The Never Ending Industry Delusion
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
I'm not sure there's another major entertainment industry that contains as many thoroughly persistent and majorly supported delusions as the games industry. Then again I'm not nearly as familiar with other entertainment industries; but its hard to imagine that the others, all having lasted decades and centuries longer than games, still have as major problems as the games industry does.
And the biggest delusion of these, the worst offender, can be generally classified as the delusion that there is some easy, surefire way forward towards riches and success. You can see it in whatever the latest darling of the industry is. Over the years has been known as online multiplayer, massively online multiplayer, social games, shooters, you've heard them before.
Or, as Will Wright recently put it, executives look at what is selling big in the last year and say "we're going to make more of this type of game, because that's what people want. But the truth is, its just because a good game of that type came out. Warcraft 2 came out last year, that's why RTS games sold."
Or, to put it another way, emulating success is easier than trying to forge new success. Now this statement should seem both logical and obvious, and it is! But there's another factor that this attitude rules out; and that is that the industry by large is always just copying the latest and greatest success, with those lessons from as little as a few years ago seemingly forgotten.
And the latest of these trends is Free to Play. You can imagine my dismay at hearing well respected developer Crytek "boldly" announcing it would be going entirely free to play. This statement, in and of itself, is a great example of the probem. By implication the statement either posits that any game at all can be Free to Play regardless of design, or that Crytek as a developer will be solely developing games around designs that work with Free to Play.
The first suggestion I find ludicrous. Not to say that Free to Play does not have its benefits, but to say that those benefits are structured around games that fit in with this business model. "Social Games" work well with this, because they are essentially all Skinner Boxes, slot machines in which you put in your input of coin or advertising to your friends and get out a reward the equivelant of flashing lights and chirping sounds. MOBA games, aka "Lords Managment" types such as League of Legends work; because of a relatively low overhead and flat content range. As in, unlocking content via pay is available at any time, and any content you'd wish to pay for would be appropriate.
Now lets examing how this might affect other games. How could you get Crysis 3 to be Free to Play? By making the first hour free and then charging? That's just a demo. By charging for each successive chapter? Most people don't finish games, that's just leaving money on the table. How about multiplayer. Would you charge seperately for that? Why would you when millions are willing to pay $60 for both single play and multiplayer as it is? You just couldn't make it work. How would you charge for Minecraft, by updates? Free updates are what has made it a game possibly set to surpass Diablo 3 as the most purchased PC game in history. Speaking of Diablo 3, how would you monetize that as Free to Play? There really aren't that many classes, and most people would only need one.
So, Free to Play could not, and can not work for all types of games. So perhaps Crytek will restrict themselves to only games that work with Free to Play. But why? They've recently expanded massively, to a large number of studios. I doubt all their developers want to work solely on Free to Play type games for the rest of their careers, and with retention being a large issue for many developers already this is certianly something to take into consideration. Another is just how far the range of games that can work as Free to Play even extends. And with Free to Play games having an indefinite shelf life its not hard to imagine "Just Free to Play" running out of new games to deliver within not too long of an order.
Recently Penny-Arcade ran this comic about EA/Bioware's subscription MMO The Old Republic: http://penny-arcade.com/comic/2011/12/21 . Even as a joke it proved oddly prophetic. And while its prophecy coming true (though in a longer timeframe) has helped prove that business models can be outdated, it's also a lesson that business models are not what a game should depend on. I'd make a wager that eventually there will be another highly successful subscription based game. And that further Crytek will either back off "all Free to Play", or fall into the annals of failed developers.