When one thinks of free-to-play video games, memories of poor quality, bargain bin game cartridges of yesteryear spring to mind. However, in the past decade, the term “free-to-play,” in reference to video games, has taken on a completely new meaning.
More and more games are coming out in which the only thing keeping players between them and the hottest multiplayer action online is a click of a button, no cash or credit transaction required. Triple-A developers seeing much less give from players when it comes to how they monetize their games has put the industry in an interesting spot. Free-to-play seems to be the theme of the future of video games, a path that can only benefit both players and developers.
The most common concern someone who is unfamiliar with the gaming industry will have when it comes to this topic is that, if a game doesn’t have a hefty $60 price tag with it, how do the studios make money?
This can be broken down quite simply. Developers and publishers don’t make much off of that $60 to begin with (this is mostly for the benefit of the retailers). For nearly as long as they have existed, about $50 to $60 has been the price tag to be found on a modern game. Yes, that old hunk of grey plastic with a pixelated plumber on the front label sitting in your Grandma’s attic was once worth as much as Red Dead Redemption 2.
For a number of reasons, such as the invention of the compact disc, gaming companies have been able to cut costs even though average Triple-A game developers are exponentially larger than what they were in the ‘80s.
Today, that $60 tag almost feels like an obligation to the industry standard.
The best example of this would be to look at everyone’s favorite punching bag, Fortnite.
Fortnite is free-to-play and always has been, yet it is the largest, most pro table game imaginable at the moment. Epic Games hit gold with their unique take on the Battle Royale genre, but the game hasn’t always been this popular.
When the game first came out, it wasn’t making anything. It had a good bit of buzz around it, but the only way to actually spend money on the game was to shell out an absurd amount of cash for in-game cosmetics (character costumes, dance emotes, etc.), all of which, at the time, were miserably lacking in creativity and variety. Now, the big price tag is there, but the costumes are elaborate and range from incredibly silly or cute to menacing and cool. There’s an option for everyone.
This model of free-to-play, but with in- game, micro-transactions has been around for quite some time. It’s disguised as a means of contributing to the developers (“This was free, and I want to support it, $15 for a pink bear costume will do”).
Now these micro-transactions are a slippery slope that has already forced
some people to slide, as the lines between random loot boxes and legitimate gambling are almost nonexistent, which is a larger topic for another time. However, the fact still stands that free-to-play games have an edge over their in-store counterparts based simply on accessibility alone.
Fortnite is the prime example of this, but it isn’t the only one.
Hi-Rez studios, the company that develops some of the free-to-play games that I play regularly, released completely free-to-play games across PC, Xbox, PS4 and Nintendo Switch, but with micro- transactions. They are now a company that was able to build a state-of-the-art Esports facility in-house and manage to pay their professional SMITE players a mandatory minimum of $30,000 a year (the league has roughly 60 to 70 players) on top of housing.
All of this was made possible by the thousands of devoted players willing to pay top-dollar for a chance at a costume for one of their favorite characters that isn’t even a permanent piece of merchandise. Yes, the whole loot box system is designed to drain unknowing players (yes, this means kids) of their money. It’s manipulative and sketchy, but the results and potential are irrefutable.
These free-to-play games are showing that free doesn’t necessarily mean low- quality. Rather than being the best option for poorer parents, free-to-play is slowly becoming expected. When games like Star Wars Battlefront and Overwatch came out, people loved them but couldn’t help feeling that what they were getting with these games wasn’t much more than what they were getting from free-to-play developers. Those games cost $60 upfront. The only main difference was polished graphic quality, an aspect of games that isn’t even important to everyone.
The model in place certainly needs some kind of regulation (some European countries have already started to do this) to make sure that these companies aren’t manipulating children for their own profit, but as it stands right now, the most important thing about a video game is being able to play it. The zero-dollar price tag is the most efficient way to accomplish that.