Twenty-twelve: The rise of free to play
[With 2013 looming before us, it's the time of year that the AWESOMEoutof10 office gets a touch of nostalgia. Join us every day this week for a look back at the defining aspects of 2012.]
Even though people have a tendency to overstate such things, I can say with all honesty that 2012 has been a truly great year for video games. There’s no other way to put it. In spite of people worrying that the current console generation is going on too long, that the gaming press’ integrity has been compromised or that last year’s Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine is unfortunately a real game, we have somehow made it to the end of the year. Not just that, we have a lot of great games to show for it. Titles like Mass Effect 3, Sleeping Dogs, Dishonored and Borderlands 2 entertained me for hours and may even have made it into my “best games ever” list. The most surprising and most exciting revelation for me though is the large number of quality free to play games to come out of 2012.
The idea of “free-to-play” has, until recently, been a phrase to strike fear into the hearts of gamers everywhere. Free-to-play games developers of old like Zynga were notorious for cramming games with adware and merciless marketing tactics. They would even attempt to piggyback their software with other programs. If I had a pound for each time I’ve accidentally installed freeware with some graphics card drivers, I’d have three pounds! But seriously, who would even have wanted to play these games, anyway? If you could stomach the barefaced cheek of the transaction systems, there was barely enough substance to entertain social media junkies let alone hardcore gamers.
This all changed in 2011 when a flood of quality free to play hardcore oriented games started to emerge on PC platforms. Team Fortress 2 was, and still is, one of the most famous and widely played games from this new school of games design. And what is more, it was by Valve! If ever there was going to be a developer to win over the hearts of PC gamers within the free to play space, then it would have to be them. Other large software developers were quick to follow suit, with MMORPG’s like League Of Legends and Lord Of The Rings Online dropping their subscription model in favour of free to play micro transaction systems. The seeds of change were being sown, but I don’t think anyone could have been prepared for the onslaught that was to follow.
This year has brought with it free to play hardcore games from practically every genre imaginable. From FPS games like Blacklight: Retribution, Tribes: Ascend, and Bullet Run to MMO’s like Star Wars: The Old Republic, Star Trek Online and Vindictus, and RTS games like Dota 2, you’d be hard pressed to find something that doesn’t tickle your fancy. Not only that, but two fantastic free to play games Hawken and PlanetSide 2 have come out in the last month alone, with many more games such as Firefall, Warface and Dungeons & Dragons: Neverwinter in development for future releases. It’s an undeniable and unavoidable trend in the gaming industry at the moment. The only question is: will free to play stick around for the long term?
I personally believe that F2P is here to stay for good. It offers players something that most triple A pay to play games cannot – a way to try a game before buying it. We’ve all bought terrible games at some time or another. There’s no worse feeling in the world. You’ve seen all the screenshots, watched all the trailers, pored over all the previews in magazines or on the internet, only to buy the “masterpiece” you’ve been salivating over for so long and find that it’s a stinker. Sometimes not even playing a pre-release demo can prepare you for the shock. Why put yourself through such emotional and financial turmoil – particularly in a time of economic recession – when you can play some games pretty much in their entirety for free? It’s a realisation that many gamers have obviously come to. Ubisoft alone expect to earn €50 to €60 million just from its free-to-play and casual games in fiscal 2013. That’s up from €20 million in 2012.
Such a large amount of revenue is bound to turn the heads of games developers. Even MMO’s that aren’t F2P like The Secret World have taken some inspiration from free-to-play titles by dropping their subscription models this year. Free to play could be exactly the solution the industry needs to the growing cost in developing games. With a new console generation looming on the horizon, developers are thinking of ways to make increased development costs and greater competition between rival games companies more economically viable. This idea of gamers voting with their wallets could actually bring about a new age of quality titles in the same vein as Greenlight and Kickstarter that survive because they are supported by enthusiastic communities, and not funded solely by large publishing houses who think they know what we want.
It’s not just the PC that will enjoy a wealth of quality free to play titles, either. Whilst it is leading the charge in the absence of investment from the console crowd, there are a few games that are beginning to emerge in the console space too. Dust 514 is one such game, which not only looks set to introduce F2P to consoles on a large scale, but is actually bridging the gap between console and PC gamers who play EVE Online. It’s an exciting new trend that won’t necessarily mean full priced pay to play games disappear; but it may mean they’re fewer in number.
Such drastic changes are bound to worry and even anger some gamers. The idea of traditional triple A pay to play titles going out of the window in favour of “simplified” F2P designs isn’t welcomed by everyone. I personally feel that this is an archaic way of looking at things. The idea of download only titles wasn’t so popular at one point in time, but now that it has spilled over into the console space with platforms like XBLA, people have noticed the benefits. The kinks are being worked out of the free to play idea before our very eyes. Companies like Zynga are literally starting to become a thing of the past whilst fantastic full fat experiences like Planetside 2, Star Wars: The Old Republic and Hawken are coming to the forefront. It’s time for us to reward games companies for innovative designs by sampling huge numbers of games for free and then voting with our wallets. It truly has been a great year for video games, but I think the one thing 2012 has demonstrated above all else is that free to play is here to stay. And that’s a very good thing.