Picture this: you're at a press conference during E3 week. An incredible CGI trailer for some game you hadn't heard of until now has just caught your attention. A cool protagonist swinging a sword, a dragon flying overhead, perhaps, and maybe a cool, giant creature comes on screen to attack you at the last split-second, as the trailer fades to black and reveals the title of the game. That's it — you're already hooked!
And then, at the very end of the trailer, a splash animation with text that reads, "Free to Play".
And there it goes; all of your excitement has now been taken away from you with those simple words: free to play.
It's becoming all too common nowadays to see those dreaded words in various marketing materials, press releases, and video game trailers. But, why? Are publishers really trying to use the free to play model to bring in new players?
The Stigma Now Outweighs the Draw
In 2017, I think it's safe to say that the stigma associated with free to play games is too real, and it's so widely associated with being a bad thing that it's likely going to hurt your game more than it helps. There are many gamers, including myself, who will (perhaps unfairly) write-off a game and not even play it just because it has the words "Free to Play" in the marketing materials.
Free to play is usually associated with icky microtransactions and a pay wall that typically too heavily favors those who purchase anything for the game over players who just stick to the free model. Often, you'll find that free to play games have numerous types of currency that players can buy with real cash, and then they're able to use that in-game currency to buy some stat-boosting armor or weapon or XP-booster for their character, giving them a significant boost over those who choose not to purchase any of that currency.
Even in many of the upcoming games we are seeing (including Quake Champions, Lawbreakers, and Battlefront 2) you'll find these types of currencies and microtransactions, and in the MMO space, it's almost as if publishers don't know how to make a game without microtransactions at this point.
You'll find that the stigma associated with the free to play model pretty much rings true, and I think that's becoming more and more apparent as more games are released.
Why Go Free to Play?
The thought process behind this is simple: the lower the barrier to entry for your game, the more likely your game is going to attract new players. Removing one of the main barriers (in this case, cost) seems like it would be a great way to attract more players. However, publishers seem to be forgetting that there's a significant stigma associated with the free to play model that, in 2017, will more than likely keep more players from checking their game out at all.
It's, unfortunately, most commonly seen in the MOBA and online massively multiplayer games genres due to the oversaturation of the market. There are so many MOBA games now that it's hard to not just glaze over when a new game in the genre is announced. Publishers believe that, in order to be competitive, they have to have the lowest barriers to entry (read: the price has to be free).
What Would Work Better?
So, if free to play is out of the question (and it should be entirely considered out of the question in 2017), what is the right way to market your game's price?
The best way is to not make your game a $60 game., but instead, lower the MSRP to something more easy to digest. On top of that, if your game is an online game, offering a free weekend or free trial of some sort is an absolute must. Are people more likely to spend $40 on a game they've actually been able to try? Absolutely.
This sort of model is one of the reasons games like Overwatch and Final Fantasy XIV are so successful. Now, you can find Overwatch for $40, and it's frequently on sale. What's more, they have already had numerous free weekends to try to (and succeed at) bring in new players. The same goes for FFXIV and its free weekends.
Hopefully, publishers will soon begin to realize that the stink of free to play is too strong to ignore, and while it initially served as a good way to bring new players into your game, it's now going to do more harm than good.