Freemium will be the saviour of videogaming, we're told. The days of spending £40 on a game will soon be over; traditional games consoles are circling the drain of obsolescence.
The old, retail-dependent business model that's slowly strangling our industry will be replaced with a glorious new world order, where every game is free-to-play and developers will swim in a never-ending stream of revenue from in-game microtransactions.
That's what we've been told by several key industry figures anyway, and on reflection they could be on to something. In the current AAA business model, which sees (at a conservative estimate) 60-80 members of full-time staff working on a game for two to four years, there's simply no margin for error.
Too Big To Fail
For every Call Of Duty, there are a dozen more Binary Domains, Bodycounts and Inversions that fail to sell enough to break even. The numbers required aren't even feasible in many cases: 38 Studio's middle-of-the-road RPG Kingdoms Of Amalur - by no one's yardstick a classic - reportedly needed to sell three million to claw back the cost of its development. Not even sales north of one million could save the studio from financial ruin.
It's demonstrably essential for middle-tier developers to explore different revenue streams then, and at a glance freemium appears to be a win-win situation for all concerned. The consumer gets their games for free, and while developers lose that initial £40 hit at launch, they can make their games work harder, longer and smarter by selling new levels, skins and characters to the fanbase. In theory, a freemium game could earn money forever.
Barring a few experiments in PlayStation Home, freemium gaming has yet to infiltrate our consoles, but it's swiftly coming to dominate on iOS, social media and PC gaming, replacing in-game advertising (which is both resented by gamers and scattershot in its effectiveness, as user-targeting is nearly impossible).
It would be naive to think that freemium's tentacles won't stretch our way - Crysis developers Crytek are the first of presumably many AAA studios to explore going free-to-play only.
Fan reaction has been and will continue to be mixed, but what makes freemium gaming attractive to me is that the entire premise is predicated on one thing and one thing only: the game being fun in the first instance. In such a way, our hobby has now come full circle; just as they did in the smoke-filled arcades of the '70s and '80s, games once again compete for our attentions (and money) by proving themselves to be entertaining, instantaneous and worthy of our time and affections.
While that all sounds very pure, the dark side of pay-to-play gaming is this: it inevitably drives design. And like sinister carnival scam-artists, the developers always find a way to nail their coconuts to the peg. In the arcades, developers pulled the strings by ratcheting up the difficulty levels; they'd done the maths and realised that only the games that earned the arcade the most money could survive, and if a player wasn't dying it meant he wasn't paying.
Thus the business model influenced design, wrecking inordinate numbers of good games and dragging back game design by 15 years. Punishing difficulty levels were a mainstay of home console games till the late '90s.