With so many free-to-play games, why should I buy anything?

[Update: I just found out Defiance, which I reference as a free-to-play title in this post, is going to have a shelf price of $60. So scratch that one from the list.]

A recent experience has me wondering what the long-term impact of so many free-to-play games will have on the industry. Now to be fair I’m doing that thing where I assume my experience reflects that of most gamers, so keep that in mind while you read this post.

I’m a casual shooter fan. I don’t play many shooters; the last one I picked up was Halo 4 I guess. I don’t play them competitively. But every so often I get in the mood where I want to run around shooting stuff and seeing things explode. In Ye Olden Tymes that would’be meant heading to the game store and seeing what’s available.

Not any more.

Friday night I was in the Defiance stress test. There’s an NDA on that game but it’s no secret that it’s an MMO shooter. The stress test was only a few hours and when it finished I found myself still in the mood to shoot stuff. So on Saturday I patched up Firefall and I spent Saturday and Sunday having fun in that beta. Firefall is also an MMO shooter. It has PVP but I was doing PVE and co-op PVE activities in it while I played.

Monday came around and I decided to change things up and play Borderlands 2. I think it’s safe to call BL2 a good game. I’ve seen it on some ‘game of the year’ ballets and most people seem to like it. I like it too. But it costs $50-$60 (or did when it launched anyway).

If I had it all to do over again, I probably wouldn’t buy Borderlands 2 at that price. Now I have to tread gingerly here. BL2 is priced competitively in the traditional gaming space. Compared to Halo 4 or Call of Duty its pricing is perfect. I’m not trying to knock BL2 in any way.

But for a casual shooter fan like me, I can really get just as much fun out of free games like Firefall, Planetside 2, Defiance or maybe even Dust 514 as I can out of BL2.

For people who take their shooters seriously I’m sure this isn’t the case, but I wonder if there are enough serious shooter fans to support many big budget $60 games. It is my understanding (and I may be wrong) that game publishers need casual gamers to purchase their titles in order to thrive.

So in the future, how will these publishers lure in casuals like me? What are they going to offer me that I can’t get for free?

14 thoughts on “With so many free-to-play games, why should I buy anything?

  1. It seems that while many things are moving to free to play, more of them are ramping up “buy to test” programs. MechWarrior Online and MechWarrior Tactics, and even Firefall offer “founders” packages where you can pay now and play later. If they launch (at all) free to play, you’ve got some perks that will never be available again. For some, that cache has merit; for others, maybe they want to get in early. Some people won’t pay for an unfinished product no matter what.

    Up front costs seem to be mainly the domain of physical goods these days. If you have a console, you pretty much need a disk. Digital distro isn’t as prevalent as it is on the PC, and that no-inventory, no-shipping model means that the PC will be THE place for F2P products. If you’re going to play on a console, you’ll still need to pay up front. We’ll see how DUST works out, though, and if it’s success or failure has anything to do with being a F2P product.

  2. A thing that concerns me is the oversaturation in the market. First it was subscriptions, and that was all fine and good but eventually a few years ago the market began being saturated with subscription MMOs. So sure, the first “good” (at the time?) F2P conversions like DDO and LOTRO, players went bonkers over how great they were. Or whatever. But now we have studios acting as if F2P is some magical panacea to save their game and guess what? It’s not going to work because the market is still oversaturated with “Me Too!” MMOs, even more so now than when the “Free to Play Will Save the Day” campaign began.

    As to shooters, I dunno. Call of Duty sets sales records every year, though I keep expecting it to peak at some point. Hasn’t happened yet. But you don’t play competitively, even just for S&Gs so a COD or Battlefield, or even the PlanetSide2 you mentioned, wouldn’t be up your alley at all. At least the Halos always have a long story, they’re co-opable (which again you won’t do even for S&Gs) and usually have some sort of co-op “thing” like the Firefights in ODST and Reach and Spartan Ops in 4. Generally speaking, the teeny bit of shooter vibes I’ve picked up from you, that would be more your style since it’s co-op PvE. Same with Defiance and Firefall so I’d say either way you go with those two, you’d do great. I suppose Borderlands fits in there too since it’s a PvE game like Diablo that just happens to be in the skin of an FPS.

  3. Agreed on the over-saturation thing but in a way I think that reinforces my point. First there were sub-based MMOs and then we got some F2P ones. Now we arguably have too many F2P games (and too many MMOs in general) for the market to support, but doesn’t that make things even tougher for anyone who wants to publish a sub-based MMO? They (kinda) literally can’t give all these games away now. How is anyone going to sell them?

    Call of Duty is definitely a hit but two things I’d like to know: how well does it sell on the PC where it’s competing with free options and second, how well do the 2nd tier games do?

    But I should have qualified that I’m mostly talking about PC games in this post, since there aren’t a ton of free-to-play console games on the market yet.

  4. Free 2 Play comes with a big caveat. If you really like a game it is going to cost you a lot more than $60. That is how games like LoL, TF2, World of Tanks and others make their money – a small number of dedicated players paying hundreds of dollars in the cash shop subsidising the casual masses who play for free.

    However your point is still valid (for PC Gamers anyway) because on any given day I can find a tonne of very good games on sale as digital downloads. You can get a lot of superb games for less than $10 to play forever. In those circumstances it is very hard to justify paying $60 for any game on release. Unless you absolutely must play a game when it first comes out just wait a few weeks and get it half price or less.

    I almost feel guilty about getting so many games for so little money.It would be nice to think that the extra number of units sold during sales compensates for the reduced prices but THQ has shown that just reducing your prices does not guarantee survival.

  5. I generally don’t like F2P games because I don’t trust cash shops and even as a casual player I don’t like “pay-to-win” scenarios. (There are a few exceptions to this, like Team Fortress 2.)

    That all being said, I totally agree that $60 for a AAA title is crazypants right now. Personally, I refuse to buy any game for more than $10. Sure it’ll be ages until BL2, for example, gets that low in a holiday Steam sale, but I have an enormous backlog of games already. I can wait.

  6. Right, if you’re a serious or dedicated player you’re going to get more value out of that $60 title. Or a $15/month subscription too, I’d wager.

    And I know what you mean about almost feeling guilty. I just bought some THQ bundle on Amazon for $11 or something, and it had 6 games that were each $50 at release.

    Same with those ‘pay what you want’ bundles that are all the rage. Usually the average is under $10 for 5-8 games!

  7. I don’t have numbers because I neither play nor track PC shooters anymore but my suspicion is that COD still sells well on PC because it’s COD so you have that “let’s play COD” thing with friends and general watercooler stuff, kinda like WoW. And because it’s competitive and you buy the game as a product, not a “service.” PvP and F2P really really really has to tread an extremely thin line where you don’t go into Pay2Win territory and I “think” that ultimately holds back some F2P shooters. That and generally speaking, I don’t think the production quality is there in the F2P titles either.

  8. Cross-posted with Liore.

    Thing is for me, I don’t use the cash shops (most shops I don’t trust either). I’m not spending any money on these games. In fact I DID buy some kind of Founders Package for Planetside 2 that gave me a bunch of Station Cash to spend in the game, but I wound up spending most of it on appearance gear and a house for my EQ2 character.

    I felt more comfortable with the PS2 shop because it’s through Sony rather than through some company that I’ve never heard of that uses some payment processor that I’ve never heard of. But even after I had currency to spend, I didn’t bother spending it.

    Tangent, but that’s one of my issues with Zynga games. All their neatest stuff requires real cash to buy. It’s not that I couldn’t afford to buy this stuff, but it’s no FUN buying it. I want to earn it!

  9. @Talyn — Yeah, I don’t really have a way to prop my theory up when it comes to COD then. Maybe it’s just me, but if things change I WILL shake my fist and say I told you so!

  10. I think if you’re looking for a multiplayer experience then I would agree.

  11. The COD Series, and Battlefield Series, are both premium titles that far outsell anything else in that genre. So they don’t really fit into the theory. However I think all, or most, other such titles in the genre do. There are a lot of shooters and many or short term fads so it does become more and more a case of why buy one at a premium price when there are half a dozen others just as good at bargain prices or free.

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