As a business model, I very much like free to play.
Free to Play is a direct response to the digitization of PC gaming. It’s no coincidence that free to play is a PC-centric phenomenon. If we still had a handful of major PC game publications and a major retail presence, there’d be no free to play. The market adapts, the consumer benefits.
Let’s define free to play:
Free To Play is software that is fully functional and useful/fun in its free form. It’s not a trial. It’s not a “Crippled” version. It is, ultimately, freeware. The difference here is that users also have the option, typically within the program itself, to add more features or content to the program. These features and content are completely optional and the user could go just fine without ever spending a cent. Well made freeware makes its premium features “nice to have” but not critical to the program itself.
Free to Play may have started out as a gaming phenomenon but it just as applicable to non-game software. About a year ago, I outlined to our software unit that all our software was going to migrate to a free to play model. You can see this with Tiles. Tiles is freeware but users can add features to it for small amounts. The base program is compelling on its own. The extras (premium) are clearly “nice to have” but not core to the program (skinning, extra tile filters, etc.).
This week, we’re releasing WindowFX 5, a program we’ve been making for over a decade. The 5th generation version is free to play. That is, there is no Pro/Plus/Enhanced version. There is only WindowFX. Users who want premium features can add them in the app for a nominal cost but the application itself is designed to be compelling on its own.
Meanwhile, our PC games are still pretty traditional. The upcoming Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion is a $39.95 game. There will almost certainly be a demo version but it’ll be a traditional demo. Digital does bring some benefits -- we can offer users of the original Sins of a Solar Empire series a $10 discount. But we are very much looking at the F2P model when we are designing new titles.
Why is F2P taking over?
Simply put, the loss of a retail channel for selling software combined with the dilution of the software/gaming media has meant that publishers now have to rely, more than ever before, on word of mouth to generate revenue for their games.
Ten years ago, if I was publishing a PC game it went something like this:
Visit PC Gamer, Talk to Steve Bauman at Computer Games Magazine, Visit Computer Gaming World, Gamespot, IGN, GameSpy, a couple of others and you were pretty set on the marketing side. Then you’d make sure your game was at EB, Best Buy, Gamestop, CompUSA, and a few others and you could expect great sales.
According to our surveys, most users are getting their information from various sources that boil down to word of mouth (Facebook friends, Twitter friends, Forums). And retail? Good luck getting shelf space for your PC title.
So what’s the best way to get word of mouth? Give it away. Give nearly all of it away. Because it turns out that even if only 1% of the users contribute, you can make a killing as long as you have enough players – which is, ultimately, the challenge. Because if you make it extremely well and give it away, people will talk about it. And that is what publishers are counting on.
So that’s why Free to Play works and will continue to become more and more dominant as time goes by. In the meantime, I have to go buy a virtual hat and tweet a picture of my character with it…