The Necessity Of Making Free-to-Play Moves
April 20, 2011 Page 1 of 3
Seems not that long ago -- in 2005, in fact -- that the industry felt the need to boost console game prices -- to as much as $60 -- in light of the rising cost of current-gen production.
But today -- only six years later -- in a very different world where "free-to-play" reigns, the industry is wondering aloud what will become of developers and publishers who stubbornly refuse to leave the paid business model behind.
Will gamers who are becoming used to getting their gaming fix at a nominal cost -- or at no cost whatsoever -- be willing to pay premium prices... even if publishers can make the case that theirs are premium games?
Beyond pricing, gamers have become increasingly used to new ways to consume content, thanks in large part to iOS and Facebook. New business and content models allow for agile responses to users' requests and microtransaction updates keep games lively -- and studios alive.
How important is it for console publishers and developers to respond to all this?
"This is very difficult and very complicated for Microsoft and Sony and Nintendo," says David Edery, principal of consulting firm Fuzbi LLC. "They know how to do one thing and do it very well. They -- and their top publishers -- know how to sell you a retail product for a large amount of money... and they've been doing that for a long time.
"So there's no question that they're scared; they're scared of screwing up a transition. Right now they have a model that they know works and they don't know if other models will work for them. And, consequently, that's why you see them moving so damned slowly.
"They're also worried about their relationship with retailers," he adds. "You hear everyone talking about the inevitable death of retail, but retail isn't dead yet; it still does have power. So the console makers have certainly been giving a lot of thought to 'How the heck do we explore these new models while, at the same time, not pissing off GameStop and Walmart too much.' And that makes this whole transition exponentially more complicated than it might be otherwise."
Indeed, in a recent Gamasutra interview, Nintendo insisted that it won't be cutting the prices of its 3DS handheld games, which currently sell for about $40 each.
"In terms of one dollar games or free games... we're not going to be competing with that," said 3DS project lead Hideki Konno. "We're just going to continually strive to not just maintain, but increase, the quality of the entertainment that we're providing, and let it sort itself out. Again, we're not worried about competing at a price point level. And I don't think that's just Nintendo; I believe that's more than likely Sony and Microsoft's opinion on that as well."
But while Sony would not provide a spokesperson to discuss its take on free-to-play games, the fact that two weeks ago its Sony Online Entertainment division released its popular and family-friendly free-to-play game Free Realms on the PlayStation 3 speaks for itself.
Originally launched for Windows in 2009 (a Mac edition debuted last November), Free Realms has picked up almost 17 million registered users. Though playing the game is free, users can purchase monthly memberships for additional content as well as in-game items via microtransactions.
In a story on Gamasutra last month, SOE was quoted as saying that Free Realms will be the first free-to-play MMO and the first family-targeted virtual world released on any console.
This could be a testing ground for future forays by Sony into the world of free-to-play, just as other publishers are dipping in their toes to test the waters.
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