Publishers have been looking for methods to incorporate some of that supposedly miraculous free-to-play secret sauce into their AAA products for the past decade, ever since free-to-play earnings on mobile app stores surged above premium game revenues and kept growing.
Some went all-in, turning AAA titles into free-to-play games outright — a trend that was particularly noticeable in the early 2000s’ MMORPG and online multiplayer-focused titles — while the majority went for a half-measure, preserving their up-front sale prices high but adding in-game item stores and premium currency packs for players to purchase.
Rather than offering the best of both worlds, this approach — and most other attempts to attach free-to-play mechanisms to premium, paid-for games — ended up annoying and alienating players who had already paid for the game, never generating the kind of free-to-play revenue volumes executives had envisioned.
That is the context for Ubisoft’s revelation that it plans to focus on significant free-to-play titles as it increases its title lineup, which has been the most talked about and controversial of the numerous comments given in financial reports in recent days. Although the point remains that there is a resource allocation decision being made here, and those additional resources are going to free-to-play development, not premium games, the company was quick to clarify that it is not reducing its premium, AAA title line-up from previously announced levels — the increased investment in free-to-play titles will be in addition to its current efforts — the point still stands that there is a resource allocation decision being made here, and those additional resources are going to free-to-play development, not premium games.
This announcement may appear to be significant, and it is in some ways, but it is primarily an admission of something that has been a reality for some time across the industry, not just at Ubisoft. Those half-measure tactics of including very universally hated IAP stores into premium games haven’t worked; they may earn some more cash, but that revenue is inversely proportionate to the amount of harm you’re doing to your IP’s goodwill and the franchise’s future value. That’s an unpleasant trade-off for a publisher to make in exchange for what is, in most circumstances, a minor boost to a game’s bottom line.
Instead, as more astute publishers have begun to do — and as Ubisoft has now committed itself to — more savvy publishers have begun to develop entirely free-to-play, service-based games as standalone offerings within a franchise while continuing to work on traditional premium / AAA releases on a regular basis. Instead of trying to shoehorn these incompatible systems into individual games, publishers can achieve a best-of-both-worlds approach by taking a half-step back and thinking about the free-to-play / premium conundrum at the franchise level overall, rather than insisting on trying to shoehorn these incompatible systems into individual games.
This is exactly what Activision did with Call of Duty Warzone, and it’s the model that Ubisoft now appears to see for most of its big titles, with the company visualizing a future in which it has three or four major big-budget releases across its big IPs each year, including a significant free-to-play game for – eventually – each of those franchises.
In the best-case scenario, this results in positive synergy between the two aspects of each franchise: tentpole launches of premium games raise awareness and excitement for the free-to-play service, while the free-to-play service keeps players interested in the interim. Similar to Warzone, Ubisoft appears to believe that these free-to-play games will sit alongside the premium games in terms of quality and, ultimately, revenue, rather than being a cheap and unloved spin-off, as has been the case in the past with free-to-play versions of major franchises (especially on mobile).
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Running a AAA production cycle and a completely distinct high-end free-to-play service/development cycle is obviously going to be a lot more expensive than simply hanging a quick IAP store onto an almost-finished premium game and hoping for the best. The fervent but misguided belief that there must be a way to have the benefits of both styles of game without creating an entirely new product (and thus doubling the cost of development) lies at the heart of much of the ill-fated experimentation with free-to-play mechanisms in premium titles that we’ve seen over the past decades, all of which have missed out on the actual promise and potential of a free-to-play mechanism.
Of course, the audience for free-to-play games overlaps with the audience for premium games in some ways, but the real opportunity for free-to-play, especially for established franchises looking for new ways to grow, lies in the significant audiences who engage almost exclusively with free-to-play games, rather than in attempting to nickel and dime the existing premium audience.
The potential audience that Ubisoft or Activision may open up for their properties with well-executed, well-run free-to-play versions is markedly different from the audience that currently pays $60 or more for these franchises on launch days. Free-to-play audiences are frequently younger, are generally perfectly willing to pay for certain things but far less keen on paying up front for content, and are extremely familiar with free-to-play mechanisms (unlike the premium game consumers on whom the IAP stores have thus far been imposed), having navigated these systems in games since they were children or teenagers. There’s also a geographical factor to consider audiences in most of Asia, for example, are considerably more inclined to connect with a series in its free-to-play version than to pay upfront for a AAA release, simply because that’s how they’re used to paying for games.
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From the standpoint of people who almost exclusively play premium games — and, to be clear, my own preferences as a consumer are progressively firmly locked on the monolithic, fairly short — the multi-million-dollar question here is whether publishers are slaking their thirst for additions.
Unfortunately, weaning them off this habit will take some time, but making a clearer distinction between premium tentpole games and free-to-play games in this way will ultimately make good business sense — the challenge will be convincing players who have enjoyed the premium experience of the game to try engaging with the free-to-play game (and then sticking with it long-term).
This strategy will undoubtedly be divisive for some time to come since free-to-play systems in premium games have stained their copybook far too many times in the last decade for that audience to feel comfortable having them near their favorite franchises. But, to a large extent, that’s the point: a separate, high-quality free-to-play experience will introduce these franchises to entirely new audiences of gamers for whom this business model isn’t and never has been controversial, and if it’s good enough, it’ll eventually win over some premium game consumers as well.
Call of Duty Warzone is a great illustration of where we’re going, and Ubisoft’s franchises are following suit; the chances are excellent that what we’re witnessing today will be the new normal for major publishers’ brands in the next decade. By the time Ubisoft implements these changes, you’ll be able to play your favorite games and purchase all the things you need from Eldorado.gg.