Will Western video game developers mimic the largely Asian business model of free-to-play games built around micro-transactions? Almost certainly says Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic. And he’s not alone.
Epic, the developer behind Gears of War and the Unreal Engine, is not known for free-to-play games. But that’s probably going to change if Epic CEO, Tim Sweeney, is at all accurate in his predictions for the future of the gaming industry.
“North American and European developers are far, far behind the state of the art Asian business models,” Sweeney said at GDC Taipei. “We’ve been building these games like Gears of War where you go into the store and you buy a piece of plastic! You just buy this DVD. That is going to change rapidly.”
Noting the enormous growth of mobile gaming and the increasingly powerful hardware inside devices like the iPad, Sweeney sees a real platform convergence on the horizon, with F2P games releasing on consoles, mobile devices, and computers concurrently. The future of the gaming market will be increasingly global, and the Asian business model which has moved more and more toward freemium online games, will push Western developers in the same direction.
“Asian online games are far ahead of Western games in terms of business model, but the Western games do have a real advantage in terms of production values,” he noted.
Sweeney is hardly alone, either, with CEOs from other studios saying much the same thing. Red 5 Studios CEO, Mark Kern, has already sounded the death knell for consoles, pinning his hopes to PC and mobile gaming. This, Kern says, is a good thing.
With consoles, Kern argues, “You’re either an indie game or you’re a massive AAA, IP-backed sequel with derivative gameplay that’s rehashed over and over again as it’s the only safe bet you can make when you’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars.
“The failure is that there’s no middle ground. All the games in the middle that could have been made but have been squeezed out and we’ve seen all these independent studios get closed down over the last few years.”
Free to play will change all that, giving new life to middle-of-the-road gaming once again, according to Kern.
To be quite honest, I hope Sweeney and Kern are both wrong – but I fear that they’re at least partly correct. The consoles probably aren’t going away any time soon, but the way we pay for and distribute games is going to change in huge ways, for better or worse.
I find almost every free-to-play gameextremely irritating. I’d much rather try out a demo of a game and then, if I like it, go buy the full game and play my money’s worth out of it. The F2P model allows you instant access to the game, but then locks down many of its features behind a paywall.
This incompleteness is almost always a serious distraction from the game. Occasionally it works out mostly all right, as with Valve’s Team Fortress 2 (though that game has its own pay-to-win problems) but more often than not, at least the MMOs I’ve tried under the F2P model have been huge let-downs, even as they’ve become better and better games over the years. Valve will also be releasing DOTA 2 as a free-to-play title.
Free-to-play online games have advantages, to be sure, including possibly longer revenue streams for developers, and the ability to allow players to spend less, if they want to, on a game – or spend no money at all if they don’t like it. Still, the limitations outweigh the benefits.
I tried Nexon’s Vindictus out for the first time and I can’t say for sure what I found the most off-putting about the game. For one thing, the art direction in the game (and in many other Asian titles) is a bit puzzling. Is it trying to be Western but stumbling inevitably into a sort of watered-down Anime? Is this on purpose? I want some sort of tangible, cohesive design throughout a game.
The cohesiveness is further thrown off by the freemium content. Lots of features are locked behind the Vindictus paywall.
Then again, I’m not a huge MMO fan to begin with, so this may be my own bias seeping out. Either way, I find predictions of a future where each game is ruled by microtransactions quite depressing, especially if this afflicts single-player experiences as well (and with the Diablo 3 always-online requirement another likely trend, don’t expect your single-player games to survive the shift.)
There are many wonderful advances happening every day in our gaming technology. It’s too bad the business model seems to be heading in absolutely the wrong direction. Oh, and does this mean we should expect a Gears MMO sometime in the future?
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