Although, not everyone shares this same level of enthusiasm for the idea.

The very term free-to-play is a source of disdain and resentment for some game makers, and many are critical of the very business model itself. The assertion is that giving away content not only hurts us from a quality control standpoint (let’s face it, the pool of truly great smartphone games is pretty shallow at best), but causes gamers to become disengaged with the hobby. Some point to recent studies suggesting free games don’t have the staying power of traditional titles, with most people abandoning the game early in its life cycle (many within 24 hours of their initial download). While this is certainly problematic for those hoping to build longevity in an industry still in its infancy, others claim this is nothing more than the fear-mongering of insiders jockeying for position. Ben Cousins, for example, has experience working in the mainstream (at companies like EA) but now focuses on mobile. He feels the writing is obviously on the wall, yet some simply refuse to see it. “We fear what we don’t recognize, and in this case it’s the industry not recognizing where it’s heading…The attacks and criticism of free-to-play mechanics are often unfair and selective…This is snobbery; evidence that the old guard is scared of where the industry is headed.” He says.

Should You Fear Free-to-Play?

And some would wonder just where are we truly headed?

I’ve gotten into the mobile scene more heavily as of late, smartphone gaming in particular. While I’m impressed with how far we’ve come in that regard, we will have to go a lot farther before we impact traditional gaming on the home systems. Mobile, in its current state, is little more than a collection of fun mini-games or console ports (with only about 10% of the total market being worth a damn). As for the free-to-play model itself, that’s another story. Regardless of how much those in the industry may not like it, I see its roots only continuing to dig deeper and stronger (as long as people continue to water it with their dollars). We already see virtually every MMO on the PC making the switch, when in the past this was a huge source of subscription revenue.

So the real question is not how long free-to-play can last, but rather how long until it becomes the new standard on other platforms as well? I expect transactions on our online marketplaces like Xbox Live and PSN to look very different in the future.

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