Like many folks, I was surprised when Blizzard announced that Overwatch would not be free-to-play. After so long a time expecting the opposite, I’ll admit I went a little on tilt both last week and Monday on Twitter, especially after reading this interview with designer Scott Mercer, in which he says:

“To support that [hero-switching, a key component of the metagame], we need to have our 21 heroes [for everyone]. Not just, like, one tank, one support, one ranged character or something. You’ve got multiple different tanks and whatnot.”

It sounded to me like another game, The Elder Scrolls Online, whose lead designer insisted the game simply wouldn’t work without a subscription fee. We all know how that turned out.

But Overwatch is different… maybe. That’s because it has two key potential advantages over the scads of other games that have proudly declared themselves to be the last refuge of pay-to-play/subscription-based online games only to have to alter course a short time later and look all the more foolish for their sudden about-faces. To examine those advantages, let’s look at two of the best-known sub-based games out there.

Even if it’s down to 5.5 million subscribers, World of Warcraft is still huge. It may need to make adjustments as it ages and its player base continues to decline, but for more than a decade, it’s been able to set its own rules and – free-to-level-20 aside – buck the recent trend of MMOs to convert to free-to-play. Free-to-play is all about getting scads of new players into your game and boost its numbers, but even in its current state, WoW doesn’t need that, and Blizzard probably pulls in more money as a sub game than it would if it converted to free-to-play.

The second-most well-known venerable sub-based MMO on the market is Eve Online. CCP’s game has persisted, I think, because of its uniqueness. Since its launch, nobody has provided anything resembling its kind of freeform space simulation. Want to play something like WoW but don’t want to pay a box price/sub fee? There are plenty of options. Want to play something like Eve but don’t want to pay a box price/sub fee? Too bad. Want to play something like Eve and don’t mind paying for it? Too bad… until recently. Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen might be taking chunks out of Eve’s player base, which is reported to be down since its peak of 500,000 active players, but for a long time, it was the best at what it did, and CCP used that leverage to firmly keep it in the sub-only realm.


So let’s go back to Overwatch. By virtue of being a Blizzard product, and all that comes with that – the marketing, the polish, the easy access on the Battle.net launcher – it’s going to be a big deal, at least initially. It will probably sell a few million copies right out of the gate, which means that, like WoW, it’s simply better for Blizzard to charge for it. The demand is there, and it’s a big enough deal to get people to open their wallets. You’d almost be crazy to do pass up that kind of “easy” money.

Then we get to the second point, the one that I, and several others, latched on to, but which I’m starting to re-evaluate: the competition. Unlike Eve, Overwatch won’t have a decade or more to itself. There are lots of nominally similar battle-arena games already out or in development – Nosgoth, Gigantic, LawBreakers, Paladins, BattleCry – and they’re all free-to-play. (There’s also the not-free-to-play BattleBorn to consider.)

The key questions are: When will they launch, and are any of them actually good? Overwatch is set for a spring 2016 launch, but none of the other upcoming games have anything so firm on their schedules. Beating Overwatch to market could be a huge boon, helping them to latch onto a player base before the juggernaut arrives on the scene.

Or maybe it won’t. Getting in gamers’ hands early is nice, but quality also matters. We don’t know how good any of these final products will be – Overwatch included – but there’s no reason to automatically assume they’ll be better than Overwatch, either. If Overwatch controls something like 70-80% of the market share in this space, whether through its sheer magnitude or lack of solid competition, then it’s 100% the right decision for Blizzard to charge for it. If it dominates other solid games like WoW does in the MMO space or is the only viable choice in its genre, like Eve, it doesn’t need to be free-to-play.

Circumstances can change, of course. When asked about whether free-to-play might be in Overwatch’s future, Mercer said that “It’s something we’ll have to consider.” For the time being, though, it’s not part of Blizzard’s plan. They’re putting their faith in the Overwatch team to produce a game that people will choose over the competition, possibly for years to come. Given their track record, it’s not a bad gamble.

the author

Jason Winter is a veteran gaming journalist, he brings a wide range of experience to MMOBomb, including two years with Beckett Media where he served as the editor of the leading gaming magazine Massive Online Gamer. He has also written professionally for several gaming websites.

18 Readers Commented

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  1. gerrt on December 20, 2015

    no interested , i saw the Overwatch’s theatrical teaser they cant even show real gameplay instead they show this fantasy BS movies most bad looking games with mundain gameplay do why do they do this? to hide the fact their game has nothing real to offer overwatch will most likely be another Boring deathmatch game with a few smallish maps plagued with idiotic children and adults with childlike minds .

    same game play over and over ZZZZ

  2. laviathan on November 17, 2015

    seems to be a certain lack of new articles on this site after this one, what happened? you guys realize your hyping pay to play or pay to win games, and its not about free to play anymore?

  3. Mern on November 12, 2015

    “RIP Overwatch on MMOBomb”
    suddenly Overwatch articles everywhere

  4. Skyshatter on November 11, 2015

    its just – “We will milk $ until people stop buying the game then we will switch to F2P and milk via Cash Shop”

    • SqueezyTime on November 13, 2015

      It has nothing to do with Blizzard “milking” anything. They are creating a product and selling it. Considering the development that already went into Project Titan which they then had to completely rebuild into something else (Overwatch), the development costs are probably pretty significant at this point. It makes perfect sense that they would use a normal pay model. a B2P model will not only allow them to recoup the development costs quickly, but also allow them to create more content (maps, characters, etc) faster as well; not to mention the game won’t be ruined by stupid limitations put in place just to force people to spend money in the cash shop. It’s so much better than a shady cash shop model.

      • duty14 on November 14, 2015

        Bull crap…This is Blizzard we are talking here…. They have enough money to do everything they want…. Forgeting how much money they have made from WOW? Starcraft 2 divided in 3 titles? Even their new free to play titles are doing awesome…. There where articles about people buying all the cards in Heartstone meaning thousands of dollars just from 1 user… Defending the Milkman trying to squeeze money from you is far from being inteligent. This is a game buld to be free to play and now they realized that the hype can give them money for a couple of years. And inteligent people like you will find excuses for them and give them money.Every similar game to this one is F2P but because its from Blizzard its ok to charge money for it although it doesn’t have any campaign, no story with beginning and end. Its juts a combination of MOBA and Team Fortress witch all are free. I won’t find excuses for them and I will have enough free games( Smite, Nosgoth, Gigantic, Lawbreakers, Unreal Tournament, Paladins, Battlecry etc. ) to play until they decide to stop milking money from players. Free to play model is advantageous- look at other successful games, you don’t need to go B2P to get your investment back.

        • Plumpkitters on November 14, 2015

          wait a minute here so cause they got enough they should just give it to u? who are u?

        • SqueezyTime on November 15, 2015

          It’s a business, man. It’s not about how much money they have as a company, it’s about making a positive return. Yes, as a company they can afford to give away every game they develop for the next 10 years for free, but that wouldn’t make any sense from a business standpoint. I definitely agree with you in that free to play works great in many cases, but I also feel like it isn’t any better or worse overall than B2P is. I get that paying an initial investment for a game you have no clue whether or not you’ll truly enjoy is not fun, but you said it yourself, you can end up spending an insane amount of money on a free to play, and many people do so feeling like they have to in order to enjoy it. In the end, it all just comes down to whether or not you think the game is worth the money. I don’t care what people think of Blizzard (or any company for that matter), a game is a game. If its worth it to me I’ll buy it, and B2P is a standard business model; there’s nothing wrong with going that route. I’m more interested in seeing how Overwatch will fare in a market that is over saturated with similar free titles. The game looks very well developed, whereas many of those you listed do not (except UT… nothing is more fun than UT).

  5. Aqua on November 10, 2015

    I agree it makes sense for Blizzard to first try and cash in on the popularity of their brand and I’m sure Activision agrees on that. They’re also apparently selling it for 40$ which is below the 60$ price point you have for Battleborn (which does seem promising but after the Evolve DLC fiasco I have some reservations about 2K) and other recent Multiplayer only games.

    But that interview also raised the important point regarding future content- if having access to all heroes is so important (and from the early impression that does seem to be the case) then expanding the roster in a buy-to-play model would get difficult. It would either split the community the way DLC map packs do or create unbalance.

    I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

  6. Jokul on November 10, 2015

    You would think Overwatch would have Dotoro’s model where it’s free for everything, just with a shit tonne of skins and ways to up the prize pool of a championship. Oh well.

    • TreadHead on November 11, 2015

      Dota 2s model is good but really doesn’t work for anyone outside of Valve who control Steam and the Steam marketplace where they make a cut off of every user-created cosmetic item.

      Beyond that just getting people to install Steam on their PCs is worth it to them.

  7. idontlikemyname on November 10, 2015

    i don’t really care about paying 40$ or 60$ for the game in fact already pay the 60$ for the deluxe cause the game worth every penny

  8. RenTheRose on November 10, 2015

    umm i think you missed a game called Dirty Bomb in your line up its free to play with mutable characters that each play different and its already out and taking most of over watches players

    • kek on November 10, 2015

      True, but Blizzard is Blizzard, when it comes to them fanbase is one the biggest on ani MMO market. Regardless whether the game sucks or not, they will still get the crowd hype just because they are them. It is how it is.

      In my opinion, charging that much for a team fortress like game is way too much, TOO MUCH. There are so many games already like tf2 that provide wonderful content and entertainment. The only thing they have yet to achieve is reach the competitive scene, which Overwatch might.

      • Annonymouse on November 10, 2015

        um, Blizzard reached the competitive scene ages ago before most people knew there was a competitive scene.

        • Erm on November 11, 2015

          Quake would like to ask how the heck you forgot about it.

        • TreadHead on November 11, 2015

          I think Kek means TF2-like games have having yet to reach the competitive scene.

  9. Malice on November 10, 2015

    You can just see from watching the live streams the game is going to be massive. It looks ultra slick and for team based gameplay you can see the huge potential.

    Character design looks lush with real personality behind all of them, as expected of Blizzard.