The business of operating free-to-play games is booming, but home consoles still get a bit of a cold shoulder from F2P developers focused on courting the mobile and PC markets.
For developers who are eyeing the console F2P market, one of the most important studios to study is Sony Online Entertainment, best known for operating F2P massively multiplayer online games like Planetside 2 and DC Universe Online.
Though SOE initially launched DCUO as a paid MMORPG across PC and PS3 in 2011, it reported great success in taking the game free-to-play in 2013; shortly thereafter, it launched on PlayStation 4 as one of the console's few F2P titles.
More than a year later the studio shows no signs of abandoning the PS4; today, the studio confirmed plans to launch a PlayStation 4 version of its F2P multiplayer PC shooter Planetside 2 in closed beta on January 20th.
So what is it about the studio's experience porting DC Universe Online to PS4 that makes SOE so eager to do it again?
“The PS4 has been monetizing amazingly well -- between 3 and 3.5x the monetization rate of the PC,” said SOE president John Smedley in a recent phone interview with Gamasutra. “Seeing that kind of difference in pay rate between the PC and the PS4 is really astounding -- it shows there’s a real market there.”
"It's like the early days of social games -- it's that good."
A pale reflection of that market may still be available to developers on PlayStation 3, where Smedley says DC Universe Online players monetizing at roughly double the rate of players on PC.
But rendering a successful free-to-play game easily accessible on a console is a tricky feat, both in terms of design and operation. As you might expect, Smedley says porting a native PC game like DCUO to consoles requires a fair bit of experimentation in terms of interface design.
“There’s just a lot more work you have to do when porting to console, because you don’t have the mouse,” says the SOE chief. “That was the most challenging thing in bringing this game across, and also making things like the store work -- making sure it’s a good experience to use.”
And once you get your game up and running on a home console, you have to figure out how to standardize your update process across multiple platforms. This proved a thorny issue for SOE, even as a first-party studio of the company who runs the platform.
“Getting a patch that goes out on PC, PS3 and PS4 takes a hell of a lot of coordination,” says Smedley. “You have to submit the PS3 and PS4 versions separately, and they sometimes take different amounts of time to come back. Logistics are the toughest part of it.”
So what’s the value for developers already operating successful free-to-play games to try and break into the Xbox Live or PSN marketplaces? While Smedley acknowledges that SOE saw a big boost by being one of the first F2P games available for the PlayStation 4 at launch, he sees significant room in the console F2P market for more developers to succeed.
“It certainly benefitted us to be early. But the market is growing so fast, and there are so many new players every day, that it’s definitely still early days,” says Smedley. “It’s like the early days of social games -- it’s that good.”
But the bottom dropped out of the social game market years ago; what’s to say the same thing won’t happen to F2P console games?
In Smedley’s opinion, “social games collapsed because most of them weren’t even games at all -- they were just monetization vehicles.”
What he professes to love about F2P design is that “it forces you to get your gameplay as good as it possibly can get, because that’s your vehicle for getting people to stick with your game. It really does enforce some discipline on you that I think is needed.”
Looking ahead to the next 12-18 months, Smedley rosily forecasts that the overall quality of such games will rise as more and more developers compete to field successful F2P games. SOE will continue to focus on the market, and now its looking at a development path that sees it using Steam’s Early Access service as a launching platform to guide its upcoming F2P game H1Z1 to full release on PC and, from there, on PlayStation consoles.
“I think it’s actually a great path for developers to take...Steam is a great platform to do that because the userbase they’ve built around Early Access has really metastatized and become an entrenched part of how Steam is perceived,” says Smedley.
“That’s now where Early Access games come from, and I kind of like that. It’s nice to have a community like that, and I hope we’ll see something like that on PS4 soon.”