Are free games the future?

playstation controller

If you could travel back to around 1996 when the PlayStation was about to be shipped to nearly every country around the world and tell Sony that one day, people would be playing games on their console that Sony wouldn’t make any profit from, they’d probably laugh you out of the door. Fast-forward to 2018 however, and the new world of video gaming looks distinctly different from the closed-shop world where manufacturer’s dictate how games looked.

The dirty word

Freemium is a word that barely existed until the smartphone came along in the late 2000s. Video games came in a simple format – you’d head to the shops, buy your game, usually on a CD or DVD or cartridge if you were retro, then stick it in, play it, get bored of it, then put it on the shelf or exchange it. True, this changed when online stores arrived, with the likes of Steam and the PlayStation store making it possible to download games without going to the shops. Still, you’d need to spend some cash to access it, and it was always a one-off payment.

The idea of giving a game away for free isn’t as recent as you’d expect, with the likes of RuneScape, Furcadia and SecondLife giving players the opportunity to pay for stuff in the game world. The world of online poker, which has been around now nearly as long as some of the earliest ‘next gen’ consoles, used free games as a way of attracting potential customers, and they still do. The beauty of free online poker is that it enables players to build their confidence, without putting anything on the line. There is no pressure on players to deposit funds until they feel comfortable and they can still get that brilliant winning feeling.

The real fun however started with game-apps that became available on the Apple store, steam and other digital games stores in the mid to late 2000s– FOR FREE. Millions jumped at the opportunity to download and play games like Angry Birds, Smurfs Village the all-time best-non-seller Candy Crush, spending no money and instead receiving a ‘full’ game that they could play until they were blue in the face.

phone candy crush

Candy Crush Saga costs absolutely nothing to download, but still made developers King $1 billion last year, 6 years after it was released.

But then it all became very clear. Great, you could get to level three, build a farm and wait to harvest it, but the wait was three days. And it cost 5,000 gold. And you have 10 gold. But wait! You can buy extra gold. 1 gold = £1, so all I need to spend it £5,00- wait a minute! I thought this game was free!

Ubiquity

The ‘Freemium’ model as it came to be known is now present on an incredible amount of free-to-play games, with thousands of games available on iOS, Android, Mac, PC, PlayStation, Xbox, Wii and every other games machine imaginable. Instead of forking out £40+ for a game, players were paying an extra 50p to rush their build time, or £4.99 to get a pack of extra lives. And the developers behind these games were having a great time of it.

Mobile games have rocketed way past their console and personal computer competitors, claiming 42% of the $46.1 billion dollar global gaming market, with sizeable chunk of that revenue coming from freemium games. Games developers have managed to get away from one-off money makers that peaked, then slowly saw declining sales from the moment they were released, instead milking the cash cows that keep bringing in money, sometimes even years after release. The aforementioned Candy Crush Saga, released in 2012, made $1 billion last year. In comparison, Assassin’s Creed 3, which can still be purchased online, made barely $10,000.

It’s an obvious choice for game developers. Thanks to flexible development and more internet availability, content can be released over time, keeping the game fresh, and making sure that players come back again and again, instead of dumping that old video games on the shelf or exchanging it. With microtransactions already sneaking onto console games, with FIFA FUT coins, Call of Duty in-game currency, and Gran Turismo’s ‘buy your way to success’ debacle, can the consoles hold out?

Of course they can

xbox controller

Freemium is good, and the games can be entertaining, even on console. Just look at Fortnite, a fast and furious shooter that is totally free to play, with added paywalls and purchasable outfits / weapons / celebrations, but that Freemium model at its very heart. Granted, it doesn’t look as good as other titles, and it can get a bit samey after a while, but it’s a success story.

But freemium always has limitations. Look at the release of the upcoming Red Dead Redemption, a sprawling blockbuster from Rockstar, the studio behind the world’s most successful video game series, Grand Theft Auto. If Red Dead 2 were to be announced as a freemium game, stocks in Take2Interactive (the company behind Rockstar and Red Dead) would plummet and people simply wouldn’t buy the games.

True gamers (and there are lots of them out there, trust us) don’t mind freemium. It’s fun to pick up and play something knowing you can just wait and not pay a penny, but apps tend to get installed quickly when they start nagging the player, asking them to come back and spend more cash. The traditional video game, where money is paid up front for the whole experience is still king and will be for a long time. Why? Because gamers want to save money.

The future

The vast majority of gamers (or the parents who buy games for their kids) take time to see how much their game is costing them. From shopping around to get the best deal, to saving points to get free games on platforms like steam, gaming isn’t a necessity – it’s just nice to have. So when a freemium game suddenly costs 100s of pounds to complete, or even just keeping ticking over, the point goes missing.

Granted, freemium isn’t going away any time soon, and there are some great freemium games out there, but we doubt they’ll entirely replace the current gaming industry model. There are too many gamers out there who don’t want to pay more than a game is worth. We hope. We’re one of them. Please don’t make Grand Theft Auto 6 freemium.

About Annabel Johnson

Part time gamer, reviewer and blogger. Full time geek and tech expert!

View all posts by Annabel Johnson

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