The question at this point, I think, isn’t, “Will consoles embrace free-to-play?” Rather it’s, “What possible reason is there for consoles to not embrace free-to-play?”
For the longest time, consoles couldn’t do free-to-play for the simple fact that you needed a disk or cartridge to play, which generally require a real cost. But with consoles appearing to more closely mimic PCs these days, with Internet connections, hard drives, web browsers, and so on, the ability to deliver content is no longer tied to physical products. And if F2P has taken over computers, why shouldn’t it become entrenched on consoles?
To be fair, the new spate of consoles, like the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, aren’t the first to have Internet and hard drives. But when the PS3 and X360 were launched nearly a decade ago (wow!), free-to-play gaming was still in its infancy, at least in the West. Nobody thought it would be as big a deal as it is now.
Now, though, it’s something console manufacturers can’t ignore. While “F2P-mania” may not be as big a deal with console fans as it is with PC gamers, it would be negligent of them to ignore it. It can’t wait until the PlayStation 5 or Xbox… Two? 361?
TThere are, of course, F2P titles on the current generation of consoles, like DC Universe Online, DUST 514, and so on. And before you say, “Those aren’t free, you need a subscription to the online service,” I’d ask if you’re paying for your Internet connection on your PC. Besides, the aforementioned games are on the Playstation which doesn’t charge its userbase to play online.
But we haven’t seen a truly huge free-to-play game on consoles. There isn’t a League of Legends or even a World of Tanks kind of game, the kind with tens of millions of players, for console fans to enjoy.
Not every game fits as a F2P offering either. I wouldn’t expect single-player adventure or platforming games, which are more common on consoles than on PCs, to ever go F2P. To be a successful F2P game, you have to have some level of “endless” content, and often multiplayer activity, rather than a set beginning, middle, and end, to keep people playing (and paying) for a long time.
In asking for a “huge” game to go F2P, however, that runs us into the World of Warcraft paradox. If you can get millions of people to pay for your game, why offer it for free?
Theoretically, that’s to get millions more. But it’s tough to convince anyone, especially an executive at a company like, say, EA, to take anything even resembling a risk, especially when the standard model of up-front payment for physical products has worked so well for so long.
But imagine how a free-to-play Madden NFL might work:
- Free: All 32 teams with current rosters, season/GM mode, online 1v1 play. I’d probably play a lot with just these options, and I think this represents the “bare minimum” that most people would expect.
- Pay: Real-time roster updates, create-a-player, create-a-team, access to special online events (tournaments, leagues).
I’m sure the creative minds at EA could come up with more ideas on how to take our money. Yes, I know, it’s EA and they’ll probably come up with a lot of ways, many of which you won’t like, but you get the point.
The big sticking point, I think, won’t necessarily be in justifying the profit-and-loss part of the spreadsheets, but in convincing decision-makers that discs are on the way out, the conclusion a forward-thinking company like Netflix has already reached. It’s served them well for over 30 years and it’s going to be a long, messy divorce.
What do you think? Do you think we’ll see lots more F2P games on the new generation of consoles? And do you think we’ll ever see a huge F2P console game, on par with something like League of Legends?
By Jason Winter