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If you look at any upcoming video game release schedule, one thing that immediately stands out is the abundance of...
If you look at any upcoming video game release schedule, one thing that immediately stands out is the abundance of free-to-play titles. The free-to-play model has evolved through the decades from unintrusive, to maligned, to universally lauded as developers and publishers learned to balance audience demand with their own financial expectations. As it stands today, the evolved and streamlined free-to-play platform might be one of the best things to happen to gaming, but in order to get there, it had to come a long way.
Before free-to-play and before freemium, software that locked content behind a paywall used to be called shareware, and the term’s still in use today for certain apps and programs. Since the internet became widespread, software companies had no manufacturing fees to worry about and could therefore offer a limited, often called a “lite” version of their program to users for free. These “lite,” shareware versions usually offered a stripped-down, basic functionality, with more advanced features available at an additional price.
The system worked because most users got what they needed-- an unzipping utility or an audio trimming tool-- while the companies that made the software earned revenue from a handful of advanced users. It was a win-win-- until companies got greedy.
It was venture capitalist Fred Wilson who first put forth a definition of the emerging “freemium” model in 2006:
“Give your service away for free, possibly ad supported but maybe not, acquire a lot of customers very efficiently through word of mouth, referral networks, organic search marketing, etc., then offer premium priced value added services or an enhanced version of your service to your customer base.”
Sounds a lot like shareware, right? Wrong. The greedier companies took the term and ran with it, locking more and more content behind a paywall until they were offering a decidedly weaker version of the software. Nowhere was this more detrimental than in the gaming sphere, where competitiveness depends greatly on equipment and availability of features.
The last part of Wilson’s definition, “value added services or an enhanced version of your service,” is open to broad interpretation. What constitutes a basic version, and what makes it enhanced? Once companies began to widen the gap between the two, public outrage began to heat up, but it would take a long time for the pot to boil over.
Take, for instance, FarmVille. The incredibly popular freemium Facebook game was all anyone talked about a few years ago, and everyone and their mom was hooked. Especially the moms.
FarmVille operated on a Waiting Time freemium model, meaning once you used up your allotted play time for growing crops, you’d have three choices: wait it out until tomorrow, when you’d get more time, pester your friends to play FarmVille for more time, or just straight up buy time with money.
A lot of people spent inordinate amounts of money on FarmVille, which suited its creator, Zynga, just fine. The trouble came when other game developers got jealous and wanted in on that sweet freemium dough. This new pay-to-play model spread rapidly throughout the mobile world, reaching the point where most of the biggest mobile games utilised some form of the model to cash in on their user base.
All this went on largely undisturbed. People complained, yes, but ultimately moms and grannies were happy to shell out the dough to farm for a couple more hours, and as long as the Zyngas of the world were rolling in it, there was little anyone could do about it.
Until freemium reached the hardcore gaming audience, that is.
Although Farmville had been largely forgotten and King’s Candy Crush ruled supreme as the freemium mobile game of choice, as long as it was pandering to the same audience, freemium was safe. In the meantime, the model had been creeping into regular video games with alarming abundance, but hardcore gamers usually voted with their wallets.
Then, Electronic Arts decided to resurrect the beloved Dungeon Keeper video game franchise as a freemium mobile game. At release, the game was so tightly locked behind paywall after paywall that it was barely playable. Had this been any other game, it would have passed by unnoticed. But this wasn’t just any old reboot: this was Dungeon Keeper, and gamers were furious.
Just read this excerpt from Gamereactor Denmark’s Dungeon Keeper review:
“Dungeon Keeper is an anti-game. It sucks the joy of gaming out of me and it has no redeeming qualities, not in the slightest. Calling it greedy would be understatement of the year. The already tarnished image of free-to-play could hardly receive a more devastating blow than that which Dungeon Keeper has given it. It eats at my soul every time I play it. And that's why I'll uninstall, nay, banish it from my tablet as soon as I've finished this sentence.”
Proper livid. So angry, in fact, that EA themselves issued a statement to counteract some of the vitriol spewed at Dungeon Keeper.
"For people who'd grown up playing Dungeon Keeper there was a disconnect there. In that aspect we didn't walk that line as well as we could have. And that's a shame," said EA boss Andrew Wilson in an interview with Eurogamer.
At that moment, it was clear that even corporate bigwigs got it. Freemium had no place in the hardcore gaming arena, and gamers were prepared to punish anyone who attempted it. And yet…
As we said above, open any upcoming game release list and you’ll see a ton of free-to-play titles. Many of the most popular games today, on any platform, are free-to-play. People love them. So what’s the difference between free-to-play and freemium?
Let’s take Blizzard’s super-popular card game, Hearthstone, as an example. After realising that free-to-play was actually lucrative, Blizzard made their most popular game, MMO World of Warcraft (like many other MMOs today), free. Hearthstone, by contrast, was free at launch. In Hearthstone, you buy cards to add to your arsenal and become more competitive. You can buy a pack of cards for $2.99, or you can win three games. A pack costs 100 in-game gold, a resource earned by paying for it with real money, or winning. And winning’s not that hard; it might take you a while, but it’s completely doable. Same goes for Hearthstone’s upcoming expansions: you can buy them outright with money, or you can spend a bunch of time playing and winning to accrue the gold necessary to unlock it. In effect, you could experience everything the game has to offer without paying a dime. Or you could spend money to see it faster. It’s up to you.
An even better model is Valve’s Dota 2 and our recent Game of the Week, Card Hunter’s free-to-play models. Both games offer the core experience completely free of charge. They make money by selling add-ons for your in-game self that are purely cosmetic and don’t affect the balance of the game in any way, something Valve used to great success with their multiplayer hit, Team Fortress 2.
Near the end of Valve’s Team Fortress 2 breakdown, it says that “you don't need to pay to win—virtually all of the items in the [store] can also be found in-game.”
This is the model adopted by almost all serious free-to-play games today. Blacklight: Retribution, WarZone, and War Thunder, all on the PlayStation 4, are free-to-play games that enjoy great success, and revenue to boot, using this model. The moment developers and publishers realised that they could offer a free, complete game and still make money off of content that doesn’t break the balance or experience was the moment free-to-play started to work in everyone’s favor. Here’s hoping the trend never dies.