Is the future of videogames freemium?

For as long as the games industry has existed it has been cash up front for a complete product, but is there another way? Harry Slater investigates.
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A shift is happening in the way we pay for and consume games. For as long as the games industry has existed, it has followed the same model – cash up front for a complete product – but over the last couple of years that model has started to struggle, both in terms of revenue generated and the way gamers and developers perceive it.

Step forward free-to-play, a method of collecting revenue that’s based on microtransactions within the gaming experience, with no upfront outlay whatsoever. You download a game, play it for as long as you like for nothing at all, paying only for in-game items designed to expand and enhance your experience.

‘We truly believe that the free-to-play model is the fairest for developers and for gamers.’ says Peter Holzapfel of Crytek, a developer that’s one of the torchbearers for free-to-play. Crytek has made a commitment to the model, with CEO Cevat Yerli stating more than once that freemium is the only viable future for the gaming industry. A claim his company has backed up with the development of its first free-to-play game: Warface.

‘There’s no risk attachment [for the player]. They can try our game, so they’ve invested time into it, which is already a big investment with all the other products around,’ says Holzapfel. ‘If then we have a strong product, and people would like to play the game, to invest that time in it, it’s our belief that at some point they will say “OK, this is a good game, I want to spend money on it”. But the amount of money they have to spend, that’s something that they choose.’

Free-to-play games offer up possibilities that boxed products simply can’t. There’s more room for community interaction, for changes based on the ideas of the people who are actually playing the game on a regular basis. But there are irrational fears attached too, and that’s a problem, especially in Western markets and that’s an obstacle Crytek are having to confront.

‘Right now [the view of] free-to-play is that it’s low quality and it’s play to win, so those are the two things we’re fighting against,’ he continues. ‘Low quality – there I think we have a pedigree as a developer, and working with Trion, who also have a good reputation on the customer service side, we’ve pretty much covered that.’

When it comes to accusations that free-to-play games are play to win, Crytek have a clever solution: different purchasable products in different markets. So in the West, where the accusations are strongest, they’ve tailored a set of in-game purchases that make it clear you’re not paying to win, you’re paying to enhance a skill set that’s already there.

Of course, Warface isn’t the only upcoming free-to-play title that’s been lavished with triple-A polish. CCP’s Dust 514, which links together with the subscription-based space-faring MMO Eve Online, is set to bring the model to the PS3, and offers exciting possibilities for cross game play that couldn’t exist in a boxed product.

Then of course there’s the raft of MMOs that are already, or are in the process of, becoming free-to-play games, and app stores full of freemium titles for your smartphone and favourite social network – the likes of Farmville and the recently released SimCity Social leading the charge.

Free-to-play is creating a new language at the heart of videogame development, and forcing a change the likes of which the industry hasn’t seen. Whether you’re a naysayer or an ardent supporter of the new model, you’re going to have to give it a chance, because it looks like Cerat Yerli is right: the future is free-to-play.

By Harry Slater