Free-to-Play Retreats As More Games Shift To Up-Front Purchases

Jason Winter
By Jason Winter, News Editor February 25, 2016
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Free-to-play gaming, at least on the PC, has taken a beating in the last year. Some games that seemed primed for free-to-play, or were announced as such, are doing a 180 and charging for an initial purchase. H1Z1 is the most recent, and controversial, example, but you can also include Quake Live, LEGO Minifigures Online, and Albion Online as games that were announced as F2P and then changed course, and games that were unofficially branded free-to-play, like Overwatch and Black Desert Online, going the paid route from the start.

The free-to-play sensation isn't dying, but it is slowing down. Just a year or two ago, just about every paid online game was going free-to-play; going in the other direction seemed unthinkable. As we've seen lately, that's definitely not the case.

No, I don't think “free to play is dying lulz,” like some people might. Rather, I think that as more and more games have embraced F2P, it's getting harder to use “free” as a selling point. As a result, developers are having to – shockingly – sell their games by making them actually better, and that can be hampered by cash shops.

No matter what they might tell you, every F2P developer has to design the game around its cash shop, basing major gameplay principles around things like progression rate and loot drops. Ditching free-to-play and doing away with that concern has to be a major relief, freeing developers to do what they do best without having to worry about the delicate balancing act of pleasing the accounting department while not annoying the players too much. Nobody likes to hear the game they've been working on for years being called a “greedy cash grab” or the like.

Overwatch Junkrat

So sure, it might be easier on the people actually making the games to not have to design them for free-to-play, but, to be blunt, those aren't usually the guys and gals controlling the money and making the decisions. We all know that “free” games can really rake it in, so for a game like Overwatch or Albion Online to ditch F2P requires, in part, for it to be a better financial move to make it paid.

I discussed why I thought going the paid route was the right move for Overwatch, but that had a lot to do with it being made by Blizzard, which could command the attention of millions of gamers and get them to fork over their money. That's a harder prospect for a smaller studio and is a primary reason why the F2P revolution started with the smaller companies in the first place: so they could get noticed and get people to try them. Once the bigger companies started doing the same thing, that advantage vanished.

Of course, for a smaller studio, getting the “guaranteed” money of an up-front purchase, as opposed to hoping it can craft a F2P game that people will pay for later, is a big deal. It's also a big risk, because if you don't grab enough people's attention, the money doesn't come. (Also, in an online game, the more people you have around to interact with, the better, and F2P has been proven to boost player population.) It's a catch-22, one that could determine the success or failure of your game and your company. As much as we might say it's about “greed” or the like, it's not a decision that's made lightly, nor does it guarantee even a better short-term financial outcome.

Albion Online 1

Still, it probably seems less risky than putting your game out there for free and relying on the goodwill of your players – whom, you'll remember, you're trying not to piss off with microtransactions – to keep you afloat. I wouldn't be surprised to see another few games go the non-F2P route this year; considering its critical acclaim but shaky financial status, Gigantic could be a candidate, especially if Overwatch is a big hit. It's probably too soon to talk about EverQuest Next just yet. My heart can't take it.

What do you think? Is free-to-play going to take a few steps back this year? Or is the recent spate of games going the buy-to-play route just a momentary blip on the radar?

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About the Author

Jason Winter
Jason Winter, News Editor
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.

Discussion (15)

Syrian 4 years ago
I suppose we should just enjoy it while it still last. Also we play games to enjoy ourselves not to get caught by marketing stuff. If they decided that there "business" is not going well then so be it besides they do it for money not for the sake of your enjoyment.

ASD 4 years ago
Consoles are desperate to keep people off of the PC since it means they will clearly die off and since free 2 play is obviously on PC since we need to pay to use games on consoles.

Tony Ness 5 years ago
"It’s probably too soon to talk about EverQuest Next just yet. My heart can’t take it." Daybreak games canceled development on it which really sucks..... :'(

maddyLinden 5 years ago
5 crap fail games switch plans and the industry changed

more like a piss poor uneducated wannabe article by a bum

Golgo28 5 years ago
To be fair overwatch was never announced to be f2p.In fact until Blizzard announced it as b2p people just assumed it would be f2p,because heros of the storm and hearthstone were f2p.As for more devs going the b2p route considering most f2p games only have around 1% of their player base even spending money.It makes sense to switch it to b2p.Look at how many f2p games have gone belly up because they couldn't be sustained financially.The whole f2p thing took off because devs and publishers saw how well it does in asia(where many online gamers do their gaming at internet cafes.)and LoL had huge sucess with it so everyone jumped on that wagon.It's one of the biggest problems in the games industry,one game is successful and everybody trys to copy it.Only to most of the time fail.This happened with first person shooters,moba,mmos and every genre and monetization method.And thanks to the deluge of shitty f2p(especially on mobile devices)it's entering a state were fewer ones will be made.Down the road in 20 or 30 years it might have a resurgence.

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DuckHead 5 years ago
Free to play - more dumb people on the game.
More dumb people - less reasonable people.
Less reasonable people - less people pay for the game.
Less pay - shittier service.
Shittier service - less people play.
No players - devs wasted their time.
So it was just a matter of time ftp died :P
"Time is off the essence" - WoW best mmo in history. (Buy to play)
Logic.
End.

View 1 reply
TreadHead 5 years ago
Mark Jacobs called it years ago; http://www.vg247.com/2013/04/12/camelot-unchained-dev-free-to-play-headed-towards-an-apocalypse-in-3-5-years-time/

Ignoring the "Apocalypse" hyperbole bit the key point he made was;

“The whole free-to-play thing isn’t going away tomorrow,” Jacobs stressed, “but let’s just see what happens in three to five years – and I’m betting closer to three – where free-to-play will become just another model. Right now you’ve got everybody chasing it, going ‘Isn’t this great? Free to play, we’re going to make so much money'”.

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PGMalice 5 years ago
Hopefully more games go B2P like the Diablo route so we can get better quality game drop 50 bucks here an 30 there for a real Expansion an not some BS DLC hold out Crap that should of been in the game from jump street an no more of the op items in cash shops for the wallet warriors that would suck without said items

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