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.