Free 2 Play, The Gathering Storm…

The world of computer gaming is going through a quiet revolution. Free2Play games – F2P – are taking over the spare time of people everywhere. It’s not just for the boys either, girls are spending enough time on Facebook F2P games that their X-Box addicted boyfriends are complaining.

You may think that as the name suggests these are free games, sadly no. While there is still a wide selection of free and fun games out there, it’s the new entrants to the market – micro-payment games – that are most interesting. Unlike traditional games you don’t pay to join or install a copy of the game. It’s very clever, since you only pay little bits, its small enough that you don’t even think about it. Generally the payment is tied to something within the game making it just blend into the action. F2P is no longer just an alternative, don’t underestimate this new sales model – revolution.

The quality has often been missing in the F2P world but games like Civilization Wars, Mafia Wars and Kingdoms of Camelot are changing that, along with many commercial game companies releasing free to play games the market is heating up.

FTP Battleforge

Free To Play originally refered to a game that was totally ‘free to play’, that’s where the flash games come in, cheap quick to produce games with a slant towards light entertainment, fun little escapes. This original style of F2P made money through web advertising on the site hosting the games or donations. Some used memberships or other fee’s to earn a crust. The common thread here being all of the payments were out-side of the game, and generally had nothing to do with the game itself. The new revolution in F2P is the idea of in game micro- payments. The player pays for things with-in the game. Common examples like car upgrades, characters cloths, character abilities or playing time all highlight the new system. The payments called Micro-Payments are tiny – often in the cents -, tiny enough that you don’t pay much attention. They do build up though, periodically you will have to charge up your account, just like a pre-paid mobile phone.

The reason this new way of charging is such a game changer is traditionally when you went down to the games shop and purchased the latest title, you paid once and that was it, lets say you paid $100, you then take it home and enjoy. If a million people brought the game the company got a $100 million, sounds like a lot but that’s all they got, if it stops selling they stop earning. If there’s a lot of support costs to keep a game available – servers, support staff, secretaries – then a certain number of sales are needed just to break even.

So if you were a game developer looking at your choices, you can sell a game at a fixed price and limit your income or you can integrate the use of points or credits in a game, this generates you money as long as people keep playing. It might take a year for someone to pay a $100 in micro-payments but in the second year you’re earning more than if you’d sold the game for that same $100. The other upside is that it is now in the game developers interest to keep you playing, while games like FarmVille aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, the people keep playing, and it keeps earning.

NFS World

Electronic Arts hasn’t missed the revolution either Need For Speed World is a free to play racing MMO – Massively Multiplayer Online – game. One of the first commercial quality full games with a massive community. It is still early days for EA at this level of integration with Facebook and other social software. Need For Speed World is an old school game trying to be new and it does a pretty good job of it. That’s not EA’s only foray into free gaming either with a page dedicated to the FTP Electronic Arts makes a big push into the F2P games with over 20 games listed on its Free-Play Games page. There is also BattleForge, an example of really good quality software, the game rates amongst the best RTS – Real Time Strategy – consistently.

DLC – Down Loadable Content – was a phase that game companies went through, forcing players to pay big money for extra’s that are added to a game they already own. This really just annoyed the hell out of everyone – gamers -, frankly no one likes buying a game to later find out they only bought a part of a game and they would need to pay more for the complete game. Even worse when this happened there was no warning, often it felt like the game developers were just coming up with sh*t after the fact. DLC was never going to work, it was an after thought of a dying system, Up-Front Payment games.

Zynga Mafia Wars

Zynga are still a huge player in F2P. After a slightly dodgy start that included Trojans embedded in game ads, allegedly stealing game ideas they have quickly rose to the top, whether other game companies like it or not – mostly not- Zynga started with venture capital money in July 2008. Trier strategy from the start has been to buy in the technology. Their first purchase being YoVille, the father of all the Ville family of games made famous by Facebook. Part of the revolution has been the partnership between Facebook and Zynga. The ability to bring social and gaming together in that format has been a small revolution in and of itself.

Zynga in 2010 was valued at over $5 billion, more than the market tough guy Electronic Arts, by a long way. They never have sold a single game, packed a DVD case or been named on the receipt at the local games store. By 2010 they had an annual income of $500million dollars. Growing faster than is natural, during a 10 month period of 2010 they purchased a small software developer every month. Zynga took the F2P micro-payments and ran with it, it is actually the only thing they do well, build micro-payments into game-play.

Microsoft has Age Of Empires Online based on the classic Age of Empires real time strategy game. Microsoft’s involvement does worry me with their tendency to change the rules mid stream, so play it – if you can join the beta testers, it has the most painfull sign up ever – before they change their minds. AOE Online is also unusual in that it is actually a new version of the game but its online F2P only. The game is currently in closed beta, you can sign up to play but you must then wait for the invitation.

Highlights of the Free To Play World.
1. Battleforge
2. Need for Speed World
3. Kingdoms of Camelot
4. Electronic Arts Free Play Games.
5. Age Of Empires Online

Age of Empires Online

The money isn’t the only change in this revolution. There are no disks, all games are downloaded, many are played online in a multi player setting, some involve other websites like Facebook, many even play from within your browser. All of the new technologies are there, neatly rolled into each game. Actually it’s all about the money. The retail over the counter experience will always be there, F2P won’t stop that Though F2P companies like Zynga and EA will keep pushing the micro payment barriers, it may take a while but F2P revenues will force the games industry to take notice. One day micro payments may be king.

Picture courtesy of F2P games, Rappelz, BattleForge, NFS World, Mafia Wars, AOE Online.