Adam Rosenberg: Is Free To Play The New Cool?

A funny thing happened at GDC this year. I noticed it before even touching down inSan Francisco. As I booked my week-long gauntlet of previews and interviews, a trend emerged: many of the games I was carving out time to check out at were of the free-to-play variety.

“Nuts to that,” I thought at the time. “I’ll make that coverage as short and sweet as possible so I can concentrate on the good stuff.” That’s the funny thing, though. In my final analysis of GDC 2012, I realized that I spent more time covering and getting excited about the free-to-play content I was seeing about than anything else.

In many people’s minds right now, free-to-play is FarmVille or free-to-download “Lite” versions of popular games. It’s fueled by micro-transactions and it’s often ad-supported. These things tend to leave “serious” gamers with a negative impression.

The thing is, developers get that. Or they’re starting to.

Sure, micro-transactions continue to be central to making the concept of free-to-play work as a business. But the people who make these games are starting to understand the nuances of what does and doesn’t fly with an audience. A lot of them already recognize that players don’t want a “pay-to-win” framework where someone can get an in-game advantage simply for having more money.

Ironclad Games is taking an extreme approach with Sins of a Dark Age. By all appearances, this is a current-gen-quality multiplayer real time strategy hybrid. It works sort of like League of Legends on one level, with each player on a team taking command of a single hero unit that can be leveled and geared up over the course of a given match. Each team is also overseen by a commander, who is responsible for big picture resource/troop management and strategic planning.

There are multiple heroes and commanders in Dark Age, and you’ll be able to buy them using earned in-game credits. The thing is, you won’t be able to buy these credits with cash money; you can only get them for playing the game. The only thing in Dark Age that you can actually spend money on is purely cosmetic; Ironclad will be selling a variety of skins for each character. The idea is simple: create an environment that players want to keep coming back to, and they’ll spend money on these cosmetic virtual goods to distinguish themselves from the masses.

Sony Online Entertainment’s PlanetSide 2 takes a wholly different approach. It’s an elaborate PC-only multiplayer shooter that pits three wholly unique factions against one another in objective-based battles. Imagine the class-oriented scope of a Battlefield match, except this is spread across an entire continent, complete with its own weather regions and controllable resources.

Money spent in Planetside 2 can cut down on a player’s time investment as far as unlocking new content goes. But the weapons, vehicles, upgrades and gear that you’ll use have all been designed to support different roles on the field of battle. You can’t spend money on some uber-powerful shotgun that would require others to put in 100+ hours of play to unlock. There’s a cost/benefit ratio attached to any store item and it isn’t purely cosmetic.

Piranha Games is taking a similar approach with Mechwarrior Online, a free-to-play PC-only mech-based shooter. You can earn gear for your mech or purchase it using real dollars. But all of it qualifies as what Piranha calls “sidegrades.” For example, you might prefer rapid-fire, low damage rockets for short-range engagements over long-range, high-damage ones. Business models like these cleverly step around the concept of “pay-to-win” by offering gear that isn’t better or worse than anything else. It’s just different.

Will new approaches like these pay off in the long run? Really though, the content speaks for itself. Planetside 2 isn’t just similar to Battlefield in the sense that it offers multi-role first person shooter combat. It also delivers current-gen visuals that, on higher settings, easily match and beat plenty of console titles. Mechwarrior is powered by CryEngine 3, and it certainly looks the part. Dark Age isn’t as visually complex as the shooters, but even that packs plenty of visual punch when you zoom the camera in for closeups.

The good news is that these examples are just scratching the surface. Auto Club Revolution from Eutechnyx looks and feels like a F2P take on Forza Motorsport, bringing some elaborate community features into a car culture-focused racing game. CCP Games goes even further, with the PlayStation 3-exclusive Dust 514 hooking directly into the single-shard MMO universe of EVE Online. Even Crytek is jumping into the F2P arena, with the CryEngine 3-powered multiplayer shooter, Warface.

These are interesting times for gamers. Free-to-play is no longer a facet of the business that applies only to the so-called “casual” market. There are games coming soon that the serious gamer audience will want to play and, more importantly, want to keep playing.

I’m not suggesting that full-priced retail releases are going anywhere anytime soon, but the creators of those experiences really ought to pause and consider the implications of competitors offering similarly high-quality games at no cost. Putting brand/franchise loyalty aside, what are you really getting out of a $60 game that you can’t get out a free game in the same genre? If GDC’s parade of top-shelf free to play titles is any indication, that’s a question we’ll be considering quite a bit more in the coming year.

-Adam Rosenberg

Adam Rosenberg, an avid member of the Circle, writes for G4TV.com and many other outlets. Right now, he’s on a cross country trip with his father. And he’s likely playing games on the trip as well.

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