For the last couple of years, free-to-play has been the buzzword of the industry. And now traditional publishers have woken up, and, scared of missing the boat, have leapt in with both feet.
Free-to-play can be great. Free-to-play (by which I mean being able to play a whole game without having to pay) works brilliantly well for games that players will play for 20+ hours. Most of the big free-to-play successes have been games designed with that in mind; games that encourage repeat play day in-day out over a long period of time. And with those games, free-to-play has generated huge amounts of revenue - so much so that some people have declared the battle over - free-to-play will take over and become the dominant model for all games. End of argument! Why consider anything else?
"The cracks are starting to show as traditional games try to embrace the free-to-play model and struggle"
But I believe the cracks are starting to show as traditional games try to embrace the free-to-play model and struggle. There are a large number of amazing games which simply don't and can't work when you try to make them last more than 20 hours and start thinking about retention loops, energy mechanics and daily bonuses. Narrative is highly incompatible with free-to-play, and a large proportion of the highest rated games over the last decade have been based around strong storytelling and great characterisation.
As publishers try to 'convert' these fantastic 8-hour experiences to free-to-play, I think you'll see the cracks grow even larger. I dread the day that I see Call of Duty or Tomb Raider going free-to-play. I don't want every game I play to last forever and require me to come back every day. I don't want every game to be devoid of great narrative with a powerful ending. I don't have the time to play more than one or two 'retention' games at a time. But I'll happily play many more fantastic games that last 6-12 hours and give me a euphoric ending and the feeling of satisfaction you get from having participated in a fantastic experience. I don't think I'm alone.
At the moment, console games, handheld gaming devices like the Vita and 3DS and PC games are still dominated by games which are not free-to-play. I think that is because people love playing those kind of games - and it's hard to find those experiences on mobile devices. So I think either those kind of games will come more frequently to mobile, or PC/console/handheld devices will continue to have a strong and passionate user base, and make the kind of money that allows Rockstar to spend $250 million developing a non-mobile game.
I suspect when TV soap operas arrived, people thought that this new format was going to take over TV. And soaps are still incredibly popular and addictive, getting viewers back five days a week every week, every year. They're great. But TV isn't back-to-back soap operas. People still love to watch (and pay for) films. They watch a series that has an ending. They go to the cinema or watch NetFlix. Reality TV was the same - everyone flocked to it for a few years, but it has settled down now as part of the mix. People love variety.
Plants vs Zombies 2 might be one of the first big examples of how free-to-play can go wrong. The first game was one of the best game designs ever made. Absolutely, bloody perfect. But EA decided that it needed to be free-to-play. Plants vs Zombies wasn't designed to be played for 20+ hours. It was a fantastic game with a core mission mode that most players could complete in 6-8 hours of solid play. But the sequel struggles in no-mans-land, torn between delivering overly hard levels (to require players to spend money), and being too easy to grind through. I strongly suspect, given its position in the 'top grossing' chart, that PvZ2 is way below the revenue targets that EA/Popcap had set out for it.
In some ways, I think free-to-play has become a sticking plaster for the App Store pricing model. High quality games simply can't make money being sold for 99c (69c after Apple's cut). And you can't charge £35 on the App Store yet. So free-to-play is a good solution for this problem. But it isn't the only answer. It works for some games really well; I'm still playing Simpsons: Tapped Out pretty much every day. But it simply doesn't work for many games. And too many publishers and developers seem to be falling victim to the hype and believing it's the only option moving forwards.
"Free-to-play has become a sticking plaster for the App Store pricing model"
I strongly suspect we're going to see many car-crashes over the next 18 months as traditional publishers bring existing franchises to free-to-play and watch them fail to generate the revenue they need.
Let free-to-play game designs use the free-to-play model . Let games that people play for 20-40 hours or more use the free-to-play model if it works for them. But don't pretend that all games need to be like this from now until the end of time. For other games, monetise them the way that suits them best. Give people free demos, show them your amazing game, then allow them to buy the full experience with in-app purchases. Or let people pay up-front, and allow mega-fans to buy bling show-off items in-game if you want to. But don't make your game free-to-play and start encouraging short daily bursts and putting in energy mechanics unless it's right for the game.
I strongly suspect that games (taken across all platforms) will settle into a healthy mix of business models. And when the mist clears, I think free-to-play games will account for 50 per cent or less of that final mix. Variety, not uniformity, will win the day.