Shoot to Score: Why Free-to-Play will Win the War of the Online Shooters
A few weeks ago, I had the chance to get a closer look at EA’s upcoming free-to-play shooter Battlefield Play4Free, a game based on the same concept and engine as Battlefield Heroes, but targeted at a core-gaming audience. The strategy behind Battlefield Heroes is clear: they want to broaden the Battlefield playerbase with cartoon graphics and third person view. With its “gamer” orientation, one could think that Battlefield Play4Free is mainly competing with other titles from DICE, but that would be forgetting that it positions Electronic Arts one step ahead of its western competitors in the war of online shooters, a war that won’t ultimately be won by AAA console titles, but rather by free-to-play games on open platforms.
Shoot to Sell
Since the age of Doom, Quake and Wolfenstein, First Person Shooters have always been among the most successful video game genres. Their competitive aspect led to the growth of E-Sports thanks to Counter-Strike, while their cutting-edge graphics were supported by tech companies, who are happy to serve competitive players in upgrading graphic cards and computers to get better performance. FPS is also the most prominent genre in the modding community, allowing new studios such as Splash Damage to transform a hobby into a successful company. So, we know that FPS are successful. We also know that a large part of this success arises from the multiplayer aspect, and this tends to generate two types of behaviour among games companies:
1) The Short Burst (also called the “Call of Duty Complex”) : The most common behaviour, the ‘short burst’ is led by the retail way of thinking about the gaming business: you release a successful FPS, support it for 6 to 8 months with premium DLC, and then launch a sequel 12 to 18 months later in order to keep visibility on the shelves.
2) The Long Run: First Person Shooters are successful, and players invest a lot of time in them — a level of commitment comparable to what we see in MMOs. So why not combine FPS gameplay with MMO elements, and fund this in the long term through microtransactions? From the item shop of Team Fortress 2 to the free-to-play model of War Rock, games using this recent business and development model are more and more common.
The title of this blog post says it all. I think that developers and publishers choosing the second option are bound to ultimately win this war, for one reason: because games using this model have a purpose.
Time is Money
Following on from my earlier point, players invest a tremendous amount of time in the games they play, and this time has to be meaningful for them. For hardcore Counter-Strike players, this meaning is in the skills they acquire which could put them on the road to international competitions and professional e-sports. Considering the great significance and worldwide longevity of Counter-Strike, these skills have lasting value and can also bring fame within the community. Other players choose to go the “RPG” way with games such as Battlefield Heroes/Play4Free, War Rock, Karma and other games that incorporate leveling and inventory systems. Investment payoffs here include reaching the highest level, unlocking the best gear and being ready to tackle the next expansion.
Of course, games like Call of Duty now also have item unlocks and leveling systems, but they are based on the ‘short burst’, so these features struggle to retain value in the context of their publisher’s main purpose: to launch a new sequel every year. Even if the multiplayer servers won’t be shut down anytime soon, support and development of new content will stop. Why would Activision release new content for the first Modern Warfare when the underlying goal is to push players to buy the second, and the third, etc.? The community aspect is weakened in the same way, because having multiple games splits the community and therefore reduces the efforts of community leaders to build a sustainable ecosystem.
Players are then faced with a choice: they can opt for a game which uses the first model, invest hundreds of hours of time playing, pay for the DLC, and then start over when the sequel is released; or they can go for a free-to-play game that will, if operated properly, keep adding new content and grow the community for 5 to 10 years, possibly more. We have seen in a previous post that graphics don’t contribute significantly to a game’s success, and FPS players aren’t that different compared to MMO users in that regard (otherwise Counter-Strike wouldn’t still be so popular). What counts is gameplay, community, content and support. Time spent playing is an investment, and in order to get the right return, players will ultimately choose to invest their time in ventures that are not designed to stop growing after 12 months.
Sure, the likes of Call of Duty will still sell millions in the west for a couple of years, but to reach the top they’ll have to beat the success of Tencent’s CrossFire, a free-to-play FPS that is probably the most played game in the world.
You know, free-to-play works in the West too
The Free-to-Play business model isn’t new anymore. Most people in our industry know what it is and how it works, although surprisingly not as many as one would think given that it’s been working in Asia for more than 10 years. Even large publishers seem to understand the concept, but many fail to see it as an opportunity in the West. Crytek announced that their upcoming free-to-play shooter Warface has been developed “for Asian markets”, while Ubisoft’s CEO recently declared that the company will launch their microtransaction-based game The Settlers Online only in “territories where this business model has proven to be successful, like Turkey, Russia or China.” Activision has also announced a free-to-play version of Call of Duty dedicated to China.
Few of the big traditional publishers have committed to this space in the West. Many simply state that free-to-play online games generate too little revenue, except of course in countries where a traditional model simply wouldn’t work. Many companies, including BigPoint, Gala and Riot Games have proven that free-to-play can be very profitable, so why wouldn’t companies such as Ubisoft or Activision actually work it out? We can see two possible explanations: first, these publishers don’t have knowledge or experience of this space, and can’t adapt their huge structure to the flexibility required by the business model. Second, they may feel that they can’t launch a medium-quality free-to-play title without damaging their brand, and further, entering the market with a AAA microtransactions-based game in the West might draw some of their customers away from retail premium titles.
Both explanations are reasonable, but the second one is flawed in the long run. As free-to-play is gaining more and more traction in the west, traditional publishers are missing a crucial head start, and companies such as Gameforge or BigPoint are now too big to be bought by a larger company without risk. Which brings us back to our original topic: among the traditional publishers, EA seems to be the one investing the most in new business models, as evidenced by the opening of Easy Studio — a spin-off from DICE dedicated to development and operation of free-to-play games (as is Germany-based EA Phenomic). Despite EA’s high-risk gamble with Star Wars: The Old Republic, the company might still be ahead of its competitors in the long run, thanks to its head start in new business models.
All is not lost
So, we have seen that free-to-play online shooters might be the future of First Person Shooters, and that most traditional western publishers don’t seem to be prepared for it yet. But we also know from experience that games can change their business model. If a subscription-based game such as Lord of the Rings Online can change its business model from monthly fee to microtransactions and boost its revenue, there’s no reason why a game initially based on the model “box + DLC” can’t drop the box price and integrate microtransactions. Imagine for a moment the release of Battlefield 3 at the end of this year: the game sold well thanks to a strong brand and marketing support for EA, but after a year of operation and DLC, the question arises whether to take the gamble of releasing a Battlefield 4, or change the business model to free-to-play and continue supporting the game for the long haul. Thanks to the expertise acquired by DICE’s brother studio Easy (and if they anticipate it enough in the original game code), the developer could probably turn the game around, adapt it to a new business model, drop the initial barrier of the box price, and end up with a AAA free-to-play game ready for the western market before any of its competitors.
After the shift in MMOs from subscription to free-to-play, will traditional boxed FPS be switching business model as well? This is just speculation, but the success of CrossFire or Counter-Strike Online in Asia makes us wonder if a similar thing would be possible in the West. History tells us that trends from Asia tend to appear in Europe faster than we thought…