Here's something to noodle over: One day not too long from now we may not pay up front for any of the games we play. Instead, we'll play for free for a while, and, if we like it, we'll begin shelling out for extra features and modules to augment the experience. If we really enjoy the game and keep playing, we'll eventually spend about what we pay right now for a typical boxed console or PC game.
This was the topic of a talk given last week at the Free-2-Play Summit in London by Ngmoco's Ben Cousins, the man who currently heads up the mobile game developer's Swedish branch and who previously worked on free-to-play projects including Battlefield Heroes, Battlefield Online, and Sony's PlayStation Home.
He thinks it's just a matter of time before companies like his, which have to date largely focused their "freemium" game development efforts on multiplayer games, will begin producing cinematic, story-driven, single-player games with hundreds of hours of play.
"I believe that single-player will be the next to be cracked in terms of freemium monetisation," Mr. Cousins is quoted as saying in an article that appeared on GamesIndustry.biz shortly after his talk. "I'm talking about traditional, story-based, scripted, linear and non-linear single-player that we see on consoles."
That includes role-playing games. He thinks free-to-play developers – already experts at making games with large catalogues of items and features – are well positioned to create the huge range of weapons, equipment, abilities, and skills that players typically amass while working their way through RPGs.
"I am totally 100 per cent confident – I will bet large amounts of money – that we will have, in the next few years, a free-to-play equivalent of [Bethesda Softworks' hit single-player role-playing game The Elder Scrolls V:] Skyrim," Mr. Cousins stated.
What's more, Mr. Cousins predicts the most successful free-to-play games of the future will have as many as 200 million users, each paying an average of $60 over the life of the game. Even one such game would far eclipse the profits of the entire Call of Duty franchise.
So confident is Mr. Cousins in the freemium model that he claimed "free-to-play will be the way that nearly everyone plays games, it will be nearly every genre, and it will be nearly every platform."
This is where he starts to lose me. Actually, it was even a little before that.
So far, fewer than 12 million people have purchased a copy of Skyrim. Are there really 188 million others who aren't on board simply because they didn't have an opportunity to get hooked by playing the first few hours for free? A more likely answer is that the game's complex design and intricate high fantasy story might not have the sort of mainstream appeal Mr. Cousins imagines. I suspect any similar RPG that might emerge under the freemium model would, in order to appeal to the largest possible market, necessarily lack Skyrim's narrative soul and brilliant subtleties of play.
Keep in mind, too, that Mr. Cousins imagines the average user eventually spending $60 on premium content and features. That's three times as much as the average free-to-play user currently spends on a game like FarmVille or CityVille. People may be spending more on free-to-play games than they did a decade ago, but there's a limit to their disposable income and the amount they'll spend on games, especially when it comes to the casual gamers one would need to attract to satisfy his goal of 200 million players.
The greatest obstacle, though, could simply be that the sort of people who drive the popularity of a game like Skyrim are a particular lot. I expect they wouldn't take kindly to the sort of unpleasant obstacles that free-to-play games must necessarily include to make people dig into their wallets. Indeed, some of the folks who spend $60 on a boxed game do so specifically to avoid such objectionable elements, and shout out in rage should a publisher attempt to get them to pay for any additional content they believe ought to have been included in the original price.
Freemium is fine. It will surely evolve to include more genres than it does now, and may even eventually become the most popular way to play games. However, there will always be a market for richer experiences. Ngmoco and its competitors may become the game world's equivalent of NBC, offering not-quite-free programming geared for the lowest common denominator, but companies like Bethesda Softworks will continue to thrive as gamers' HBO.