The lights are on
Free-to-play began on the PC landscape and continues to flourish there. Free-to-play mobile games are released every day. The world of consoles, however, has yet to do any real experimentation in the world of free-to-play.
Almost every game could be functional in the free-to-play model. All you have to do is create a game where there is something desirable for the player to acquire, and then charge them for it. Alternatively, you could just flash a few ads and make the player wait for certain statistics to rise over time. It would definitely work better in some genres than others.
The likelihood of these genres dipping into the free-to-play world on consoles is rated on a scale of $0.01 to $500.00 worth of microtransaction dollars.
Competitive Shooters - $427.34
This one is the most obvious, and already exists on PC. Games like Team Fortress 2, Battlefield Heroes, and Tribes: Ascend have all seen success in the PC world with free-to-play models. We haven’t seen anything like this on consoles yet, but Dust 514 for the PlayStation 3 will change that, though that title’s success has yet to be proven.
In a few years, instead of seeing regular retail Call of Duty releases year to year, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a strictly multiplayer game available to download for free for consoles that can be updated with new maps, weapons, etc. for a price. Perhaps you could play the base stuff for free if all you want to do is jump on from time to time and shoot at some people.
Competitive Fighting Games - $98.07
Fighting games foster an environment where players tend to choose and master one character. Playing around with other fighters is always entertaining, but everyone always has one fighter that they turn to when they have to win a match. I imagine the free-to-play model in fighting games would need to focus heavily on character customization, allowing players to make their own visually distinct version of their favorite fighter. I like the idea that if you were playing a free-to-play Street Fighter online, you would need to steer clear of the version of Ryu wearing a bicycle helmet and underwear, as he is the most bad-ass Ryu of them all.
The vastly successful PC title League of Legends works in a similar fashion, and that game has a huge fan base, but free-to-play one-on-one fighting games (like Street Fighter) are unlikely.
Competitive Racing Games - $263.11
Gran Turismo 5 came close to experimenting with this idea by offering players a neutered version of Gran Turismo 5 at a lower price with Gran Turismo 5 Prologue. It was a cheaper version of the game with fewer cars and tracks, but it added new content periodically with updates.
Most racing games add new cars with DLC (and, in Forza’s case, lots of customization options), but I could see a future where the base racing game is free, and you buy only the cars and the tracks you want. Maybe there could even be a virtual trade-in program where you can trade in your vehicle only moments after purchasing it at a significant loss. Realism is important after all.
Open-World Games - $0.53
Imagine if downloading Grand Theft Auto 4’s Liberty City, or Assassin’s Creed’s Rome was free, but in order to unlock missions, weapons, and assorted customization options, you have to either level your character, or pay for everything individually. Meeting otherwise normal non-player characters in the world could lead to conversations like: “I need you to assassinate this guy! It will cost you $5 in real money to this job for me, but I will give you $300 virtual dollars.”
I don’t think it would be the preferable way to play an open-world game, but I wouldn’t be completely surprised to see a game like this appear in the future.
Role-playing Games and Massively Multiplayer Online Games - $499.99
These are the games that really fostered the idea of the free-to-play game, but it’s one that hasn’t appeared on consoles yet. We’ve seen MMOs, but that’s about as close as the console has gotten, and usually with less than stellar results.
Tales of Vesperia for the Xbox 360 was not a free-to-play game, but it did have some microtransaction options like the ability to use Microsoft Points to purchase levels and money. Technically, Xbox Live doesn’t allow you to purchase the same DLC twice, so to get around this, Tales had multiple DLC skus for purchasing levels and money. It was like buying a full retail game, with all the expenditure options of a free-to-play game. Some might call it the best of both worlds. I am not one of those people.
As Tales demonstrates, we’re already seeing a little bit of this on consoles. All that has to be done is axe the initial investment of buying a game at retail.
Sports Games - $222.22
The Maddens, NBA 2Ks, and Tiger Woods of the video game world change up their gameplay and add new features year after year to encourage full retail purchases. Every year there are still complaints that this year’s game is only a roster update. For those players who don’t care about new features who are more interested in mastering the old, a future version of these titles that let players download the full game for free, purchase their favorite athletes or teams, and pay year to year to update statistics and rosters could exist.
This doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen anytime soon, but mostly because sports games are still huge sellers, and consumers are still purchasing the full games year to year.
Honorable Mention: Weird Japanese Games, Specifically Beautiful Katamari - $499.99
Beautiful Katamari was practically a free-to-play game when it released, other than the fact that you had to buy the full game. You could download seven additional levels for 80 Microsoft Points each. You could also pay to unlock 10 of the hidden cousins or presents at a time. All of the presents and cousins could be found in the game by searching the levels. There was also an achievement that could only be unlocked by playing one of the DLC levels, but the achievement was part of the full game, and not an additional achievement added after an update or after purchasing the DLC.
Between Tales of Vesperia and Beautiful Katamari, Namco Bandai was trying to get into the free-to-play model well before anyone else. Of course, you still had to pay for the full games; a negligible detail.
What do you think of the free-to-play model? Do you want to see it come to the console space? Do you want to be able to play a game for free and decide later if you want to expand your experience with paid micro-transactions? Or are you comfortable playing full price for full games on day one?
Email the author Kyle Hilliard, or follow on Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and Game Informer.