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Free-to-play set to take off on consoles?

Chris Morris talks to devs about F2P and how it may actually be better suited to consoles than the PC

Consoles, traditionally, have been centered around the traditional retail model. Pay for a game. Take it home. Enjoy. (And, lately, pay again for DLC.)

But the rise of mobile has made free-to-play titles one of the fastest growing segments of the industry. And Microsoft and Sony are attempting to position their current and next generation systems to capitalize on this growing segment.

So far, for Microsoft at least, there has been a definite learning curve.

Wargaming.net, which is currently in the midst of a public beta for its World of Tanks on Xbox Live, made waves last month when its outspoken CEO Victor Kislyi called the quality assurance and certification processes for the Xbox 360 "totally unacceptable".

"Since these are dedicated gaming systems, you're more predisposed to try something, whereas when you're on the PC, you might get distracted by, say, Facebook or something"

SOE's John Smedley

Some news sites ran with that sound byte to imply Wargaming was fed up with the console manufacturer. However, Kislyi was making a larger point - and the team that's working directly on World of Tanks for Xbox 360 says that while there have certainly been hiccups, Microsoft has been working hard to accommodate the free-to-play gaming giant.

"I'd be lying if I said this is clear and precise," says Denny Thorley, head of Wargaming's Chicago-based studio and former president of Day 1 Studios. "What we're trying to do is something Microsoft hasn't attempted to do before, but they've been terrific partners in trying to be flexible where they can."

For instance, he notes, incremental changes to the game are now being certified faster than they have previously - as testers are already familiar with the game.

While Microsoft is working through some issues, Sony has a bit more history in the space. Its Sony Online Entertainment unit has been the internal torchbearer for free-to-play games - and it has seen notable success.

"The single fastest growing segment of our business is DC Universe Online on the PS3," says John Smedley, president of SOE. "70 percent of our revenue [on that game] comes from the PS3 and 70 percent of our players come from the PS3."

Because the company has been offering deep free-to-play experiences longer, it also has worked out a system to more quickly approve updates - something that could aid it in the next generation.

"One of the advantages we have had is we were the first with Free Realms," says Smedley. "With that, we've helped the QA group set up the system. What happened is there's a trust level that builds up. They do certain checks every time - but over time, if you don't screw up, they start to trust your [internal] QA."

Consoles, he says, actually have some notable advantages over the PC when it comes to free-to-play. There's consistently stable hardware and software and the installed base is constantly growing. Most importantly, though, the barrier to microtranscation purchases is lower.

"There's a higher likelihood of having a payment system on file," he says. "And since these are dedicated gaming systems, you're more predisposed to try something, whereas when you're on the PC, you might get distracted by, say, Facebook or something."

When it comes to monetization of free-to-play titles, Microsoft and Sony approach things differently. While both take a cut of microtransaction sales, Microsoft gets two bites at the pie, since players hoping to play World of Tanks for more than a one-week trial must be Xbox Live Gold members.

(Wargaming, Thorley notes, will not begin monetizing the game until it is out of its beta period - something that will happen "real soon now".)

"They're looking at what we're doing on the [Xbox] 360 to understand all the issues and I'm convinced it will get easier and easier on the next platform"

Wargaming's Denny Thorley

While the console audience is certainly vast, not all free-to-play game makers are interested in pursuing that audience. Kabam, for instance, says there are no plans to work on a console version of any of its games at this point.

"Sure, there are games you absolutely want to play on the console, but there are plenty that people want to play with convenience [in mind]," says Chris Carvalho, Chief Operating Officer of Kabam. "They want to play in the living room or the kitchen or wherever. ... There's a huge growth factor in the tablet market - and consumers are saying loudly that they want the convenience."

The factor that's driving that decision is less about the longer certification process - and more about growth forecasts of platforms. Juniper Research estimates there will be 64.1 billion games downloaded to tablets and smartphones in 2017, which is more than triple the 21 billion downloaded last year.

Those are impressive numbers, to be sure. But it's certainly too early to count out consoles. Both Microsoft and Sony have shown in their pre-launch maneuvering that they plan an all out war against each other - and other platforms - to retain their strength in the gaming world.

"They are a very sharp group of people and are clearly paying attention to the questions we ask - which usually begin 'why can't we?'," says Thorley. "They're looking at what we're doing on the [Xbox] 360 to understand all the issues and I'm convinced it will get easier and easier on the next platform."

Chris Morris avatar

Chris Morris


Chris Morris has covered the video game industry since 1996, offering analysis of news and trends and breaking several major stories. He was the author of CNNMoney’s 'Game Over' and has also written for Yahoo!, Variety, CNBC.com, Forbes.com and other publications.