By Jared Newman | Friday, June 24, 2011 at 1:30 pm
The free to play gaming craze has suddenly swept through some major players in the video game industry.
Valve announced that its popular first-person shooter Team Fortress 2 will now be free forever through the company’s Steam PC gaming service, with some optional premium perks for players who spend money on anything in the game. This is part of Valve’s of larger effort to bring free-to-play games to the Steam service.
But Valve is hardly going against the grain here. Last month, Ubisoft announced its first free-to-play foray with Ghost Recon Online. Electronic Arts, which has dabbled in freemium for years now, added its popular Battlefield franchise to the mix this year with Battlefield Play4Free. In March, Sony’s Free Realms became the first free-to-play title for a home game console.
Microsoft is rumored to be getting in on the action as well, with Develop magazine reporting that microtransaction support is coming to the Xbox 360. That would allow developers to give away their games and charge for in-app content.
What’s going on here? The obvious answer is that the big publishers are feeling the pressure from established free-to-play companies such as NCSoft and Nexon. But publishers like Valve, EA and Ubisoft may also be learning lessons from the iPhone, for which there’s a statistic I constantly revisit: Over one third of the App Store’s top-grossing apps are free. For big publishers, this is an untapped market, representing the people who won’t spend $60 on a video game, but might get addicted to free content and drop a dollar here and there.
Oddly enough, this is the same model that some traditional game companies are crusading against. Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime has called inexpensive games “one of the biggest risks today” in the games industry.
But publishers like Valve know that they can no longer ignore free-to-play. As this business model creeps onto Steam and home game consoles, it’s going to get very interesting to watch.