"Next generation of freemium games will be indistinguishable from AAA"
ngmoco's Ben Cousins describes the breadth and depth of the free-to-play future
Ben Cousins has had a busy month. As a veteran of free-to-play projects at Sony, EA and DICE, and now head of ngmoco's AAA mobile studio in Sweden, Cousins is well placed to comment on emerging platforms and business models, and in the last four weeks that's precisely what he has done.
He delivered one of the more rousing sessions at this year's GDC, arguing that console hardware is already on an inexorable path towards obsolescence. If you're trying to stir up the debate it's not a bad way to start, but, faced with another speaking engagement at London's inaugural Free-2-Play Summit, Cousins resisted the temptation to simply retread old ground.
"When you've had 140,000 views on SlideShare you think, 'maybe I need to back away from that subject,'" he says, but Cousins' new line of argument is every bit as provocative.
In an hour-long keynote address, Cousins dissected the origins of the free-to-play business model in the cafe-culture of South Korea and China, its explosion throughout the world following the rise of mobile and social gaming, and its future as the pricing strategy for games of all types, on all platforms. It is laden with the sort of bold statements that help journalists pay the bills, but every sound-bite is backed by data and detail.
Team Fortress 2 went free-to-play, it didn't upset anyone, and now Valve is making loads of money from it. I mean, everyone follows Valve
"If you look at [the growth of free-to-play in Asia] with the non-racist view of these people aren't special, they're not weird - they're just ahead, or they have a different infrastructure to us, and when we get that infrastructure we'll behave the same way - then it feels inevitable," he says. "And if you talk to an economist, he'll say it's obviously going to win."
Throughout his talk, and during the course of our conversation immediately after, it becomes clear that, to some extent, Cousins regards free-to-play as an economic imperative. As soon as one competitor in a specific field drops the price to zero, he argues, it becomes very difficult for others to continue charging. It happened to mobile games in the space of a few years, and the touch-paper that will spark the same transition in PC and, ultimately, console gaming has already been lit.
"I'm a massive fan of Valve's games, and when Valve went free-to-play with Team Fortress, for me that was like, 'Okay, that's the vindication,'" he says. "Valve doesn't do something unless it feels it can be tremendously successful. That was a big deal for me. It wasn't social games taking off or anything like that - if you're engaging a more casual audience, if it's free it's going to be more popular. But Team Fortress 2 went free-to-play, it didn't upset anyone, and now Valve is making loads of money from it. I mean, everyone follows Valve."
The focus here is the spread of free-to-play to core games. The idea that social networks, smartphones and MMOs will be dominated by free-to-play is now widely accepted, but the notion that AAA console and PC titles will also succumb is still met with resistance. During is talk, Cousins predicted that there would be an epic, lavish single-player RPG in the vein of Skyrim that implements the freemium model within a few years.
Such statements are impossible to substantiate, and so are open to criticism, but when questioned on the subject Cousins remains confident. Indeed, he believes that forthcoming games like CCP's Dust 514, Crytek's Warface and Blizzard's DoTA will prove that the sort of production values expected from pay-to-play console and PC games can be successful in freemium products.
"In every other platform - whether arcades, consoles or PCs - there's been a gradual increase in production values as everyone tries to get the next big hit," he says. "If you look at Zynga's games, FarmVille is very basic compared to something like CastleVille, so we're already seeing that transition over a couple of years.
"When you get companies making hundreds of millions of dollars from their games, they're going to invest that in their sequels. They need to maintain that position. Just look at Angry Birds Space; that cost a lot more money than Angry Birds - I'd bet five times as much - and that's because they had the money and they wanted to maintain that positions. That's how you end up in an arms race.
"I think it's inevitable. If that's where the money is then there will be intense competition from very big companies willing to make very big bets... The next generation of freemium PC games will be indistinguishable from AAA games."
Cousins readily admits that the transition to free-to-play will be more difficult on consoles, but the forces he described in his GDC talk are the very same ones that will force Sony and Microsoft to embrace new models. Regardless of how popular the next generation of consoles become, their manufacturers cannot ignore the reach of the more open platforms that have emerged in the last five years.
In addition, consumers are moving away from "specialised electronic equipment" and towards "more general purpose devices." In that context, the true value of a console platform is not a box full of processors and wires, but the service the consumer receives when they turn it on. As free-to-play spreads from mobile and social to PC, from casual to core, and from multiplayer to single-player, gamers will increasingly expect a service like Xbox Live to offer the same. And Microsoft needs to build that into its next console from day one; retro-fitting such a bold strategy would be too difficult.
I think it's inevitable. If freemium is where the money is then there will be intense competition from very big companies willing to make very big bets
"What's the true value of an Xbox?" Cousins asks. "If you said to somebody, 'I'm going to throw your Xbox in the bin or I'm going to delete your Xbox Live account and all of your gamer points,' I think they'd be more upset about losing the service than the hardware. And I really hope that Microsoft understands that power and is able to execute on that idea."
But Cousins has no desire to frighten core gamers, not least because his roots are in that very culture. The shock of the new causes the core to recoil from these ideas, but he believes that free-to-play need not alter the sort of experiences available to them. When he looks to the future and sees a game like Skyrim waiting, with no money required to gain access, it should be a reassurance that the free-to-play future won't be a rolling landscape of asynchronous farms.
You will be able to shoot your arrows, cast your spells and slay your dragons. And if you don't care too much for smithing and alchemy, well, you'll be able to leave them on the shelf.
"I was a big arcade gamer, and I was aware that the console business and the console userbase was much bigger, because not everybody could get to an arcade," he recalls. "So I was a core gamer playing on the arcades and I moved my core gaming onto console and PC, but I was still the same consumer. I was probably spending £5 to £10 a week on arcade games, and that became a new game every month.
"Core consumers will continue to spend about the same amount and play for about the same number of hours - they'll just move from platform to platform. This is the important thing that core gamers need to understand when I say something like, 'mobile is going to kill consoles' - I just mean the companies and the platforms.
"But the gamers? There's too much money in these amazingly engaged, passionate young people for them not to be served by something."