Ngmoco Sweden boss Ben Cousins has blown my freakin' mind. According to Cousins, within the next couple of years, we will see a AAA, console game equivalent to the experience of playing Skyrim released as a free-to-play game.
"I am totally 100 per cent confident -- I will bet large amounts of money -- that we will have, in the next few years, a free-to-play equivalent of Skyrim," Cousins said at the Free-2-Play Summit in London today. "A game like Skyrim, where you accrue skills and equipment over time, that you can play for hundreds of hours, is actually one of the easiest games to develop for a free-to-play model. That would be a big hit."
The initial outlay of costs for building a game/world as complex as Skyrim's is so high, you have to figure that publishers are looking for ways to extend and maximize the profits they generates. Over the last few years, the "skill" of free-to-play game makers to entice people to shell out money for games has grown, and, as a culture, we've grown more accustomed to being "nickled-and-dimed" throughout our playing experiences -- whether it's extra colors in Draw Something or equipment in an MMO -- so it won't be so jarring for players to buy armor and swords for real cash in a single-player game like Skyrim. Plus, if devs were smart, they'd make just about everything possible to obtain for free in the game, but make cooler stuff a huge pain/time-sink, so players could become interested in obtaining an Ebony Sword of Dragon-Mating +12, and start out on a quest line, but eventually think, "Meh, I'll just spend a quarter rather than the next four hours of my life."
I could see a free to play game in which lazy players who want to be cool (The Poseur class) subsidize players who don't want to spend anything (The Broke class). Then there's the other class that does a little of each in the middle. Because it's a single-player game, no one ever sees anyone else, so there's no shame in anyone's game. On the other hand, I could see a lot of gamers just not playing such a game because they don't like being harangued for money constantly or blatantly manipulated. Also: Look for some spectacular, epic failures on the road to the free-to-play sweetspot.
The morale of the story: it's Zynga's world, and we'll all live it in soon enough.