When Ubisoft announced that Assassin's Creed III will include free-to-play style micro-transactions, my first though was 'seriously?' followed by 'argh, Ubisoft, God, you awful money-grabbing reptilians.' There is little to be read into this - or into Ubisoft's chief financial officer's blatherings about 'benefiting a game's profitbability' - other than that Ubisoft clearly thinks that they deserve to earn more money for ACIII than the game's price tag allows.
I do not have an issue with the F2P model in general, although admittedly I've had little exposure to it on account of not owning any sort of 'smart' device. I think if used correctly it's a perfectly valid business model that clearly benefits certain types of games.
What Ubisoft is proposing, however, isn't free-to-play at all, it's expensive-to-play; now-with-added-expense. ACIII is a full price, £40/$60 game, not an accessible MMO or pick-up-and-play iOS game. If the budget of ACIII is really too big to be covered by the usual £40 price tag then Ubisoft, really, you shouldn't have made a game that's that expensive. Seriously.
Now it's worth dialling back the rant a bit to consider that we don't know what these nebulous 'Eriduto Packs' are actually going to be used to purchase. When discussing the F2P model in general, people live in fear of 'pay to win' items, where players willing to spend real cash have access to better, higher-level equipment and such. Quite why this would matter in a primarily single player game I don't actually know, but it's more than likely that the ACIII will packs offer little more than the chance to pay for some cosmetic additions for the multiplayer mode.
But if this is the case, it still doesn't make it fine. I thought we were long past the point where paying real money for cosmetic enhancements in a full-price game was considered fine. But Ubisoft, desperate to shoe-horn F2P elements into AAA development so they can take more of people's money, are quite possibly going to try and repackage Horse Armour as a hip new business practice for the next console generation.
Still, much as I may loath Ubisoft's business practices, I'm still going to be playing Assassin's Creed III over the coming months (I will not, however, be purchasing any Eriduto Packs, just in case the above paragraphs have not made that clear.) All this pondering on the topic of F2P brought me to consider way the business model could realistically be applied to the AAA scene, which brought me to consider a game I likely won't be playing in the next few months.
Specifically, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.
Now, I usually do like the Call of Duty games, with one major caveat; I only ever play the campaign mode. The campaign mode is fun, providing you stick firmly to the designated rails - a roller-coaster ride of ridiculously bombastic set pieces and satisfying shootouts. But I won't touch the competitive multiplayer - unarguably the real meat of the CoD package - nor am I likely to partake in the co-op missions.
This leaves me with the rather unappealing option of shelling out £40 (okay, more like £45; I never said Ubisoft were alone in over-valuing their own product) for a 6-hour-if-you're-lucky campaign which is fun exactly one time through. Which basically means I'll be playing the game next year when I can borrow a friend's copy, and Activision won't be seeing any of my money.
But what if this weren't the case? What if I didn't have to buy either the whole game, or none of it? What if Activision sold the campaign as a stand-alone for, say, £15, the multiplayer for £15 and the co-op components for £10? Now I have actual purchasing options, and £15 to blast through a campaign sounds a lot more appealing than £40 for the same. And then Activision would have 15 of my pounds, and it seems that if there's one thing publishers really enjoy, it's taking my pounds.
It works the other way around as well; I know lots of people who only play multiplayer, never touching the campaign that they have unnecessarily paid for. So why make them pay for it?
Now obviously publishers want people to purchase the whole package regardless - they make more money this way. So incentivise people to do so. Perhaps make so that if you buy the whole package at once, it only costs £35 instead of £40 (alright, this is Activision we're talking about, it'd be more like £45 instead of £50, but Activision can do one.) Now those people who were always going to buy the full game are certainly still going to do so, and you're making extra sales from all those people who only want to play one, or a few, elements of the game.
This business model could apply to every game where single- and multi-player elements are separate components, which these days is almost every AAA title. It means that games like Spec Ops: The Line wouldn't be weighed down by a multiplayer component that most people won't play, and can launch at a more competitive price point as a result, but equally, for those that do want to play this content, then it's available for purchase. Developers are still building the same amount of content, but players have more control over how they access it.
And if the success of the free-to-play model has shown anything, it's that players like to be given control over how they access content and how much content they access. In a market where the £40 AAA business model is looking increasingly precarious - largely as a result of successful new models like F2P - publishers are scrambling over each other to find way to ride the F2P gravy-train to mega-bucks city.
Bolting micro-transactions onto a game whose price of entry is already difficult to justify is not the way forward. But perhaps giving player the freedom to identify why they play games, and greater control over how they access these games, could be a way forward.