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[Gamesbriefers] Will the big next-gen console title be Free-to-Play?

By on June 18, 2013
PS4

Question:

At E3 this year, while the hullaballoo was about AAA games, in physical boxes, with high initial pricepoints, it also became clear that the next generation of consoles will support free-to-play. Almost unnoticed, Tekken came out as a free-to-play game on PS3. Sony announced that free-to-play games would not have to pay for PlayStationPlus to enable online multiplayer, unlike paid-for games. Microsoft made it clear that F2P is in their roadmap.

That makes me believe that the dominant first person shooter on this generation of consoles will be Free-to-Play. It will not emerge in the first few years, since early titles have been in development for a long time. It some time after year 3 (so in 2016) free-to-play will become more prevalent, and this generation’s Call of Duty will be a freemium title.

Do you agree? Please show your workings.


Answers:

pecorellaAnthony Pecorella Producer for virtual goods games at Kongregate

When it comes to first person shooters things can get a little tricky. Monetizing an FPS is a challenge, especially in the West where “fairness” is considered sacred. We are seeing some great F2P FPSs appearing already on PC. Uberstrike, Offensive Combat, Blacklight Retribution, Planetside 2, Firefall… some high quality games with impressive production that can gain substantial audiences. But monetizing those audiences is a special challenge and not one that I think has been fully solved yet. For example, when Facebook was sharing top-grossing lists, Uberstrike was quite low in the rankings relative to its nearly 1 million DAU. Battlefield Heroes, while profitable, shared quite low KPIs, especially relative to RPGs, in a Gamasutra post in 2011. If some of these other games are killing it on a per-user basis and I missed that, please correct me.

From a design perspective there is still a little audience dissonance between F2P and FPS. Unlike games like RPGs and long term strategy games, where grinding and slow growth are naturally rewarded, FPSs are often considered to be games of great skill and careful balance. “Pay to win” complaints are magnified for a skill-heavy genre like FPSs. Fortunately, RPG/FPS blends like Borderlands 2 are starting to blur that line for players, along with perks gained by leveling up multiplayer in Call of Duty games. But designers of FPSs are going to have to be careful and creative with how they put together the monetization strategy.

I expect that in this next generation someone will hit a League of Legends or World of Tanks style model that provides a fairly balanced playing field for free and paying users that will capitalize on the e-sports demographic and be able to dominate the multiplayer FPS genre in terms of audience size. I also think there will be an RPG/FPS hybrid (Borderlands itself perhaps) that will be able to monetize at a much higher level off of a slightly smaller player base. As a side note, League of Legends could also be a great candidate for a console port this next generation, but perhaps that’s a different discussion. :)


PatrickO'Luanaigh2Patrick O’Luaniagh CEO of nDreams

I think this generation will see significant success for F2P on consoles, and I wouldn’t be suprised if over 50% of games releasing nearer the end of the cycle are F2P, particularly on PS4, which appears to embrace new business models much more than Xbox One at the moment. I strongly believe that F2P isn’t right for linear narrative-based games, and so I think you’ll continue to see adventure games and narrative based games (which make up a significant percentage of console titles) using the paymium model with additional paid content.

F2P makes less sense when the installed base is small, so I agree that F2P is likely to be bigger later on in the console cycle. You’ll see more paymium games though, and maybe lower up-front costs with more in-game item sales.

Designing free to play FPS games is certainly a very delicate task, but I believe it’s achievable. Crytek’s Warface has over 10 million players in Russia alone, and I think is a good example to use. The big question is whether the breakthrough FPS free-to-play game will come from a traditional publisher like Activision or a “new” publisher. My inclination is the latter – I just can’t see Activision letting go of the up-front day one revenue that a new Call of Duty game brings, until they see other similar games making more money than them.


Oscar ClarkOscar Clark Evangelist for Applifier

Lots of great points but I’d suggest the all Free-to-Play can be tricky – but its solvable provided you stay true to the game and make sure you balance the grind with the delight in a way which makes spending money feel valuable.

Shooter players are by nature a fickle bunch and delight in damaging other peoples playing experiences… PWN’in is a sport afterall. But knowing that gives us plenty to play with in terms of material to monetize.

I suspect that these people are also pretty willing to part with cash for the right thing; perhaps that will include new strategies of play or character development supported with Clan Features. I’m sure Ben Cousins will have more insight on this than most – but I guess from his previous posts that fairness isn’t as problematic an area as we might assume. That doesn’t mean we should create a Pay-to-Win game however.

In the end opening up to a Free-to-Play model will bring choice and change the dynamics of development on console. This will encourage disruptive design whether that’s first person shooters, RPGs, strategy games or maybe just maybe boardgames too ;0)

My gut feeling is that the flexibility, revenue opportunities and importantly the greater stability offered with the Free-to-Play model will mean in time it will dominate console just as it is with mobile. That doesn’t mean there won’t be any premium games; just that there will be fewer and the marketing teams will have to be smarter about how they promote them.

What is more interesting to me is to know what this means for physical delivery… Is this finally the end of the box product? or instead will that evolve?


Ben Cousins1Ben Cousins Head of European Game Studios at DeNA

I’m going to disagree with Anthony, having spent five years or so working in F2P shooters. If we compare retention and monetization metrics for a core F2P shooter on PC with the prevailing Facebook and mobile games, the per-user metrics are massively higher on average. Return rates on PC F2P shooters after 30 days are often higher than the 1 day return rate for a mobile game. It’s a great business.

It’s a huge genre worldwide (the West, Korea, China and recently Brazil with Combat Arms) and the data makes it clear that users, while complaining about fairness, speak with their wallets and playing time to prove that this genre works exceptionally well for F2P. My talk at GDC 2011 tells this story.

One of the world’s few billion-dollar F2P games is a shooter, with its revenues coming from just one territory (Crossfire in China).

Having said all this I’m skeptical about the success of a F2P shooter on console, relative to packaged goods games. The reason for this isn’t consumer preference, but platform holder content policies. Consoles, while they like to talk about openness to new business models, are at the end of the day locked into the old world, and all it takes is a sense that they might lose some goodwill from Activision to prevent them from properly promoting a theoretical high-quality F2P console FPS.


pecorellaAnthony Pecorella Producer for virtual goods games at Kongregate

Fair enough Ben – a discussion isn’t fun without some disagreement. :) Thank you for mentioning Crossfire, I couldn’t remember the name of it, and clearly it has met tremendous success in China, though sadly that often doesn’t correlate to similar success in the West.

When looking at your return rates though, you should be comparing PC F2P shooters to PC F2P RPGs and strategy games – games like League of Legends, World of Tanks, or Lord of the Rings Online that have similar barriers to entry (i.e. large download, account registration, high system requirements). That barrier to entry will substantially skew the data when compared to something like Facebook with no download, single sign on, and minimal requirements. It also doesn’t surprise me that the retention rates are very high – these are super fun games in a genre that is massively popular with players. But if shooters can compare favorably in LTV to PC client MMORPGs then I’ll happily concede defeat.

You do make great points about not listening to the vocal minority, or at least tempering their responses by looking at metrics and actual player behavior. And clearly it is possible to be profitable with a shooter. Perhaps I was a bit sweeping with my concerns about player perception of fairness, but I still maintain that as a genre, from the data I’ve seen at least, shooters monetize more like a casual game, compensating for slimmer margins with larger audiences. Ultimately that can certainly work, but there seems to still be a lot of room to grow in terms of monetization techniques in the shooter genre compared to some others.


paultaylorPaul Taylor Managing Director of Mode 7

I agree with a lot of things people have said here. I think World of Tanks in particular has really proved that competitive multiplayer of this precisely this type can make sense with an F2P model, although it is interesting they recently went to aesthetic-only microtrans citing the need to be credible as an e-sport.

I think you’d absolutely have to stick to “crossgrades” (e.g. Team Fortress and Tribes Ascend) as the most gameplay-altering form of microtransactions in order to comply with the “fairness” condition.

One of the really important points with these big shooter franchises, though, is that they are often dual multiplayer and single player titles. The big, rollercoastery single player campaign is a massive draw for a lot of players; I’ve not personally been convinced by the early efforts to monetise a linear AAA single-player experience (Dead Space, for example). As was mentioned, Borderlands is a good potential example for how you could start to do something like that, but actually Borderlands couldn’t be more different from something like Modern Warfare, which really doesn’t have a lot of player interaction in comparison – there are fewer “hooks”.

I’m not sure buying a different weapon, paying to make certain things easier / save time or other similar strategies would work in a Modern Warfare-style experience? There will always be demand for this kind of “filmic” gaming; I just can’t currently see how you could monetise it as F2P.


Bernard ChenBernard Chen Director of Product Management at KIXEYE

Does it have to be F2P? Microtransactions are for certain, but the bigger brands don’t need to give the base game away for free. The only question is if MTX = power. I think it will because power can be balanced or washed out in the population, and power sells. Would it be a troll thread if we guessed whether the next CoD will sell power?

I’ve been thinking about the draw from the developer side. Besides having a better upside potential, how big is the conscious draw that the dev team gets to keep working on the project? I know that we were a bit sarcastic at launch, “Oh great, launch. Back to work!”, but working on an online, F2P game afforded a lot of continuity. The team stayed together (for the most part) and all of the ideas that didn’t make launch are still trickling in bit by bit.


andy payneAndy Payne  MD at Mastertronic

Loads of fab feedback here. I will keep my points brief:

  • Microsoft are transitioning their business from games to a product from games as a service. They are no longer interested in games as a product or so they say. One high profile game they funded has been dropped and handed back to the developer for them to publish.
  • Microsoft are pursuing an aggressive/active studio acquisition plan to ensure that they get the content they want for their platform
  • So they will have the choice to pursue F2P as well as a possible subscription model (which not be my choice)
  • But we know that F2P currently needs a very, very big audience to monetise
  • It will therefore take time to build the installed base for the existing F2P monetisation wisdom to play out and be profitable for their games/products/services.
  • But other key partners (large developers and publishers) may not want to sell their games this way. Their call ultimately.
  • 3 companies lead in all matters related to the Cloud – Google, Amazon and Microsoft. This will be significant, especially if global bandwidth issues are solved by better compression tech.
  • Sony on the other hand have reacted to Microsoft and are on the record about allowing many more content creators to their platform.
  • My guess would be that the F2P model will be led by smaller organisations on the Sony platform. But installed numbers will still be a key issue here. Can Sony get enough PS4s sold to make F2P, as we know it now, a reality?

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  • http://www.codeofthewild.com/ SeanJJordan

    It’s always a pleasure to read the opinions of this panel.

    As a fan of gaming (rather than someone in-industry), I think it’s important to note that Sony has already dipped its toe in the waters on the PS3 with DC Universe Online (which has been free-to-play for some time now) as well as with Uncharted 3’s multiplayer mode, which is certainly one of the best and most popular multiplayer experiences to be found on Playstation Network. Since Sony has always employed a “something for everyone” strategy, it hasn’t really talked these movements up in the press, but the communities around both are tremendous.

    Sony’s also been touting Dust 514 for some time, and though the results are disappointing, it’ll likely be a game that evolves with time as users get more involved in the community.

    I’ve never messed around with Free Realms, but it’s no slouch, with a reported 20 million players worldwide. It went free to play on PS3 in 2011.

    The PS4 has two of the best F2P shooters slated for the launch window — Blacklight: Retibution and Planetside 2. Neither will require a PS+ subscription to play online, which is an added bonus for non-subscribers (since purchased games will require one).

    And even the Vita is getting a free to play game, in the form of Destiny of Spirits which does, admittedly, look pretty lame, but it’s a start.

    It’s also worth pointing out that Playstation Home, from the getgo, has been a F2P haven that mashes up a sanitized Second Life experience with several free to play games (in addition to other features).

    My point being — Sony hasn’t been a slouch when it’s come to F2P in the current console generation. They’ve been laying the groundwork for the PS4 to be a major player in the F2P arena. It’s really exciting to see the transition, and I’m psyched that Planetside 2 will get an injection of new players when PS4 early adopters tire of the rather tepid launch lineup Sony’s announced on the retail end.

  • Vincent Matrisciano

    Warframe published by Canadian Developer Digital Extremes will be (I believe) launching alongside the PS4 – a fast paced action shooter that isn’t an FPS (third-person), but it will remain F2P.

    With F2P shooters it’s tough to incorporate PvP, because paid advantages can be so damaging to its inherently competitive nature. But we’re noticing a shift toward (as Anthony mentioned) RPG/FPS fusions, where players can bypass lengthy grinds for a small fee. Games like Battlefield 3 already allow unlocking of high-level gear through micro transactions. As companies like EA build on that science, and next-gen abilities proliferate across web/tablet/smartphones, I think we’ll also see an influx of paying options which make F2P games much more feasible options for consoles.