They sure don’t sell games like they used to, huh?
Well, OK, they do; but there are also a lot of new ways being introduced as well. Instead of walking into a store to buy the latest hit for your gaming fix, you can now buy it online via digital distribution.
But why stop there? Hell, why even pay for the game to begin with when you can get it free-to-play (or freemium), and buy the odd items, extra stages, or skins that you want? Or maybe you think that process takes too long, I mean you could go years spending $5 a week and never really have the full game – it’s too slow!
I want to spend my money before the game is even developed. Donate to a Kickstarter you say - or as I like to call it pre-pay-to-play (copyright Aylon Herbet, 2012) - sure, why not?
Gamers in 2012 have a lot of options when it comes to giving money to publishers and developers. And because of all these new payment methods, developers have new options for how they acquire the budget needed to fund their games.
In this article, I want to look at how these different options work; how they can be done right or wrong, and why some of them may just be destined to fail as they get more popular.
Buying in a store (either physical or digital) is the most traditional method of buying games. The basic premise is that you pay a set amount, receive the product you paid for straight away, and can begin using it whenever you like.
Of course, taking things online has changed this a little. With day one downloadable content, what you buy isn’t always perceived as the “complete product” at the time of purchase. We also have games that require you to be online at all times in order to play, which makes ownership irrelevant when at the mercy of a server's status.
The nice thing about online is that it gives us options. I can download and play my Steam games almost anywhere. If I see a new Angry Birds level, I can go to the app-store to download it straight to my phone and be playing within minutes. No matter what complaints people may have about online purchases, being able to impulse purchase video games from the bus or your couch is pretty damn cool.
Then we have free-to-play games. The model here is to give the game away for free and charge for separate, optional components. Some developers do this "right" (having any “pay to win” option is the quickest way to kill your community) and some don’t, and having a large community is essential to this model’s success.
A great example of doing this right is League of Legends; it’s a skill based game where you can get access to every important component with either real money or an in-game currency earned from playing. There is only one set of items that requires real world cash to get, and those are character skins, which have no impact on gameplay.
This is doing free-to-play right and has been extremely profitable for Riot Games (the developer). Now we have Tribes: Ascend, the upcoming MechWarrior Online, and countless other games following in their free-to-play footsteps.
There are also a number of MMOs adopting this model as they see their subscriber numbers either dropping or never getting high enough to start with. Lord of the Rings: Online and DC: Universe come are two prime examples. Both have reported massive profit increases since changing to this model.
It makes sense when you think about it, since free-to-play games seem to require an MMO level of commitment, and for me, this will be the models downfall. As it becomes popular and more games use it, instead of worrying what to spend our money on, we’re going to struggle figuring out where to spend our time. Whether there are enough gamers to develop strong communities for all these games is something we will have to wait and see.
Another thing to think about is that at the moment these are all online, multiplayer focused games. I am curious to see who will crack to first free-to-play single player game that is really successful. Is it even possible?
I'm using the word freemium to mean games that, similar to free-to-play, give a part of the game for free and then conceal the rest behind what's known as a “cash wall”. This is the point where you either cannot continue without spending some real money or your progress is at least slowed down to a crawl.
Most often these titles are targeted at a more casual audience and only fit certain types of games, with the obvious example being Farmville. However, as I am sure Zynga (Farmville’s developer) will testify, this model is very good for making crazy, stupid money.
For less crazy, stupid money we have Kickstarter; the most recent way we’ve come up with for giving our money away. The idea here is that developers skip the publisher and ask us to back their game’s development directly.
Officially, your financial contribution to a Kickstarter project is called a donation, but in most cases it is very similar to pre-ordering the game. The difference here is that if you do not “pre-order” (read: fund) it, the game may never actually get made (and it will be very interesting to see the reaction if that ever actually happens).
Recently this has become big news with Double-Fine (and a few others since) getting funding around the $3 million mark. For modern game development, that isn’t really a lot of money, but for a purely fan-funded game, it is a new precedent.
As for how these games will actually turn out, that is yet to be seen, however Kickstarter has been very successful in helping generate a creative boon in the card and board game industries.
With all these different models for gamers to spend money on games, the future of our industry is looking mighty bright indeed. Sure, there are probably more failures that we haven’t heard of than the success stories that we have, but still… these models are working for some. And who knows what other models some genius is going to think of in the future? I’m sure Activision would love to add a subscription model to Call of Duty’s multiplayer if they felt they could get away with it [*cough* Call of Duty Elite *cough* - Ed.] All I know is that, as long as people continue to make great games, myself and millions of others will be happy to continue reducing the balance of our bank accounts for them.