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Free-to-play on PS4: aggressive monetization is not the way to go

The free-to-play business model can work on consoles, but in order for it to succeed, developers have to make a fun game first, according developers from Zombie Studios and Digital Extremes.

Speaking on a panel at the Game Developers Conference about whether free-to-play can succeed on the PlayStation 4, Digital Extremes' James Schmalz and Zombie Studios' Jared Gerritzen said their studios' games Warframe and Blacklight: Retribution — both of which are free-to-play titles on the PS4 — are proof that console users are willing to spend money when first offered a game for free. But there's more to their success than just implementing a free-to-play business model.

"There's always the criticism about free-to-play that it's so analytics and data-driven," Schmalz said. "That you don't need a fun game, you just need to look at the analytics. One thing that strikes me about consoles free-to-play is it's definitely much more fun-driven. You have to have a fun game that keeps the player in and have just enough coaxing to get some money.

"We have 80 percent of our players who never pay, but we want them there. We want that community. They're part of the community and we want to keep them happy."

Schmalz said it's important for Digital Extremes, which released Warframe as a PS4 launch title, to make games for that 80 percent of players, because that's the best way to ensure the game is fun.If the studio were to be data-driven and aggressive in its monetization approach, that could potentially be harmful.

"It's frustrating when you hear the stigma attached to free-to-play because I think it can be done very right," said Sony Online Entertainment's SVP of global marketing and sales Lauren Naviaux. "We look at virtual items as what enhances the game's experience, what's going to add tangible value instead of friction points."

Gerritzen said that as great as free-to-play can be, he has concerns about its future if developers become too focused on micro-transactions instead of just making a good game.

"I feel like there will be a point where games will come our premium and turn free-to-play or turn on microtransactions," he said. "And it can be a very bad thing. Free-to-play is great, but it can go down a very dark road."