The Danger of Free-to-Play

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A lot of things are threatening the traditional video game industry. DLC is on the rise, production costs are too high, sales are falling, portable consoles are dying, publishers are falling, and digital is taking over.

And yet, it’s free-to-play that is the most dangerous.

Here is the model: Players don’t pay anything for the game upfront. They get hooked, and are asked to spend anywhere from a few cents to a few hundred dollars for in-game items. Maybe it is lives, weapons, or other important items. Most leave, some stay. Those that stay are making these devs rich. The heavy spenders are known as “whales,” players who spend thousands of dollars to play something advertised as free.

The industry is changing. It doesn’t matter whether you like or not. That shift is happening right now, and for fans of big budget, AAA, $60 software, it’s not pretty. A generation is not growing up with Game Boy software they need to mow lawns to pay for. They’re getting an iPad and paying a few bucks for their fix before moving on. The idea of buying a game seems to be more foreign by the day.

Here’s the danger: Games are becoming smaller and disposable. You don’t necessarily need a unique idea, just instant gratification which hooks someone enough with that “free” angle to make a few bucks. Likely, as a developer, you have just made more than the sucker who wants a paltry $1 entry fee from his game.

It is difficult to ask someone to pay for iOS or Android games. Not that it doesn’t happen (there are enough success stories), but the respective marketplaces are littered with free games for a reason. Those generate continual profit, not a one time fee. As an industry, we’re training people to expect the free part.

In turn, this makes software worthless. Remember when Origin’s SVP spoke out against Steam sales and everyone jumped at him for his comments? Well, the free-to-play market is a metaphor for what he was talking out. People become accustomed (or expectant) of low prices, or in this case, free. A handful of “whales” will keep them in business. It only takes a couple, where as it takes hundreds or thousands of actual paid sales to remain profitable. Like cheap Steam sales, people ignore the high priced software and move directly to the value stuff.

It’s not that bargain bin games are poor. I’ve played a number that hook me, but there is no meat on the bones. They are often lacking in substance and style or even ideas. Most of the development seems spent on how they can charge people. I’ll always yearn for better, but the public does not. Compare the reasoning of the average Wal-Mart shopper: They want it on the cheap without quality concerns. Sure, they could find a handmade dining room table for $1,000, but why bother when Wal-Mart has one for $100 that serves the same purpose?

With free-to-play, that’s what we’ve introduced into the industry. It has become a mindset, where a $60 game for a console is appalling to many. People are content with what they have on their phones because it occupies them, and if they lose access to it, so what? Chances are they didn’t pay anything, or paid so little the purchase seems insignificant. If your Wal-Mart special dining room table breaks, you go buy another too. Chances are, the $1,000 table would never need replaced, but the satisfaction of a deal is what matters.

Games are not insignificant. It is a shame we are beginning to treat them as such.