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Free-To-Play Shooters Get The Triple-A Treatment

DennisScimeca

Posted June 20, 2012 - By Dennis Scimeca


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Warface

If you’re a hardcore gamer it’s time to start paying attention to the free-to-play space.

Imagine you’re playing a triple-A first person shooter with online co-op and competitive modes. The game runs on CryEngine 3, one of the most powerful graphics engines on the market. The shooting mechanics are rock-solid. Every week, you get free content like new co-op missions. Now imagine that you’re not paying a dime for it.

You’re playing Warface, the new free-to-play shooter developed by Crytek, the studio that brought us groundbreaking shooters like Far Cry and Crysis, and it's AAA, all the way.

Some of the most popular first person shooter games ask us for around $100 to get the full experience if we consider the cost of the base product plus all the map packs. Battlefield 3, plus all five eventual expansions, will run you $135 on consoles if you don’t upgrade to Battlefield Premium and get everything for $100 in total. The annual Call of Duty game costs $60, map packs are $15 each, and there are usually at least four of them.

If you’re a single-player campaign fan, this is not an ‘apples to oranges’ equation, but if competitive multiplayer is where your interests lie you have some math to do. Warface, Hawken, Planetside 2 and DUST 514 are all PvP-centric, triple-A, free-to-play shooters.

These four titles are collectively a potential game-changer. They look great. They play great. And unless they fail to provide a full game experience without requiring purchases, the traditional boxed retail model might be in more trouble than ever before.

The bias against free-to-play is largely a Western phenomenon. The free-to-play model has been successfully applied in Asian markets (observation of those markets is what inspired Crytek to develop Warface) and in Russia. The Western bias against free-to-play is also mostly contained to the core gaming audience. Free-to-play has made developers tremendous amounts of money in Western mobile, social, and MMO markets.

No one should need a reminder as to how much money Zynga has made on Facebook. Most of the money in the mobile market is made off in-app purchases from free-to-play titles, and MMO developer Turbine was shocked when their profits for Dungeons and Dragons Online went up 500% after the game went free-to-play. They quickly switched Lord of the Rings Online to a free-to-play model as well. It looks like subscription-based MMOs are on their way out altogether: World of Warcraft is free-to-play up to Level 20, and The Old Republic is going free-to-play up to level 15 next month.

If all of these free-to-play titles turn big profits, it will only be a matter of time before the console space makes room for free-to-player shooters like Sony has with DUST, and there are ultimately two questions that will decide whether these games make big money or not.

The danger of any free-to-play game that involves competitive modes is “pay to win,” or the idea that a player with deep pockets can spend real-world money to buy advantages over and dominate other players who aren’t willing to spend real-world money.

HAWKEN

The developers of Warface and Hawken have told me that real-world currency is mostly going to pay for customizations that don’t affect gameplay at all like weapon skins. I heard similar talk from Planetside 2 developers, and the devs at the DUST 514 booth at E3 were quick to stress that equipment and upgrades could be purchased with real-world money, but could also be purchased with ISK, EVE Online’s native currency, which players will earn by completing missions.

Developers during Warface demos said that real world currency could be used to buy equipment. While they were no more specific than that, no one can tell a veteran shooter player that equipment can’t confer decided advantages on players. During my demo of Planetside 2 at E3 I saw an Experience Boost item for sale in the store which was only attainable with Station Credits, or the currency that Sony Online Entertainment sells for real-world money.

No one can tell a shooter veteran that faster leveling which unlocks options doesn’t confer an advantage either. Even something as simple as a weapon scope can change the balance of a head-to-head fight, and if one player buys the scope before the other player unlocks it for free, did the player with the scope just pay to win, even if for only a little while?

The second question is how much content players will actually get for free. The key to any free-to-play shooter that wants to be successful in the West is that the core experience of playing the game has to remain absolutely free. If Western core gamers feel like they’re only having bait dangled in front of them such that they’ll start paying up, they may quickly abandon these free-to-play titles.

Even if the math works out that they would pay less to fully unlock a free-to-play game than they would pay for a boxed retail game of the same quality, the bias against free-to-play is deeply ingrained. The moment core gamers in the West begin to feel nickel-and-dimed is probably the moment they’ll bail out.

Warface, Hawken, Planetside 2 and DUST 514 all provide the level of visual quality and style of gameplay that the Western core audience has come to expect from triple-A, first-person shooters. Provided they avoid the dangers of pay-to-win and don’t charge players for basic content, these four games have the potential to raise the profile of free-to-play gaming in the most traditional video game market there is like never before, and that would mean the free-to-play model would be one step closer to ending the dominance of the boxed retail model for good.

Dennis Scimeca is a freelance writer from Boston, MA. His First Person column runs on The Escapist, and you can follow him on Twitter:@DennisScimeca.

Free-To-Play Shooters Get The Triple-A Treatment
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