Gamesindustry.biz has an interesting article that unpacks recent statements made by Ben Cousins, a veteran in the industry, who says that the next generation of freemium PC games will be indistinguishable from AAA games.
For those unfamiliar with the phrase, 'freemium' refers to premium games that are essentially free, or rely on microtransactions. Games like Team Fortress 2 or Valve's upcoming DotA 2 fall into this category.
And Valve is one of Cousins' big examples to back his statement.
"I'm a massive fan of Valve's games, and when Valve went free-to-play with Team Fortress, for me that was like, 'Okay, that's the vindication. Valve doesn't do something unless it feels it can be tremendously successful. That was a big deal for me. It wasn't social games taking off or anything like that - if you're engaging a more casual audience, if it's free it's going to be more popular. But Team Fortress 2 went free-to-play, it didn't upset anyone, and now Valve is making loads of money from it. I mean, everyone follows Valve," he says.
The free-to-play business model is very much one being used in the East, and Cousins believes that once the Western world has the same infrastructure then game publishers are going to have to go free-to-play with their games to compete.
"If you look at [the growth of free-to-play in Asia] with the non-racist view of these people aren't special, they're not weird - they're just ahead, or they have a different infrastructure to us, and when we get that infrastructure we'll behave the same way - then it feels inevitable. And if you talk to an economist, he'll say it's obviously going to win."
The thing is, once one good quality game uses the free-to-play model, it's hard for everyone else to still use a pay model, because they can't validate the model based on quality anymore.
Cousins believes that once a game becomes successful the developers naturally spend more money in making the sequel – and this is how quality keeps going up on free-to-play titles.
"When you get companies making hundreds of millions of dollars from their games, they're going to invest that in their sequels. They need to maintain that position. Just look at Angry Birds Space; that cost a lot more money than Angry Birds - I'd bet five times as much - and that's because they had the money and they wanted to maintain that positions. That's how you end up in an arms race.
"I think it's inevitable. If that's where the money is then there will be intense competition from very big companies willing to make very big bets... The next generation of freemium PC games will be indistinguishable from AAA games,” he says.
He envisions Skyrim-quality games, but offered for free. And he isn't limiting it to PC – he believes, with the way things are going with Xbox LIVE and PlayStation's online offerings, console games will go the same way.
Is he right? Will this be where things inevitably will have to go? It's indeed an interesting conversation.
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