In news that will likely be met with a chorus of groans, Microsoft and Sony are both reportedly “going heavily” into the free-to-play model for their next generation consoles, according to statements made by Epic Games VP Mark Rein at a roundtable discussion for the Game Horizon conference in the UK this week.
Mr. Rein told the audience during the discussion that “the next-gen consoles are going to be fully embracing the free-to-play and these IAP-type business models. So in case you don’t know that I’m putting that out there. Sony and Microsoft are both going heavily in that area.”
The “free-to-play” (FTP) model relies on providing a game with limited functionality or content at no cost and then charging players post-download for access to the locked content and features. It has become controversial after titles using the model flooded mobile app markets such as the iOS App Store and Google Play in recent years.
In theory, FTP titles offer advantages to both consumers and publishers. Consumers can get a small taste of a game for free and pay only if they enjoy the experience and want more content. Alternatively, publishers can use in-app purchases (IAPs), the method by which revenue is derived from FTP games, to sell consumers unique levels, items, or abilities, or to extend a game’s life by selling expansion packs to commercial titles.
Many gamers believe the model is now abused by publishers to trap players into “perpetual payments.” For example, the recently released Real Racing 3, published by EA, uses in-game points and currency to determine how long a player is allowed to race. When players’ cars inevitably become damaged, they are locked out of the game for hours while the car is repaired unless they use real money to purchase repair points. As a result, a player who enjoys the game and plays it often will spend far more over time in so-called “micro-transactions” than they would if the game had been released initially as a commercial title with a set price.
Other games take the concept even further, giving players of the free download almost no functionality and pestering them every few minutes to make IAPs for absurd amounts of money. Many of these games are targeted towards children, who are tricked into racking up thousands of dollars in charges. Apple, as a company that allows these misleading games on its App Store, was sued by parents in 2011. The company now labels games that use IAPs, and instructs parents on how to prevent their children from making purchases.
While the likelihood of borderline-fraudulent games appearing on next generation console platforms is low, the chance of publishers shifting their games to a FTP model with perpetual payments is far more realistic. Those in the audience during Mr. Rein’s comments expressed concern and doubt, challenging him to present some evidence for the claim. Mr. Rein responded: “Well, I’m telling you. I’m telling you what they’re telling developers.”
Sony’s PS4 and Microsoft’s next Xbox are expected this holiday season. Sony already laid out some of the details of the PS4 at an event in February, although did not make significant mention of “free-to-play” titles or marketplace compatibility. Microsoft may reveal more about this purported development when it unveils the next Xbox on May 21.