For many reasons, the flat-out $60 video game is becoming a thing of the past. Among the inspirations for this shift are the consumers who expect more value for their dollar and the companies that want to squeeze every penny out of an individual title. It's not enough to just release a game anymore; more and more successful titles experiment with season passes, live service DLC, and free-to-play.
Free-to-play, in particular, seems to be enticing to both gamer and businessman alike. Who doesn't like free stuff? And who doesn't see potential in the idea of using free stuff to build an audience then getting that audience to spend money on seemingly-small transactions? Free-to-play as a business model is doing so well that it's even being used to save failing games. Here are five games that went free after the fact and did well for it, proving that free-to-play is here to stay.
This is the most recent example of how a free-to-play model could bring a game back from the brink of obscurity. Ubisoft's For Honor has such a cool concept: it's an online multiplayer game where samurai, vikings, and knights duke it out for supremacy. The combat system aims to replicate swordplay with a fair amount of accuracy, leading to something more akin to a fighting game and less like the FPS and battle royale games that flood the market. But for all of its cool ideas, Ubisoft could never seem to handle the actual maintenance of a consistent online multiplayer experience.
The game's lack of balance and server issues almost did it in, as most of its player base left by the time these problems were fixed. The game seemed all but doomed until it went free-to-play. Ubisoft created a Starter Edition that gave players all single-player content and a handful of the game's Heroes for free. Steam featured the Starter Edition on its front page, and headlines (including our own) documented how people flocked to download it. Almost overnight, For Honor's shift to free-to-play took it from 5,000 concurrent players to 210,000.
Team Fortress 2
On the other end of the spectrum is Team Fortress 2, which might just be the original free-to-play powerhouse. That's not to say it wasn't successful as a paid game. It launched in 2007 and did well as a retail product. As is characteristic for Valve games, TF2 saw a lot of change at the behest of the community. Valve even supported it after release with new content, and continues to do so until this day. Yet for all of its success, TF2 took on a whole new life as a free-to-play game.
It made the switch in 2011, and Valve announced the game would be supported by cosmetic microtransactions. The hats, which became a meme in the gaming world, practically birthed the idea that a game's revenue could be carried by small cosmetic items alone. Team Fortress 2's free-to-play status also brought in a host of new players. The newfound activity around the game prompted Valve to finally support the TF2 competitive scene, nine years after its release.
StarCraft 2 needs no introduction. One might even call it the original eSport. At the very least, it certainly did a lot to establish the trend of dramatic video game tournaments with huge cash prizes. It still has strong following despite being eight years old. Yet Blizzard seems to be a lot more focused on Overwatch these days. It even pumped millions of dollars into starting the Overwatch League in order to bring the scale and hype of traditional sports to eSports. With all that, one might think StarCraft 2 has been forgotten.
The truth is that Blizzard remembers StarCraft 2, and made the game free-to-play last year. But in a smart move, the developer made it so that players who join after shift must prove themselves by spending time in A.I. matches before jumping into ranked mode. This is great because it invites new players while also easing them into battles with time-tested veterans. It could very well be that the next eSports legends are training at this very moment, and only began because they got the game for free.
For better or for worse, Fortnite has to be the ultimate success story for the free-to-play, "games as a service" model. The original concept for Fortnite was actually the "Save the World" mode, a more story-based game where the players fight A.I. enemies and the environment itself. "Save The World" was made to be a paid game, and in fact still costs money today. Which is fine, because everybody is busy playing Fortnite Battle Royale.
The way the story goes, Epic was releasing the early access version of "Save the World" when PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds started to popularize the battle royale genre. Epic slapped together a battle royale game using Fortnite's engine and assets in two months. It turned out to be one of the biggest successes in gaming, releasing on virtually every gaming platform in existence as a free-to-play experience separate from "Save the World." Some say "Save the World" is still being worked on, but no one really cares.
Star Wars: The Old Republic
This game was the greatest idea of all time, at least on paper. BioWare, a developer known for its deep stories and characters, and Star Wars, one of the richest fictional universes, together in an MMO. It even performed amazingly at launch, gaining one million subscribers in three days. It got great reviews too. But for some reason, people got bored of it quickly. It lost a lot of those million subscribers within months.
The rapid loss of players was a big reason the game went free-to-play. Now it maintains a mix of payment models. Players who join for free get to make a character and play through a full story, but their credit and level gain are limited. Paid subscription players are free to farm and travel the galaxy as they please. While it falls way short of a million active players these days, it's still remarkable that the game is even alive.
Like it or not, the free-to-play model is helping a lot of games grow. Games that would probably ignored otherwise. While it's not perfect, and can be predatory at times, gaming could be doing a lot worse. We could always go back to Microsoft's "no used games" idea.