In my humble opinion, the idea of ‘freemium’ games – those with zero entry cost but come with repeated, optional extras that cost real money – are one of the most obnoxious new trends in the industry. They’re massively popular on smart phones, so much that finding a game that you actually just buy and don’t have to worry about in-app purchases is becoming alarmingly rare.
I actively try to avoid them completely now, because although I’m well aware that I don’t really ‘own’ any particular digital purchases, at least I know that I won’t have to keep topping them up with 69p micro-transactions for fuel, coins, bullets or skill points.
However, I’m also well aware that that’s the way the industry is heading, and reading the quotes from EA’s Interactive senior VP Nick Earl this morning made me wonder how quickly the shift will be to consoles as the mobile market becomes ever more saturated.
“The future is not about one-time payments, the future is about freemium,” he said. “A decent number of people convert to paying and they may not pay a lot but most of them actually pay more than you’d think.” It’s clear that there’s a market for such titles and mechanics just by looking at what’s shifting on the free App Store charts and then looking at what’s actually making the most money on the revenue charts.
The correlation is clear, and games like the recently released CSR Racing (which is free but requires purchases for pretty much everything unless you want to sit it out and wait for things to happen and have determination of steel) show that people are absolutely happy to spend.
But will that notion translate from smart phones to consoles? Earl thinks there’s no reason why not. “I don’t know if freemium gets to console but I do know that humans like free stuff. I also know humans who will pay for something if they’ve tried it out and they like it,” he said.
Ignoring the bizarre human references, he then continues. “I’ve wondered if freemium expands beyond the tablet, Facebook and smartphones, and out into consoles? I don’t think it’s impossible for that to happen.” He’s not directing EA’s path here by any level of reasoning, but he is suggesting that at least the company are thinking about how this might work.
And although it seems like an obvious transition, the user base and pricing models between those on a smart phone and those on a living room console are massively different and expectations couldn’t be more apart. The mobile market is already used to micro-transactions, they want cheap (like less than a pound cheap, or free) games and are happy to supplement that with additional purchases.
Console-only gamers aren’t.
If EA do push this towards consoles, they’ll need to be very careful how it’s delivered. The uproar over the online pass system has passed and already seems generally accepted, but offering up a fully fledged title for free and then adding payments for content beyond a bare skeleton will be an exciting but dangerous prospect. Titles like FIFA will presumably just have a handful of teams, the rest 69p each. Or a cost per season, or transfer.
I’m sure it’s coming, and I’m sure next generation will feature the first waves of freemium titles for consoles. Some publishers have dipped their toes in the water – like Treasures of Montezuma on Vita, or the Home shooter No Man’s Land – but AAA titles from top tier publishers will be another matter entirely, and everyone will be watching EA very closely.
Epic’s Tim Sweeney’s keen on the idea too – “we’ve been building these games like Gears of War where you go into the store and you buy a piece of plastic! You just buy this DVD. That is going to change rapidly” – he said back at GDC, and Crytek have also backed the idea that freemium is the way forward. The future – it seems – is free, at least at point of entry. There’s a lot I’m not looking forward to for next-gen, and freemium – personally – is one such thing.
Hopefully publishers like EA are smart, and if this is the path that the industry is heading I hope that the games don’t end up being quite as repulsive to me as I’ve found lots of mobile games to be. Games might be expensive, and I know that paid-for DLC is now pretty much a given for every title out there, but I’d still rather pay £40 and know I’ve got at least half of the whole thing.