The Monday before E3 2013, Microsoft took the stage at its annual press conference and, in the breathless pause after the new Metal Gear trailer, announced a free-to-play game for the Xbox 360. It was a moment that easily showed the importance of free-to-play in the current gaming landscape, and it wasn't the last we would hear of the publishing model during E3.
Both Microsoft and Sony loaned valuable E3 floorspace to console-based free-to-play demos. Multiple publishers had free-to-play titles on the show floor, from triple-A houses like Ubisoft to companies more traditionally associated with the model like Zynga. Even Nintendo, long the laggard when it comes to new business paradigms, said it would release a first-party free-to-play game by the end of its fiscal year next March.
Polygon found multiple companies at E3 preparing the future of free-to-play. This fast-moving trend, until recently only available on PC and mobile, will be unleashed on console players alongside the newest hardware. But instead of gimmicky marketing and opaque economic models, we heard developers and publishers alike talking about games that could stand toe-to-toe with full-priced titles.
TESTING THE WATERS
"A free-to-play game needs a big, big group of people playing"
Microsoft seemed just slightly less wary of free-to-play than Nintendo, choosing to promote the concept most boldly on the aging 360 platform. Wargaming's juggernaut was selected as the flagship title, and the publisher was invited on stage during Microsoft's press conference to unveil World of Tanks Xbox 360 Edition, the console port of the massively multiplayer tank combat game.
Executive Producer and Creative Director T.J. Wagner was on hand to personally run the demos inside Microsoft's booth. The Tuesday after the big press conferences he seemed even more reassured to have developed for the Xbox 360 instead of the Xbox One.
"The Xbox One, it's not even out yet," he told Polygon, while gesturing toward his World of Tanks port running from servers his team had stood up only months before in Virginia. He said the biggest benefit for his studio, Wargaming West, was the installed base of players the 360 gives his team. "A free-to-play game needs a big, big group of people playing. It needs a big ecosystem. At least two million people playing. So it's going to take a while for the Xbox One to get there."
Wargaming's CEO Victor Kislyi had to strike a deal with Microsoft in order to get that player base as big as possible. As Polygon reported the week of E3, Wargaming will not be allowed to charge a separate subscription fee to allow Xbox Silver members to play outside of the limitations of Microsoft's Gold membership program. Only Xbox Live Gold members will have unlimited access to World of Tanks Xbox 360 Edition. Silver member will get only 30 days access, and be required to upgrade their Xbox Live membership to Gold status in order to keep playing.
Free-to-play behind a pay gate?
In short, Microsoft is forcing Wargaming's free-to-play title behind a pay gate, and limiting the publisher's access to a fraction of the console's tens of millions of customers. Kislyi could do little more than throw up his hands, telling Polygon that "Microsoft has their own rules [for] membership subscriptions, so [there are] certain things we could not break."
Microsoft's sole free-to-play title shown for the Xbox One was a remake of the cult classic Killer Instinct fighting game. But the concept didn't sit well with the gaming public for two reasons. First, the game would not be made by Rare, the IP's originator; instead, Microsoft pitched the game to multiple developers via a "request for proposal," or RFP. The winner of the RFP, developer Double Helix, hasn't had the best track record of late. Their last two releases, movie tie-ins for Battleship and Green Lantern, were critically panned.
Second, the free-to-play version will feature only one character. Players will be able to take that character online, to get a feel for how the game performs when played across the internet. But to get any more characters players will need to pay for them individually, or through one of several season-pass type subscriptions.
FREEDOM FOR DEVELOPERS
Sony's goals with free-to-play at E3 2013 felt just as egalitarian as the approach they took with independent development. A lot of that messaging is the result of Sony's openness to self publishing, a model Digital Extremes will be taking advantage of when it brings its free-to-play shooter Warframe to Sony's PS4, which launches later this year.
a higher percentage of players will have a chance to experience free-to-play games on the PS4 than on Xbox consoles
The 20-year-old studio began as the co-creator of the Unreal games with Epic, and most recently did the multiplayer component for Bioshock 2. The team is happy to be working for themselves now. For Digital Extremes, it's the chance to bring their studio's own intellectual property to consumers; Warframe represents the original vision for the game that became Dark Sector, published in 2008. Gamers play warriors who have awoken after a long hibernation only to be thrust into an unfamiliar war. But, unlike other free-to-play shooters, its game is played from the third-person perspective and is cooperative, focusing on player vs. environment combat.
It's not just the creative opportunities granted by self publishing that Digital Extremes is so excited about. Sony has also given it free reign to pursue its own economic model.
"We have our vision for ... how we do free-to-play," said Digital Extremes general manager Sheldon Carter, "And [Sony] just said, 'Okay. You guys do what you want.'"
Shuhei Yoshida, Sony Computer Entertainment's President of Worldwide Studios, told Polygon that Sony supports developers' choice when it comes to PlayStation Plus membership requirements.
"As far as free-to-play games are concerned," said Yoshida, "it's a publisher's decision whether they put it inside or outside of the PlayStation Plus requirements." The end result is that a higher percentage of players will have a chance to experience free-to-play games on the PS4 than on Xbox consoles.
Despite the disparity between Microsoft and Sony, all of the free-to-play console games being displayed at E3 called out the quality of competition as an important factor in attracting players. Sony Online Entertainment's Planetside 2 was no exception. This massively multiplayer first-person shooter features thousands of players simultaneously battling for control of a 64 square kilometer map.
Creative Director Matthew Higby said the difference between free-to-play and pay-to-win was as much a cultural difference as it was a platform difference. "Some people," said Higby, "think that buying a gun that allows me to instantaneously kill somebody so long as I'm looking at them isn't pay-to-win, because I still have to look at them. There's all sorts of different opinions about that stuff. But for us, making a competitive title, we wanted to make sure that we were making something that felt fair, and it didn't feel like the business model was exploitative. ... But in China and in Russia, those kinda things aren't as much of a concern. Those markets are very different."
Cultural differences were on the mind of Rift developers Trion Worlds, who used the spotlight E3 provides to switch their PC-based MMO from a subscription service to a free-to-play model. Massively multiplayer games have rapidly been moving toward free-to-play, a shift that began years ago and continues unabated.
"I think we entered into the cycle of subscription-based games a little bit late," says Noah Maffitt, Senior Vice President of global marketing at Trion Worlds. "It's the consumer preferences that have changed. People don't like paying the subscriptions, and even the big guys are seeing declines in player populations, as people continue to vote with their dollars."
One "big guy" Maffitt was referring to is World of Warcraft publisher Activision Blizzard, which lost a staggering 1.3 million subscribers in the first quarter of 2013. With even the self-described "number one subscription-based MMORPG in the world" hemorrhaging players, it gives the entire PC-based MMO industry pause to consider alternatives.
"We planned a transition that took many months," Maffitt told Polygon. "We've actually seen huge success. ... All our [key performance indicators] have actually skyrocketed, and exceeded our expectations.
"Our player population this week has gone up four times what it was prior to this week's announcement. We're seeing a lot of older players coming back."
Going free-to-play earns PC games more players, but so does entering new, global markets. Wargaming, a company with a strong foothold in Russia, recently changed its in-game economy, a move many see as a play for Western audiences. In dropping World of Tanks' old economic model, a system that allowed players to have advantage over their adversaries only through real-money transactions, Wargaming is clearly trying to align itself with more Western ideals of fair play.
"even the big guys are seeing declines in player populations"
Trion Worlds is, oddly enough, making the opposite push with Rift, taking its traditionally Western game into Asian markets. But it has found that localization is more than just adding subtitles.
"It's not just translating the text," says Trion World's Maffitt. "It's the overall aesthetic. Rift has a lot of ... dark hollows and these areas that kind of create, in the West, a sense of mystery and intrigue. And then to take it to a Chinese market, for example, they want to see much more bright colors and things popping more. It's subtle changes like that."
In addition to the look of the game, Maffitt says there's also much to consider in how the in-game economy is structured for Eastern players.
"The Chinese market has a lot more of the pay-by-the-hour cafe kinds of things," Maffitt says. "It's very different than what you see here [in the West]; go to Gamestop, buy the title, bring it home to play on your 55-inch TV. With the Chinese market we're trying to be adaptive to that [difference] and to find a monetization model that appeals."
Eating up much of the market share from MMO games are multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games. This rapidly expanding sector of the PC gaming space asks gamers to group into teams and compete against each other, forming parties of heroes with complementary powers. But what makes MOBAs unique is a lightning-fast play style reminiscent of action RPGs like Diablo, coupled with the building-queues normally associated with real-time strategy games like Starcraft.
This addictive mashup has helped MOBAs pull players in from MMOs, but also from all around the multiplayer game space. Additionally, the finely tuned balance of MOBA games like League of Legends has given new life to online eSports broadcasts, a phenomenon that has helped bring even more players into the MOBA genre. It's a feedback loop that's putting ever more attention on the model.
Zynga is using Solstice Arena to push MOBA games into different demographic markets
It also happens that the most popular MOBA games are free-to-play. But many consumers, even hardcore PC gamers, are intimidated by the perceived complexity of the genre. Enter Zynga, pioneers of the free-to-play space on Facebook, and a company quick to see a trend and capitalize on it.
Frederic Descamps, general manager on the title, told Polygon that the game is intended to be as accessible as possible for mobile players. "Our background is in hardcore gaming. ... We used to make hardcore games. ... We worked on Rift. That's where we met, at Trion Worlds."
But just as Trion Worlds is broadening its player base by moving into different geographic markets, Zynga is using Solstice Arena to push MOBA games into different demographic markets.
"I'm a dad, and I just don't have time to play hardcore games on PC any more," Descamps says. The focus of Solstice Arena is "basically distilling hardcore games down to 5, 15, 20 minute experiences. ... They still give you this shot, this boost of hard core gaming experience ... that you can repeat over and over."
"There are many ways to slice and dice it, whether you are an MMO, an FPS, a casual game, slots, et cetera," said Descamps. "The main idea of free-to-play for me is ... accessibility. Let's remove all barriers. You don't need to pay 50 or 60 bucks to get into the game. ... Let people decide if they want to pay for it."
A CHANGING LANDSCAPE
When the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 launch later this year, more core gamers than ever before will be exposed to free-to-play games. What we saw at E3 2013 was nothing less than the convergence of publishers and developers, from every platform, every culture, and every demographic on the free-to-play model.
The games Polygon saw at E3 show that the future of free-to-play is transparent, fair, high-quality and carefully tailored to the market it's released in. And it will be here sooner than you think.
But hardcore gamers are a cynical bunch. Only time will tell if free-to-play will turn their heads and distract them from more complex games and similar, full-priced offerings.