Free-to-Play – It’s a Service, Not a Product

Fighting games are relics, being mostly Japanese and mostly console games. Some of them still get arcade releases, and what the Hell are arcades? So, as usual, they are slow to catch on. But new consoles, and a few brave (greedy) developers have been dragging them kicking and screaming into Call of Duty’s recent past.

Games as a service is not exactly a new idea, though it has taken many outside of the industry a long time to catch on. Not that it matters anymore, since we seem to be well past the point of no return, if the PS4 and XBOX One are any indication, and this despite the fall of Zynga and the supposed takeover of the gaming industry by casual social games based entirely on pervasive microtransactions faltering. All that really did was allow the likes of Riot Games (creators of League of Legends) to step in and up the stakes from casual games full of microtransactions to competitive games full of microtransactions.

"Traditional Models Represented Lost Economic Value"
Direct quote from a GDC presentation made in 2011 by Atul Bagga, the current VP of Finance for Zynga

There was a time when a new game was a fire-and-forget affair. The game would be released, people would buy it (or not), and the developer would move on to their next game, leaving the players to sort the rest out on their own. For PC games there would be patches to address crippling bugs, but often players still had to fend for themselves, sometimes going as far as releasing their own patches to address issues when the developers have stopped. Then came DLC. With DLC, publishers had both the means and the incentive to keep players in their game. While a new level or area or gameplay mode added as DLC might be enough reason for some players to come back on their own, smaller timed DLC based around cosmetics are best used on customers already conditioned to want more. Aside from that, there was a process of experimentation performed during the 2000s to determine exactly what kind of superfluous hat or colour scheme could be added as paid DLC (I’m sure everyone remembers horse armour, and all the rage associated with it. Guess what, it still sold.) before customers would put down their collective foot, and it seems like the limit was never found (With such recent examples as Third Strike Online selling packs of character sprite recolours that are not even visible to players who hadn’t also bought them.), so now it is open season.

It wasn’t till fairly recently that fighting games became firmly established as online games, but with that out of the way they have become prime candidates for being ruthlessly stripped down and resold piecemeal. Developers already know that there are established playerbases out there that are ravenous for any content to be dumped on them, and they will be happy to do it because, to borrow a phrase from William S. Burroughs, in the words of total greed: “Wouldn’t you?” After all, this is essentially free money on the line. Audiences have already proven that, despite how much the vocal minority complains about on-disc DLC or paywall restricted character DLC messing with tournaments or some other nebulous competitive ideal, people still buy it.

There are other reasons for developers being more open with competitive communities besides a sincere interest in competitive gaming. A dedicated core community of players means a dedicated core community of customers, so why not court them, especially if they’re also free advertising. Notice that for all the attention developers pretend to pay to what competitive players want, we still have to sit through button checks before every tournament match because they can’t be bothered to implement something as simple as proper option menus.

(There is more to the business side of DLC and free-to-play games, and I encourage the curious to do some reading on the subject. I would suggest starting with The Digital Death of Video Game Art and Used Video Games: The New Software Piracy, in particular parts 3 and 4.)

Suffice it to say that the days of a single cartridge or disc being the only thing needed for a game to be played are over. There is now a man in a suit sitting in on every development meeting and looking over every programmer’s shoulder, with only one concern on his mind: “How can we sell that as DLC?” And when things become free-to-play he can also wonder, “How can we use that to sell hats?” The goal is to force every player to interact with some form of DLC or microtransaction every time they play a game, because they are not using a product they own; they are using a service that the developers grant them, and developers will do whatever it takes to keep it that way.

The silver lining here is that fighting game players get to skip being angry about losing any sort of creative or community control over their games. Since they never had mods (and I mean actual mods, like OSP, not hacks like Rainbow Edition) to begin with they won’t lament the death of them. Ditto with 3rd party dedicated servers. There are still local gatherings and tournaments to attend anyway, which served about the same purpose for giving players a regular space in which to get connected and form communities.

Does this scare you as much as it should?
A vision of the future.

One of the bigger ways a free-to-play model changes how the games are developed is by extending shelf life, which limits the risk and costs associated with a sequel. This is especially relevant for fighting games, which already have longer shelf lives than most other console games, and that was before every developer decided they needed to add a couple extra words to their game’s title and resell it 9 months after it was first released. Expanding and reselling is easier than making sequels because sequels have certain expectations involved in them, mostly concerning being different from the previous game. It should be obvious that having to change things just for the sake of change doesn’t always go well. Soulcalibur 5 is one recent example on how that can backfire.

Obviously the ideal would be to resell a new game every year or two, like sports franchises or the modern military shooters do, but those are the undisputed kings of the market. Fighting games already had a boom and bust in the 90s which killed (or at least put into a coma) many major franchises. Meanwhile, people started complaining about too many fighting games on the market seemingly as soon as Street Fighter 4 was released. Releasing expansions every year is still common with fighting games, but note that they are not actual sequels, and are often reduced in price. Fighting games are just too niche to support a Madden business model, but they may just be in the sweet zone for a long-lived free-to-play business.

Look no further than the current flagship title in the fighting game genre, Street Fighter 4. Capcom has a captive, loyal audience. They know they can keep selling them DLC, and they know from history that their games will be played for years. So why not keep selling to those players? The dirty little non-secret about free-to-play games is that by removing the pay floor they also remove the pay ceiling. Meaning that customers are able to pay nothing for the game, but they are also able to pay way, way more than a simple box price. This is the reason every other game is released with a “Special” or “Limited” edition now, because the suits figured out that having everyone pay the same price for the same game was actually losing them money, since there are people who will pay more if given the opportunity.

Another, probably less important, factor to consider is one of hardware. The last console generation lasted about 8 years, and the next one is projected to last even longer than that. With how prevalent consoles have become, completely superseding arcades (and fighting games, besides doujin games and emulators, have never had much of a presence on PCs), there is no longer as much room for pushing the envelope, graphics-wise, when a game released today has to run at 60fps on the exact same hardware as a game released in 2006. We are no longer jumping from Virtua Fighter 2 to Virtua Fighter 3 in just a couple of years, Meanwhile, other genres, mainly FPS, have become the standard for showing off graphics and hardware.

Found in the meeting room of every video game developer still in business.
Found in the meeting room of every video game developer still in business.

As I’ve already said: it is what it is. Free-to-play is here to stay. I hope nobody was actually that surprised when it was former Street Fighter boss Yoshinori Ono who announced (and is probably producing) Deep Down, one of the biggest free-to-play game announced for next generation consoles. This is the future, and Capcom wants to be a part of the future. When the time comes to announce a Street Fighter for the new generation, free-to-play may have finally permeated through Western console gaming, and lost any sort of negative connotation associated with failing MMOs and Facebook games (Thank Valve and Riot for that), which would make a free-to-play Street Fighter a definite possibility. It will only take one of the big developers getting a moderately successful free-to-play fighting game played at tournaments before all bets are off.


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