The past few years have seen a rapid change in the way that gamers pay for and enjoy their games. Once thought of as an uncertain and unstable way to make money (in comparison to the premium business model where developers get their money back as soon as players buy the game), free to play has become massively popular. That's thanks to games like League of Legends and DOTA 2 in which players enjoy the game for free but pay real money for added (usually cosmetic) bonuses, along with thousands of mobile games such as Crossy Road and Trivia Crack that are free to play but are supported by microtransactions or the removal of ads.
But this business model comes with plenty of side effects. Namely, the fact that the gameplay in some free to play games is engineered to be both frustrating and addictive to force players out of their money rather than microtransactions just being an optional possibility. It's also not unheard of for players (children especially) to be duped out of a large amount of money because the free to play title they were playing was purposefully deceitful. It's no wonder that many people write free to play games off just for being free to play – players have been burned too many times before.
This is not to say that the free to play model is bad, but it is flawed. Publisher Electronic Arts (EA) has learnt this recently with Dungeon Keeper and Need for Speed: No Limits so it may be surprising to hear that the company is looking to embrace free to play even more.
At their recent earnings call, EA CEO Andrew Wilson told listeners the following in regards to free to play gaming:
"On free-to-play, with consoles, we think about this much the way that we think about free-to-play overall. There's a couple of different vectors to this. The first is as we look to the future, we believe a very big part of our player-base will expect a free-to-start experience. When we look at film, television, music, books, very often there is this free trial notion that actually onboards new players, new listeners, new readers, or new viewers into a service. We're actively looking at how we could offer that type of experience to our players on console and across other platforms."
Wilson's description of free to start actually sounds like the free demo model in which the developer and publisher would pick a level of a game that represents the title best and players would play it for free and buy the full thing if they enjoyed it. Players appreciated this as it was a good way to gauge the quality but research suggests that releasing a demo actually harmed the sales of a game, rather than improving them. EA's free to start/demo model may also be flawed because of the way that premium console games are designed. At first, players experience easy gameplay or a tutorial which isn't indicative of the full game's quality or pace so even if EA does provide free access to the first bit of a game, players may find that the full game they paid to upgrade to isn't quite what they expected.
A full game upgrade isn't the only money making method that EA is considering either. Wilson also went on to explain that players may be offered a full game upgrade, microtransactions or subscriptions – or all three. Not only could that get confusing really fast as players question which option offers the best value, it also comes off as a greedy grab for player money which completely goes against Wilson's comments from last year that he'd like to "re-establish a player-first culture in the company."
Wilson said that EA is "actively" investigation how to bring this business model to consoles and other platforms in the future so we'll have more on that once EA makes an announcement.