So just today (in looking for a good topic for myself to get started with) I was reading through my usual suspects (Joystiq, Gamasutra, etc.) when I noticed the coming release of the Blacklight: Tango Down sequel had shifted delivery/experience models.
In this case, developer Zombie Studios has taken a cue from Battlefield Heroes, Combat Arms and their ilk by announcing the adoption of a free-to-play model not unlike the two games that I just mentioned for the upcoming downloadable first-person shooter release. You read that right — yet another Western developer adopting the distribution model that started in Asian markets way before it started “exploding in China growing fast in Europe and emerging here in Facebook and iOS games.” And that’s according to studio CEO Mark Long, in revealing the changes to Big Download.
Which brings me to the point of this discussion. Basically speaking, the advent of free-to-play online games (typically supported by premium item sales) is quickly becoming a legitimate distribution model for a wide variety of games. Just look at Maple Story and its ilk and you’ll understand how an unconventional means of distribution can become something that in reality is a conventional force in our industry.
And it’s not just FPS games and massively-multiplayer online role-players like Everquest II and Lord of the Rings Online (which have gone the F2P route as well). Farming, city building, car racing and even the PGA tour have been turned into free online experiences available through Facebook and other sources. Even the role of a CIA-grade secret ops agent will be available in this manner once APB relaunches this year under the very same model in discussion here.
In fact, taking a failing or nearly-dead game (or exhuming one to revive it, in the case of APB) and then subsequently putting it out there for practically nothing has allowed several games the benefits of a population boost where the average online gaming populace would have overlooked the game in any other way (Dungeons and Dragons Online being one notable example) so it’s entirely possible that going free-to-play can make virtually any game even more popular than before. In the case of Lord of the Rings Online, Gamasutra notes that publisher Turbine Entertainment has reported a threefold increase in revenue after the shift to F2P distribution.
So basically speaking, it’s a surefire bet that free-to-play is going to be around for a long time. And while it may not be right for every game and/or existing series of games, there’s no denying that providing a major release in such a manner can make or break even the most troubled game out there, or at least put an entirely new release on the map to begin with. Yet at the same time, the fact that game distribution f or practically nothing is becoming a legitimate force in our industry can only give even the biggest surprises a legitimate chance to stand out.
And that can be a good thing for every gamer out there.