Chris is a freelance game and sports journalist, and co-founder of independent game studio Gigaloth Games.
I remember when I first saw it.
I was dipping into Mass Effect 3 online multiplayer on my XBOX 360 for the first time. It was probably a month or so after the game had launched. I kicked it off with my level one Avenger assault rifle and Predator pistol (what we later referred to as “daffodil shooters”). I earned some credits playing some Bronze matches and went to the shop to get some sweet new swag. I was lucky enough to pull a Carnifex pistol in my first Spectre Pack.
Within a couple games, I was popping the heads of Cerberus troopers as if they had M-80’s shoved down their throats. I then joined up with a couple friends so we could compare gear, earn credits, buy gear, kill Geth, and rejoice. One of my buddies had this cool looking weapon called a “Black Widow X”. At the time, I was not aware that the “X” referred to a level ten weapon, and that the Black Widow sniper rifle was an ultra-rare.
I quickly became aware of these facts when during the next game, he more than quadrupled the scores of anyone else on the team, laughing manically the whole time like the Grinch with a Gatling gun mowing down the inhabitants of Whoville. Apparently, he had a friend that worked at a local GameStop who supplied him with oodles of pre-paid Microsoft point cards (MSP) which he used to buy himself into weaponized superiority among his peers. Because, you see, in Mass Effect 3, you can either earn the credits through actually playing the game, or just buy them with real money.
To be honest, it was pretty damn lame.
I’m not really a fan of games where people can just buy their way to the top – known as “free-to-play” or “freemium” games. I’m already reminded enough in my day-to-day REAL LIFE that money talks. When I play video games, I like the idea that everyone is on the same playing field and that you’ve actually earned what you have. When I conquer Emerald Weapon in FFVII, it’s not because I just popped in the game disk and paid $5. I spent the time to level my characters, materia, and limit breaks so I could accomplish that feat.
It’s one of the reasons video games are so attractive as a recreational activity, because it’s a controlled environment where everyone plays by the same rules. Add in the free-to-play model, and all of a sudden this goes out the window.
But enough of my personal soapbox, it’s clear that free-to-play is a new financial model for game developers small and large. This isn’t people planting cartoon carrots on Facebook anymore. This is World of Tanks, Planetside 2, and League of Legends.
This is millions and millions of dollars at stake.
And though PC and mobile developers have quickly caught on, consoles are lagging behind in this department. But it's defeinitely coming. Even though you still had to pay $60 for the game, EA implemented it with Mass Effect 3 as I described above. And I’ll be damned if there weren’t thousands, or tens of thousands of people out there who actually spent money like my friend did to shortcut their way to better gear.
Now enter Microsoft.
Microsoft decided that they would venture into the freemium market on the XBOX 360, likely as a litmus test on how that market would be received on their console (or…ahem…future consoles). Happy Wars launched in October 2012 as the first entirely free-to-play game on XBOX 360, where you can pay MSP to shortcut your way to more powerful gear or unique character customization options. Within two months, the game had more than 1.2 million users.
It’s impossible to know how many of those users actually spent money, but Happy Wars must’ve done well enough that Microsoft believes it’ll work again. Microsoft recently announced World Series of Poker: Full House Pro, the second freemium game available on XBOX 360 where people can spend money (yeah…REAL money) to buy in-game avatar accessories, unlock real-life casinos, and – yes – unique chip handling tricks.
It makes me wonder if Microsoft is slowly weaning console players into the freemium future, where the next-gen console will have a game marketplace plum-tuck full of freemium wares. With the recent trends in PC and mobile gaming, and now Microsoft developing directly for their own console, it’s not only possible, it’s probable.
What boggles my mind is that people are willing to drop large amounts of money into these games, even though it doesn’t mean that their playing experience will be significantly changed. Would you really pay ten bucks so that your XBOX avatar can wear Al Capone’s fedora? Ten bucks not enough? How about a couple thousand?
Take for example Fantasica, a freemium digital card game available on iOS devices. It’s not the most popular game, but it does okay for itself. Each week, the game features a unique event where players can compete to win limited edition cards. The curious soul that I am, I contacted some of the top players to see how much money they had spent. Multiple players said that they had spent around a thousand dollars on a single event, and most others have spent several hundred dollars on each event.
So what happens when Call of Duty and Halo begin to exploit these people with seemingly endless disposable income?
Don’t think it will happen?
Remember that Microsoft now owns the Halo franchise. With their new-found interest in freemium games on the XBOX, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see unique Spartan armor, weapon mods/skins, or other customizations appear in future games that call for the player to open up their pocketbook.
Because with free-to-play content, it’s seems that it's no longer a matter of IF people will buy, it’s just a matter of how much.
What do you think? Are free-to-play and freemium games the future for XBOX? Will it become the more common to charge players for premium content?
Please leave a comment, or let me know on Twitter what you think.